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Decatastrophizing the Memory Lapse


The practice of memorizing music is relatively new.

In the 1988 film by John Schlesinger, Madame Sousatzka,1 there is a haunting scene that still fills many a pianist with an uncomfortable sense of apprehension. The young madame is performing Beethoven's Appassionata to a packed concert hall, when suddenly the unthinkable happens. A small hesitation turns in to a big hesitation, which in turn leads to a total inability to continue. Mid-movement, she flees the stage in a panic—to be met by an angry, disapproving mother and the bleak prospect of the end of a promising career as a performer. She spends the remainder of her days as a Svengali-like piano teacher who lives vicariously through the successes of her pupils.

This scene portrays a public memory lapse as a catastrophe of such apocalyptic proportions that it can alter the course of one's entire professional life. Not only does one endure humiliation of the highest order, one endures it in front of hordes of supposedly malevolent listeners who, like sharks, wait for the slightest sign of weakness to go into a mad frenzy of blood and destruction. And so all of one's dreams are shattered; not—with sincere apologies to the late T. S. Eliot—with a whimper, but with a bang. The traumatized victim sometimes recounts the horror to her students, who in turn go through their training dreading such an event with disproportionate trepidation before it has even happened. The cycle continues through generations.

The practice of memorizing music is relatively new. Before Clara Schumann's memorized performance of Beethoven's Appassionata in 1837 (ironically, or perhaps intentionally, the same work that tragically ended the fictional Madame Sousatzka's budding performing career), performing without the score would be seen as arrogant swaggering. It would indicate to the public a lack of respect for the composer, and a vain attempt to focus the attention on the performer rather than the music.2 Two centuries later, memorized performance has become the norm; hordes of earnest piano students around the globe (including pre-schoolers) are routinely memorizing even the most opaque and fiendishly difficult new music imaginable.

Audiences have come to expect memorized performances; unless one is among a handful of superstar luminaries who already have thriving careers, the presence of a score indicates to them a lack of preparation, ability, or both.

Many musicians have often wondered if there are any good reasons to play from memory at all. Is it mainly just for show? The German conductor Hans Knappertsbusch was quite catty in his response when asked why he never conducted from memory like some of his rivals. His response: "Because I can read notes."3 In one of his many thoughtful and well-written blog posts, Stephen Hough lists a number of advantages (alongside the disadvantages) to playing from memory. He lists four reasons against using the score:

1. It takes away the total physical freedom of simply walking on to the stage, sitting down, and playing. Now that pianists usually play other people's music (and no one pretends that the Schumann Fantasie is a newly-composed work) we do actually want it to seem as if something is being created on the spot. It's part of what makes hearing familiar music seem fresh.

2. It risks someone playing something which is not properly prepared. When we memorize something we have to learn it 101%. If we can sight-read well and the notes are not complicated there's always the danger of presenting something half-baked to an audience.

3. It spoils the theatrical event like a script in an actor's hand. Performing on stage is not just about what we are hearing, but about what we are seeing. There's no question that someone seated at a nine-foot concert grand, playing a ferociously difficult piece with no score in front of him is an impressive sight.

4. There are many practical negatives involved [in playing from the score]: insufficient light to see the pages; the need for a page turner (or electrical device); the inability actually to look at the score during an awkward passage where the eyes are required to guide the fingers on the keys; the visual distraction for the audience of as many as 200 page turns in an evening's performance; the sound-blockage of the music desk. 4

Piano teachers most probably identify strongly with number two above. Slow movements are at a particular risk of never developing into anything more than a conscientiously prepared quick study, and can quickly unravel under the pressure of a live performance situation. The process of memorizing a piece of music also forces us to think of details and inner connections that we could possibly have missed otherwise. But what is to stop us from memorizing a work and playing with the score anyway? What about Sviatoslav Richter, Emanuel Ax, Peter Serkin, Sergei Babayan, and the many other wonderful artists who have given ravishing performances from the score? Anthony Tommasini, chief classical music critic of the New York Times,wrote a compelling piece entitled "Playing by Heart, With or Without a Score,"5 in which he argues eloquently against the rigid expectations of memorizing. He describes hearing wonderful performances by international superstars during which the presence of a score was scarcely even noticed, and expresses his dismay at the persistent expectations of memorization. Mr. Tommasini's astute observations are quite correct, but do they have bearing on the reality of a young person competing for her own spot in a brutally competitive world?

