Note to self
February 6, 2018 12:52 PM   Subscribe

Why should concert pianists play their music from memory? Maybe they shouldn't.

"In Beethoven's day, his pupil Carl Czerny apparently had such a phenomenal memory that, as a teenager, he could play all his master's works by heart. But Beethoven disapproved, saying it would make him casual about detailed markings on the score. Chopin was angry when he heard that one of his pupils was intending to play him a Nocturne from memory."
posted by storybored (55 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
In college I had tons of dreams about being a real musician; being forced to memorize everything killed them dead. Great post.
posted by Melismata at 12:56 PM on February 6 [3 favorites]

On one hand, playing a concerto from memory is an indication that the player has practiced the music so much that s/he doesn't need the score.
On the other hand (reaches over for his copy of Hummel trumpet concerto), the pages are covered in notes to remind me of nuance or certain things that I consistently need to do better.
posted by plinth at 1:07 PM on February 6 [7 favorites]

Yeah, not wanting to play from memory is also why I started playing more chamber music and started accompanying singers a lot more.

Though we might see more pianists playing from iPads. There was a professional pianist I worked with who had a pretty neat iPad + foot pedal set up for when he played chamber (I remember this distinctly because as the intern, I had to constantly remind him to charge his devices!)

Having done lots of classical piano, I still can't understand or fathom how people commit 2 and a half hour long recital programs to memory and then still do more encore pieces.
posted by astapasta24 at 1:10 PM on February 6 [5 favorites]

Just being able to see the shape of the music is so helpful.
posted by bz at 1:11 PM on February 6 [7 favorites]

I haven't had to play too much entirely from memory, but even when I've effectively memorized a whole piece front to back, I still appreciate having the score there. I'm not a pianist, but I've definitely had those moments of forgetful panic during a performance, even when I had the score with me and just looked away for too long.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 1:29 PM on February 6 [2 favorites]

I've seen more than a few rock shows lately where the band had either sheet music or lyrics on stage. (Specifically, Pere Ubu, and LCD Soundsystem, though LCD seemed to use them for their newer songs.) It doesn't take me out of the show to see it. I can't imagine why it would be a problem for classical performers.
posted by SansPoint at 1:29 PM on February 6 [1 favorite]

The ipad and foot pedal is nifty and prevents this problem.
posted by storybored at 1:45 PM on February 6 [5 favorites]

I still can't understand or fathom how people commit 2 and a half hour long recital programs to memory and then still do more encore pieces.

Love. Love for the instrument, the sound, the composer, the music.

You go bit by bit. First you practice with all the markings and your own notes. You learn its contours.

Then, because you already know how to play scales with your eyes closed and know your piano, you close your eyes and begin to learn how this particular piece, with its contours, feels when there are no longer markings.

The piece starts to take on a new life. You start to hear and feel things you didn't when part of your brain was occupied reading markings. The piece starts to live, breathe, vibrate, wax and wane, entrance or charge, summon its own temporal existence during the time your hands and its sounds are the only existence in the air.

You memorize it because you love.
posted by fraula at 2:06 PM on February 6 [28 favorites]

storybored: The ipad and foot pedal is nifty and prevents this problem.

Add second iPad pedal to check Twitter mentions.
posted by clawsoon at 2:07 PM on February 6 [5 favorites]

I've heard a classical performer say he feels like groups memorizing their whole program is done as a gimmick to get more buzz than they normally would. But he also said that learning the music that well makes you play it way better.
posted by little onion at 2:10 PM on February 6 [1 favorite]

When you've memorized a piece, you've internalized it. What you lose in nuances from marking, you gain in having digested the music, and made it one with the cells of your own body. When the piece is memorized, you are not performing the music, you are the music.

Playing from memory signals the audience that you have spent serious time with this piece -- time enough to think about it, to work its structure into the structure of your body, and offer an understanding that reaches deep down into your cells.

As you can guess, I am a great partisan of memorization. Do you want to buy tickets to the theater and see a bunch of actors walking around with scripts?

