Do you memorise or read from the score? Do you find playing from memory different from playing with the score? And if yes, how so?
I’ve always had a funny relationship with memorising. Well, “relationship” is too strong of a word here! It’s certainly never been a committed relationship… more like a fling. I constantly flirt with the idea of memorising pieces, but I keep reverting back to reading from the score. Call it comfort… or laziness?
The handful of piano teachers I’ve had over the years, both in Belgium and in Australia, never really emphasised memorising. I’m even struggling to think of ONE piece that I had to memorise… As far as I can remember, I always used the music, whether I was performing for Eisteddfods (small-scale local competitions), concerts or exams. And since I could sight-read easily, I never saw the need to memorise anything in my own time, nor did my teachers probably.
Do I have any regrets? Do I wish I had spent more time on memorising than on sight-reading? No, not really. In my line of work, which involves mostly teaching and accompanying, sight-reading is indispensable. I frequently need to demonstrate passages from pieces I’ve never played before to my students, and I often have to learn piano parts in a matter of days or sight-read on the spot. Besides, I love sight-reading! So no, I don’t have any regrets.
Although I DO envy pianists who can just sit down at the piano and play piece after piece, all from memory. It would be a nice skill to have, especially when friends urge you to play something on their piano or on one of those pianos you find in public spaces. It would be nice to sit and play something without needing the music.
That’s one of the reasons why every now and then I’ll decide to memorise several pieces for just such occasions. (That’s what I meant by “flirting with the idea of memorising”.) However, the determination I have at the start of such a decision usually starts to dwindle after a few weeks… I’ll think “What’s the point? I can just play from the score. Why spend so much time trying to remember all the notes and fingering?”.
And that’s the thing. What IS the point? Why are musicians, pianists especially, required to play from memory?
In a recent podcast where performance coach Noa Kageyama was interviewing pianist Stephen Hough about the importance of memorising music, Hough remarked:
“I think we need to learn the skill. But do we need to display that skill every time we play in concert?”
Does playing from memory somehow make us better musicians? And does it add anything to the performance?
Hough comments that:
Playing from memory is still part of the theatrical experience of hearing the performance.
I agree with this statement. It’s akin to a presenter or a lecturer reading from their notes or a Youtuber reading their script from a teleprompter. It doesn’t have the same impact, does it?
In my own experience, playing from memory can be liberating. The music seems to flow as though you’re improvising on the spot. You don’t quite get this same sense of flow when reading from the score, especially with pieces that require you to leap around the keys all the time! It’s almost impossible NOT to look down in such cases.
I remember the first time I felt this sense of liberation. It was at the end of 2018. I was preparing for the Amus exam (diploma level). One of the four pieces I had chosen for the exam was Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A Major D.664. I had started to learn the third and final movement, a joyful movement in 3/4 time. (You can watch a performance of this piece by Alexander Gavrylyuk or check out the sheet music on IMSLP.)
I played the start of this movement for my piano teacher, but I kept stalling because I was half playing from the score, half playing from memory. I had unintentionally memorised the passages that required me to look down at my hands. My teacher stopped me and said that I should learn the movement from memory to avoid this issue. She showed me how to memorise through mental practice, which is, by far the most efficient and reliable way to memorise pieces.
Once I had the second movement memorised thoroughly – not just superficially – I played it through in my practice and felt for the first time the sensation I was describing above. It felt like the music was flowing so effortlessly. I was no longer stalling like I had in the lesson. It was a revelation to me.
Interestingly, when Kageyama asked Hough whether he has a sense of there being a different internal mental experience when he’s playing something from memory, he describes this feeling also:
I just don’t feel that same sense of abandon of recklessness, almost, if you like, that I do when I don’t have the score that it’s somehow holding me in or maybe it’s like a brace on the leg after an injury. I’m still walking perfectly well, but the brace is the safety net if you like that’s holding that leg in shape. And I feel like leaving the score in the wings is like casting that brace off. And yeah, maybe I’m going to fall down, but somehow it’s worth that risk.
So, to memorise or to read from the score? Which would you choose?