Playing without music in front of you

October 4, 2011 at 03:06 PM ·

Hi everyone,

Just wondering what people think about performing without the music in front of you? what are the pros and cons? Why do people do it or not do it? is it seen as a more professional way of doing it? Why?

I have never performed without music before, it is like my security blanket (lol) and I have always seemed to have a lot of trouble memorizing music in the past. the piece I am looking at playing I have memorized and am quite confident playing without the music in front of me but... I always get very nervous when performing and I'm wondering if it would just put more pressure on me not having the music there. I am not obligated to play without but I just wanted to see what it felt like. Any ideas would be good.


Replies (23)

October 4, 2011 at 03:47 PM ·

Memorized music - proof that you practiced really well!

Memorized music - liberating - musical freedom!

Performance nerves - a completely different topic that can have a big effect on memorized music as well as many other aspects of playing.

Smiles! Diane

October 4, 2011 at 03:54 PM ·

You can always have the music there but not look at it as many soloists sometimes do, but it is a safety valve. At least then you won't have *smiles* if you forget.

Frowns! Peter

October 4, 2011 at 04:26 PM ·

 One thing I do insist my students memorize, are aspects of three octave scales and arpeggios. a system that employs different rhythms and bow strokes. The reason for this is so that they can study their playing  in a mirror, and observe aspects of violin technique from a different perspective, and thereby teach themselves. If you really want to experiment with memorization, try learning some simple melodies, sit in with a folk group, and jam. You will quickly grasp the difference in approach when playing "off the cuff" and how it changes your perspective on things. You might even find it somewhat liberating!

October 5, 2011 at 10:00 PM ·

Before the modern era, and among many conservative groups today, the only recognized "knowledge" is one has memorized.  I'm not sure how that relates to musical performance (beyond showing you can do it) but it's true that what's in your mind is there forever, (barring accidents and Alzheimer's, I suppose).  There's nothing more freeing than to really KNOW a piece.  And few things harder than getting to that point.

October 5, 2011 at 11:42 PM ·

I agree with Marjorie. If you work on a piece with a view to giving it your best performance than you cannot help but have it in your head and fingers.  If you need to look at the music during a performance then it is not sufficiently internalized and you are putting up a barrier not only between you and the music, but between the music and the audience, which is why the performance is not going to be 100% and why unexpected silly mistakes are likely to arise. These are reasons why virtually all soloists playing concertos or giving recitals of solo music play from memory (although, as I have hinted above, the process is deeper than that), and there's more than "tradition" to it.

The "rule", as far as classical music is concerned, does not usually apply to duets, or larger ensembles, or double concertos, because these are collaborative performances and there is an essential interaction between the performers. An instrument that is traditionally an exception to the "rule" for solo performances is the organ, probably in view of the complexity of the instrument and its music. 


October 5, 2011 at 11:44 PM ·


there are professionals who genuinly can`t memorize for some reason and nonetheless do really well.  Whether the casue is due to incorrect training or something organic I have no idea.

However,  I often think back to how the violinist D`Angeli responded when I asked him about this.  He said without hesiation `If you haveN@t memorized it you haven`t got it in your heart.`

I belive it is correct most of the time to say that if you cannot play a piece from memory then this is not just a perfromance issue but a practice issue.  My approach to increasing the amount of thinking and concentration in pracitce of diffcult passages is based on having a clear mental image of a passage in your head and then manipulating it with rythms,  bowings  and accents.  You can do it while looking at the music but I see this as a differnet thing.

The other advantage of memorizing music is that one can then practice it anywhere,  anytime.



October 6, 2011 at 03:21 AM ·

For an experiment one time I decided to memorize a short new piece on an airplane.  Obviously without my violin.  I pretty much got it.  Sure there were some musical details that became apparent with my violin, but I knew the piece.  Do you ride the subway to work?

October 6, 2011 at 03:28 AM ·

Honestly for certain repertoire people will judge you poorly for using music (examples: concertos, showpieces).  The perception is that you don't understand the way each passage works with the entire piece and that's why you need the music.  Other repertoire you're expected to use music  such as chamber music (unless your entire ensemble has memorized the piece in which case you look really cool coming out with no music or stands)

As for stage fright I find it more frightening to have music "just in case" because I will suddenly try to find where I am in the music and get distracted.  

Also, you should know that a major part of Suzuki philosophy is memorization.  I think it's part of his "mother tongue" theory.  

October 6, 2011 at 06:12 AM ·

 I tend to memorise pieces I practice really well anyway....'eventually', but was wondering...should I 'make an effort' to memorise them from the beginning?

what I mean is: at the moment I happen to memorise them without 'trying' and only when I have been practicing them for say something like 3 or 4 months (these are pieces which are a little hard to me hence why I spend so long on them), and I was wondering whether I should instead make an effort to focus more on them and memorise them earlier, would that benefit me more in some way rather than to 'leave it to happen'?

October 6, 2011 at 11:56 AM ·

  <<<'leave it to happen'>>>

I joined an Old Time string band and I was going to 'leave it to happen'.....The music is so easy to sight read at tempo and I only wished to play it when we had our fortnightly meetings..This was so much fun for me, and eventually it would have happened. There was no hurry for me but the organisers require ' it is time assimilate'. So I'll just start my own orchestra, and we can take music on stage if we want.

But if one needs a repertiore....I practise memorising those pieces.


