A couple of years ago, the subject of playing from memory came up during a Soiree for my amateur performance group which was peopled by all levels of pianists from adult beginners to mid level amateurs, to working or retired professionals. We were a group that ranged in age from 18 to 80. Someone new to performing asked me why I always played solo works from memory, even at our informal get togethers. Only those of us who are (or were) professionals did so regularly.
Aside from the fact that teachers drill it into you from that first terrifying moment you decide you might want to pursue a performing career, I had to admit that when my memory work is solid, I'm less nervous, play more confidently, listen more critically to myself when I'm not focusing on reading a score or fussing with page turns, and find I get more fully into the music. I often hear things I didn't realise were in there (I don't really need to listen to a recording of myself to hear what I'm are doing) and can therefore, be more insightful with my interpretation - which makes a piece more personal to me. Performance becomes more of a whole-body experience because I'm able to move around more freely, and stay looser and in more control of my nerves. I've been told I'm fun to watch - "an energetic natural performer, not overly dramatic" - though I personally hate watching myself on video.
One of the piano teachers in the group who specializes in "early" music for the piano adamantly refuses to memorize anything and is quite defensive about it, pointing out that virtuosos of the past were never known to perform from memory until the middle of the 19th century when Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt made this a common practice. We all know that, but things have changed a little in the last 150 years.
Reading through past threads, I don't see a lot of discussion about methods for memorization and am curious how other members here approach it. What works for you and how important do you think it is?
Below, I've categorized the principle forms of music memory into five types as I see them - all of which are distinct but are more or less important to solidifying a performance for me. Your concepts may be different, so feel free to add to the list.
1. Finger Memory!
Begin and end without any conscious recollection of what transpired in between.
2. Aural Memory
It's claimed that Mozart and Rachmaninoff (and others) could hear something once and then play it flawlessly the next day. Rubinstein learned the entire score to the Grieg Piano Concerto (including the orchestra parts) on the train by memorizing it, understanding what it sounded like even without the aid of a keyboard on which to practice, and performed it the next day in concert with an orchestra. Impressive, but I just wish I could forget the theme from the Brady Bunch. "Here's the story, 'bout a man named Brady." Help me.
3. Theoretical Memory
Knowing the basic form of a piece (A B A or whatever, repeats, variations etc.) gives me an outline so I can compartmentalize where I am in the piece, and how repeated themes may differ the second time around or during development. It's also helpful to break the piece down into short sections with starting points where I can pick it up quickly if I do get lost during a performance. We've all been there.
4. Visual Memory of the score
I had a professor in college that insisted one should be able to sit down and write out the score, note by note from memory. I never got much past writing down the title and the key signature. Having to remember what the notes look like on the page just added another level of complexity that may work well for some, but was anathema to me. Does one visualize the written words to "The Raven" in their mind when giving a memorized recitation? Or do they hear the words spoken (by themselves) in their memory first, then verbally repeat the music of those cadences? "Awwwkkk! Quote the Raven, nevermore." In fact, when going back to review a score I've left unplayed for years, it often looks like Swahili to me. I can still play it, just can't read it. Pavarotti couldn't read music at all, and he only had one voice to remember...
5. Visual Memory of your hands and keyboard
Here, I mean a visual of what my hands are doing at all times - though when memorizing, it's sometimes difficult to tear my eyes away from the score, like it's some kind of a crutch. But when performing from memory before an audience, where can one look that's free of distractions? The exit sign in the wings? I concentrate on looking at my hands as much as possible to stay oriented, be more accurate, and avoid the temptation to look away at anything that might break my concentration - like the guy with the phlemy cough down on the third row who manages to drown out the best of my triple pianissimos. At least I don't have to see him picking his nose.
When I was in high school about a thousand years ago, my local piano teacher said I should be able to play with or without the score in front of me, without ever looking at my hands. What a crock! I began studying piano at the University at the age of 16 when still in my Junior year of High School, but my first professor there never attempted to dissuade me from this notion. It took years playing professionally before I completely discarded it. Lesson: don't believe anything your piano teacher tells you.
A last thought; recent scientific studies indicate that the brain builds new synapses while you sleep - it engages in problem solving while in an unconscious state and you actually learn while you're somewhere in La-La land (I doubt this works if you've had half a bottle of Champagne before passing out). Oftentimes, when I concentrate on the details of a piece while falling to sleep staring at the ceiling, the next day, sections that were feeble or muddy the day before are suddenly stronger and clear as a bell. A little follow up repetitive practice and they get cemented in. Try it. Along with a little patience, it works!