Classical music is so complex, you're not going to be able have a big rep memorized at all times. But there's NO excuse for rock musicians to stand up there on stage with music stands. That deserves a tomato.
posted by Modest House at 2:44 PM on February 6 [5 favorites]

As a classical singer, committing the work to memory is an integral part of the preparation process as performing on book is not available to us except for the narrow exception of oratorio. So I can't say that I have a lot of sympathy for instrumental concert soloists who not only use a score but don't have to worry about staging or even really how they look while performing. If I can memorize a whole Verdi opera I bet a pianist can memorize a whole concerto. The thing is, however, that most pianists have to prepare and play a number of pieces more or less simultaneously. It's not like a pianist spends six weeks doing nothing but one concerto. This can make things a lot more difficult. And then there is the question as to what it hurts for them to play on score. Unlike other solo concert performers (singers, string and wind players) the pianist is already behind a large apparatus and doesn't really "address the audience" in the same way.
posted by slkinsey at 2:56 PM on February 6 [1 favorite]

The author is strikingly naive about the challenges faced by other solo performers of memorized works. For example, I'd guess there are perhaps twenty opera houses worldwide that employ a prompter.
posted by slkinsey at 3:03 PM on February 6 [1 favorite]

I play reading chords. One of the things I hated as a kid taking piano was memorizing the music for recital.....the cool thing about reading chords is there is much more freedom. TBH I play by ear too so sometimes I do not need the chords but when you are playing with multiple people on different instruments it is helpful to have them in front of you anyway. I imagine rock bands use chords too. We call them lead sheets (at least I do.)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 3:04 PM on February 6 [1 favorite]

storybored: The ipad and foot pedal is nifty and prevents this problem.

I direct a handbell choir, where everyone is required to wear gloves. The iPad revolution is coming very, very soon.
posted by Melismata at 3:08 PM on February 6

I was always better at sight-reading than practicing.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 3:11 PM on February 6 [5 favorites]

To each their own. As a performer, getting everything in my head is a prerequisite to getting it into my hands and allowing me the freedom to bring something new to the performance that is drawn from the then and there. If there were sheet music in front of me I'd be using it as a crutch and my performance would suffer for it.

That's not to say I've never forgotten where I was. I have! It happens. But that's not going to sour me on memorization.

Set lists, on the other hand...
posted by grumpybear69 at 3:11 PM on February 6 [1 favorite]

I direct a handbell choir, where everyone is required to wear gloves.

Flashing back to bell choir in elementary school! I had a growth spurt in the fourth grade, and none of the kids' gloves fit me. My parents weren't about to shell out for a special pair of adult-size dress gloves for me, so I had to just force my giant raptor claws into the school's child-size gloves as far as they would go. I looked like I had webbed fingers.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 3:17 PM on February 6 [3 favorites]

The only way the argument makes sense is because the piano has a built-in music holder. A violinist playing a concerto using sheet music would look terrible and there would be no connection with the audience.
posted by frogmanjack at 3:42 PM on February 6 [2 favorites]

This is reminding me of whatever article I read where people who were playing in The Lion King for years on end had it so memorized that they were reading books and magazines while playing.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:43 PM on February 6 [12 favorites]

I just started playing piano fairly regularly again. I'm playing very easy, short pieces (IMTA Level C, 30-60 bars long), so this is very different from long concert-level works ... but wow, has my enjoyment increased since I started learning to memorize the pieces I'm playing (prompted by the controversial but intriguing Fundamentals of Piano Practice). Before, I used to slog through from beginning to end, with lots of pauses, while I labored, time after time, to read the music. (I can read music, but not quickly or fluently.) I never learned anything about the piece; all I did was push through it again and again and wonder why I never got better or faster or more musical. Figured I just wasn't practicing enough.

But now that I have the piece in my head, I can see the shape of the piece - you HAVE to, to be able to memorize it, you have to start finding the patterns, large and small, that make up the piece. And that book encourages "mental practice," too, in which you "practice" in your head while you're away from the keyboard, and of course that's not really feasible unless you know the piece by heart. And now, now that I've started to memorize, I am learning pieces so much faster and better, and improving, and having the opportunity to listen to myself a bit and listen for places where I'd like to change what I'm playing.

