The last piece I played memorised was the Brahms Piano Sonata no. 3 in F minor over ten years ago.
I perform with music because, simply put, I can no longer perform without it.
I still, to this day, get asked about it after nearly every recital, which leads me to believe that it is just as relevant a topic as it ever was. So, today, I would like to talk about my decision to no longer play without music and the two major events that lead me down this path.
My “second” university:
Up until starting at this university, everything I played was from memory. I had recently finished at the Conservatorium and, under the advice of another teacher, I was sent to further my study at this second university, where the focus was to be on the music I wanted to play/specialise etc. Looking back on it now, not much good came from this experience other than meeting who was to be the greatest pianistic influence of my life. The university didn’t (and still doesn’t) have much going for it. I was beginning my third year of study and I was broke; I don’t even think I knew what money looked like anymore! I couldn’t afford shoes for my concerts, I couldn’t afford clothes, and I could barely afford to eat. The shoes that I did have were so close to breaking and falling apart that every day in them was like a torturous journey, hoping against hope that they did not disintegrate because they were all I had.
The last crushing moment on my memory happened at the hands of a staff member. I had been trying for years before hand to get my memory back up to scratch like it was during the Brahms days. I felt so good about the fact that I had all of my pieces memorised after so many years. I was set to play in a lunch time concert and everything that day was going to plan. We were all backstage waiting to go on. I was playing some Chaminade, Chopin, and Hyde – I remember that much! Yet, as I walked out on stage to bow, I felt the arch in my shoe split and the colour drain from my face.
It got worse.
When I sat down to play, I couldn’t lift the front of the shoe to pedal because it was loosely hanging and floppy. I had to, comically, lift my entire leg to place it down on the sustain pedal. To make matters worse, the pedal then got stuck in the underside, causing me to trip into the piano when I got up to bow. Enter mediocre staff member and her friends – who laughed and pointed. The fact that, as staff members, they went to the level of pointing and laughing so publicly, created feelings in me that I had never experienced before concerning music – crippling anxiety, humiliation, and shame. Suffice to say that said staff member was who we used to refer to as a “backyard pianist”, and really should have acted more professionally.
After that incident, I didn’t return to university for almost 5 weeks. I also never got to sit with the woman in question and explain to her how that felt and that what she did was wrong. I tell this story in a rather hilarious vein to my pupils. It almost always comes up when we have a joke about the pitfalls of playing the piano. Little do they know how much psychological damage that situation caused (short and long term!)
Two years ago, I got sick. Very sick. The culmination of 12 months of the worst stress I had ever experienced caused my body to scream “no more!” and shut down. Test after test and scan after scan – all to no avail. Weight gain skyrocketed, my hands began to hurt, arthritis had begun to set in along my spine, and life really started to get me down. Health anxiety was, however, the worst part of all of this (sitting and waiting for tests should almost be outlawed due to the strain it can put on your well-being!).
ALL of the anxiety came flooding back ten-fold. I had convinced myself that, for the most part, it was all under control. Unfortunately, that was not to be the case and the same battles I had fought years ago were, all of a sudden, so fresh and new.
Frankly, I felt like a walking disaster.
It is now 12 months on from my medical issues and 8 years since that awful moment at university. I feel better and I feel supported. However, I still choose to play with music. That will never change. That decision is firmly rooted.
Well, why not?!
I feel at one with music. I practice exactly the same way as I did before when I was memorising. I don’t see the issue.
I get asked about my students memorising all the time. The answer is, yes, I do encourage them to memorise the music. I also tell them that, at the end of the day, it doesn’t equate to much if (even from memory) it is unmusical, unmeasured, and overall poorly performed.
Ultimately, I felt like a circus animal. Even after bashing out a near 40 minute Brahms Sonata and being questioned about how I store that in my brain, I did not feel propped up. I felt like screaming “You’ve no idea what it took…” – but, that’s just me. My hat goes off to anyone who can do it and do it consistently well in spite of what life throws at them. I, however, am not one of those people.
Don’t me wrong, it was not without trying either. I saw many councillors concerning memory function, I wrote papers concerning it (I was a double degree psychology major!) and spent many years after the fact trying to retrain myself. I could memorise a few small piano pieces here and there, but never again to the level of the Brahms. I play fairly regularly across Australia and overseas and I still see a few raised eyebrows when I mention that I play with sheet music. Sometimes, you even expect patrons to ask for their money back. Very sad…
Just as Liszt changed attitudes with memorisation, I sincerely hope the attitude shifts on playing with sheet music. We are there for the music. There is no certifiable evidence to suggest that memorisation promotes a more musical performance. After all, put your headphones on and listen to the page turns in some of Ashkenazy’s recordings (he is only one of many where the sheet music can be heard “turning” in the recording). It is laughable that he is seemingly “allowed” to use sheet music while he’s in a recording studio away from an audience, but would be condemned by some for using it on stage. What is worse is that his musicality (which is of the highest order) would be challenged and, quite possibly, ridiculed. The entire notion is ridiculous and the contradictions many.
I play with music because it makes me feel safe in my job. It calms whatever nerves I have which can greatly affect the music.
Honestly, I would rather give a good performance with music, than a bad one without, for whatever that is worth.
As a side note, I also pay my page-turners rather handsomely.