To Play from Memory? – Or Not?

Opus Osm

Does memorizing the notes improve or hinder performance?

Ever wondered why some pianists play from memory, and others always use the sheet music? Pianist Pierre-Arnaud Dablemont shares an insider’s thoughts on the question.

For years, I’ve been hearing colleagues ask me why I was always playing the piano from memory, even when I could have the score in front of my eyes. In his last years, Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter used the music and convincingly spoke about it.

So why should I bother to memorize? If Richter thought it was convenient, I should probably back off and follow the master’s path. Yes, reading instead of remembering each note and indication of a score can seem easier. At least that’s what the temptation snake made me believe when he planted this idea in my head.

Opus Osm

After years of diligent study, are the notes all in there?

No possibility of memory lapse, no long hours in front of the score to remember it; cutting down 90% of stage fright, and all that without a major downside (other than relying on someone else’s ability to read a score: the page turner). Well, that sounds like a hell of an awesome deal! Isn’t it too good to be true?

I have very little experience with not playing by heart on stage: I’m mostly a lone wolf when it comes to performances, and not so long ago, bringing a score on the podium for a recital was kind of a capital offence. So, I rarely did it (well, I did it for some very complicated contemporary pieces), but this summer I felt exhausted and started to wonder if relying on my memory in such a state was a good idea. I then took the scores on stage.

And realized afterwards that it was a mistake.

First, I’m not used to having a stand between the strings and me. It completely modifies the sound projection. A different perception of sound and a different sonic result force the pianist to compensate, and he/she starts playing differently. I’ll spare you the details, but the day after I felt like I had been fighting with a piano all night: sore muscles, and no energy left after the recital.

Opus Osm

He finally realized the correct answer for him -- whether playing on stage or in the recording studio.

Then I found out how disturbing having a score in front of my eyes could be. Yes, it is disturbing, especially if you don’t really need it. When learning a score you develop mnemonic tricks, have a strategy, and don’t necessarily remember things exactly as they are written in the score. You sort of organize things differently so it easily makes sense to you. And when what you see is not what you remember, you start losing it and wondering which version is the right one, even if they are both right!

Last but not least: when I don’t play from memory I have the feeling I wasn’t able to properly decode the score. Let me be more precise. If I can’t learn it, it means that I don’t really understand how the work is built and how it works, which leaves me with the taste of an unfinished job. I feel insecure on stage and am much more stressed than if I was playing by heart because it seems to me that I don’t know the work at all.

As strange as it sounds, playing from the score can be a trap. At least from my point of view. This was an experiment and I don’t think I’ll do it again anytime soon. It was finally much more difficult to deal with than my classic way of doing things. I found it awkward and disturbing. Not really the expected outcome!

The moral is : sometimes traditions have a purpose and make sense! — oo

Pierre-Arnaud Dablemont is a graduate of The Prague Conservatory, now based in Brussels. He is currently recording a series of Beethoven piano pieces. This article originally appeared on his blog, Pianist Pierre-Arnaud Dablemont, Journal, Sept 25, 2013 and is used with permission.

Photo Credits: Miroslav Setnička

3 Comments

  1. Lynne DeMichele
    Posted January 29, 2014 at 11:13 pm

    Thank you for articulating so clearly your answer to the question of whether or not to use the sheet music during a piano performance. You apparently approach it in a much more nuanced, organic way than so many technical virtuosos who prefer to have that paper “barrier” between them and the strings. How I regret that I cannot hear you play! Just wish Opus Osm could have had an audio link, so I could hear what you’ve so well explained.

  2. Posted January 30, 2014 at 3:19 pm

    And there’s something more: You and I, when we read a book, can move it closer or farther away from our eyes, as needed. Not so for musicians! Depending on the length of the instrument (eg, piccolo vs timpani), there can be that annoying “middle space” between near-sightedness and far-sightedness, even with glasses, where the notes on the page are fuzzy. That’s where pianists run into trouble, as you can easily picture.
    Now for the good news: You can indeed hear Pierre-Arnaud Dablemont play by visiting his website at Pierre-Arnaud-Dablemont.com. And keep an eye (with or without glasses) on http://www.opusosm.com for our forthcoming video interviews with Pierre-Arnaud at the rehearsal room piano.
    Thanks for your comments!
    Mary Matz, editor

  3. Posted February 3, 2014 at 11:21 am

    Thank you Lynne for this nice comment! Mary said it all: you can of course listen to recordings on my websites or through your usual music shops (iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Spotify…) or even stumble upon a radio play of my latest album!

    And I would add also that these troubles seeing the score Mary is talking about often lead to muscular injuries for musicians (because of a head forward, or tilted, glasses not well-adapted…). When playing and looking at the score, we tend to keep our neck muscles tensed instead of having them relaxed and that can induce severe muscular compensation and postural imbalances in the body.

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