Why must soloists play from memory when the orchestra has scores?

Why must soloists play from memory when the orchestra has scores?


norman lebrecht

October 19, 2019

A challenge from San Francisco Symphony organist Jonathan Dimmock:

It was 1856 and Clara Schumann was newly widowed. She hadn’t seen her husband, Robert, for several years; his ragings, during his institutionalization, specifically made clear that he did not wish to see her. But as a new, and young, widow, still with many of their nine children at home to feed, she needed to display some degree of cleverness in order to continue the lifestyle she was accustomed to. So she decided to return to her former love, the piano. Robert had snatched her away from the promise of a career as a concert pianist; now she would return to it. But she was no longer a child prodigy, and the competition to be noticed as a pianist was fierce. She decided to do something that, in the end, would change the nature of solo performing for the foreseeable future. She decided to perform from memory.

The critics were outraged! That she, a woman!, would have the audacity to do something as bold as that was surely to be condemned. But the male pianists of the day saw it differently. They knew that their prowess, even their male virility, was at stake; they could not allow a female to show them up! And so the cult of piano memorization was born….

Read on here.



  • MusicBear88 says:

    I didn’t play any solo piano pieces in public for ten years because I had memory problems that were made worse by medication. I finally decided that I could not play memorized or I could just say “screw it” and play whatever I damn well wanted to with a score in front of me. If I know the piece well enough to perform, I’m only using the score a small percentage of the time anyway, but it takes an enormous worry off of my mind and lets me just perform.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Sounds sensible to me. Having rehearsed it the score is really no more than a reminder or prompt giving reassurance. No performer these days is actually sight-reading it (well, I would hope not).

  • Greg Bottini says:

    I’m in total agreement with my friend Jonathan Dimmock.
    (I’ve heard him play a number of times at St. Ignatius in S.F., and through his offices, I have as a recordist-producer recorded piano music in the lovely sanctuary.)
    Memorization is a strain for many musicians under concert conditions, and an unneeded one.
    Use the sheet music if it helps you! Musicians in the orchestra have the music in front of them, and no one bats an eyelash when conductors use the score.
    I’ve seen violin and piano recitals, with major-league players, where sheet music was used.
    So what’s wrong with a soloist using the music?
    I know from personal experience as a long-time professional musician that many conductors and soloists have the music on the stand only as a psychic crutch; they never really need to look at it – its mere presence is enough.
    Give yourselves a break, fellow musicians!

  • Scott Fruehwald says:

    I study and write on the brain and learning. I have never heard of this before: “Looking, for example, at various systems that help us understand our genetic code (such as the Jovian method), we can see 16 possible patterns that constitute the way our brains assimilate knowledge. Each person has only one of these, for life!” I would love to know what your source is for this statement. Thanks.

  • sam says:

    It does show, the same soloists who play from memory when they play from a score sound stiffer, like they’re sight reading.

    And these same soloists don’t play from memory when playing chamber music. Why? It offers a clue as to why the orchestra plays with a score: because in chamber music also, there are dull moments of accompaniment that is much more boring to memorize.

    Finally: Conductors conducting from memory is pure gimmickry, if a soloist forgets a single note, the result is immediately clear, if a conductor forgets an entire movement, all he has to do is to keep waving his arms.

    • John Borstlap says:

      But what about a score-less conductor who totally forgot the piece he was going to perform, just at the moment the orchestra is waiting for his first signalling?

      When Stravinsky played his own piano concerto in the twenties and had to begin the 2nd movement as a soloist, he had no idea how the music went and had to ask the conductor who sang the melody for him, after which he picked it up. And he wrote the music. So, better have a score in front of you.

  • Scott Fruehwald says:

    I emailed the author, and he replied, “The reference I was talking about is laid out here:

    This is a system that combines a number of ancient systems, Kabbalah, I Ching, Hindu Chakra, Astrology, and synthesizes some pretty interesting concepts. The 16 variables that I mentioned are briefly outlined here: https://www.humandesignlifecoaching.com/blog/2017/3/11/human-design-variable-practical-transformation

    In other words, the whole article is based on mystical gibberish, which I suspected when I first read it. In recent years, cognitive scientists have made great advances in understanding how the brain learns. There is no need to rely on mystical gibberish!

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      There is a lot of factual error in the comments about Clara and Robert Schumann. Much wider reading required. I stopped with this article.

