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Why do performers memorise music?

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Why do performers memorise music?
When you go to a big concert, you’re usually treated to the very best in music making. The soaring sound of an orchestra, towering climaxes and tender quiet moments. It’s an incomparable experience.

If there’s a concerto involved, then it’s even better. A soloist performing extremely difficult music with grace and poise. And quite frequently, you’ll notice that there’s something missing. It’s the practice for concerto soloists — and this is especially true for pianists — to not have the printed sheet music with them on the stage.

Why? And how’s it done. Australian pianist Simon Tedeschi is often seen on the stage with no music.

“It’s something that’s a bit of a carry-over from the Liszts and the Clara Schumanns. So we have these great virtuosti to thank for this! Thank you Clara, thank you Franz!

“It is annoying, but I agree with [British pianist] Stephen Hough in the sense that, it is theatre, it’s a theatrical performance. In a sense the concert pianist is expected to be a bit of demi-god, which is unfair, but there is a very performative aspect to it. And if we did have the music – you have to know the music so well that you don’t need it, it’s just there as a guide.”

So how do you learn to do this?

“Well, luckily I was encouraged by my teacher Neta Maughan to memorise from the very beginning. She insisted on it! And once you play a piece, by heart, in front of your peers, you can really play anything.

“Some pieces are more challenging than others, and for those I use sort of mnemonic devices. ‘What goes up must come down’, for instance, in the Grieg Piano Concerto, there are two very similar sections. And if you take the second first, you’re in deep trouble, you’re in the wrong section! So you have to think, ‘what goes up must come down’, referring to tiny little intervals. Generally I’m a very quick memoriser. But I forget it quickly as well!”

Simon, does it feel different to play without music?

“Oh, I cannot even tell you how different it is. It does feel quite often that you’re a circus acrobat without a net. But in a strange way it heightens the emotional stakes. You do feel that the risk is greater, and it propels you in a greater stratosphere of musical risk.

“What I would say is that we’re now coming to a time in which it’s being relaxed somewhat. We’re not so much in the 19th century, where we think performers are more than human. Because in many cases we’re less than!”

Russell Torrance presents Classic Breakfast on ABC Classic (Monday to Friday, 6am–10am).

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