Friday, November 2, 2012

Memory: A Perceptual Trap?

A listener at my last recital asked why I do not play from memory. 

My immediate reply referred to two early experiences of blackouts during professional performances on the organ.  Spooked by that, I was not willing to risk any interference or distraction while making music.  

Thinking more about the question I realize its implications in terms of my life-long involvement with visual response and with motor memory: both are problematic.  Let's consider one at a time.

Visual response:
I am very quick to respond to visual stimuli: I like to solve puzzles that rely on visual cues, I improvise visual responses in my improvisational needlework.  But how rapidly I am bored by visual repetition was evident to Hans Neumann, the brilliant musician with whom I studied piano at Mannes back in the day.  He spotted right away that I, a crack sight-reader, was incapable of reading and listening at the same time.  (I had noticed that, having once read a composition, the only way I could stay interested in it was to play it ever faster....)

Motor memory:
Given the strength of my eye-hand coordination, reliance on muscle memory as a major factor in memorizing music followed naturally.  Though in many ways at a high level of competence, my vision and motor-based memory, as it did not fully engage my ear, depended on reliability, i.e., on repetitive function. 

Certainly there are many components to the problem, none of which I can identify objectively.  Be that as it may, the writings of Viktor Zuckerkandl (notably
Sound and Symbol and The Sense of Music) compelled me to undertake the challenge of strengthening my ear to the point of making it the basis of all my playing and of my teaching.  

The ear response has been scientifically measured (see James Hudspeth, Rockefeller University) as being 200 times faster than any other sense perception, based on the activity of 32,000 vibrating sensor-tipped hair cells in our inner ear.  I go in pursuit of that speed, not motor speed or visual speed.

Thus, I play with the score because doing so frees me to move more spontaneously, with greater daring and passion, than is accessible via my memory--I do not want to be burdened with anything that smacks of repetition.  

That said, I realize that these balances are different for different players.