Doomed by Memory ?

May 20, 2016 at 02:38 PM · I have been contemplating my violin playing and, in particular, the memorizing of music.

Is the ability to memorize tied into a high level of musical talent ?

I have never seen an orchestra without music stands but I've never seen a soloist using one. ?

Replies (44)

May 20, 2016 at 02:44 PM · That why the soloists get the big bucks!

May 20, 2016 at 03:44 PM · Maybe it's because solo musicians play their repertoire so much they just naturally memorize it without much effort. I wonder if that's the case with orchestral musicians except they simply use music anyway.

May 20, 2016 at 03:58 PM · Patricia Kopatchinskaja is a world-class soloist who routinely performs with the sheet music in front of her. She obviously knows her concertos by heart, but she says the sheet music helps her to stay focused throughout the performance.

May 20, 2016 at 04:31 PM · Another factor with orchestras: The conductor and string section leaders will often decide on -- and direct whole sections to pencil into the score -- certain bowings and accents -- sometimes at the last minute. And who knows what details the conductor may throw at the brasses and woodwinds at the 11th hour? You can’t expect a whole section, let alone the whole orchestra, to commit all these details to memory -- especially given the short intervals common between first rehearsal and performance in, let’s say, a major American orchestra like CSO or NYP. Add to that the fact that next week brings a completely different program.

Of course, the CSO and NYP don’t have to learn a Beethoven symphony. This repertoire is old hat to them -- the players have already been through it many times before in their professional careers. But how many of them could pull it off from memory -- even without having to watch for last-minute details like two penciled-in up-bows in a row? I can’t begin to imagine the chaos that would follow if you had 90-100 players on stage attempting this.

Some soloists do keep the score open -- just in case. I’ve seen this a few times. But the ones I’ve seen don’t dwell on the score. It’s there as a safety net. When you have time, check out this YouTube clip of Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto, KV 291. Soloist Aligi Voltan has the score open. The camera captures at least one of his page turns. Run time: 16:50.

May 20, 2016 at 05:35 PM · If you're going to study a concerto or other solo piece with a view to performance then almost inevitably you'll find that the amount of intensive detailed work you put into it over a period of weeks or months will result in the music becoming embedded in your memory. You should also be studying the score at a level such that you always know what everyone else is doing, as the conductor does (or should do). Not unlike an actor learning a part for a stage play.

There seems to be some sort of tradition, almost a set of rules, as to whether you perform with or without the music. A solo pianist almost always plays from memory, whereas an organist usually has the music in front of him, and in some complex pieces may also have an assistant to control various stops on cue. A solo violinist almost always plays a concerto from memory, but I've yet to come across a performance of the Bach Double, the Brahms Double, the Beethoven Triple, or the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante where the soloists didn't play from the sheet music. The fundamental rule is that there are always exceptions to the other rules.

String quartets usually play from the music, but not always. I've seen a 12-piece professional chamber ensemble in Bristol play a 2-hour concert without the music, and all standing, except for the two cellists.

Conductors of course are a law unto themselves. Most have the score in front of them, but some don't. This can result in some entertainment. At one concert at Bristol's Colston Hall our conductor came up to the rostrum to find that the librarian had forgotten to put the score on the stand. The expression on the conductor's face mercifully wasn't seen by the audience, but he got through the first half without mishap. Tommy Beecham regularly conducted from memory, but on one occasion, when the concert opened with a Beethoven overture, the CM leaned over to Sir Tommy a couple of bars into the music and whispered to him that he was conducting the wrong Beethoven overture.

May 20, 2016 at 06:30 PM · I find that I can start doing the work sooner or later, but that the piece starts coming together in ways it didn't before when I am practicing from memory. I try and work on new sections earlier in the process by memory than I used to, by playing something, hearing it in my head, trying to get as much detail in my mind, then playing it without the music, and going back to the music if there was something that I didn't grasp. This doesn't mean I will necessarily perform from memory, but I think it's good to try and internalize all the details as early as possible so that I'm able to hear it better in my head and imagine myself playing. I find it helps me focus on deeper aspects in my practice.

It's good to force yourself to start doing it, because while it doesn't necessarily come easy, you get better at it the more you do it. If I only started applying that to Kreutzer etudes...

