Playing from memory

7th December 2009 | Concerts, Musings, Travel | 30 comments

On Saturday night I gave a solo recital in Cambridge. It was unexpectedly enjoyable because of the audience’s warm response. Even in this season of coughs and colds, they kept utterly silent while I was playing (which has not always been the case elsewhere this winter). Every audience has its own character, and this audience had a particularly likeable one.

I played the programme from memory, with the exception of one piece. And though I was really happy with the evening, I found afterwards that I was brooding on what an enormous amount of my preparation was taken up with the effort of memorising. If I had not been aiming to play from memory, I could easily have performed the recital months ago. I’d estimate that at least half of my total preparation time has been taken up with the long task of embedding the music in my memory – which for me (as I suppose for everyone) means activating several different methods of remembering, from visualisation of the score to muscle memory. Understanding the structure of the music is a vital thing for me as well, when photographic memory or muscle memory lets me down.

But it takes so long before you get to the point where you can play a recital programme from memory. And I can’t help wondering how important it really is. Some players feel freer when they play from memory.  I sometimes feel that way too, but just as often I’m a little anxious, as I play, about whether my memory will hold firm. To play from memory is a way of proving to the audience that you have taken your responsibility very seriously. But how important is it to them that the performer plays without the score? Would they have minded if I didn’t?

30 Comments

  1. Robert Neill

    Speaking as a member of the audience, I think it matters less to me if a performer plays from memory than if a speaker does. When a speaker has his nose buried in its notes and is, in effect, reading his talk, I find myself less engaged. Watching a performer play from the score is only upsetting when the page-turner seems a few bars behind the performer, introducing anxiety to the show!

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  2. Audrey Bunting

    Entire performance was superb. Particularly admired those pieces played from memory. A memorable evening and thank you again.

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  3. peter

    I saw Angela Hewitt in her amazing performance from memory of the 48 Preludes and Fugues in Manchester this year. She had at least one blackout – playing part of a prelude repeatedly, unable it seems to find her way out from it. As she did not stop playing, I doubt many people noticed. In addition, in the first concert, a member of the audience in the front row was reading through a score during the performance, and Ms Hewitt asked her not to do so; from my own experience in playing from memory, mental visualization of the pages is important, and seeing out of the corner of one’s eye the pages turn at different places to how one has learnt it would be very off-putting.

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    • Susan Tomes

      Thanks, Peter – yes, I’ve always admired people who can memorise Bach’s preludes and fugues, especially the fugues. I can imagine though that seeing someone following the score in the audience is enough to put one off one’s stroke entirely.

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  4. Robert

    I have thought about this subject a lot recently and after reading your article it was comforting to know that you too can feel anxious under the pressure of playing from memory! I mainly work as an accompanist and duo pianist, but do give occasional solo recitals. Due to a busy schedule of both teaching and playing I often don’t have the time to prepare everything from memory, so I play certain works with the score. I often do this by laying the score flat on the piano which seems to look better from the audience point of view, but this can take time to get used to! I am of the opinion that playing with the score doesn’t really matter as long as your well prepared. Last week I went to see Martino Tirimo play Chopin at Kings Place; He played the whole concert with music and it made no difference to how much I enjoyed it!

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    • Susan Tomes

      Thanks for your comment, Robert – yes, the crucial thing seems to be whether the listener feels certain that the player is completely in command of the music, score in front of them or not.

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  5. Jane

    I am trying to memorise my pieces for DipABRSM, and finding it very hard – particularly slower pieces. My teacher is putting me under pressure to do so, as there is no doubt that the sound is better. However, I find it more anxiety provoking than it is worth – having the music present as a simple aid memoire, for me, is preferable.So your comments are most reassuring!

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    • Susan Tomes

      It’s sure to be an interesting experience for you, Jane, to try memorising your pieces, just so that you find out what the difference in feeling is between playing with and without the score. Despite the anxiety of playing without it, you may find that there are gains as well as losses. I think it’s worth experimenting in case playing from memory has unexpected benefits for you.

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  6. Gene

    I played chamber music exclusively for a number of years largely because of the stress and extra time associated with playing solo repertoire by memory. Aside from the convention of playing by memory established by Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt, the main factor in playing solo pieces with the score has, for me, been grappling with page turns. But recently, I’ve used various software devices that include a foot pedal which turns the page on a computer screen. This solution works wonderfully. Since 2005, I’ve performed the cycle of Beethoven sonatas and the WTC, Book I — music I’ve known for a long time but didn’t trust myself to play in public by heart. You mentioned that you have to practice twice as much to play something by memory; along those lines, I’d estimate that 80% of my own performance anxiety is tied to memory. Playing from the score in this manner has been tremendously liberating for me. I can play so much more repertoire and have more fun doing it.

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  7. Jo

    I have found this very interesting. I had always assumed that playing from memory was something that came fairly naturally to professional musicians – just another strand to their incredible talent. However, if this is not the case I would question the value of spending hours of additional preparation time.

    I have played the piano and flute since I was a child, reached a high standard, but was never able to play from memory on either. However, I have more recently taken up the cello and am intrigued to find I can play some pieces (around grade 7) from memory without any effort. There must be a reason for this. Does anyone know?

