Thursday, September 2, 2010

Memory vs Sight Reading

Here's a short post on memorizing music. The takeaway quote: 

“Memorization is not a trick. It internalizes the music for you; it makes the music, somehow, a part of your own physical being,” Oliver says. “And you can express so much more like that. If you don’t see a singer’s face and you don’t see the posture of a singer, the address of a singer to the audience, you’re really not getting what a singer can deliver in music and what composers expected the singers to deliver.”

Insert “musician” every time he says “singer”.

Sight reading is a wonderful activity, but it's not an unalloyed good, at least to my mind. Music on the page is strictly two dimensional and people who do a lot of sight reading are training themselves to miss a lot of depth. When I play music I've memorized it's much easier to feel it in three dimensions and it's easier (for me) to get to that place where you're inhabiting the music and it's inhabiting you. The gestural content of the music becomes much more apparent and the whole endeavor becomes less abstract, which for me is a plus, but may seem messy to someone with "theory mind", especially if they don't agree with the interpretation.

1 comment:

  1. Being good at sightreading means that when you have to learn a piece thoroughly, you can start from much further forward than you otherwise would.

    Being good at sightreading means that for relatively easy pieces, you can pay attention to balance, phrasing and expression even in the first rehearsal.

    Of course, it is possible to treat sightreading as an end in itself - for instance so that you are able to produce a decent performance in a concert even when you join an orchestra only for the final rehearsal on the afternoon of a concert. British professional orchestral musicians are famously good at this, partly because British orchestras are perpetually short of money and therefore rehearsal time. But even here, one can argue that the quality of sightreading makes for a concert which will be enjoyed more by the audience than it would have been otherwise.

    Of course, there is a degree of inner satisfaction at being able to memorise a piece, memorisation is a tour de force which greatly impresses audiences, and I agree entirely that not being tied to the need to keep the music in sight frees you up for more visual expression as part of the performance. There are occasions when this makes a lot of difference to a performance, and other occasions when it makes little difference.

    For instance, I doubt that you would find it worthwhile to memorise the horn parts for a band concert. While it might in principle be good to do so, the effort involved would be disproportionate to the effect achieved.