starShould we memorize?

I have many problems as a cellist, but memory isn't one of them; I've always sort of prided myself on how rarely I used music, back when I performed. But an interview I saw raised issues I'd prefer to ignore. There is a documentary video on the great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter (that I highly recommend). He had a gigantic repertoire, but late in his career he started to use music for every piece he played, including those he'd played all his life. The interviewer asked him why and he said "it's more honest." He went on to note that, even in a relatively short work, while someone can memorize the notes, no one can memorize every dynamic, articulation, pedal, slur, accent, etc., the composer indicated. And of course he's right. I've played the Dvorak, Elgar, Shostakovich concertos from memory repeatedly, and could not, if my life depended on it, write out even a moderate percentage of all the nuances of dynamics, articulation, etc.

I also remember a remark that Fritz Reiner once made. He had rehearsed the "Eroica" symphony all week without a score, calling out rehearsal numbers, correcting slurs, and so on. At the performance he brought out the score and used it. When asked why, he replied "when I look at the score I get ideas."

Stuff like this makes me wonder what I've been doing.


Pat White replies: I have to say I have always performed from things from memory, but have come to the same realizaton as yourself: I would be hard pressed to state what the actual score notations were supposed to be. I know what my interpretation of them is, but whether my interpretation, which has evolved over the years, is true to what the composer intended, well, that is another story. And, I find that when I return to the music after a long period without having looked at it, I do see things in a different way. So, my comments merely serve to ditto yours.

MaryK replies: I can't comment from the perspective of a professional or a seasoned performer. But, I've noticed in my lessons that I often play better when I've memorized the music, i.e., more accurately, more musically. My teacher's theory, if I can articulate it correctly, is that there is an extra layer of processing your brain has to deal with when you read as you play, which could inhibit music-making. So far I think I agree with her.

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