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  8. Susan Tomes

    Jo, you’ve opened a very interesting question. Why would it be easier to memorise on the cello than on the piano or flute? I can only think it might be linked to the amount of time you spent learning the cello pieces, and therefore the degree to which you had mobilised your muscle memory? But I’d be interested to hear other theories.

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  9. peter  briggs

    As a classical guiarist for 30 yrs or so,and a pianist [or should i say “pianst” for about 4,I’d say a)having only one clef b)much closer contact with the instrument help with memorising.Short pieces of which the guitar repertoire contains many,also help

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  10. Steve

    To me as a member of the audiance it matters not if a score is used. I would imagine that some uninformed people may think it less professional or that the artist may be less well prepared or capable if a score is used. This is nonsense of course, the performace is all that counts. I think memorising music is a fascinating subject, and some can do it very easily, but it does not follow they are better musicians as a result.

    My own belief is that learning a piece from a score inevitably habituates the need for sight of it to unlock what is already firmly in the brain. After all when properly learnt who really READS the score when playing, it’s just there as a visual prompt. Consequently I think a great deal of time is wasted in memorisation, particularly for artists who wish to have a large rep.

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  11. David

    I think playing from a score comes with a psychological stigma of not having the piece well prepared.
    The audience automatically thinks this when the performer walks out on the stage with music in hand. I saw a concert recently with Subdin at the piano playing Prokofiev’s piano sonata no. 7 with music. It was an un professional and messy concert and he used the music evidently because he had not fully prepared. The public sees this and equates using music with coming to a recital unprepared.

    But, this is not always the case, and I would die to be able to play with the music. Just take a look at Richter who always played with music later in his life.

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  12. Rob4

    Just this week I’ve realised that I’ve played my grade five clarinet pieces so many millions of times – turning my girlfriend virtually into a sobbing heap – that I can play them by heart. It’s definitely true that I play freer and with more expresssion in this way. I can close my eyes and concentrate on the dynamics and feeling in a way I for some reason don’t when the music’s there. But do I have the guts to play from memory in the actual exam, in 10 days’ time? No way! I’ll be eyeing that music like a hawk!

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  13. growltiger

    I was at the recital in Oxford when Rosen stopped playing (1st movement of the Hammerklavier) when distracted by a score-reader in the audience. However, my memory is that he merely asked – sarcastically, no doubt – which edition was being used. Later on – in the interval – the hall was invaded by firefighters with hoses and yellow rubber boots, but that is perhaps not relevant.

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  14. growltiger

    There are pieces where the sheer quantity (or complexity) of the material makes it impossible to play without memorisation, and in any case impossible to score-read at the same time as performing. Which raises the question what, if anything, is the role of the score in performing such pieces. I suspect it is just to provide visual cues at turning points, but this in turn makes one wonder whether the score is the most efficient way of providing this support.

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  15. Neil Stannard

    The simple answer to your question is that it makes no difference whatever whether you play with the score or not. What matters is that you feel free to express the music. Playing from the score gives me the freedom I want in order to play with abandon, to even try something spontaneously in the concert.

    The type of concert-goer who enjoys the circus aspect of live performance will likely be disappointed that you play with a net. But I maintain that music is not about that. (Here there are differences of opinion.) When I listen to music I usually close my eyes anyway, so I wouldn’t know if the performers were hanging upside down by a trapeze.

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  16. Anne Cook

    I don’t have a website – a friend just told me today about this blog, and I found it through Google. What an interesting discussion. I too have avoided solo work because of memory problems, and have found great pleasure in the chamber repetoire – also in working with singers.
    I have a big question: how can one find the devise for turning pages, (a computer screen showing the score, with page-turning activated by a foot pedal)? Gene wrote about it on 1 August 2010.
    Have other people heard about it and used it?
    About memory: though I forget the name of the pianist, I remember how beautifully he maintained his poise and the flow of the Bach Suite when the lights in the hall went out. He continuted in the dark for a good 10 minutes until a stage hand finally appeared with a flashlight.

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  17. Neil Stannard

    The program is called MusicReader and Hugh Sung (his company is AirTurn) discusses PCs using this program at: http://
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oOR3E3RM5Es&feature=youtu.be. HughSung.com is the blog where you can find out more information.

    I use the program, as do many other professionals, especially collaborative pianists. But i use it for solo performances, too.

    There is a link at my blog: PianoTeacherLosAngeles.com.

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  18. rootlesscosmo

    The iPad lets you turn pages with a very quick swipe of a fingertip–much less effort than turning a paper page, and without the risk of turning two pages at once, or dislodging the score from the stand, or having the page fold back after you’ve turned it.

    All the same I’d rather play (piano in chamber music) from memory if possible. When the score is on the stand, I find my gaze is glued to the page even if I know the piece well, so I don’t pay enough visual attention to my partners–body language, bowing, all the visual cues that help toward good ensemble playing. And by the time I feel ready to play a piece in public, I find I’ve memorized it anyway, though not by conscious effort; sometimes I “go up” (as actors say) but if my partners stay on the rails I quickly recover and continue. That wouldn’t happen with the score, but I think the improvement in ensemble is worth the added risk of a memory lapse.

