Memorization: Priority or Not?
After a whole semester of working on memorization, the moment of truth - at one's jury - happens so quickly! Today's generation of music majors have so much more areas of interests than "in our day", and double majors are more common than ever. Complicated job schedules, science lab assignments, long commutes, conflicting double majors' schedules, and lack of sleep, all threaten to cut down the enjoyment and quality of practice time. At the same time, faculty face more pressure of competing for their students' focus amongst an ever increasing amount of activities, and in some cases, no attendance from certain students at performance classes and department concerts (i.e. double majors' excused conflicts).
In light of these expanded commitments as the new "norm", what are realistic priorities for a college education? I remember reading Anthony Tommassini's controversial article in the New York Times a few years ago, that it was time to free pianists from the requirement of memorization at recitals. He argues that people have different strengths and weaknesses, and being secure in memorization does not equate to being musically prepared. Gilbert Kalish of Stony Brook is in the minority of professors who allow students to use music at their juries.
From my chats at the CSMTA conference last week and conversations over time with colleagues, it seems that while most Colorado college faculty agree on the benefits of memorization, we are divided on whether it should be a priority. Strings, Vocal, and Piano departments, with so much solo repertoire, are traditionally much more conditioned to the requirement than others. Still, one violin professor felt that making memorization optional would help students to actually enjoy the music they were preparing. Another felt the solution lies in introducing the expectation of memorization earlier in one's education. One university program allows non-majors to memorize one piece and use music for the other piece- a much appreciated compromise. There is also the possibility of leaving the students to design their own priorities. However, everyone agrees that in competitions with optional memorization, contestants who play from memory always score higher, whatever the judging criteria are supposed to be.
The students have different preferences from each other as well. One student of mine actually feels anxious about playing the notes until she can play them all from memory. The more technical the repertoire, the more it makes sense not to look at the score. When it comes to performance anxiety though, most of my students would love to have the music just as a safety net. Faced with the looming threat of memory failure, few of them are willing to take the time to invest in a personal interpretation whole heartedly; and so they overlook the most natural way to memorize, which is to first understand what it is they are playing. If a student squeaks by on the basis of having memorized well enough, yet communicates little grasp of the composer's musical language, is that a passing jury?
What are your thoughts?