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The Weekend Vote weekend vote: Do you play better with the music, or by memory?

July 11, 2010 at 6:52 AM

Do you play better with or without the music? Vote first, then I'll tell you my answer:


I'm pretty comfortable playing either with or without the music, but when I'm truly serious about a solo performance, I play better by memory.

There are a few reasons for this. First, any piece that I know well, I know by memory. I'd argue that if one practices something to mastery, it generally becomes memory. Also, playing without the music frees me to focus fully on the music: how it sounds and how it feels to play it. I'm not a visual person!

But, I know some extremely talented professional violinists who have told me, "I really don't play well by memory," and they are far more comfortable in a chamber situation, with the music there. Which gives you your best performance?


From Neil Nelson
Posted on July 11, 2010 at 10:00 AM

When I used to play the piano I used to practice to the point that I memorised the music, not deliberately at first but it simply happened. I felt more confident knowing the music that well too, as opposed to relying on sheet music to read, it was a more intimate experience with the music.

From Sari Beastall
Posted on July 11, 2010 at 11:26 AM

I can't read music.

From elise stanley
Posted on July 11, 2010 at 11:41 AM

I can play by ear OR by music.  By that I mean its easy for me to play a tune I heard and know (like a popular tune) from my head but I can not memorize sheet music - it seems to never go in.  I think one factor is that I seem to play the piece differently every time - I think I play the music, not the notes, so I don't have a rote.  That sounds a bit contradictory - but its still pretty accurate...  

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on July 11, 2010 at 11:40 AM

 I play better from memory, but it is very hard for me to get to that point.  I have to deliberately memorize music, especially solo music, it doesn't just come.  The effort I have to put into deliberate memorization somehow translates into effort in other areas of playing, which is one of the reasons I think I play better from memory.  If I put in the effort to memorize it, I will just generally have practiced it more thoroughly.   If I have a piece memorized.  I also can "practice" in my head, without the instrument when going about my daily business, and I think that helps me play better too.

This may be more true for solo works than chamber music though.  I've never tried to memorize chamber music.  

My teacher, who is a professional section leader,  memorizes her orchestra music.  For her it's generally more of a natural process than it is for me: she doesn't have to be very deliberate about it, it mostly just comes to her.  I don't find that I have enough time to truly memorize my orchestra music, but I can see her point that it is helpful for a section leader to know the music that well, and have had the experience myself, especially with e.g. the hard parts of the Moldau.  And of all the music I play, orchestra music is the type that I'm able to memorize most naturally without trying.

I have a hypothesis with the Rockin Fiddle Challenge that the only way I am going to get the "too careful" monkey off my back and actually be able to "rock" is to learn to play that piece from memory, but I still haven't been able to memorize the first 16 measures . . .

From Catherine B.
Posted on July 11, 2010 at 3:33 PM

 At the moment, I play better in any performance by having the music in front of me.  I played in a recital from memory for the first time in March, and even though I knew the piece by heart, I still got really nervous about the performance...I'm pretty sure that some of the notes were off!  I am working on performing more of my music from memory though.  Is playing from memory one of those things that you improve on over time? 

I do pretty much memorize my orchestral music though, and I could probably play it in a concert from memory...too bad my stand partner wouldn't memorize it as well.  :p  I'll probably have a new stand partner this year though, so maybe I'll be able to play it from memory this year...or would that be a very good idea?

From Marijke Welch
Posted on July 11, 2010 at 5:40 PM

 I find as far as comfort level is concerned, I play better with music. I ultimately end up memorizing it, but somehow it still makes me scared to play memorized. I had a really bad experience once. Somehow, I need to look past that. So I guess I like to memorize, but have the music as a sort of reference. :)

From Elinor Estepa
Posted on July 11, 2010 at 8:16 PM

i can read music, and take pride on that, since its a step up in learning to play the instruments. But for the life of me , I can't seems to memorized it. My inner ear seems to need more work before I begin to memorize anything with music, but with words, that's a different story. :)

From Theodor Taimla
Posted on July 11, 2010 at 8:27 PM

I can read sheet music, I'm proud of that but I feel more comfortable memorizing a piece. When I'm serious about learning a certain piece, I memorize it. < That way I can concentrate on playing beautifully rather than just getting the notes right. Don't know how it is for everyone else but it's pretty easy to memorize the piece when you hear it daily and already have an idea of how it sounds like. But otherwise, I don't know. I don't memorize pieces I don't want to learn.

