Weekend vote: Have you ever had a memory slip while performing?

November 21, 2021, 3:37 PM · The dreaded "memory-slip" - has it ever happened to you?

brain memory music

Recently, some good friends who were not regular symphony-goers attended a Pasadena Symphony concert in which I was playing in the violin section. Happily, they loved it! One of the things that really impressed them was that the soloist (Randall Goosby - incredible, go see him!) played the entire Brahms concerto from memory. It is an impressive feat - but I had to explain that performing by memory is pretty standard for a violinist, especially a soloist with orchestra. Just as an actor memorizes his or her lines, a soloist memorizes his or her music.

And it isn't just soloists actually, it's students, teachers, recitalists, etc. Some entire orchestras (Tafelmusik!) perform shows from memory. I still remember playing in the Disney All-American College Orchestra - we played same show, multiple times a day, all summer long. One night my stand partner said, "That's it, we have to make this interesting. We're ditching the music!" - and so we played it from memory, from then on.

So in certain situations, it can actually be very freeing and fun. But memorizing a piece also can be tricky, especially if the piece is long or has repetitive elements. I would argue that nearly anyone who has ever performed by memory has had some kind of "memory slip" at some point or another - probably a number of them! I've certainly had some memorable memory slips of my own, and even big-name artists will confess to such things happening to them at some point.

Playing from memory starts during the student days - to master a piece, most teachers will require memorization. Students play from memory when they perform in recitals, or for master classes, or even just give a "final performance" of a polished piece for their teacher. And it must be said, some musicians actually never read music - it's all "by memory"!

Have you ever had a memory slip while performing? Was it an epic moment that required everything to come to a halt? Or was it pretty easy to get back on track? Are you a rare unicorn who has never had a memory slip while performing from memory? Or perhaps you have not yet performed a piece from memory? Please participate in the vote, and then tell us your stories and experiences with memory slips!

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November 21, 2021 at 10:59 PM · In Bristol (UK) we have a professional chamber orchestra called The Bristol Ensemble. I have seen them on stage in a 2-hour concert performing entirely from memory, which isn't unusual for them. Some years ago, their leader, Roger Huckle, was the conductor of the Bristol Chamber Orchestra (my orchestra) for a few seasons. He came to one rehearsal and told us to take all the music off our stands - we were now going to play through the Elgar Serenade as if in performance. The piece was in our repertoire but we hadn't played it for at least a couple of years. To our surprise, we played it at performance speed virtually note-error-free.

This taught me that if you work on a piece long enough you're bound to have it in your long-term memory, just as stage actors do. However, this isn't necessarily guaranteed. I am reminded of a notorious performance of Hamlet by the Royal Shakespeare Company in which an actor in the first scene forgot his opening line ("Who goes there!"), and "dried" for the rest of the scene, the other actors having to cover for him. This happened halfway through a run of performances and the unfortunate man had doubtless been faultless in the others. So memory lapses can strike unexpectedly, even to the best.

From my orchestral concert experience: the Elgar cello concerto was being performed by a professional soloist, and halfway through the last movement she had a memory lapse. The conductor was on the ball; he instantly held up his score in front of her and she immediately remembered. Interestingly, the only people in the orchestra who were aware of this were the concertmaster and his co-leader, and the first desk of the cellos, where I was. During the interval, I talked to some members of the audience in the front row of the stalls and immediately in front of the solo cello and they hadn't noticed the memory lapse or what the conductor did. There's a moral in there somewhere!

November 21, 2021 at 11:30 PM · I don't play from memory and I am not likely to start. However, I have recently been working on some music that is a lot more difficult than what I have previously studied. Looking at my fingers helps with intonation and I have to memorize the difficult parts to do it.

