V.com weekend vote: Where do you look when playing by memory?

January 11, 2020, 8:18 PM · When you are playing by memory, where do you look? Do you look at your fingers, or bow? Do you stare off into nowhere? Do you close your eyes?

violin eye girl

For me, I look in the general direction of the fiddle, but I'm not really in the habit of actively looking at my fingers or bow. In fact, sometimes I forget that this can be a very helpful tool; in lecture that violinist and SHAR founder Charles Avsharian gave 10 years ago at the 2009 ASTA Convention, he actually recommended practicing with one's eyes glued to the left hand, and trying this for a full month. "You are going to see things you never saw before," he said. For example: How fast are your shifts? Which fingers go down, and when? At what point to other fingers pop up? How smooth are bow crossings, how do you achieve the techniques that you achieve?

Of course, trying it for a month is different from what your normal tendency is. For you, what is the most natural thing to do with your eyes when you play? And beyond that, do you look at your fingers, as a practicing technique? Or maybe you goal is to look less and listen more. Please participate in the vote and then tell us about your thoughts and experiences about where to look while playing, and remember, we're talking about when you are practicing or performing by memory, not when you are using music or playing in orchestra or ensemble.

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January 12, 2020 at 05:28 AM · I had a performance recently where I decided to play from memory and it went fine. Well, in the first performance (a "pre-concert") I missed an entrance and had to crib from the conductor's score. But the second performance (the main concert) went fine. I decided to try and take a page from Ray Chen's book and try to make eye contact with the audience, but I wasn't able to do that more than a few times. I was kind of scared that I'd get distracted and lose my place, but mostly I looked at the audience when I wasn't looking at the conductor.

January 12, 2020 at 01:24 PM · I never memorize. Grand total of pieces I memorized in my life: Bach E-Major concerto movement 1, Haydn C-Major movement 1 and the first half of Bach's E-Major Preludio (all of it in my teenage).

Busoni wrote that one must have memorized a piece, otherwise it is impossible to properly perform it. This was probably true for Busoni but even he is not allowed to draw lazy conclusions about other people from their own preferences and capabilities. It is of course true that one knows a piece in some fashion by heart when it is prepared for performance. But a high wire act is easier if you wear a safety harness than otherwise--even though it is the same act. I do not see why people should not be allowed the safety harness. I find the pressure to perform from memory unhealthy. It probably also contributes to the tendency of (almost) everybody to play the same old repertoire over and over again.

January 12, 2020 at 04:14 PM · at the sounding point - which makes me a little cross-eyed - but helps for straight bowing and accurate placement/choice of sounding point

January 12, 2020 at 05:47 PM · Albrecht I sometimes wonder if the ability to memorize easily isn't a pretty strong factor in determining which young students will receive the most encouragement from their teachers.

My recent performance was Beethoven Romance Op. 40 and it was the first piece that I have performed in public entirely from memory. I really wanted to prove to myself that I could do it, even if only once. I definitely got to the point with that piece where the printed music was more distracting than helpful, but partly that is because I altered some of the fingerings while practicing and didn't write them into the part.

January 12, 2020 at 06:16 PM · In performance, I would say Do Not look at your left hand. A lot of major league soloists close their eyes. Our thoughts follow our eyes and we should be thinking about bowing and sound production, so if you want to look at the violin, look at the point of contact (hair to string). I usually have a blank stare at the back of the room. Eye contact with a specific person can be distracting, especially if they look good. Most of my playing is from memory as a Mariachi fiddler. Everything is memorized, no sheet music, and improvising is discouraged. If I am mentally unsure, I watch the chords of the guitarists; somehow that triggers my memory of what to do next.

January 12, 2020 at 06:23 PM · I don't look at anything in particular, since I turn inwards, focusing on my breathing, the pulse of the music, and the sounds around me. My visual world becomes a blur.

January 12, 2020 at 07:11 PM · My pet peeve is performers looking up at the ceiling. Looks weird.

I say look at sounding point or generally downwards.

January 12, 2020 at 07:45 PM · Paul, I admire--and envie a little--your courage! Happy that it worked out well.

As to looking at my left hand: I think the player has an unfortunate perspective of it which is probably one reason why violin teachers are so necessary and useful. I don't see if I am doing anything right or wrong when I look down the fingerboard at my left hand; my vibrato is even out of my sight, hidden behind the box and/or the neck. If I really want to check on my left hand I try to keep it still while turning the violin out from my neck to have a perpendicular look at the hand (not a very good method though).