The more memorization I've learned to do - music I want to play, poetry, even kind of stupid dialogs for language learning - the more delighted I've been to find how it changes my relationship with the work. Poetry is especially wonderful for that - is it an "a" or a "the" at the start of that line? It matters ... but it can be easy to miss if you aren't focusing as closely as you do when you memorize.

There are definite techniques to memorizing, and they're not usually taught in school; and I know that even with those techniques, not everyone can pick up memorization well. But for those of us who can, I feel like it's an unfortunately disparaged tool that can help with both increasing skill in performance and increasing appreciation, understanding, love of the piece itself, and the craft that went into creating it.
posted by kristi at 3:52 PM on February 6 [12 favorites]

First movement from memory, second movement from memory *while* drinking a glass of water!
posted by fallingbadgers at 3:59 PM on February 6

Fundamentals of Piano Practice by Chang is an amazing book. When this article talked about anxiety and lapses, I immediately inferred that the author probably doesn't know about Chang's book, because the book (and really, many other piano texts) goes a lot into the phenomenon that you can memorize and automatize a piece incorrectly and that's what gives you an insecure basis.

The issue of aging is understandable. As casual amateur I find it harder as the years go by, and what helps is if I can abstract away the structure and harmony of the piece, rather than rote, measure-by-measure memorization.

But I think it would be great if professional classical pianists didn't feel they had to be expected to memorize. It's commercial pressures that drive this narrow pursuit of the best technical player of a narrow canon. It's the big famous pieces that sell tickets for tours. Unfortunately, it's a smaller demographic of dedicated piano lovers who would want a variety of lesser-known art, and would be perfectly happy to see artists performing with sheet music for this purpose, or even to sight-read stuff just because.
posted by polymodus at 4:14 PM on February 6 [4 favorites]

For your consideration
posted by um at 4:20 PM on February 6 [1 favorite]

This is reminding me of whatever article I read where people who were playing in The Lion King for years on end had it so memorized that they were reading books and magazines while playing.
posted by jenfullmoon

Which reminds me of how I have my kid's favorite song so well memorized, after literally thousands upon thousands of repetitions, that I can sing it and engage in real higher-order thinking at the same time. My husband says my singing doesn't suffer, but of course that's not something I can observe myself.
posted by lollymccatburglar at 5:29 PM on February 6

If I were a world-class concert pianist I would insist on playing everything from memory, but that's only because I've always been lousy at reading sheet music.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 7:02 PM on February 6 [1 favorite]

I took classical piano lessons all the way up to diploma level as a teenager, so every (school) year I had to memorize a handful of pieces for examination. I had no real love for the music* so mostly what this meant was that every June or so I got to the point where I was playing entirely off muscle memory, daydreaming and staring out the window until my daily practice time was up. Many years later I can still play a couple Sonatas and Nocturnes - the trick is to sit myself in front of the piano and just let myself glaze over while my fingers go through the motions. I had a few Bach Preludes/Fugues in my repertoire but I can't play those at all anymore - the lines are so intricately interwoven that one slipped note unravels the whole thing.

*but, I feel compelled to clarify, I didn't resent it either - I stuck with it because I enjoyed the satisfaction that came with having mastered a skill through steady practice and repetition, and in the intervening years the working knowledge of music theory/history and good ear that I cultivated have served me well.
posted by btfreek at 7:37 PM on February 6

My grandmother, who was a highly trained professional musician and ballet dancer in the 30's and 40's, once told me that the performer's purpose was to make the piece or performance being presented look easy, effortless, intended to stun and captivate an audience.

So in that view, having a score visible on the piano would be making it look like work, which would defeat this idea that for it to be art, it must look effortless.
posted by Armed Only With Hubris at 8:06 PM on February 6 [2 favorites]

At one point I was learning Rhapsody In Blue and I spent MONTHS on this work because it's really actually pretty fucking hard. By the time I had done all the fine motor work and gotten it all up to speed, I indeed had it memorized and would practice it memorized because who the fuck wants to turn all those page.

