Memorized Performance: Showing Respect To The Audience

The word appearance often carries a negative connotation in society.  Disney movies and bedtime stories tell us most definitely not to be concerned about outward appearances when the quality of our character is all that matters.  While this is sound advice for daily living, in my opinion it isn’t good advice for a performer in front of an audience.  Appearance is a legitimate part of performance, including the presence sheet music (or lack thereof).  Audiences always have and always will be more impressed with a performer who conjures the performance from within rather than acting as a “channel” that merely connects the audience to a printed page.  While the performer still technically acts as a channel no matter how the performance is carried out, the audience is made far less aware of this channeling when it is done from memory.

More importantly, perhaps the word appearance doesn’t quite say enough.  When you witness a “performance” of someone toppling dominos, are you not more impressed by a thousand dominos than by a hundred?  There is something to be said for the apparent amount of time a performer had to spend preparing for the performance.  An audience does not need to be taught that a performance from memory requires more preparation than a performance using the music – they know this intuitively.  So, while witnessing a performance with music in front of the pianist can certainly be a musically transforming experience, witnessing the same transforming performance without the use of sheet music brings it yet one step closer to the same feeling one gets when witnessing a triumphant climb of Mt. Everest.  There is more at play here than appearances.  An audience feels more respected when the performer in front of them has gone to great lengths to prepare for their arrival, the same way a dinner guest feels respected when the host serves a good home-cooked meal with silverware and wine glasses instead of plastic forks and styrofoam cups.

Of course, it is true that certain audience members may have no interest in the “give me something impressive” aspect of performance.  If the audience’s goal is only – and I mean only – to enjoy well-played music, then theoretically, they wouldn’t care whether sheet music is used or not.  But let’s be honest with ourselves: this does not describe reality. Performers communicate with audiences better when they perform from memory, and perhaps with exception to concert artists playing music of Boulez with the score, memorized performances are going to be more polished.

In a 1999 study, Aaron Williamon found:

“…enhanced visual information in this study (i.e. an unobstructed view of the performer) was extremely influential in allowing the audience to grasp the performer’s expressive intentions.” (p. 93)

According to Williamon, this advantage was only noticed by musicians, but as Williamon notes in his study, J.W. Davidson found in 1993 and 1994 that the advantage was more strongly noticed by non-musicians than by musicians. Granted, this may not apply in the same manner to pianists since piano music stands do not obstruct the audience’s view of the musician, but I couldn’t help wondering how much of this study’s results were also due to the audience’s feeling that the performer is channeling a musical score rather than communicating from within.

I once witnessed a recital in which some students were performing pieces they had just begun only a couple weeks before.  Many of them slowed down for sections they didn’t know very well, and some pieces even had cuts in them.  It felt almost like a public sight-reading session.  I couldn’t help thinking about the fact that the cumulative amount of time and energy spent on the part of the audience members to attend the performance might have very well matched the cumulative amount of time and energy spent on the part of the performers to prepare for it.  There is definitely something to be said for the respect performers show to their audience when they perform from memory.

Spoiled Audiences

A more sweeping conclusion in the Williamon study would seem to apply to musicians of all instruments:

“The extra time spent practising for the memorised performances in this study was beneficial, especially with respect to audiences’ ratings of musical and communicative aspects. Both musicians and non-musicians rated the later performances significantly higher.” (p. 93)

For today’s audiences, non-memorized performances are to be expected when the material being performed is simply too difficult to memorize, such as avant-garde contemporary music, when there is ensemble involved (in case a performer “falls off the train” and must use the music to get back on), or as a totally different example, news anchors reading news that just came in.  Even in the latter case, the really good news anchors can do it while spending most of their time looking at the camera.  And when they must read something, they look at a teleprompter so the audience thinks the news is being “performed” for them.  When people deliver a speech, it is always seems more natural to the audience when it is delivered without speaking notes.  Ballet dancers dance from memory, actors act from memory, and other artists who can perform from memory almost always do.

There are some traditions that continue to carry on when maybe they should end (see this Tradition poster at Despair.com).  But the tradition of playing from memory isn’t one of these archaic practices.  It continues to be done not merely because “that’s just the way it’s done,” but because performers know from experience as audience members themselves that they enjoy a performance more when it is from memory.  When Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann established the practice of performing piano music from memory, it caught on for a reason. Snobby critics limited by their own strong beliefs about tradition in music were slower to catch on, but genuine audience members loved it. Performers spoiled their audiences more and more, critics eventually came around, and audiences today continue to demand it and will never stop demanding it.  Just as most audience members will connect best with a speech given “from the heart” while the speaker walks around on stage, most audience members will connect better with music that they feel is performed “from within.”

Performance Skills

Williamon concludes in his study:

“…the findings of this study may be applied – though with discretion – to both musical performance and pedagogy. Performers can be reassured that memorised performances can offer enhanced stimuli to audiences, whether they be through the aural or visual domain. Consequently, teachers should prepare their students for the demanding expectations of audiences, especially those composed of experienced musicians, by offering them more opportunities to prepare for memorised performances.” (p. 94)

As a teacher, I always have in mind that the set of skills required to perform from memory and the set of skills required to perform using music are quite different.  The former skill set is much larger and more demanding than the latter.  Some of the skills developed over a lifetime of memorized performances would fall in the category of sports psychology:  they are purely skills of the mind that affect everything from control over muscles to mental attitude.   A high school student who has performed from memory five or six times per year since the age of six will have a far more robust set of these skills than a student who only performs from memory once or twice a year, or who performs from memory before pieces are truly done yet – again, see my Preparation Threshold article.  These latter two students are likely to get “worse” with every performance since the complexity of their music is increasing faster than their ability to handle it on stage.

Considering that a couple of the keynote speakers at recent MTNA conferences have literally been none other than sport psychologists (who talk almost exclusively about preparing for and handling performances), this may indicate just how important this issue is – and should be – to teachers and students.

References

Williamon, Aaron. “The Value of Performing from Memory.” Psychology of Music 27.1 (1999): 84-95. Sage Journals. Web. 18 Oct. 2013.

(c) 2011 Cerebroom

About Chad Twedt

Chad is a pianist, composer, piano teacher and blogger with a Masters Degree in Piano Performance. He received the 2005 Nevada Arts Council Fellowship Grant for the composing and performing on his Ostinato CD.
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5 responses to Memorized Performance: Showing Respect To The Audience


  1. I like your comments on the audience feeling respected (or not). Last year there was a series of lecture recitals in my area. The lecturer was top-notch but the pianist – who bills himself as a concert pianist – was not. He played for memory, true, but had many slips and showed a general lack of preparation, yet displayed a cavalier attitude. As an audience member who had paid to hear a “concert pianist”, I felt insulted (and it’s not just the money – I got my money’s worth from hearing the lecture). After the first 2 in the series, I didn’t attend anymore.

    • I think some pianists throw the “concert pianist” term around too loosely as a way to flatter themselves. I personally reserve that prestigious title for those who actually make a living (as in paying the majority of their bills) by concertizing – or at least those who easily could but choose not to (such as some piano professors who don’t have time to give 100 concerts per year but who still deliver world class concerts). It’s a topic I’ve considered blogging about…

  2. Pingback: More on Memory | LaDona's Music Studio

  3. There’s a big big difference between performing badly, performing with a cavalier attitude, performing from memory and performing from scores.

    Different people, different ways!

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