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Playing by Heart

Jonathan Keener talks about the heart of playing.

piano_recital_people_1126657_o_zps93ba2314I am a pianist. One of the most difficult things about playing the wonderful instrument of the piano is the expectation that the performer play everything by memory. In recent years, some people have questioned this requirement, suggesting the “rule” that all solo piano performing be done without the score be loosened. New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini once wrote, “What matters, or should matter, is the quality of the music making, not the means by which an artist renders a fine performance.” On the surface, I would agree. But after I first heard this quote, I began to think, maybe the means is part of the performance.

A few years ago I saw Menahem Pressler perform at James Madison University. It was a truly amazing performance in which he used a score. Years of mastery at the instrument were evident in Pressler’s wonderful performance, but I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed that the music wasn’t played by memory. Maybe it’s because I always associate using a score with sight-reading and it’s only after I’ve mastered the piece that I no longer need to read the music. I feel, as a performer and an audience member, that performing by memory makes the music more personal. Maybe when I see a performer use a score I am made aware that the music is some kind of historical relic by a composer from the past. When no score is used, the music seems to “come alive,” making me more aware that the performer is active in the creative process.

sheetmusic_zps498bce9eI think performing, particularly by memory, is far more difficult than non-performers realize. It requires a mind of steel. After months of hours-a-day practicing, a performer presents his music to an often critical audience completely focused on the performance. After working so hard on the music, it’s hard not to tie self-worth to how a performance goes. When performing from memory, I’ve found that there is a mental balance that must be reached and maintained throughout the performance to keep it from falling apart. Too much nervousness results in a shaky performance, not enough nervousness means I am not focused and can have memory lapses. How to find that balance is difficult, and it isn’t always predictable. There’s no way to guarantee I’ll have that balance. Usually when I have that balance throughout a performance I feel completely immersed in the music and thoroughly enjoy myself. In these times I recognize that this is what God made me to do.

Another way to think about this is to see the performer as an actor. I am terrible at acting, but I find that when I perform the piano, I’m in many ways like an actor. I don’t consider myself an overly emotional person, but when I perform I am called to convey emotions that I may not be feeling on that given day. Performances that really reach the heart of audiences are those where a performer “bares his soul” and holds nothing back. I feel this is much more difficult to do if there were a score in front of me. Some people have pointed out that it used to be considered the height of arrogance to play music by other composers without a score. It would almost suggest that the performer composed the music himself. But when I perform I want to feel like I am taking part in the creative process with the composer. I need to be fully convinced that my interpretation is far better than any other performance of the piece, that I’m playing it just the way the composer would have wanted it. That’s what can make the music of old, dead composers come alive today.

Part of me yearns for a world where performing by memory isn’t expected. I definitely could learn pieces much faster and they would be “ready for performance” much quicker. But wouldn’t that allow for more performances of music without the musicians really knowing the music backward and forward? Maybe there’s something to the phrase “knowing the music by heart.” When we understand a piece so well that we can perform it by memory, it suggests we have an intimate relationship with the piece: that I can see beyond the notes. And this, I would suggest, is what the audience wants to see: not a skilled technician who can play all the right notes, but an artist who truly understands, or at least attempts to fully understand, the intended meaning behind the notes. This is true music-making.