But my teacher at the time told me that once a month while I kept the piece in my repertoire and prepared for The Big Recital, I should get out the music and read it again while I played. I never failed to find something that surprised me and added to my performance afterward.
posted by hippybear at 8:19 PM on February 6 [5 favorites]

The iPad revolution is coming very, very soon.

I am totally in love with forScore, and I'm not even taking advantage of most of its features (such as mesh networking with other devices in an ensemble).
posted by hades at 8:22 PM on February 6 [1 favorite]

In my case I have to memorize because I've never learned to sight read more than one line of music at a time worth a damn. The reality that there are people who can perform piano pieces well from a score at tempo is baffling to me -- I know it *is* a reality, but I don't know how I'd get there any more than I could figure out how to grow a few inches. Sight singing, that's possible for me, a decade of choral ensembles got me there, though I'm rusty now. A decade of piano lessons and the equivalent of the first two years of keyboard/ear training/transcription/sight-reading that's common to university education and the idea of reliably being able to perform four part harmony from a score still seems like black magic. I don't know if I have some kind of selective learning disability or if I just didn't have the right regimen or maybe I just didn't work hard enough.
posted by wildblueyonder at 9:10 PM on February 6 [2 favorites]

the phenomenon that you can memorize and automatize a piece incorrectly

One of my old teachers used to call this "Practice Makes Permanent."

Debussy's "Green" used to be one of my go-to pieces. I'd sung it in a few concerts and auditions before a new accompanist pointed out the wrong note I'd been singing for years.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:59 PM on February 6 [3 favorites]

This is reminding me of whatever article I read where people who were playing in The Lion King for years on end had it so memorized that they were reading books and magazines while playing.

I’ve played a couple of runs of Lion King tour. The violinist who traveled with the show didn’t use music, but that did not surprise. I was shocked to see one of the keyboard players, who plays a complicated rhythm in the first number, reading from a Kindle in his left hand while playing the rhythm with his right hand.
posted by Warren Terra at 12:55 AM on February 7 [5 favorites]

Memorizing a long piece turns me into an old carthorse. I go through the daily route, and when I get home, I have no recollection of how I got there.
posted by klarck at 4:51 AM on February 7 [4 favorites]

I'll just leave this here...
posted by evilDoug at 6:50 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]

This is also an interesting discussion when you consider the divide between pianists (who, at least at the concert soloist level, almost always play from memory) and organists (who almost never play from memory). Perhaps this has to do with the history of needing stop registrants on standby anyway (page turning being a natural extension of that job)? Just a cultural difference? Concert hall vs. cathedral? It's not because the page turns are easier....
posted by rebennett at 7:04 AM on February 7 [3 favorites]

I figured that was because organists have to play such a huge volume of music: prelude, postlude, four hymns, anthem, offertory, incidentals, every single week---I can imagine this'd shift the culture. Might also be because organists are accompanists as much as soloists on a Sunday morning.
posted by golwengaud at 8:29 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]

For a piece that is complex and difficult, by the time I get it to performance level, I have memorized it. Not because I was trying to, mind. Building the muscle memory has that side effect. In the most extreme cases, looking at the music while playing after I've reached that point can actually confuse me. And sometimes I physically wouldn't have time in performance anyway.

I mostly always practice with the music, although with pieces of that complexity I always reach a point where I don't need to.

If the piece isn't that tough, or if it isn't a solo piece (so there are timing cues for the other parts in the score), I will perform with a score, however. And a long-suffering page turner if necessary.
posted by seyirci at 8:31 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]

Customs are shifting regarding this issue (just as the Proudly-Playing-Steinway-Only culture is in the process of softening up at the moment). Sviatoslav Richter played from the score during the latter part of his career because he found that the audience deserved to hear the entire score; Yuja Wang can be seen on youtube, playing both a Bartok concerto and Rachmaninov IV with a score inside the piano; I found at least one video where also Boris Berezovsky is playing from the score...there is another video where the same Berezowsky plays from memory and messes up the last few pages of Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit because of a memory lapse. Last month I heard a pianist live in Gothenburg who lost her way in Rachmaninov's Paganini variations, and it took her until the next letter in the score to find back in. Being a musician myself I find nothing hilarious about the mishaps of my colleagues (nor mine).

