Method of Memory (Part 1)

This week I thought I would riff off a conversation that I had over (and after) dinner at a conducting seminar last November. The topic was memorising scores: when we did it, how we did it, and ultimately why we did it. As I started to write though I found that, iceberg-like, there was a hidden mass of issues underneath the surface of this particular topic. I wrote in my post a few weeks ago that for me the act of writing was as about thinking things through, and as I jotted some ideas down I started to come to the conclusion that it would be most interesting to examine the role of memorization in our methods of performance (this week) and study (in a future post).

Conducting from memory is certainly a well-worn conversation topic, complete with an oft-quoted adage “you need to have the score in your head, not your head in the score”. It’s a neat construction, to be sure, but a statement that pat only really makes the point that “you need to really know the thing you’re conducting”, which we could probably just call a basic level of professionalism. People have probed the issue in more depth, but I was struck that more often than not it is discussed (by conductors) in terms of how it makes them feel, and rather less in terms of how it might impact upon how the orchestra feels. For example, a very common idea is that by conducting without a score a conductor is less inhibited, and therefore feels that they communicate more openly, but tends not to dwell on whether this ‘open communication’ is any better received. (Incidentally, I’ve always thought of this as a chicken and egg conundrum: is the communication ‘more open’ because the conductor isn’t using the score, or is it ‘more open’ because they know the piece thoroughly enough to be able to conduct without a score?)

Either way, I’ve always been rather more interested in what effect memorization has in terms of the very complicated psychology that – inevitably – exists in the relationship between conductor and orchestra. As I began to think of some examples of these psychological effects, it seemed that for every positive impression created by conducting from memory it wasn’t too hard to think of an alternative negative reading. To the claim that conducting without a score shows the musicians how thoroughly you know the score, it didn’t take a huge leap to imagine a musician reading this as vanity, a conductor drawing attention to themselves rather than the music they are performing. Or to the suggestion that removing the physical barrier of the music stand allows the conductor to feel closer in their communication with the orchestra, you could counter that musicians feel as if the conductor is invading the personal space that they need to do their job.

These kinds of positive/negative effects probably point towards that greater truth: that for almost everything we do on the podium some people will like it, and some people will hate it. That reality is not something to be dismayed at, but I think it should be taken as an indication that it is worth spending some time considering the ways that memorizing – or more particularly being seen by musicians to have memorized something – is impactful upon the way that conductor and orchestra collaborate. In the same way that we give thought to what gesture from the toolbox of our conducting suits a certain phrase, it might be valuable to take a similarly methodical approach in considering what effect memorization can have on particular passage, rehearsal, performance, or ensemble.