Method of Memory (Part 2)

In my previous post on memory I discussed some of the ways that conducting from memory might impact upon performance, both for the conductor and for the musicians in the orchestra. Though conducting a score from memory should be a demonstration of the kind of mastery of the score a conductor has achieved through study, I’m certain that I’m not alone in having seen situations where this is simply not the case. Performing from memory for appearance’s sake rarely ends disastrously since orchestras will end up covering up most memory lapses. I’ve always taken these examples to be a warning, though, about performing without a score before you're ready, and for the wrong reasons. Moreover, I’d come to the conclusion that memorisation was probably a more naturally occurring process, the result of years of repetition of repertoire during a career. I’ve always admired those seasoned conductors who – though they conduct from memory – always have the score there in front of them, sometimes even closed. I always interpreted this as a sign of humility towards the music they were performing, perhaps even in some quasi-sacred rite of ceremonially placing the score at the centre of the act of performance.

Last year, though, I decided to experiment with memorisation. This began for the most pragmatic of reasons; keeping up with page turns for various repeats and da capo in a movement was frustrating. It was a piece I knew well and thus it was not as challenging as I’d feared. However the real benefit – aside from overcoming my memorisation phobia – was in developing a method that worked for me to turn my analytical work on the page into a condensed form from which I could then memorise the piece. Surprised by the effectiveness of this strategy I then experimented on memorising Strauss’ Til Eulenspiegels lustige streiche. It had been a number of years since I’d last even opened the score and so as much as memorizing I was reviewing previous study.

To my surprise this task was also far less daunting than I had imagined. More strikingly though, I found that in looking at a score with a view to memorising it changed the way I looked at the score with a view to conducting it. Suddenly all sorts of tiny details making up memorable patterns jumped out of the page and attached themselves to the framework I had already committed to memory. Not only was I finding the memorisation process far less challenging than I’d thought, but I was struck by having instant access to a depth of knowledge of the piece that differed from my previous work. This totally upended my appreciation of how to use memorisation: rather than seeing it as a potentially optional extra, a way of confirming the work I had already done, I began to see the benefit of its application as a method for the preliminary stages of studying a new score. It was as if by committing a kind of road map of the piece to memory early on I was far better placed to absorb the scenery on the drive as I worked through the score itself: to make my work more focused and, I hope, more effective. 

I should say that what I’m talking about has not made me a convert to conducting everything from memory. I would maintain that this decision needs to be made in each situation weighing up factors like the relationship with the piece, the orchestra, and even perhaps where the piece falls in the programme. I will say, though, that the more music I have studied in this way the easier I have found memorising music in general. By altering my view of memorisation from a feature of performance to a method for study I’ve found a noticeable – and extremely satisfying – change in perspective of my understanding of the music. And it certainly left me intrigued about where else reversing our perspective on what is the goal and what is the tool might yield results.