Memorizing music is partly a matter of a special auditive disposition and partly a matter of the correct training, or practising methodology. Because of the first, it is much harder for some players than for others, no matter how they handle the latter. In other words, it's really not fair to ask playing from memory from everybody. Provided a musician can present a great performance, a good sounding result, what does it matter how this result is achieved? So yes, good article.
posted by Namlit at 9:04 AM on February 7 [6 favorites]

I am honestly surprised to see so many passionate defenders of memorization. As a long-time symphony-goer, though I am sometimes surprised to see a soloist playing from the score, it subtracts nothing from the performance. With the risk of error from memorization that some above are describing, it seems like playing from the score would be preferable. After all, the symphony (shout out to the Pittsburgh Symphony, by the way!) plays with a jaw-dropping level of skill, using sheet music to achieve this level week after week on new pieces. As the author of the piece in the post notes, no one expects them to memorize, what is gained by having the soloist do it?
posted by dellsolace at 9:59 AM on February 7 [3 favorites]

I figured that was because organists have to play such a huge volume of music: prelude, postlude, four hymns, anthem, offertory, incidentals, every single week---I can imagine this'd shift the culture. Might also be because organists are accompanists as much as soloists on a Sunday morning.

I'm sure this is true for church services, but even most concert organists I've seen tend not to play from sheet music!
posted by rebennett at 10:05 AM on February 7

Customs are shifting regarding this issue (just as the Proudly-Playing-Steinway-Only culture is in the process of softening up at the moment).

I genuinely love watching how classical music culture is changing. It's not even a matter of it getting better or worse (the culture of "if you're sleeping, someone else is practicing" is alive and well), but it brings to light all the ways that classical music is built around this sort of shared performance between musician and audience. There's all these little expectations about what the musician should or should not do, and there's similar expectations for the audience (not talking, not clapping between movements*, which are both things people used to do at concerts). Some of it has practical benefits, but a lot of it is just totally arbitrary. I mean, memorizing music can have its benefits, but there's really no reason to expect everyone to do it, except that we expect everyone to do it.

*When I was a music performance major, we all had to go to mandatory public concerts twice a week. My favorite thing was watching how the non-majors would sometimes clap between movements, so you'd get this sort of scattered applause mixed in with music majors sort of shuffling their seats and looking a little annoyed, like, ugh, you're not supposed to clap between movements! I remember people openly complaining about it. I loved it because it had no basis in anything except convention.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 10:31 AM on February 7 [3 favorites]

That should read that they "tend to play from sheet music", not that they don't! Whoops.
posted by rebennett at 10:43 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]

I think there's a scientific question that can be asked around this, like, Does it make a difference in the quality of the performance if the same musician uses a score or not? And you could do blind listening performances over many pianists at varying skill levels, and find an audience to rate the recordings, to get an objectively measurable difference (or not).

There's a reason to suspect that there is some difference because visual processing is very cognitively resource intensive. Maybe memorizing/internalizing allows the performer to save that energy for thinking about the music more. And performance-practicewise, new studies show that classical music emphasizes mannerism/style/refinement a lot more than jazz music, for instance.

It reminds me of when some institutions finally started doing blind auditions for musicians (including making them enter the room barefoot so that the shoes didn't betray the musician's gender) and how that helped so much towards the gender gap.
posted by polymodus at 1:09 PM on February 7 [4 favorites]

And to take the implications farther, why not even just allow musicians to make up "cheat sheets" (whatever that would look like), maybe that could be even more effective for performance, than having a page-turner handle a copy of the original score. And it's been common tradition for music teachers to scrawl notes all over a student's sheet music anyways.
posted by polymodus at 1:16 PM on February 7

My musical "cheat sheets" are the little notes I write for myself all over the score in red marker, that say things like "THESE ARE DOTTED NOT TRIPLETS, ASSHOLE." They're very cathartic to write during a long practice session.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 1:43 PM on February 7 [4 favorites]

I've been known to scribble "LEARN TO COUNT" on my score, but only in pencil.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 3:43 PM on February 7 [3 favorites]

There's an odd thing that happens when you learn a new piece. You start out with individual notes, but very soon you start reading groups, then phrases.