So I don't look there. I look into the music which is better than at the ceiling... (I too like it when performers look in the direction of the back of the hall, not at heaven and not at hell, somewhere in between).

Interestingly enough I don't always wright fingerings into my music (and never into music I don't own e.g. in an orchestra) and I don't even always remove the ones I have decided to abandon. Despite the fact that I am really bad at memorizing music I seem to be capable of memorizing fingerings (and bowings). Maybe because I have done a lot of sight reading at one time playing quartets with friends.

January 12, 2020 at 10:16 PM · I do not dare to perform something I cannot play from memory. Maybe it's because the piano teacher of my youth expected me to perform without sheets, except the rare events he made me play in a chamber music setting or as accompanist for a really pretty mezzosoprano who later went into accountancy and married her chef who was 22 years older than her if I remember correctly... It was mostly Schubert... Anyhow, at age 16 I had my brain stuffed with Beethoven sonatas and Mozart concertos. And now I'm really uncomfortable if I'm invited to a reading session of rather simple baroque music, and having sheet music laid out in front of me is rather distracting and confusing than helpful when I'm switching to performance mode. It's nothing I'm proud of, and I'd prefer it to be different. With sheets I regularly loose track and get lost between what I'm playing and what my eyes are reading...

When practicing from memory, I either look into a mirror to track my hands and posture (which requires me to be highly focused) or I look randomly anywhere. On stage it depends on the setting. In my orchestra section, most of the time I used to fake reading the music, while focusing on the conductor or the bows in front of me. In chamber music / small ensembles, it's useful to have your eyes free for communication with your collaborateurs. Soloing is something I did only threethree times yet on a stringed instrument (not counting the small recitals with my teachers private class). In this situation I try to find a natural mixture of introvert looking down or close eyes, staring at the back of the hall, and from time to time seeking eye contact with two or three people in the audience I feel comfortable with (pre-selected at the beginning of the concert). I agree with Paul that the latter can be distracting, but it is something that can be trained in a more intimate setting.

January 13, 2020 at 04:42 PM · Oh the extent of what I call the "Toscanini Effect." I can still remember when soloists of greatness had a stand and music while on stage. Pianists had page turners! Did they need it? Not always but,...

Then comes the Maestro's Maestro, no music desk for him - No Sir! Every note, mark, dynamic,... of the score memorized! Suddenly, the requirement is total perfect memorization for everyone - there are now Quartets and even orchestras that play only from memory.

For me, I never developed that skill. My memory for hundreds (if not thousands) of notes as well as dynamics, et cetera, is highly imperfect - hence I either get lost or grind in mistakes.

Kudos to all those who can - I am in awe of your skills but do not share them.

January 13, 2020 at 05:43 PM · I look mostly to my fingers on the fingerboard. I try sometimes to play closing my eyes to feel more than see.

January 14, 2020 at 05:10 AM · I mostly look at the fingers of my left hand. I don’t know why, it’s just a habit I got I to while memorizing the tricky parts.

When playing on stage I often look at the audience to see their responses, and sometimes make eye contact. I like to find a little kid or an encouraging-looking elderly person to look to. Watching people I know distracts me, so I try to stay away from that unless it’s really low pressure or they are, in fact, playing with me.

January 14, 2020 at 06:24 AM · @George W. - I have heard that one of the reasons Toscanini conducted from memory was that he had poor eyesight (?) I have a knack for stating the obvious-- one advantage to playing from memory is that it forces you to learn how to play the piece.

January 14, 2020 at 10:12 PM · I close my eyes purely because I look like an idiot if they are open. They are not focused and I tend to resemble this:

January 19, 2020 at 12:43 AM · It varies from one minute to the next. I play from memory during practice sessions quite a lot -- e.g., scales and studies and repertoire that I've committed to memory -- plus my own warm-up routine. At times, I look toward the instrument, but not actively; then I'll look across the room, next at the floor, afterward at the ceiling, sometimes closing both eyes a short stretch for extra concentration.

I also glance at the bow now and then; but I find that I have better bow control and distribution, plus better string crossings, if I don't fixate on the bow. It's a bit like keeping your eyes on the road ahead and glancing only for a split-second, every so often, at the speedometer or steering wheel.

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