May 20, 2016 at 06:31 PM · I have even seen soloists playing by themselves use music, especially if it was written within the last century. Check out this video:

I would say try to memorize everything that is not chamber music ( including sonatas ), or a multiple-instrument concerto, because it, in my opinion makes it easier to connect with the audience, but unless it is specifically required of you, I would say it is up to you as there seems to be a large variation even with famous musicians.

May 20, 2016 at 07:59 PM · Yes, some orchestras play by heart:

Check their other videos under "The Galileo Project"

Also, another project:

Worst of all, they are currently working on new project, memorizing EVERYTHING!

By the way, I think it was Mr. Liszt who started playing without score for the very first time - that was apparently a huge surprising shock for the audience.

May 21, 2016 at 12:44 AM · All the pro orchestral musicians came through the "system" learning the concertos and all the other stuff, memorizing it all the whole way.

Chamber musicians have the music in front of them but those that rehearse and perform together regularly will have it completely or mostly memorized anyway. These people get to the point where the music is more of a distraction -- reading takes mental bandwidth that they need to just play their instruments. And actually for a young student, that point does not come at a super high level. I would say by Suzuki Book 4 or so, memorization is an advantage to the player. Maybe even from the very beginning.

It is harder to acclimate to memorization as an adult if you did not do this as a child. At least I find it so. But we amateurs really do not need to bother so much with memorization. If I give a recital, trust me: the biggest issue is not going to be whether I have a music stand on stage or not. Every six months I perform in an adults-only recital and then I memorize my piece, but one concerto movement is the most I would do because there are typically a dozen performers or so. There's one coming up, and I'll be playing Paganini's "Cantabile," which is one page. In the fall my plan is to have the first movement of Mozart 5 ready, with the Joachim cadenza. I've been working on it already for some months, but it's not yet memorized.

May 21, 2016 at 11:41 AM · This seems like an innate ability that everyone has but requires work to develop.

I have a dozen short works memorized (24 bars is about the average length) and, in all cases, I need to "play them back" in my head a split second before sounding the notes. If I just start playing and do not focus on hearing the music in my head, things tend to go adrift in a hurry.

Have you tried playing a few bars until you can reproduce them in your mind's ear without actually playing them on an instrument?

May 21, 2016 at 01:23 PM · My son sings with the Tanglewood Chorus. They use no printed music. They also sing in the native tongue of the Composer. (Mission Impossible ! )

The attitude of the "management" is that one can not sing and watch sheet music at the same time!

I also believe that memorization enhances artistic freedom.

I once saw the repertoire of an opera star. Some dozen plus operas. Impressive!

Love Tafelmusic Baroque sound.

Carmen T. You are describing my modus operandi BUT I did nothing in particular to make it happen. If I can hear the tune then I just play by ear. (excluding Db ! )

Galileo demonstrates what great things can happen with focussed qualified musicians and no conductor

(or other distractions :) (such as printed music!).

May 21, 2016 at 02:43 PM · Darlene, to answer you original question, I do not think that memorizing music is a manifestation of musical talent. There are some musicians blessed with photographic memory, but it just happened that they are in this field.

There are numerous techniques for memorizing, and mnemonic has been around for some time now. One can associate different parts of music with entrance to a house, items in the living room, meeting a host, colors, smells etc. One can even associate music with what other instruments are playing; for example: question - answer, a hypothesis - confirmation, doubt - no doubt... The possibilities are endless.

It is astonishing how music education often neglects those aspects; one is supposed to know how to memorize just anything.... when in fact, memorizing is embedded in true music making, once we stop playing just notes, but assume a role and tell the story.

May 21, 2016 at 05:33 PM · All of my public performances have been in churches where formalities have not been important. Sheet music or not.

However, the artistic freedom of memorization is becoming more appealing all the time.

May 22, 2016 at 09:44 AM · I think the issue for me is that whether a performer is using music or not makes little or no difference to the impact on the audience - whereas playing in tune, correct notes, with good sound etc. makes a huge difference.

I have seen David Golub (piano) and Josef Suk playing major concertos from music, and I believe Clifford Curzon used to. None of these players were exactly lacking in talent. On the other hand I once heard Alfred Brendel get in a terrible mess playing without music (late in his career). I would have enjoyed his performance much more if he had used music.

The great Smetana quartet began their careers playing without music, but switched to using music in order to widen their repertoire. I'm not aware that it affected their performances. (The Janacek, Kolisch and Zehetmair quartets all played without music as well).

