To Memorize or Not To Memorize

WEDNESDAY, August 19, 2020 – 11:19 AM

To Memorize or Not To Memorize

(I wrote this in September of 2014 and have no memory of anything I wrote, so I’ll update it.)

Some people memorize everything they play.

My suspicion is that these people never learn to read music well, unless they have photographic memory. In other words, if you can close your eyes and you still see the music, you are still reading the music, but no one else knows that. Let’s assume the people reading this don’t have that ability. I certainly do not.

Some people memorize only a few things they like very much, mostly when they want to show off.

I know quite a few people like this. They have two or three things they like to display in public, or at least for friends and family. Having a few things like this is by no means a bad idea. I even encourage.

Some people absolutely hate memorization and want no part of it.

I fall this group. Every day while teaching I play a great deal of my own music from memory, but that’s just because I don’t have the time to print out everything I’m teaching, and if I tried to read music from my computer screen while playing I’d break my neck.

How should you decide how much memorization is right for you?

The answer is that if you want to nail music, really play it as well as you can, you will have different experiences, depending on the music. Some music can’t be read. It demands that you look at your hands, so even if there is music on the rack, you won’t be reading it. You can’t. The hands jump around too much. Other music makes no such demands, so you can play it just as well looking at it.

What do professionals do?

They do what I do. They alternate between reading, eyes glued to the music, then mostly reading but partially from memory in tricky spots, then going to total memory for parts that are impossible to read at full speed. The whole time they will have music in front of them, but they will look down entirely during tricky spots, and those spots will be totally memorized.

Why do you see top players always without music?

You don’t, except when watching solo pianists in concert. When we play in groups, we always use music. It’s rude to the other musicians. If we have a lapse, we screw up the whole group.

Who started this “always play without music” thing?

Thank Franz Liszt. He was a monster musician and a rock star in his own time, but he was also insanely vain. It was very impressive to the ladies, and Franz loved the ladies. They swooned, fainted and moaned. He liked to show of his famous profile, and to do that he had to turn the piano sideways. Now the average person in the average audience thinks we play better without music. Usually this is flat-out not true, but you can’t tell that to the average person who is impressed by a lot of “show-biz” hype. So you see pianists with no music in solo concerts, and also playing piano concertos. But they rest of the time even the best in the world use music.

How about in pop music and jazz?

A lot of famous musicians read music poorly or not at all, so they have not choice. They have to play without music because they can’t read. This includes people like Paul McCartney, Irving Berlin, Dave Brubeck and Ella Fitzgerald. You will find absolutely awesome musicians in the “non-reading group”, but if you ask any non-reading if that is a good thing, every one of them will express regret at not knowing how to read music.

You will also usually see jazz musicians playing without music because so much of what the play is improvised. Since a lot of it is made up on the spot, you can’t read it. It would be like an improv comedian reading a script.

Here are a few guidelines…

Become a fast reader…

Reading speed is one of the biggest, if not the biggest factor in deciding whether to memorize. If you read very well and are able to play things in a manner that satisfies you without memorizing, then for you using music is is often optional. If you are a very slow reader, you have no choice but to memorize anything you play well, because you won’t be able to play anything full speed using only the score for cues.

Memory lapses are painful…

Playing from memory can also be very embarrassing if you have not been taught how to do it well. Losing your place for a moment with a score in front of you is just a momentary glitch. Forgetting what comes next while playing from memory in front of an audience can be terribly painful. Some people have a terrible experience playing from memory and never again want to play in front of anyone, even with music.

Practice playing publicly with music…

If you do want to perform from memory but also you also read well and already play with confidence with music, think about performing with music at least a few times to gain the feeling of success. Then, if you later play from memory and it does not go well, you will have prior successful experiences to focus on. You can continue to perform with music while learning more about *how* to memorize.

Photographic memory is just another kind of reading…

There are a few lucky people who play anything from memory with zero problems. Frequently they have photographic memory, so in a way they are not playing from memory. They are looking at the music “on the back of the eyelids”, so to speak. The rest of us who do not have such gifts need strategies to ensure that we are rock solid when we play from memory. It’s very important to be carefully prepared to play without music.

Speed and style play a huge role…

It’s far easier to use music for playing slow compositions than using music for fast ones. You have much more time to look up and down, from the score to the hands. In addition, when the hands do not move much and you can feel most of the movements your hands need to make without looking at them, memory doesn’t really help much. If you have to jump a great deal, especially with both hands at the same time, then memorization is much more helpful and sometimes absolutely necessary.

Get a page turner for performances.

No matter how well you read and play from a score, make sure you have a page-turner if you play in public. If what you are playing is more than two pages long, make sure your music is secure. (AC vents and fans can blow the music off the rack.) Also, do a dress rehearsal with the page turner, and make sure your page turner turns the pages at the right time.

7 thoughts on “To Memorize or Not To Memorize”

  1. Great post. I don’t understand why playing with music causes so much controversy, it should be left up to the individual. Is it only pianists that this applies to?

    Memory lapses are painful…

    Been there…

  2. My first goal was to learn to read music, and in a real way. Having a foot planted well in the door, I also want to have memorized some music, and refine this. I want to be able to do both. As you say, there are some passages where you can’t have your eyes glued to the page. Also, if I’m somewhere else and there’s a piano, I’d like to be able to just play it, and not be stopped because I have no sheet music with me. I think, however, that having a grasp and understanding of your music – the parts, chords, structure – is part of this, rather than just some rote magical fingers created through repetition.

  3. This is a great example of what happens when children are taught to mimic. Reading is killed, and it is often difficult or impossible to fix that problem.

    There is a huge difference between rote, copying with the eyes, and playing by ear. Playing by ear is wonderful.

    You might think of reading very well, which is following music that you might never hear and have never seen before, as one huge part of becoming a great musician.

    The other side is learning how to play what you have never seen, something that does not exist in written form. Those two skills, learning to play what you hear and learning to play what you see, eventually work together for a complete musician.

    But playing in the manner of the young boy you describe is usually destructive, because reading is destroyed before it has time to develop.

    Memorization is all about adding an extra step at the right time. The whole idea is for memorization to be icing on the cake, not the cake.

  4. Mom for Joshua W.

    We recently watched a TV Show highlighing a 7 year old boy who plays by ear. He basically watches his father’s fingers and immulates what he sees. He plays brilliantly, but does not read music. I asked Joshua how he felt about it and he said he would rather learn to read music instead of memorizing.

  5. I read well and do not play for anyone. Although I do not want to memorize whole pieces, it would be helpful to memorize certain measures.
    The problem is that I have never been taught how to do this. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

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