Memorisation: using the music score in a performance?


Performing by heart is actually a rather recent trend.

In the early 19th century, performing from memory was unusual and even unwanted. It was seen as an act of arrogance and disrespect. This later changed as musicians like Clara Schumann started stating that playing from memory "gave her wings power to soar”.

Being a violinist, I was since a very young age taught that playing from memory made my performances better and that I could connect more with the audience. Luckily, I never had any terribly traumatic experiences of memory lapses or mistakes in concerts. In extreme cases, these experiences made many give up on a career as performing musicians.

However, I admit: every time I perform form memory, my biggest fear is having a memory lapse. This often makes me perform at a safety level, stopping me from being as expressive as one should be while performing.

This happens because, when playing by heart, the majority of my focus goes to ensuring that I do not forget the notes, when the focus should be on communication and creativeness. I recently started asking myself: why should I play from memory when it sometimes limits my creativity in performance? And why do we assume it automatically leads to a better performance?

In my opinion, performing from memory shows a great facility in memorising and a wonderful capacity to concentrate and keep focused when under the pressure of performance. But I can not say that it shows more musicality or greater mastery of the instrument. Some of the most creative, thought challenging and colourful concerts I have watched were played with the music score (namely Patricia Kopatchinskaja). In these situations, the performer knows the music so deeply that the music stand could as well not be there - it simply gives security and it can help focusing all attention in the actual music making and in conveying all what's behind and beyond it.

I recently had the opportunity of asking some questions to renowned pianist Ashley Wass, while writing an essay about performance and memorisation. On this topic, he openly told me: “There are several reasons why I choose to play with the score but the single most important one is that I’ve never once felt that playing from memory improved my performance. (…) I always felt it was a distraction - I was often too concerned about the memorisation of a piece (both in practice and in performance) to focus unreservedly on interpretation and communication.”

I understand many may feel freer without having the score and some state that they feel a deeper connection with the music or the audience. But when performing from memory is to me like a wall between a normal good performance and a great interesting performance, why should I not break it?

If one knows the music - and as long as having the music is not an excuse not to know it or practice it as well! - then my conclusion is that we should do whatever it takes to maximise the levels of inspiration and creativity during a performance.