November 21, 2021 at 11:56 PM · Memory "slips" actually have a biological, evolutionary basis. I'm not a scientist (nor do I play one on TV), but I have a friend who is a researcher into the art of performance and the human brain. It starts with stage fright (what exactly are we afraid of?), which she explains as our primordial need to not be judged as different (hence bad) by the rest of the herd. If we are so judged, then we will get banished to the edge of the herd where we may be picked off by the lions. Once the "fight or flight" mechanism kicks in, apparently all sorts of things happen in our minds and bodies, but the important one for this discussion is that the long term memory shuts down, as it will only be a distraction from the task at hand, which is to outrun the lions and save our butt. On stage this can result in drawing a "complete blank" in a piece you've been playing your whole life. I hate when that happens, but it's not for lack of practicing. It's evolutionary biology!

November 22, 2021 at 12:54 AM · My youth symphony accompanied an organist in the Poulenc concerto during our European tour. The organist got amazingly lost -- like, playing random sections strung together in random ways while the orchestra frantically flipped through our music trying to figure out where the f*** he was. Our conductor, the late Michael Morgan, then Solti's assistant, was doing the same, while wearing a wry, 'There is not enough alcohol in the world to salve this debacle' expression.

The Poulenc is quite dissonant, which means you can sort of get away with playing random notes as the orchestra. We'd done a rehearsal of it and we, the orchestra, definitely didn't know it well. (I'd listened to a recording, at least.)

The review in the Vienna newspaper (we were performing in the Musikverein) was, improbably, glowing.

November 22, 2021 at 01:26 AM · Since we are apparently in the business of telling anecdotes about memorized music here is one I got from my violin teacher. The hero is one of the outstanding soloists of the 20th century, I seem to remember Milstein but I am not sure.

In the Tonhalle in Zurich he had played some concerto and was giving an encore for which he chose Bach's C-Major fugue. As you know the piece is in an A-B-A form. he played very well and at the end he took the "wrong exit" which led him back to the beginning of the B section. So he played B and A again--and got off at the wrong exit a second time. He ended up playing these parts three times before he managed to find the end.

November 22, 2021 at 03:01 AM · I was performing the Haydn G Major Violin Concerto First Movement, and I decided to play from memory. I had a blackout about 8 bars into the solo part and I had to look at the piano score. I'm fine if David thinks I'm more evolved on account of my spectacular failure!!

I was performing the Beethoven F Major Romance -- my first time performing as a soloist with an orchestra. We had a warm-up concert a a local retirement center. I missed an entrance and I had to peek at the conductor's score. Fortunately it was one of the less consequential portions (if such a thing exists in such a piece) and I got back on track easily. Then I learned my entrance !!! for the main performance, which went well.

More recently I performed Rachmaninoff Vocalise in a recital and it went swimmingly, and I was less nervous, so I think I'm finally getting a handle on it. But -- I was also much more thoroughly prepared than I was for the Haydn.

Albrecht, I was once accompanying a boy maybe 10 years of age in the Bach A Minor Concerto First Movement for a studio recital. He also got stuck in an endless loop but, sadly, it did not end well, because his endless loop involved skipping half a page and I just could not find where he was fast enough, so we had to stop each time and go back, but then he kept making the same mistake. Unfortunately we did not get to the end.

Trevor, the Elgar Serenade is one thing -- but try that with something like a Corelli concerto grosso. The inner parts are almost random. It would be hopeless. The Vocalise memorized really easily too -- the next note is always just "right there."

November 22, 2021 at 03:56 AM · I haven't performed from memory, at least not on a string instrument. (I have on piano, but it was a long time ago.)

I did, however, chicken out of performing from memory at the last minute. The one time I played as a soloist with an orchestra, I played the Bruch Romanze for viola. In one of my last run-throughs at home before the concert, during the recapitulation, I absent-mindedly looped back to the exposition. Because the concert was two days away, I decided not to take any risks and performed with the music in front of me. I only glanced at it a few times, but it was helpful to have as a road map.

November 22, 2021 at 04:33 AM · Those forks in the road are really dangerous; a repeated section or phrase that goes one way the first time, somewhere else the second. You really need to identify those spots and know where you are.

