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Thursday 23 July 2020

A conductor memorises music

Extracts from thoughts about conducting from memory by Thomas Crawford, founder and artistic director of the American Classical Orchestra

I memorize the music I perform. 
People ask how I do it, why I do it. I’ve not seen a survey of how many conductors perform from memory. But it is considered to be rare. In this piece, I’m going to spell out some music performance norms, and try to describe what it’s like to ‘risk everything’ by walking onstage without a score to follow.
The two most rewarding conducting experiences I have ever had were a 1993 performance of Copland’s Appalachian Spring with the brilliant Fairfield Orchestra, and an ACO performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass in 2014. 
The Bach experience was the memorization of a masterpiece I had studied for decades but purposely did not schedule to perform. The B Minor Mass inspires such awe in me as a composer and performer – I just didn’t feel I could do it justice. It was written by Bach as a mature artist, at the end of his incomparable life. 
The ACO has a magnificent chorus, access to great soloists, and the benefit of amazing acoustics of Alice Tully Hall. So 2014 was my year to go for it. Just before I walked onto the stage to play the two-hour work, I felt exposed yet liberated. I was going to use no score, no baton, and have no podium. I would just stand in the center of the instruments and singers, on the floor, guiding the most glorious music ever written. 
These experiences are the rich rewards of knowing the music so well that it becomes imprinted in my brain and soul. We call it memorization, but it is so much more than that. Most of the world’s music is not written down. Music is an iterative process that uses the ‘inner ear’ to somehow make decisions instantly before the notes are played or sung. 
When I study my scores, I go through a disciplined process that eventually reaches a tipping point: I have stopped looking at the notes and started to recreate them in my mind as if they were actual sounds. After that point, a strange process happens such that looking at the notes becomes a hindrance. I perceive this as music traveling at a different speed. It’s the difference between processing a printed manuscript with my eyes and having that same music arrive simultaneously at my ‘outer ear.’ 
By the time I first stand in front of the orchestra to conduct at rehearsal, I have already left the printed score behind. This means that while rehearsing from memory, I must of course look at the score to answer questions and solve problems that arise during rehearsal. If I try to actually read the score during playing, I panic because my mind experiences a phase warp.
I recall an interesting incident when, while still in college, I conducted the Shostakovich Second Piano Concerto from memory. Most concerto soloists perform from memory, and my soloist had told me he would do so. But I had not told him that I would conduct from memory as well. We walked out on the stage. And when we started the music, he broke into a cold sweat. 
The performance was plagued with anxiety. Leaving the stage at the end, my colleague scolded me for conducting the concerto from memory. He said this is NEVER done because the conductor is in the role of the accompanist. He said that if something were to go wrong and the music had to stop, it would be up to the conductor to get things back on track by shouting ‘Bar 47!’  From that day forward, for concertos I have always put a score on my stand and gone through the motions of flipping the pages–giving the soloist the comfort of thinking I am reading the score, or at least ready to save the ship.  
There is certainly added risk in performing from memory. Many musicians are more nervous if the conductor has no score. Let’s face it: if the conductor loses his place, a disaster is imminent. 
Personally I’ve found that the freedom I acquire by intensely studying the score makes a huge difference to the musicians. And I think it’s worth it for me to play from memory in search of that rare sweet spot: the sympathetic vibrations that can happen only when musicians are ‘off book.’ 

“I think it’s worth it for me to play from memory in search of that rare sweet spot: the sympathetic vibrations that can happen only when musicians are ‘off book’.” 

Thomas crawford, artistic director and founder, american classical orchestra

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