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  19. Paul Austen

    While most musicians perform regularly from memory, it’s rare with organists, particularly on an unfamiliar instrument as they often mark their music with registration changes for the recital if nothing else. However, I remember going to one recital by the French organist Loic Maille from Lyon at the London French church just off Leicester Square. I was in the gallery near the organ console so with an excellent seat to watch him. He looked more like a jolly French farmer than an organist!! However, he played the entire recital from memory!! The first piece was Bach so I imagined this would not be too remarkable but then he played Messaien’s “Dieu parmi nous” which ends as with a relentless toccata. I spoke with him after and commented on his performance form memory, particularly of the Messaien, and he said modestly that if he’d had the music in front of him he’d have been frightened by so many notes and accidentals!!

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  20. Neil Stannard

    I’ve arrived at the opinion that playing from memory has nothing whatever to do with making music. In fact, if the performer has lapses, as in the Hewitt case mentioned above, the audience becomes and remains anxious and distracted from the musical effect. I once heard Rosalyn Tureck have a lapse during performance. She stopped, turned to the audience and said: “I’m sorry.” Then she turned back and continued. Well, she was quite charming, but the experience she wanted her listeners to have was blemished. Time is too precious to waste on drilling for memory; it is better to learn something new.

    I’ve heard many great artists have lapses and every time the experience has jolted me out of the “waking dream’ that is a musical journey. Rudolf Serkin became hopelessly lost in the first movement of the Brahms B-flat concerto with Ormandy at Carnegie Hall. He stopped, got up and walked over to the podium and looked into the score with the maestro, then walked back and continued. The magnificent architecture of that movement was thereby lost to a pointless exercise in memorizing.

    Someone mentioned needing visual contact with chamber music partners for ensemble. This is a fallacy. It’s much more accurate and musically responsible to rely on aural cues.

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  21. growltiger

    If both performers and listeners have their eyes shut, the mutual musical experience can approach the ideal, as both are listening, rather than doing something else. On balance, however, most pianists and most listeners look at the hands of the player. The performer’s movements play a part (often quite a large part) in communication of the performer’s musical thoughts, and focussing of the audience’s attention. Without this, they rustle their programme.

    The turning of the pages, on the other hand, is always distracting to the audience (however unworthy we think this) whereas the number of serious memory lapses witnessed from serious artists in a lifetime don’t add up to more than a five-finger exercise. Most of the slips and mistakes that I can remember from the great have been things that would have occurred with the music (and some of them actually have occurred with the music, come to that).

    Clearly, the conventions of the solo piano recital (or concerto performance) are different from those of chamber music, or lieder recitals. There, the turning of pages of the piano score is going on in a less focal place, and with more movement going on in general.

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    • Susan Tomes

      It’s clear from these recent comments that the issue of playing from memory is viewed very differently by different people. I often thought it was funny that people never expected chamber groups to play from memory – it’s a topic that has never come up in my experience. Nobody ever implies that the trio or quartet concert would have been ‘better’ or ‘more serious’, or ‘would show a higher standard of preparation’ if the musicians had played from memory. Nor does it ever come up with orchestras, as far as I know.

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  22. Neil Stannard

    I find it interesting that one respondent here speaks for all audiences when he states that turning pages is distracting. At the dawn of the piano recital in the 19th century, it was normal to play from the score, even considered impertinent to play someone else’s music without it. I state here and now my active campaign to stamp out impertinence in the piano recital!

    It’s true that anything can happen in concert, and probably will if you believe in Murphy’s law. So, even without benefit of a scientific study, I am prepared to state here that at least one lapse in concentration occurs, even in the great and famous, in virtually any given concert. If you really listen to the music, without your eyes, you will hear it. I’ve witnessed it (and experienced it) often enough to believe it to be the case. In fact, it’s these lapses that have driven some of our finest from the concert stage (no names mentioned for the sake of privacy).

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  23. growltiger

    Regarding quartets, there have been some that adopted the “no score” aproach (the Smetana Quartet was a pioneer of this in the 1960s). However, the difference between piano recitals and almost every other form of musical performance is that the pianist cannot, practically, play and turn at the same time, because there are so many more notes per minute, and turns within movements are much more common than with, say, stringed instruments.

    Perfection is, of course, a myth. Every actual performance will contain moments of imprecision, whether or not there is a score.
    Lapses of concentration are a different issue from failure of memory, which is again different from technical frailty. The reason these are different is that they have different neurologies; but any given performance is likely to combine these blurring elements, and a few more, though they are in principle distinct.

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  24. Neil Stannard

    What an audience perceives as “memory” lapse can be the result of any number of issues. And of course there are many types of memory upon which the performer relies. And page turns can be managed quite nicely, thank you, even without a turner. Liszt did it in his day; we can do it in ours. Today’s technology makes it even more feasible, though admittedly, I’m not quite ready to trust completely the MusicReader program and the companion pedal page-turner, though I’ve used both successfully.

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