I am mainly a mariachi violinist, and singer. Everything is memorized, nothing is written. We play mostly audience requests, and I find it very annoying when the band leader calls for something I don't know, we haven't rehearsed, or something that I haven't even heard before. So I just follow the lead trumpet on a harmony part and make up junk for background fills. I used to feel bad about that until I discovered that my improvisations were just as good as the mediocre arrangements on the recordings. My main problem is connecting the song title with the first melody, and I frequently don't remember what key to play it in. For song texts in a second language I have better results thinking about what the text means instead of a string of syllables. I find that to be weird and scary.

A prominent jazz musician was asked why he played his selections different every night. The answer was "because I can't remember what I did last night".

I can't remember his name, but an actor demonstrated how he could improvise meaningless Shakespearean double-talk whenever he hit a black-out in a play. Hilarious.

I don't quite understand the the practice of orchestras or quartets playing from memory. It seems like a stunt. The second violin and viola parts don't have enough continuity to be worth the extra work. Our notation system started as an aid to memory, and the composition and performance of long complex works are impossible without it.

November 22, 2021 at 05:45 AM · my memory is so bad I have not tried

November 22, 2021 at 09:34 AM · I can't recall the details or names (!), but there is a story out there somewhere of an orchestra and pianist on tour with the 3rd and 4th Beethoven piano concertos. At one concert the director nodded to the pianist to start the 4th concerto (solo piano introduction), and the pianist nodded to him to start the 3rd (long orchestra intro). Anybody come across this - we can't remember what we are supposed to play tonight!

November 22, 2021 at 04:30 PM · I had a memory slip in a college recital of some viola concerto. I lost it in the cadenza and for what seemed like an eternity tried to figure out how to bring the pianist back in. Somehow it happened and we finished the darned thing. The recording made had me mindlessly plucking open strings. Very weird.

I also had a memorable memory slip as a singer in an opera workshop of Marriage of Figaro. I stood backstage in the dark trying to remember my first line. I was wishing I had a score to look at but it would have been too dark to see it. Anyway, again, I remembered just in time and all was well. Such vivid memories these are!

November 22, 2021 at 05:41 PM · I can't remember the last time I played from memory...

November 22, 2021 at 05:44 PM · No discussion on memorizing and recalling repertoire can be complete without this story:

The Portuguese concert pianist Maria Joao Pires was expecting to play Mozart's Piano Concerto No 21 in C (K467) in a public lunchtime concert in Amsterdam. Pires arrived at the venue only just in time to go on stage (traffic delays, presumably), and there was no prior rehearsal. The orchestra then started playing Concerto No 20 in Dmin (K466), which Pires hadn't played for years. See what happened next, also the comments on YouTube:

November 22, 2021 at 07:54 PM · I just watched the youtube of Maria Joao Pires. I have had nightmares of that exact moment where I go on stage and don't know what is going to be played. And she lived through it. Wow.

November 22, 2021 at 08:01 PM · No perfomance memory slips, but I have daily slip ups with my memory in regular life.

November 22, 2021 at 09:58 PM · What was the question again?

November 22, 2021 at 10:43 PM · I can think of two occasions...

The first was when I was in high school (~35 years ago) and I was performing the Bach Concerto in E Major (1st mvt) for a panel of judges in a violin competition. I remember being nervous beforehand, but then about halfway through the performance, thinking that it was all going really well... Then, about 3/4 of the way through, I just abruptly stopped playing. It wasn't really even a memory slip, and to this day I still don't know why it happened. I looked at the pianist and we decided to restart at the same spot. The rest of the performance was fine, but I knew at that point that I was not going to win the competition.

The second occasion was in 2017 when I was performing Mendelssohn's VC with my community orchestra. Right after the cadenza in the 1st mvt, there is 12 measures of rest, then the soloist comes in on a quarter note B shifting up an octave to another quarter B. For some reason I had a major memory slip as I was waiting to come in here. I didn't remember that the next note was a B -- I just remembered that I needed to start with my 1st finger on a string (which one??) and shift up to my 4th, an octave higher. In my mind, I was panicking because I didn't know if I should place my index finger on the A or the D string. Well, time was running out, so I just chose A and went for it (whew!). In this case, it all worked out!

