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Performing from the score versus memorising

I heard somewhere that seven eighths of the world’s music is not written down. I suspect then that most of the remaining eighth is filled up with the scores of classical music. What a relief that we have all of that music written down – the world would be a bleaker place if we didn’t have Mozart or Beethoven or Mahler’s music to listen to.

A musical score is a strange thing. It is a brilliantly worked out method of keeping music for posterity but it certainly does add a few challenges for musicians. I was noticing yesterday when I was teaching, how challenging it can be to create a real sense of freedom of expression when you have to follow the notes of a score. To me, the music looks so different from the way it sounds! I suspect that is why so many classical musicians choose to play from memory. It means you use the score to learn initially, but then you let go of the score and, because you don’t have the distraction of the notes in front of you, it is easier to embody the music and feel freer with expressing it – that is, assuming you don’t find it too stressful performing from memory!

Cartoon of clarinettist playing from memory

But so many classical musicians have to have the music in front of them for practical reasons, and then there is another challenge. You are using a part of your brain to read at the same time as letting go and being free with your expression and that can be quite a challenge. It can be so easy to switch off the ‘free and expressive’ part of your brain when you have your eyes glued to a score, and the result can be disengaged, and even stiff and wooden.

I have spent most of my career with my eyes glued to a score out of necessity. There simply wouldn’t have been enough time to memorize all the music I needed to learn. I have now changed my methods, choosing to learn everything from memory, but because I have had limited experience of doing this professionally, I don’t perform from memory. I have found this incredibly liberating.

Now I glance at the score from time to time, reminding myself where I am, but really I know it from memory. It takes the pressure off in terms of having memory blanks in performance, but frees me up too because my eyes are no longer glued to the score. It feels a bit like using a map when you’re going on a walk. If you use it all the time, it is trickier to enjoy the scenery, but glancing at it every now and again, feels good – and there is plenty of time and space to absorb your surroundings!


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