On the odd occasion I performed duo sonatas I used music although I didn't need it, because the pianist did need it. I didn't want to look as if I was playing a 'solo' of some kind. If I was playing a bona fide solo piece I would play without music. I never had to make an effort to memorise anything (including orchestral parts on many occasions) and I don't think I had any extraordinary talent - quite the reverse. My memory was not literally photographic - I have successfully memorised pieces where I have never seen the music.

So I think it depends on the circumstances, and what enables that particular performer to be at their best, regardless of their talent.

May 22, 2016 at 02:07 PM · Alfredo Campoli always insisted on having the music in front of him when playing sonatas because the pianist also had the music. Few people knew that without his glasses (which he did not wear when performing) he couldn't see the music.

May 22, 2016 at 02:36 PM · I always chuckle a little when I see a violinist have the music for sonatas just so they're not "upstaging" the pianist ... but then they don't turn the pages.

May 22, 2016 at 04:06 PM · Paul

I like your introduction of the concept "mental bandwidth".

We all just watched a special amateur contest where all contestants played from memory and I consider this to be an important element of their performance.

( Meanwhile, I diligently watch for the church organist to turn two pages at a time but she is bullet proof. )

May 22, 2016 at 06:07 PM · Orchestral and chamber musicians probably have far more different works to play than established soloists, with fewer practice-hours per work....

And playing from the score release us from the worry of "was that right?"' and "what's next?". Liberating!

May 22, 2016 at 09:44 PM · "Mental bandwidth". I experienced this a couple of years ago when I was attending a workshop on playing for English country dancing (mostly Playford music). A couple of weeks before the workshop I received in the mail a booklet of the tunes we were going to play - some 90 pieces in all. I looked through and realized I already had about 70 of them in my memory.

Then came the morning of the workshop, when we rehearsed the tunes. Like everyone else I played from the music on my stand, and soon found I was making silly little mistakes in tunes I knew well. What was happening was that looking at the music when I already had it in my head was evidently causing some sort of distraction in my memory circuits. The solution was not to look at the music for the tunes I did know and only use the score for sight-reading the tunes I didn't know. Which is what I did in the afternoon when we were playing for the dancing.

When I was having lessons my teacher would often ask me to prepare a page of Suzuki, or something else (Dvorak Op 100 comes to mind for some reason) to play from memory at the next lesson in two weeks time. I found this a great help.

May 23, 2016 at 03:25 AM · Some teachers have their students memorize their etudes just because it's typically a quite manageable quantity of music (a page or two) and the fingerings and bowings are often obvious. My childhood teacher only asked me to memorize a total of about 6 pieces during my entire childhood.

I didn't invent the term "mental bandwidth" but unfortunately I forget where I heard it (which is sometimes proposed as the definition of originality).

May 23, 2016 at 06:45 AM ·

Playing from memory is far better; sure, some can sound good with the music in front of them, but I am sure they would sound better without the sheet music.

The problem is, most don't know how to memorize things or are poor at it.

Rote or mnemonics are not great memory techniques. Rote over stimulates the mind, and mnemonics slows recall: it becomes harder to make the memory fluent.

Variation is the key to memorizing and fast recall. Also strengthening your music memory is very important. Our goals should be to strengthen memory areas instead of using techniques that could weaken the mind over time.

May 23, 2016 at 08:29 AM · In a prepared solo, we can (should) rely on sound and sensation, but the printed score can be a safeguard against mishaps and distractions, like having a road map on the passenger seat for a quick glance. (I'm not yet into "satnavs"!) Really reading from the score blocks head and eye movement, ruins posture, and distracts from the music. The score should only be a visual "trigger" for "knowing the tune" and "playing by ear" (under a benignly watchful eye!)

May 23, 2016 at 09:35 AM · I don't want to belabor the issue, but I am a big fan of Patricia Kopatchinskaja, who always performs with the sheet music. Several times people have referred to using the sheet music as a safety net or safeguard, but Kopatchinskaia really uses the sheet music actively. During the whole performance she is intensely focusing on the sheet music, it is her way of getting totally focused and immersed in the music during her performance.

May 23, 2016 at 12:41 PM · We seem to be forgetting that there are other instruments and musicians ? I think as a generalization that the pros are paperless. Perhaps that is part of being regarded as a soloist in the first place ?

My music is much better without sheet music but my memory span is about one week.

