For both jazz and classical soloists it’s extremely common to perform with your music memorized. There are usually a few reasons given for memorizing, including that it frees you up from the distraction of the page, it allows you to focus more completely on the sound, and it simply looks better without a music stand in front of you. Here’s an interesting take on memorization from a classical guitarist, called An Argument Against Memorization.
To watch a soloist, or an ensemble, perform without the score, without any physical partitions, and with a steadfast memory of the work, is incredibly compelling.
No doubt about it.
However, the goal of memorization is one that too many of us rush into without consideration of the harm it might be doing.
The author, Simon Powis, offers some good points on ways where memorization actually inhibits our ability to perform music. For one, he notes that what frequently happens is the musician is memorizing music through a kinesthetic process (“muscle memory”) and that it becomes difficult, if not impossible for the musician to pick up in places other than at the beginning of that phrase, or even the entire piece.
But worse than that, memorizing a piece of music leads to practicing that music only without sheet music, and this can be inhibiting.
If we have hammered in our kinesthetic memory via thousands of mechanical repetitions (which does work eventually) we are making it very, very, VERY, difficult to change and evolve over time.
So, no matter how far we evolve as a musician, our stubborn muscle memory will maintain a fingering, articulation, and execution that is inferior and less than our current capabilities.
What a shame, and what a loss!
Powis points out that this can cause the musician to resort to the easiest fingering, rather than exploring other options. Something that works for you now might not sound the best down the road. Certain instruments have different sounds with different fingers or positions and only playing a piece from memory might lock you into something that won’t sound as good.
Less of a concern to jazz musicians, where the music is improvisational and meant to be changed every time, is loosing focus on what the composer originally intended.
A score is incredibly complex. When a student comes to me and says “I have it memorized now” what does this actually mean?
Following this statement I will often ask what the harmonic progression is in the second phrase? Or, what the dynamic markings are in the coda? The answer is always a blank look.
This is because the score contains more information than just where to put the fingers. It is a veritable treasure trove of information that reveals itself over time.
You need time to explore the score, and if you respect the music you will give it that due time.
And the final point that Powis makes is that our memories are fallible, and we can memorize a piece wrong. Or it can drift away from what is correct over time.
Those of us who play jazz or other improvisational styles of music might be less concerned with Powis’s points than classical soloists, but I think there is some food for thought even for jazz musicians. While I usually feel freed up as an improviser once I’ve got a tune committed to memory, I do think there is some value to revisiting the sheet music and looking at the composition again visually. I have a tendency to look ahead when reading music, whereas when playing a tune by memory or by ear I am more in the moment. There’s something to be said for starting your improvised phrase already thinking about where you’re going.
I don’t think that Powis is really arguing to never memorize your music, but when doing so we should be thinking about the drawbacks. Being aware of the potential problems helps us avoid them, while still holding on to the benefits from playing without written music.