October 6, 2011 at 05:33 PM ·

Trevor Jennings wrote: "The "rule", as far as classical music is concerned, does not usually apply to duets, or larger ensembles, or double concertos, because these are collaborative performances and there is an essential interaction between the performers."

 But you could also conclude that especially in those cases where the interaction is more equal that it would be even more crucial to not be looking at the music because you would want to watch and react to what your colleagues are doing.

 There is a fine dance going on with all orchestra players, watching their section leaders and the music and the conductor and the same is true of  chamber music ( without the conductor) . I have been to a number of concerts where I felt it made no difference that the performer was using music. I saw Nikolai Znaider play the Elgar Concerto, which he has since recorded, with great passion and total conviction with music in front of him and this video online

of Janine Jansen playing  Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending , in my opinion, shows no lack of expressiveness and depth of understanding because the music is there in front of her. If she is looking at it, she is doing so very subtly and the music stand is far away and low so I don't consider it a visual distraction or an impediment to enjoying her performance. Having played this piece several times in public, with and without music, I can sympathize completely with the desire to have it there because of certain tricky similar passages and entrances that belie the easy going sound of the piece- it was actually one of the hardest things I had to learn to memorize.

I will say though that it is preferable not to have the music and to play "by heart from the heart"  but I do not draw conclusions that, in every case, a performer plays better without music than with. Each person must find his/her comfort level in this regard and there can be situations when, for all concerned, it is better that the performer use the music.


October 6, 2011 at 06:10 PM ·


That is exactly as I see it and I think you have provided a very good post in answer to the OP.

October 6, 2011 at 08:26 PM ·


if I recall correctly Richter always had the score in front of him,



October 6, 2011 at 09:37 PM ·

The story I heard was that Richter once had an embarrassing memory lapse in a solo recital and, possibly because of advancing years, didn't want to risk a repetition. Can't say I blame him.

October 6, 2011 at 10:11 PM ·

I memorise for two main reasons...


1) I have been taught to always memorise music, even chamber music (and play with the music in front of me later), because this way it is truly internalised...even if I am reading it later during a collaborative performance.

2) For practice reasons, it is helpful to be able to play in front of a mirror and study every aspect of my technique without having to flit my eyes to the score every few seconds.

October 7, 2011 at 06:27 AM ·

 Heather...have you been taught from the beginning....from your early violin days, also have you been taught to do this from when you first start learning a piece? and how do you do it?  How do you approach memorising a piece? Do you tell yourself you will only play say the first 4 bars until you have 'truly' memorised them and only then you will 'allow' yourself to start practicing the next 4 bars?

sorry about the questions and thank your for sharing.

October 7, 2011 at 10:01 PM ·

 I think when I play with music, my playing becomes more robotic and constricted.

 Without music, I'm free to perform.

October 8, 2011 at 03:31 AM ·

I think the reading of music and memorising it are equally important in the musicians bag of tricks/skills.Along with 'playing music by ear', they open the WHOLE world of music, and in each situation the music is played with the heart and soul. Everytime the music is played from memory, from the dots or by ear, it is always heard in the *Inner Ear*. This is how the healing tones of music are conveyed through the heart and soul.

One needs to decide on which pieces to memorise, read them through to discover any technical aspects to be polished. Play them well by reading, then commit them to the memory banks by hearing the melodic lines and imaging the executions of the physical aspects.For it is this mental aspect that prompts the physical actions like muscle twitches. 

October 8, 2011 at 05:06 AM ·

Just to add: even if you are not going to memorize a whole piece, memorization is a fantastic way to master short segments.  If you get stuck on a run or odd rhythm section take the time to memorize it - then play it with the music and its astonishing how easy it become.

Seems the act of memorization (can) involve also a great deal of analysis and, at least for me, it sidesteps the 'hangup' thats holding me back.

October 8, 2011 at 06:38 AM ·

I memorize everything, that gives it to my fingers and my mind can then be free to think of other things (hopefully not 'whats for dinner').  But I play concerti from memory and chamber from music 

October 8, 2011 at 06:52 AM ·

 I think it goes back to when chamber music was more popular, sonatas were often composed and performed quickly with very little time to memorize.  Beethoven even composed some pieces at 4 am before the concert

October 8, 2011 at 07:48 PM ·

I memorise a fair amount of music; eyes are not so hot these days. Also, you get a better understanding of the piece once you really "own" it.

I know some violinists who are "paper-trained". They can't play without music in front of them.

October 9, 2011 at 03:37 PM ·


  i like both reading, and playing from memory.

reading is great because it lets me play much more music than what i have memorized.

  playing from memory is great because of the confidence it gives and the  freedom to concentrate on the performance.


  memorization for me is a process that takes a long time depnding on the piece. some are easier to memorize than others.   when i first  try to play a piece from memory i find i can do maybe 80%.  So i work on the other 20%.  when i feel i have those down, i go back and try the piece and find that i mess up some that i was previously ok with.  So over a period of weeks or more, the ground keeps shifting between what  i think i know and what actually comes out right in a trial.  But the good news, is that it keeps getting better, and eventually, over a a sometimes quite long period of time, it finally all falls into place.  Then after weeks or months or years of not  playing it,  i go back to it and find i've lost some of it, and have to go back into the process to re-capture it.  But it's always a  lot faster this time around.

  It's definitely a great feeling to have successfully memorized a piece and perform it it public from memory.


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