Edit: You might not know it by watching the video recording, but this is the exact moment it happened.

November 23, 2021 at 10:55 AM · When I was a kid, I had to perform a little piano piece in front of my parents and all of my school mates' parents. I studied hard and performed it greatly. But something didn't just sound right. Then, as I was finishing it, I realised I had just performed it a couple of octaves higher because I was nervous!

Other than that, I have very good memory for music. I just memorize pieces naturally, without making any effort. There's only one thing I can't grasp to memorize at the violin, which is the direction of the bow. If I try to play something without my sheet, even if I know the notes, shiftings and expression... I end up making a mess with upbows and downbows.

November 23, 2021 at 03:22 PM · Here’s a story of crossed wires.

A few years ago, I wrote some songs, and needed to see if they were any good. Hence, even though I’d never performed any of my own material in public, I decided to play the songs at an open mic evening. It was a bitter cold Minneapolis night with the January air temperature hovering around -10 degrees. We had about 100 people in the audience and I was the seventh or eighth person to perform.

People went onto the stage with guitars, banjos, and other instruments, sang two or three songs, thanked the audience, and then sat back down.

When my turn came up, I walked onto the stage and was immediately blinded by the bright lights. I could hear the audience talking, but couldn’t see them. I sat in a chair as a technician adjusted a microphone for my guitar and set another a couple of inches from my mouth.

I felt claustrophobic and trapped in with the blinding light, with the microphones locking me into the posture and the chair. I was starting to have some doubts about this entire venture, but I kept moving forward. After all, my son was in the audience. I wanted to impress him with his old man’s singing and writing.

I dove into the first song. Uh, oh. Hearing my own voice echo in the large room was confusing. I didn’t sound like myself. I had no sense of time, of how I looked, or where I should look. I just wanted to get through the whole song. When I finished, the applause was polite.

I smiled and went into my second song.

Things got a little wacko. It seems that since it was so cold outside, during my performance, a drunk came in and sat down to get warm.

As I finished the first verse, a very drunken voice bellowed from the vast, darkness on the other side of the blinding stage lights shouted out, “I love your music, man! Woooo Hoooo!”

I wasn’t expecting someone to shout out like that, and although it was a positive and encouraging statement, it threw me. I blanked. I had no idea where I was in the song. All I could do was sing the final verse and get off that stage as quickly as possible.

My son came over to me and smiled. “Want to get out of here, dad?”

I said I did, and we went to a small restaurant for something to eat. “I have a rule, dad,” he said as we ate fries, “Never perform anything until you can do it fifty times without a mistake.” Ah, the wisdom of youth. Well, I listened to him. He had a lot more experience with all of this than I did.

November 23, 2021 at 07:23 PM · I am a visually impaired musician who has to memorize everything, so usually everything is so engrained so I rarely, if ever, have had memory slips in performing.

November 24, 2021 at 03:32 PM · Yup, in the middle of the first page of the Bach g minor Fugue in my master's jury. Eeeeeek.

November 25, 2021 at 03:01 AM · At boarding school, sitting for my grade 4 piano exam. I wasn’t required to play from memory, but by the exam, you usually are, but have the music anyway.

Halfway through a piece I knew very well, I looked up habitually at the music, realised I couldn’t see on the page where I was up to, which meant that I then couldn’t remember what came next . After one huge breath hold, I stopped trying to use the music and was able to keep going.

The piano I was using was the schools grand piano, in their assembly hall, so everyone upstairs in the boarding house heard it and knew it was someone sitting an exam.

I passed, but it was the last exam I sat for.

November 25, 2021 at 05:04 PM · @Ella-- Your comment is encouraging. Perhaps musicians that are required to memorize on a regular basis just get better at it. There is very little in print about the technique of memorizing music. When I tried a little bit of music theater (Fiddler on the Roof, of course) and was having real trouble memorizing my little throw-away lines that were just cues for the major characters, I spent some time in a major acting text-book looking for the technique of memorizing. I found nothing.

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