Memorization: Is it the Defining Moment in Professionalism?

Memorization of material is both a gift and an acquired skill. For some individuals, memorizing a piece of music is process that occurs naturally, primarily through the repetitive process of practicing the piece. For others, myself included, repetition alone is not sufficient to lodge the material in the gray matter, to be called upon at will in a performance setting. Some pieces I latch onto and do manage to log into my recall centers. It is interesting to me, however just exactly this recall ability varies from genre to genre. With pop genres, I find that I’m essentially playing along to an inner track inside my head, guided by my memory of how the song sounds. I essentially push the playback button and off I go. The issue becomes more complex when it comes to classical guitar and fingerstyle guitar, because reproducing the soundtrack involves quite a bit more intricacy. I would also contend that some of my memorization disability comes from years of being an excellent sight reader. This can hamper memorization because folks who aren’t have to work harder through sections and thus have a much higher immediate benefit from memorizing the material. Some musicians believe that it is more professional to perform music from memory than to use the sheet music during performance, while others, and I count myself amongst these, maintain that it is the overall quality of the musical performance that matters, not whether one has the sheet music on stage.

The point here isn’t whether or not memorization is a valuable and important skill for a performer to have, nor is it whether one should or should not employ this skill. Those points are very clear as they stand. Yes, it is a valuable and important skill to have and whenever possible it should be employed. Professional musicians do use their reading skills on stage all the time. In some genres this is seen less, but this is also largely because in some genres the bulk of the musicians performing can’t read music aside from chord charts, and often find those to be problematic. Many jazz performers go to gigs toting along their fake books, pulling them out when someone calls a tune they don’t know and reading the material on the fly. Boom, it’s part of the gig. Orchestral musicians always read their material when performing together, for many reasons, not the least of which is the sheer volume of material they have to plow through in a concert season. Even when they break into trios and other smaller formats, more often than not they are performing with musical scores in front them.

Solo artists, particularly in the classical music genre, often perform from memory, but that does not mean that they will not perform a piece until it is memorized. If you can perform the piece well before completing memorization, use the sheet music and get on with it. Give the best performance that you can, memorization in most cases is icing upon the icing. The important things are linked to the music itself, the quality of your connection to it, your ability to communicate the piece, and what the audience can see of your performance. As long as you’re not hiding behind the music stand and the audience can see your performance as well as hear it, the presence of sheet music is really a non-issue. Once again, it boils down to what enables the performer to give the best possible performance of a piece that he or she can.

The lack of a music stand on stage isn’t really a mark of professionalism. All it really tells you is that the performer, hopefully, has excellent memorization skills. Granted, some forms such as opera absolutely require memorization skills because there is movement involved and the performers cannot be tied down to a specific spot on stage. If you can’t memorize the arias, you won’t get the role, no matter how well you can perform them with sheet music. Popular genres have an established no music stand on stage norm, once again largely because most of the individuals couldn’t read the material on sheet music anyway. However, the irony is that most recordings that come out industry hubs like Nashville are produced with studio musicians who are reading charts of one sort or another during the recording sessions, a skill that if they lacked they would not have the gig to begin with. In these cases the studio cats aren’t usually the same people who go out on the road with the headliners and they’re all fine with that. It’s a simple relegation of duties based upon skill sets, and often life style preferences among all of the musicians involved in the entire process.

The ability to read musical charts and scores is actually more of a sign of professionalism than the lack of a music stand on the stage. It requires very specific training, often formal training, and is a life long skill. It opens a world of opportunity to those who can read, much like the ability to read written language does for the entire population, and can actually lead to the ability to take musical jobs that non-readers simply cannot even apply for. Memorization is indeed an excellent skill, and should be encouraged, but it is not necessarily a be all end all mark of professionalism. When I go to a concert, I want to be presented with the artists’ best rendition of the music they can give. If it involves reading from a chart, so be it. It’s not robbing me of an excellent experience.

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