      Typical cultural revisionism: “snatched her away” from a concert career. Victimhood for Clara; I don’t think so. She was the muse for two of the greatest composers of the 19th century – Schumann and Brahms. She was a woman of HUGE influence.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        There are lots of rather odd comments about social class etc as well. In fact, most of what is written is rather odd.

  • Esther Cavett says:

    Re: cult of memorization, I once saw the great Gidon Kremer play that old warhorse Brahms Concerto with the music in front of him – and it was none the worse for that.

    With age, Clifford Curzon and Richter always insisted having the music.

    And at the Chirac funeral the other week, Barenboim SHOULD have had the notes in front of him. What a car crash that was. I wonder how many mistakes he makes cue-wise etc when he insists on conducting, say, Bruckner VIII from memory ! They’re just not as audible

    • Alexander Tarak says:

      There’s a lot of b.s. in Barenboim’s gestures on the podium.

    • John Rook says:

      And at the Chirac funeral the other week, Barenboim SHOULD have had the notes in front of him. What a car crash that was. I wonder how many mistakes he makes cue-wise etc when he insists on conducting, say, Bruckner VIII from memory ! They’re just not as audible.

      Bravo. Well said.

  • Guest says:

    Jonathan Dimmock is wrong. Clara Schumann started playing by heart very early, as a young girl. It is enough to be familiar with her biography to know that.

  • Furzwängler says:

    I thought it was Liszt who, during his touring virtuoso years, began the tradition of performing from memory?

    • John Rook says:

      He turned the piano sideways first of all, so everyone could see his hands. Your point about playing from memory did cross my mind, too; I can’t imagine he’d have used music as a young, pop star virtuoso.

      • Paul Carlile says:

        No, the first “sideways” pianist was Jan Ladislav Dussek, partly to solve the problem of which way to sit in a public concert hall, (as opposed to private salons, until then the principal type of venue), and also cos his profile was notable; “Le beau Dussek…” was admired visually as well as musically! Liszt followed on willingly.

  • Esther Cavett says:

    A bit off-topic but a great quote from Birtwistle in today’s Times:

    ““Practice makes perfect, they say. Nobody practised more than I did. There’s a whole stream of musicians who don’t practise, don’t need to practise. I needed to practise. And I can tell you one thing — practice does not make perfect. It makes you a bit better.”

    • Daniel Poulin says:

      Just an add-on: Glenn Gould never practiced much. Also, he always played without the score, which annoyed some of his fellow musicians. Case in point: he once played Brahms Piano Quintet in Montreal with the Montreal String Quartet. One of the members (the 2 Joachim) told me that he felt very bad thinking that Gould was “…showing off”. The only time that he may have played with the score was in St.Louis where he was the soloist in the Beethoven complete piano cycle, including the Triple Concerto. I once asked the cellist Leslie Parnas what it was like playing with Gould and he told me he thought Gould had the score on the piano. That was the only time Gould played the Triple; and the only time he used (?) the score. I, for one, doubt that he did.

      • Malcolm Kottler says:

        Apropos Glenn Gould playing from memory.

        Kevin Bazzana writes in his book, The Life and Art of Glenn Gould (pp. 224-225):
        “He [Gould] made a breakthrough with his first talk-and-play special, The Subject is Beethoven, taped in 1960 and broadcast on February 6, 1961. He spoke briefly about Beethoven–he worked hard on his script–gave an exciting performance of the ‘Eroica’ Variations, and joined Leonard Rose in the Op. 69 cello sonata. The producer, Franz Kraemer, had heard them play the sonata at Stratford and insisted that they commit their interpretation to tape. Good thing: it may be the finest chamber-music collaboration in which Gould ever participated. Rose recalled, more than twenty years later, that his music stand proved to be a problem for the cameramen at the rehearsal. He had the sonata memorized, but, he told Kraemer, ‘Glenn is using the music.’ Gould jumped in at once: ‘Leonard, do you want to play it from memory? I’ll play it with you from memory tomorrow.’ And he did.”

