Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Playing by Heart

In music school, one of the most frequently heard questions in the corridors outside the practice room is, “Have you memorized it yet?” Meaning, of course, have you memorized your music yet? Can you play your pieces without the music?

Before Franz Liszt, public concerts tended to be variety shows, often with dubious artistic merits. Liszt, by his incredible pianistic abilities as well as the sheer force of his personality, was the first pianist to have an entire concert of solo piano music. He also coined the term, the “recital”. People laughed when they first heard the word, “How does one recite at the piano,” they asked.

Liszt also started the practice of performing without the aid of the score. Before Liszt, pianists were expected to play with the music. Artists who tried to perform from memory were considered arrogant, or show off’s.

How times have changed. Anyone who plays the piano, from the child doing his or her first piano examination, to pianists competing in the most prestigious international competitions, to the artist playing at Carnegie Hall, are expected to play the music, by heart. Without having to look at the music, they say, one can be freer to express oneself. They can really focus on the music, is another argument.

It is interesting that violinists, cellists, organists and other instrumentalists, often do play solo recitals with the music. Conductors often use the music. Chamber musicians, including pianists, use the score when they play. Does it necessarily mean that these musicians are not as focused on the music? Or that they are expressing themselves less?

The thing is, having the music in front of you does not mean that you are, or have to, look at it every single minute that you are playing. In my mind, having the score in front of you frees you up more because the stress of memory lapses is minimized.

The great Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter, one of the great artists and virtuosi of the 20th century, was a proponent of playing with the score. He believed that it is a more honest way of performing, and it allows the artist to not have to restrict him or herself to playing the one or two memorized recital programmes.

Don’t get me wrong. As a piano teacher, I am not expecting to see everyone using the music in performances. Sometimes, keen students would want to challenge themselves by seeing if they can memorize the piece, just for fun, just like they would choose the really difficult pieces to play. What I do feel is that memorization should be a choice, and not an expectation. Some people feel more secured with the music memorized, and using the score does not mean that a person knows the score less well. To an audience, to see a person playing without the score seem more impressive, like someone walking a tightrope blindfolded. But playing music is more than just a circus trick.

Instead of playing by heart, I would much rather be playing from the heart.

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