If one does not have a burning desire to be a soloist, the time-consuming and risky business of memorizing is probably a tremendous waste of time. There is boundless musical satisfaction to be had by immersing oneself in the wonders of chamber music and collaborative work, and the more sociable among us may find it to be a much less lonely road than endless hours spent drilling in solitary confinement. Good collaborative pianists are in great demand, and the fulfillment of exploring masterpieces outside the solo piano repertoire with like-minded colleagues is substantial.

For the very few who do harbor secret ambitions to be (or to attempt to be) solo performers, the situation is different. There is such fierce competition, and so many pianists who memorize flawlessly, that it will be very difficult to make any kind of lasting impression if performing from the score. Most competitions insist on memorized performance of solo works anyway, and—love them or hate them—competitions are currently the most accessible means of gaining exposure and recognition. In the South African context, they are also one of the few ways for less-privileged students to fund their studies. Being a world-famous performer at the peak of a glorious career (such as Richter or Babayan) does afford certain liberties that young pianists hoping to make an impact arguably cannot afford to enjoy.

Should a public memory lapse really be experienced as a cause of insurmountable psychological trauma? At this point we should take note of the cognitive distortion known as catastrophizing. Eminent psychiatrist Lara Traeger defines catastrophizing as "...the anticipation without evidence of extreme and terrible consequences or outcomes of an event."6 In a blog post for The Guardian, pianist and writer Susan Tomes recalls attending a party during which the host entertained the guests by playing concert recordings in which famous pianists suffered horrible memory lapses.7

Although Tomes's main purpose is to advocate in favor of abandoning the practice of memorized performance altogether (and she succeeds admirably), the fact remained that these famous pianists survived the ordeal, continued concertizing, and remained happily famous in spite of having been the unknowing subjects of somewhat malicious dinner party entertainment.

Decatastrophizing is a well-known concept in the field of cognitive behavioral therapy. It is defined by the American Psychological Association as "a technique, used in treating people with irrational or exaggerated fears, that explores the reality of a feared stimulus as a way of diminishing its imagined or anticipated danger."8 By consciously attempting to alter our thinking about the possible repercussions of a public memory lapse, we can largely remove the sting from a potentially stressful situation.

We must prepare our students for the fact that memory lapses can, and most probably will happen. They must know that there will be embarrassment and disappointment, but life as they know it will continue and there will be many more chances to showcase their hard work. Even the audiences that we sometimes suspect of being leering and malevolent can be surprisingly forgiving of human error. We are, after all, not machines. A public memory lapse seldom remains the topic of conversation for long; people do have their own multi-faceted lives to engage with, and the few who do enjoy revelling in the misfortune of others will do so with or without good reason anyway. William Arthur Ward, American author and teacher, gives us the following advice:

"Failure is not fatal. Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. It should challenge us to new heights of accomplishments, not pull us to new depths of despair. From honest failure can come valuable experience."9

Whether or not one chooses to perform from memory, debilitating fear of a public memory lapse is unnecessary. Learning to strive for perfection while being kind to ourselves in the process is a far more benevolent habit of mind.

1. Madame Sousatzka, directed by John Schlesinger (1988; United Kingdom: Cineplex Odeon Films).

2. Jennifer Mishra, "A Century of Memorization Pedagogy," Journal of Historical Research in Music Education 32, no. 1 (October 2010): 3–18,

3. Astrid Varnay with Arthur Donald and Rudolph S. Rauch, Fifty-five Years in Five Acts: My Life in Opera (Hanover, NH: Northeastern University Press, 2000), p.171.

4. Stephen Hough, "Lizst: The Man Who Invented Stage Fright," The Telegraph, June 8, 2011, stephenhough/100053906/liszt-the-man-who-invented-stage-fright/.

5. Anthony Tommasini, "Playing by Heart, With or Without a Score," The New York Times, December 31, 2012, loosening-hold-on-concert-tradition.html.

6. Marc D. Gellman and J. Rick Turner, eds., Encyclopedia of Behavioral Medicine (New York: Springer, 2013), Accessed January 11, 2019.

7. Susan Tomes, "All in the Mind," The Guardian, April 19, 2007, music/2007/apr/20/classicalmusicandopera1.

8. APA Dictionary of Psychology. "decatastrophizing," accessed December 30, 2019,

9. Steve Nguyen, "Failure is a Better Teacher Than Success," Workplace Psychology, June 15, 2011, 

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