From Hannah Woolmer
Posted on July 11, 2010 at 8:21 PM

I find that only by playing from memory can I truly perform a piece to the standard that I'm happy with.  I always have passages that I'm unhappy with but its only when I know the piece from memory that I can plays these with ease.  Saying that I find memorizing hard, and no matter how hard I try, a piece just doesn't sink in quickly.  So I like to learn it, then lay it to rest then re-learn over and over till its memorized.  The music I find the hardest to commit to memory is Bach, and this I feel is because it is very organic in its growth there are no definate sections.

From Janis Cortese
Posted on July 12, 2010 at 12:44 AM

Memory.  If I don't know it to the point where I can pretend it's extemporaneous, there is no way I can put the requisite expression in it.

Also, I can't avoid memorizing music.  I can't fathom how one could play something more than five times without memorizing it inadvertently.

From Jim Hastings
Posted on July 12, 2010 at 3:00 AM

Definitely at my best when I've got the music memorized -- although, when I've reached this point, having the score in front of me in chamber playing doesn't hold me back.  I just don't keep my eyes fixed on the sheet music as intently as I would in the learning stage.  The score is now more of a safety net.

One thing that really helps me in the memorization process is to make firm decisions regarding fingerings and bowings and then stick to these decisions.  The less diffused my attention is and the more I can reduce these moves to automatic responses, the more focused I am on the goal of music-making -- and the easier I find it to catch the spirit of the piece and play with abandon.

From Richard Williams
Posted on July 12, 2010 at 3:07 AM

On my cello, the sheet music allows me to learn the piece, but when I get to the point where I can begin playing it without the music (if I am having a good day!) I can concentrate on the phrasing, evenness of tone and variations in dynamics and tempo. In other words it allows me to listen to the music as I play it. It is on days like that that I feel transported into a form of paradise I would have missed had I just listened to recordings!

From Manuel Tabora
Posted on July 12, 2010 at 3:21 AM

I agree with the famed pianist Sviatoslav Richter. This is just a paraphrase, but he said that playing with the sheet music allowed him to be more honest to the music. He said he didn't think he was able to remember every single little marking in the music. Of course, it kind of depends on what's important to you, but I agree with that view.

From Marsha Weaver
Posted on July 12, 2010 at 12:55 PM

I definitely play memorized material better.  I can put more expression into the music when I'm not worried about having to read.  Part of the problem might be my bifocals -- I have to have my head positioned "just so" in order to read the notes without having them blurred.  I find myself leaning forward to be able to see the notes, and then whacking into the music stand because I've gotten too close!

From Hendrik Hak
Posted on July 13, 2010 at 4:31 AM

For me playing from memory helps with concentrating  on the music alone. And then playing with eyes closed  further improves focus.

Posted on July 13, 2010 at 1:28 PM
The question is how we are going to balance two opposite forces in nature. The Apollonian consciousness/control and the Dionysian fantasy/subconsciousness.
From Gerald Klickstein
Posted on July 13, 2010 at 3:56 PM

As a performer and educator, I've learned that, to play securely from memory, we have to develop memorization skills customized to our needs. And we need to create mental maps of our pieces that enable us to be secure under pressure - muscle memory alone won't do. 

I also believe that, with solid memorization skills under our belts, all of us can become confident on stage with or without a score. That's not to say that memorization is easy - some of us have to work harder than others to memorize. But I think that the work pays off. I've found that playing from memory gives me maximal freedom on stage and the most direct connection with my listeners.

This spring, I posted a piece on my blog titled "The four stages of memorization" that sums up my approach: I invite you to take a look and let me know what you think.

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