thou shalt

In an article in the October 2006 issue of Clavier, Greg Brown says the goal of The 5 Browns is

to relax some of the formality of concert etiquette that might discourage people from attending classical music programs. We don’t mind when people applaud between movements of a work; it just means they like the music.

Say what?  Dilute the clear distinction between the educated who know that thou shalt not clap until the end of a work, and on the other hand the hapless, uneducated, uninitiated, who – heaven forbid – applaud enthusiastically after a particular beautiful or rousing movement even though there’s more to come?  (I am not talking about the people who clap because they think they are supposed to clap but have no clue where and when.)

Why is it that we hold the inseparatability of a multi-movement work so sacred? Can you imagine an opera where no one claps until the very end?  The singers wouldn’t know what to think!  Or imagine a rock concert where people start to clap at the beginning of a song because they recognize the song and show their enthusiastic anticipation of what’s to come. (Ah, yes, I hear ye, “But a rock concert is not the same as a classical concert!”  That’s right.  A rock concert is usually sold out, to tens of thousands of people, who want to be there.)

I once attended a concert with a woman who politely started to clap immediately at the end of a piece – even though the end of the piece was particularly quiet and there was the afterglow of the last couple of notes still in the air.  Her clapping actually disrupted, destroyed the lingering scent. When I mentioned this to her she said that she felt obliged to clap because otherwise the performers might think that she didn’t like the piece.

What I would really like is a performance world – and I have read that this is how they do it in Israel – where you clap when you feel like it, but only then.  No more holding back your enthusiasm after a movement that excites you, but likewise no polite applause at the end of a piece whose performance you didn’t like.

There are other cases of  “thou shalt” – traditions that we hold onto religiously, because we think we’ve always done it this way, although a closer look at history would prove us wrong.

Among the most passionately fought wars in piano pedagogy is the issue of memorization.  For most of the 20th century, pianists performed from memory, and teachers required their students to memorize.  While there are students who seem to memorize effortlessly without even trying, memorization is actually a skill that can and needs to be taught and learned, just like sight-reading, or playing by ear.  The issue of whether to require, some will say “force” students to memorize, has been at the heart of many articles and discussions in professional journals such as ClavierAmerican Music Teacher, or Keyboard Companion.

What seems suspiciously absent from these discussions is the distinction between memorizing and performing from memory which is a completely different issue.

I teach memorization skills because they are an important part of a good piano education.  Those of my students who have studied with me for a while know better than to ask, “Do I have to memorize this piece?” because my answer is always the same: “If you do a good job practicing then you cannot help but memorize along the way.”  The implication being that good practice trains all the elements of memorization:  finger memory (because you have played the piece a million times), intellectual memory (because I have asked you to explain all the details of the piece and you have trained to play hands separately and from anywhere in the piece), aural memory (because you know how it sounds), visual memory (because you know what it looks like), and so on.  Memorization then becomes a mere extension of practicing, a different aspect of practicing, but not a separate issue.

My students are required to memorize their performance pieces.  But I don’t require them to perform from memory anymore.  If all that separates the student from a great performance is the comfort of having the score in front of him (I call it a security blanket), as a visual reminder, then he gets to use the score.  If there’s any suspicion that the student needs the score to read the notes, then we know that the piece is not ready for a performance.

The one criterion for a good performance is that the performer enjoyed performing and the audience enjoyed listening.