        Steven Honigberg in his book, Leonard Rose, America’s Golden Age and Its First Cellist, writes about the same event, quoting Leonard Rose (pp. 245-246):

        “at one concert (Beethoven’s A Major Sonata), the television people from the CBC decided they wanted to make a production out of this performance. On the appointed day, Glenn and I arrived in Toronto. At one point in the rehearsal, which was before the camera, the producer came out and said, ‘Leonard, that stand, that music stand, is giving us fits. Do you, by any chance, know the piece from memory?’ The taping of the performance was the next day and while I assured the producer that I did know the piece from memory, I said ‘Glenn may need the music.’ Upon which Glenn said, ‘Oh, Leonard, do you want to play the piece from memory–I’ll have it from memory tomorrow.’ And, of course, he did! He had that kind of mind.”

      • esfir ross says:

        On video Y. Menihin plays C.Franck sonata with his sister Hefsiba and both without scores. I heard them in Kishinev 1960 and Hefsiba stole the show-excellent pianist.

    • esfir ross says:

      We practice to achieve perfection.Sound like D.Barenboim didn,t practice for Chirac funeral.

  • John Rook says:

    Very interesting piece. I remember seeing (and hearing) Clifford Curzon play a Mozart concerto with the score at the RFH in the 1970s. You could barely see the notes for all his annotations, cross-references and other didascalies he’d added. Further to that, I could barely see him for cigarette smoke in his dressing room at the interval. Lovely bloke and a great artist.

    • Fritz Curzon says:

      Very true about the music- but not so sure about the smoke- He certainly gave up many years before he died in 1982. Of course the interval probably came after the Mozart so that green room visitors may have contributed the clouds.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      Thank you, John, for the word “didascalies”!
      I did not know it, and I had to look it up, but what a wonderful word!
      I shall add it to my vocabulary, if I can remember it.

  • Carlos Solare says:

    It was 1856 and Franz Liszt had been performing piano recitals from memory for twenty years…

    But of course he only did it to assert his “male virility” (are there any other kinds of virility, one wonders?) and “penetrate” (Mr. Dimmock’s term, not mine; one wonders on…) the world of concerto performance.

    A friend of mine used to say that pianists play from memory, even if they don’t know the piece by heart, while harpsichordists play from the music, even if they do.

    On the other hand, if you look like the pianist in the thumbnail, no one will notice, or care, whether you are using a score!

  • Hilary says:

    Fascinating article which resonates with my own experience.
    I’m a very good improviser (in some styles) but memorisation has never come easily.

  • christopher storey says:

    This is a very interesting article with personal resonances for me, because I have been a reasonably accomplished amateur pianist , playing a wide selection of the classical and romantic repertoire, particularly Bach, some Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann , Chopin, some Brahms, some Rachmaninoff, some Liszt – and yet I have never in 67 years of playing ever once managed to play in its entirety a piece from memory . This is very frustrating because of course some of the music is technically difficult and therefore really has to be played from memory – perhaps this article gives me the clue as to why this is my lot!

  • John Borstlap says:

    The picture under this post reveals that the pianist has failed to check her dress before getting on stage.

    As for the article, indeed memorization is rather pointless because we don’t hear it. But for some performers, playing from memory may give much more expressive freedom, and the feeling of ‘being one with the work’.

    It is doubtful whether, as the article states, music by Beethoven and the Romantics are ‘about’ the composer, what he feels, his struggles, his suffering and longing for redemption etc. etc. Isn’t it rather that in such kind of music, the composer’s subjective experience is transformed into something universal, so that any listener can identify with it, can recognize his/her own experience in it? In this sense, the music is not ‘about’ the composer at all, he merely opens the door to the listener’s own awareness of experience. So, resonance rather than information.

  • Memory man says:

    Uh, because the soloist is playing the same work over and over within a season, and the orchestra has to play new works each week.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Pop music is always played from memory since the musicians can not read music. This is pretty much true of Jazz too.

  • Brian says:

    And a century later the arguably greatest pianist of his era (Richter) came along and put the page-turner back to work.

    • Alexander Tarak says:

      Sviatoslav Richter started having problems with his hearing in his later years. He no longer heard notes at the right pitch i.e. when playing a G he would hear a G sharp, which interfered with his playing.
      That is the main reason he started using a score.
      (According to his diaries ).

    • Peter says:

      I’ve had the experience of turning pages for a pianist who I soon realised was not looking at the music. It, and I, was the safety net, which I didn’t mind of course. Happy to do whatever helps the performance. But it means I didn’t get any indications of whether to turn earlier or later, which was disconcerting.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        Since the soloist will have rehearsed the piece, and likely played it many times before, he/she will almost always be using the score as a safety net and reminder of what comes next.