After a while - when you know the piece reasonably well but it's not memorized - you reach a stage where you're not really reading the music in a way you can describe. You look at the page, and the shape of the music triggers your memory. You can look away for a few seconds and stay on track, but without the written music, you can't play it.

It's a bit like reading well-known text from a book. You know what's coming next, but without your eyes on the page you'll misremember it.

Anyway. If a soloist is going to perform with the music, they need to study how to make an entrance, and the undisputed wizard of doing this right is Patricia Kopatchinskaja
posted by Combat Wombat at 7:09 PM on February 7 [2 favorites]

I had played Mary Had a Little Lamb confidently by memory to crowds everywhere until my new manager pointed out that I was playing C# and why wasn't I wearing pants? (The pigeons never complained.)
posted by sylvanshine at 7:45 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]

I saw Psychic TV play recently, touring for their new album and playing some older tracks that complimented the psychedelic style. Genesis had a stand with a light on it and was referring to the song lyrics every now and then. I thought that perhaps after s/he had been making music with various groups since 1975 starting with Throbbing Gristle, and has recorded, at the very least, 63 studio albums specifically with PTV, and s/he's 68 years old that yes, you can't be expected to remember everything accurately.
I'd rather hear an accurate reproduction of the work that the artist is happy with performing rather than a hopefully-memorized selection of songs with errors in the name of some mnemonical purity.
posted by Zack_Replica at 11:06 AM on February 8 [2 favorites]

Yeah, my friend who sings with a cover band has an iPad holder that clips to her mike stand, so she can have lyrics handy when she needs them. It's especially helpful when they're doing requests for stuff she's only vaguely familiar with.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:21 AM on February 8

Not a pianist, but my older brother is.
In his case, I think that he gets the overall pattern of the music into his head and can make his fingers just go on autopilot while he's thinking phrases ahead. He played his own arrangement of dances from West Side Story in the 2002 Van Cliburn competition. He later told me that was this first time he made it all the way through and I suspect that he improvised some of the transitions, but still it's 21 minutes (and he had prepped about an hour of music).
Another time, I was visiting him and we were talking about our mom who had passed away several years earlier but how we still took some good solid emotional gut shots now and again. I mentioned that I had heard a recording of Mendellsohn's Rondo Capriccioso on From the Top (played by Phuong Nghi Pham) and that ruined me. As a kid, I would lie on the floor under the piano and listen to her playing it so it was ingrained very deeply in me. Mike stood up, walked over to a piano and started in on it cold. I didn't know that he'd even learned the piece but he was able to extract it. To a certain extent, I get this but I don't get it. Like I've played/performed Trumpeter's Lullaby so many times that it's nothing to pull it out because it's so logical but others like the Arutunian just don't stick.
And to offer a little more to this, Mike has recordings of his 2000 Van Cliburn performances and his 2002 performances with tons of notes.
posted by plinth at 10:09 AM on February 9 [3 favorites]

I just went looking for this piece so I could send it to my piano teacher, who expressed interest in reading it. Only when trying to find it in Google did I realize it is 11 years old!!
posted by great_radio at 8:05 PM on February 20

"Not a pianist, but my older brother is."

Your brother is MICHAEL freakin' HAWLEY!? I think I am going to faint.
posted by bz at 6:07 PM on February 22

Your brother is MICHAEL freakin' HAWLEY!? I think I am going to faint.
I love my brother very much and am very proud of his accomplishments. Still I'm very amused by that reaction having grown up backstage, as it were.
posted by plinth at 5:59 AM on February 24 [1 favorite]

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