Just maybe, the pros play the same programs often enough to "burn-in" the music ?

May 23, 2016 at 01:09 PM · I'll bet the pros bring the music with them, of the things they're going to perform, when they travel.

I remember seeing a violinist play an encore at a concert and she used the music. It might have been "flight of the bumblebee" or some such. My teacher is in the orchestra, so I asked him about it, and he told me that there was a miscommunication and the orchestra had prepared the wrong version. I confess that without this explanation I would have been kind of disappointed.

May 23, 2016 at 03:41 PM · Playing a duet with both players using sheet music can have its little disasters, too. Many years ago I was giving a cello recital in which the main work was Beethoven's 5th sonata. Halfway through the first movement the pianist inadvertently turned over two pages, realized her mistake and turned back three. We stopped and restarted. The audience knew that something had gone awry, but not quite what.

Moral: next time make sure you engage a page turner who knows their job and is at the dress rehearsal!

May 23, 2016 at 04:09 PM · The power of a good memory is shown by this event:

The Portuguese concert pianist Maria Joao Pires expected to play Mozart's K467 in a public lunchtime concert in Amsterdam (no rehearsal, apparently) but then to her horror the orchestra played K466 which she hadn't performed for a long time. However, as the orchestra played it all came back to her and she gave an immaculate performance.

Here's a good YT link (there are others):

May 23, 2016 at 06:25 PM · WOW !

May 23, 2016 at 07:43 PM · For some strange reason, wind soloists aren't always expected to play without music.

May 24, 2016 at 02:56 PM · The issue is not really whether or not one can memorize music. Most people of even average talent can with enough effort. It's not soloists who need mental flexibility--it's the orchestra.

The issue, and one which actually makes being a symphonic musician more difficult in some respects, is "working memory": the need to remember many small details in a short time and apply them consistently. I've sat In orchestras with stand partners who would consistently make the same mistakes. At high levels, it's ok to make a mistake. But musicians who make the same mistake again are an annoyance. Some people mark their part...and still make the same mistake. In a long piece with a short rehearsal cycle, like and opera, you have to simply remember all the details and tempi. There's no time to do it over and over.

This is also true in teaching. We all have students who can't remember what we said five minutes ago, and those that refuse to make the same mistakes twice (it's the latter that end up in conservatory).

The whole discussion is true in any high-level career, whether you go into law or medicine or whatever. Just imagine being in a courtroom waiting to cross-examine and you forget what the witness said two minutes ago. You may have memorized every law in the books, but without short-term memory you will be sunk.

Not to start a new topic, but as smoking dope gains in acceptance, anyone who needs to rely on their memory might want to consider the effects...

May 24, 2016 at 04:59 PM · Anyone who has worked in a mental hospital will tell you that a significant number of the not-quite-so-young patients (often male) have had a history of drug abuse, including cannabis. Although the cannabis and tobacco plants are botanically closely related, nicotine from tobacco is rapidly excreted from the body whereas cannabinoids (active chemicals in cannabis) tend to linger in brain tissue. An obvious conclusion is not difficult to draw. There are of course many other chemicals derived from both plant species which are physiologically dangerous in other ways, notably carcinogeny.

May 24, 2016 at 05:06 PM · "This is also true in teaching. We all have students who can't remember what we said five minutes ago, and those that refuse to make the same mistakes twice (it's the latter that end up in conservatory)".

Good to hear from someone in the pedagogical trenches. No surprise.

And by the way ..... I used to have a friend in a forum who played in a Broadway pit band. His message was that sight reading was the smart approach because the management had cut rehearsal hours.

( Do they get paid for rehearsals?)

May 24, 2016 at 05:26 PM · Trevor

I never considered mental health but what else could explain contemporary music?

I avoid acting as a critic being I have not understood the words to anything since the Beatles.

I am working on an interesting way to improve memory ... maybe. Is it fair to say that memorization of music is really remembering a tune/melody and then playing it by ear ?

May 25, 2016 at 09:46 PM · I think ideally, yes. But I find some "semi-visual" clues such as where I was on the page (blurred..) or a sort of map of the piece. And then practicing successfully makes one fully aware of the physical sensations, which add to the total memory.

May 26, 2016 at 12:38 AM · Montreal Competition..... wonderful to hear and no "props" !

