Playing for class without music on the stand is a totally different experience to working from a score. Only when you put the music away do you realise how much of your brain is taken up with the act of reading, even if you know the music well. Playing from memory liberates you to join in the class in a quite different way.
In practical terms, you can maintain constant eye contact with the teacher, ‘read’ the room as you play because your head’s not buried in the score. Symbolically you then become part of the class in a different way, because you then, like the dancers, are doing something that requires skill and concentration, but you are maintaining your social relationship with the group while you do it. Playing from a score is a bit like looking at your phone or texting while you’re talking to someone. To be able to play one piece in a totally engaged and committed way with the class is better, in my mind, than to be able to read ten different ones from a book.
If you’re thinking ‘I can’t memorize’, then take heart. I’d always considered that I was bad at memorizing until I started to commit to working without scores. Then I found that it was simply that I didn’t direct any effort into memorizing, because with a score there I didn’t have to. I’ll still take music in if I’m learning new stuff, but I commit myself to taking the score away, because without that commitment, I wouldn’t do the right kind of work with the music.
There is ‘memory work’ that I have to do every time I play certain pieces – the thirds in the second phrase of the Fauré Pavane are a third higher than you’d think they would be (i.e. a fifth higher than the tune, not a third); the middle eight of Dream a little dream of me starts a minor 6th above the tonic; Suo Gan returns to the tonic so many times, you think you’ve played it twice when you’ve only played it once, so you have to count the repeats consciously, and so on. On the other hand, I also found that I knew a lot more from memory than I gave myself credit for. Until you present yourself with the challenge, you’ll never find out. But it’s worth every brain cell you expend on the effort, because it frees you up to join in the class.