It’s odd, but a real thing. Sometimes musicians, in their quest for hitting the right notes at the right time, forget to be musical and need a reminder to get it together and make actual music. Hitting all of the right notes at the right time is important, yes, but quite frankly I’d rather hear a musical performance with a few mistakes here and there than one that was technically stellar but lacked the soul of the music. Phrasing and dynamics are two key aspects to providing some of the piece’s soul, but in order to make it all make sense the performer must have a solid understanding of what the piece has to say as well.
This is not to say that one needn’t put in the time to work toward technical perfection. The fact of the matter is that more often than not one of the main reasons the soul is missing is that the performer is under prepared technically. In this case the performer is struggling with simply putting everything where it’s supposed to be on the fretboard when it’s supposed to be there and for how long it’s supposed to be there. When one is struggling with this, the ability to focus on the musicality of the piece is severely hampered. So do you need to wait until you have the piece memorized to work in expression and imbuing the piece with life? To put it simply, no.
When we start working on a new piece we often start by sight reading as much as we can to give ourselves a chance to assess the piece in relationship to our abilities and get an idea of what sections will need the most work, as well as to give ourselves an idea of how long we can expect it to take to get it in hand. From there we should start working on the physical mechanics of learning the piece and start actively listening to others performing it, following with the score as well as simply listening to it. This gives us an assessment of what others have made of the piece, how they phrased sections and what dynamic shifts were present. Then we should start analyzing the score, looking for relationships between thematic motifs and the structure and additionally how much help the composer or arranger has given us through marking phrasing, dynamics, and additional instructions. This sets the stage for understanding how we should approach the piece both from a logical and emotional perspective. What is exactly being expressed in each section is there in the score but often takes some digging on the performer’s part in order to wring out the best presentation of the piece that we can. We need to work on this aspect of the piece in tandem with working on the physical ability to play the piece, because in reality this will often impact the choices we make in fingerings as well as where we are playing on the instrument physically.
Some folks firmly believe that the performer can only achieve a truly exemplary performance of the piece if it is memorized and I understand their perspective on this. Memorization implies an understanding of the music that has become an innate part of the performer; however, I believe that stellar performances aren’t necessarily tied to memorization skills. It is quite possible to be quite musical while having a score in front of you, as long as you have the understanding of the piece and are essentially using it as a reminder. Not having the piece memorized doesn’t mean it’s not ready for performance; it just means it’s not ready for performance from memory. Different people have different skill sets and some folks are simply not good at memorization. If those musicians waited until they had a piece memorized to perform it, they would have vast amounts of time waiting between performances that they could have given quite well with the score present. Let’s face it, most orchestral musicians do almost every performance with a score in front of them and still churn out wonderful performances. They have done the work, understand the music they are working with and bring it to life night after night without memorizing it. Yes, they have a conductor who helps, but nonetheless they have to do the work themselves to ensure the success of the performance.
If we adopt an approach where we learn the piece musically as well as physically simultaneously, the chances of delivering a sterile performance are dramatically reduced. What we want to achieve is a symbiotic relationship with each piece that we perform and in order to do so we have to understand that it is truly a symbiotic relationship. The score needs the musician to give it life and we need the score (or the piece) in order to do what we do. Neither is successful without a solid understanding and emotional connection between the performer and the piece. If this isn’t present we’re shortchanging the music, ourselves, and ultimately, the audience as well.