May 27, 2016 at 11:27 AM · My first night in the dance hall under La Coupole restaurant in Paris, I sight-read 40 tangos and waltzes with a microphone 3 inches from my violin, with (badly) hand-written scores with clef and key-signatures on the first line only.. I didn't know I could improvise in public.

Splitting headache, though.

May 27, 2016 at 08:17 PM · Adrian, just as well you're weren't playing your viola - with clef and key signature on the first line only! I wouldn't put that trick past a copyist who's trying meet a deadline.

May 28, 2016 at 01:23 AM · Re: "These people get to the point where the music is more of a distraction -- reading takes mental bandwidth that they need to just play their instruments."

I think that's what sparked my current ability to memorize. When I play piano, reading two lines of music simultaneously is too much for my mental bandwidth. Now my memory starts to store the music as soon as I'm learning to play, whether it's piano, violin ...

I am in awe of people who can sight read difficult pieces really well.

May 28, 2016 at 09:42 AM · Trevor - I like the Pires story. I wonder if that kind of thing happens more often than audiences realise. Slightly off topic but reminds me of a similar story (I've no idea if it's actually true)- pianist and conductor walk onto the platform then signal each other to start. Turned out that the pianist thought they were playing Beethoven 5, the orchestra was waiting for the soloist to start Beethoven 4! What they ended up playing was not recorded. A pity it wasn't the other way round - we would have had bitonal Beethoven! Violinistic equivalent - Prokofiev 1 and 2? Bartok 1 and 2?

May 28, 2016 at 02:53 PM · The old-school "rules" for using music or not were, concerto-no, sonata or chamber music-yes, orchestra-yes, solo (Bach etc.)-no.

These days, these "rules" are not quite as rigid. Memorizing is not (contrary to what many believe) a sign that the performer is a better musician. Most advanced players will memorize a piece simply through hours of practicing it, so by the time the performance comes around, it is memorized whether they tried to do it or not.

I saw somewhere above a few words about practicing from memory. IMO, this is a giant mistake. One should never practice from memory unless he is doing so to practice memorizing. The practice room is where players need to play all the notes correctly over and over, and the risk of playing wrong notes or dynamics is too great when practicing from memory.

May 29, 2016 at 07:09 AM · When I am instructed to begin a new piece by my teacher, a new scale or a new arpeggio, I play their recording over and over and have it play while I am doing housework, while I am cleaning and polishing my violin, as I fall asleep at night, etc. I also have the written music out and follow it with the music. I then begin playing one bar at a time. I find that listening to it with the whole body participating, listening with this added weight, resonating and vibrating not just though my ears and into my head but my whole body while in a relaxed frame with flowing breathing. This helps to open up the body to the sound while actively and intentionally listening.

May 29, 2016 at 09:51 PM · Memorization seems to come more easily for some people than others. I think performers should be able to choose whether to use the music or not, whichever works better for them.

I've had a few experiences of hearing a performance by an otherwise good musician who had difficulty with memorization but felt pressured to perform without the score, and had memory glitches or even had to stop and start over. As an audience member, I would have much preferred they they used the score and played confidently. I would find it much less distracting and it would save me from having a sympathetic nervous stomach!

May 30, 2016 at 01:48 PM · Sviatoslav Richter. one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century, apparently had an embarrassing memory lapse in a recital and ever after played with the music in front of him, even if he didn't necessarily use it all the time.

Over a lifetime of orchestral playing I have witnessed probably a dozen or so memory lapses by a soloist, ranging from the almost imperceptible (such as when the conductor very briefly held his score in front of the solo cellist, which was noticed only by first desks of the strings and no-one else), or in Tchaikovsky's piano concerto 1 in which the soloist was put off course by a mistimed woodwind entry, briefly stopped, nodded to the conductor and restarted the section a few bars before (most of the audience didn't notice), to more recently a piano concerto where the young soloist completely lost it in the last movement and had to consult with the conductor, the two of them poring over the score for half a minute - but on restarting the movement it all went perfectly.

I don't recollect any solo violinist I've worked with having a noticeable memory problem during a concerto - but a note slightly out of tune, a missed note here and there, yes, that happens to everyone (even the great H as he has said himself, but he was quick enough to correct a mistake before anyone was aware of it).

May 30, 2016 at 06:29 PM · Actually, I would be very forgiving of a minor flaw considering the courage to play in the first place and then, maybe, a heroic rescue.

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