There are many divides in the musical world, but perhaps none as charged as the question of whether to memorize or not.
There was music long before there was any way of writing it down. Learning was passed from one generation to the next. Of course, music was pretty simple back then. The earliest example of polyphony– music that combines more than one separate melody – dates from the 10th century.
As music grew increasingly complex, it became more important to have a way to repeat it and to learn and teach it quickly. Hence the systematization of musical notation of Guido d’Arezzo around the same time. The notation we use today is direct descendant of that early system.
You may prefer to play from memory or from the printed page, paper or electronic; there is clearly precedent for each. Each has its benefits and its drawbacks, and each should have a place in your musical toolbox.
You know I am a huge advocate of developing your note reading skills. But memorization, particularly practicing memorization, is very valuable. It helps you play any piece of music with more security and confidence, because you have a deep knowledge of the piece that only comes when you have memorized it.
Playing from memory also helps you play with more musical expression. When you know a piece so thoroughly that it is memorized, you can experiment with more dynamics and more rubato. You have a freedom that only comes from truly knowing a piece.
If you have trouble focusing in performance, memorization is very helpful. Most people fear “forgetting” what comes next, but it’s a simple process to prepare to overcome any slip. The benefit of memorization is that you can truly focus without worrying about turning a page, or not finding your place on the page. There is nothing between you, the harp and the music.
Extra bonus – you don’t have to take a big folder of music to the gig with you!
Don’t make the mistake of learning by memorizing instead of reading the notes. That’s poor musicianship and is a painful learning process, especially as you want to learn longer more complex pieces. If you always learn by memorizing, you will limit your growth and slow your progress.
Music reading is an important skill to develop. When you are a good reader, a world of musical opportunities opens to you. You can sight read well, try new music easily, and learn music quickly. This musical abundance is not as accessible to someone who can only learn by memorizing. Moreover, there are a couple of instances when performing from music is the better option.
Ensemble playing is one instance where playing from music is usually the better option. After all, if one player has a small memory slip, he may take down the entire ensemble with him, when playing from the page likely would have avoided the meltdown.
It’s perfectly acceptable to perform with music, if you prefer. Aside from competitions that require music to be performed from memory, there is no reason not to use the music if you aren’t confident of your memorization. Music is for you to enjoy as well as for a listener.
With that in mind, however, I would urge you to practice your memorization regularly. It is a skill that develops like any other, a muscle that strengthens when you use it.
Try a daily dose of memorization. Start with playing your exercises and warm-ups without music. Then try memorizing 2 bars of any piece you are learning. As you improve, stretch yourself to 4 bar sections, 8 bar sections and eventually a short piece.
In fact, dust off one of your easy pieces that you love to play and give it a try. You might know it better than you think!