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 situation is more the exception than the rule. I’ve heard people complain about the use of sheet music in recitals, even when the music was well-played. But I’ve never heard anyone say, “Gosh, I wish that performer had used the music instead.” Some may argue that we ought to hear this complaint more often so that the music is played better, but I would argue that if this is the case, their piece simply isn’t ready to perform at all yet (see my article on Reaching the Prepration Threshold).
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. There is definitely something to be said for the respect performers show to their audience when they choose to perform from memory.
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, 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. Perhaps the best way to demonstrate this idea would be the hilarious 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. They spoiled their audiences, 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.”
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, this goes to show how important this issue is – and should be – to teachers and students!