    • Paul Carlile says:

      I enjoyed Richter much more in his pre-score-dependence years, more freedom, more imagination, more tonal color and variety. He stiffened a lot clinging to the print, and even so had memory lapses!

  • Kurwenal says:

    When a conductor titan of the 20c was asked why he used the score during performances but his greatest ‘rival’ did not, the answer was: “Because *I* learned how to read music.”

  • REGERFAN says:

    There are a number of assertions made here that would have to be supported by historical evidence.

    Firstly, is the assertion that Robert ended Clara’s career as a concert pianist supported by evidence? Nancy Reich’s great biography refers to various concert tours during the Schumann marriage. Given that she was pregnant nearly every year (perhaps every year, given the possibility of miscarriages) it is remarkable that Clara engaged in international concert tours lasting several months during her marriage. She needed to do so for financial reasons, even if Robert was not comfortable with this lifestyle.

    I am citing the material from the following site


    which is based on the Reich biography.

    Wednesday, March 31, 1841 . . . First concert as Clara Schumann, at Gewandhaus.
    November, 1841 . . . Concerts in Weimar.
    Monday, February 14, 1842 . . . Tour to Hamburg with Robert, Clara alone to Copenhagen.
    Tuesday, April 26, 1842 . . . Clara returns to Leipzig.
    Thursday, January 25, 1844 . . . Concert tour to Russia with Robert begins.
    Thursday, May 30, 1844 . . . Return from Russia tour.
    Monday, November 23?, 1846 . . . Concert tour to Vienna, Brno, Prague with Robert, Marie, Elise.
    Thursday, February 4, 1847 . . . Return from Vienna, etc.
    Tues., Feb. 11-Wed., Mar. 24, 1847 . . . To Berlin for “Peri” performances and Clara concerts.
    Tuesday, February 5, 1850 . . . Concert tour to Leipzig, Hamburg, Bremen with Robert.
    Friday, March 29, 1850 . . . Return from concert tour..
    Sat., May 18-Wed., July 10, 1850 . . . “Genoveva” premiere and concerts in Leipzig.
    May, 1853 . . . Concerts in Lower Rhine Music Festival.

    Secondly, are there concrete examples of the critics being “outraged” by Clara Schumann’s concerts? I have not seen this in any of the biographies, which are full of laudatory reviews. There was antagonism for Schumann’s music and the Wagner school did not recognize her as significant. (They ignored Brahms as well except for similar jibes.)

    Thirdly, it would be very interesting to know if Clara was truly the first to memorize pieces. Perhaps Norman L. has some sources here, because in his book “Who Killed Classical Music” he states that Liszt was the first to do so. That appears to be why his solo concerts with memorization were called “recitals”, as if he were reciting poetry (by memory).

    From what I have read about Clara Schumann, her magnificent gifts and strong personality allowed her concert career to transcend the gender norms of her time. Her development as a composer, on the other hand, was (sadly) very likely inhibited by her situation as a 19th century woman. I think the article cited by Norman here is an attempt to sympathize with Clara’s overall plight, but is not supported by historical evidence. I say this as a great admirer of Clara Schumann’s achievements.

  • Music Matters says:

    This point has been debated for years and as a musician I would like to say that by memorising a piece it becomes part of you. It transcends from being in the written, physical state to becoming part of your abstract mind, emotions and thoughts. Sure it requires committing yourself to learning the piece in-depth and getting it into your fingers, your mind and your soul, but it is well worth the effort, as when you perform it, you are able to take the music out of the physical, written context and express it from a place deep within yourself, as it is now totally abstract within and you bring it into the physical state marked by the process. Having the notes in front of you during performance may bring security and ease the nerves, but it maintains the music in a physical context at all times and blocks deep emotional integration.
    Performing music is little different than acting in a great piece of theatre. No actor goes onstage with the script in hand, as the actor must integrate the script and the character within themselves and then produce the character from within, if they want to be convincing. Performing a piece of music is no different, as it is the same process, a process that requires the music to be integrated deep within the mind, the emotions and only then can it be brought back into the physical realm, imbued with that process and leading to an original and personal interpretation. Reading directly from the score inhibits that process and that is why I am against it, for soloists and in recitals. It would of course be great if orchestras would do the same, but that is asking a lot. The day we could have an orchestra and conductor all performing from memory would, in my opinion, be a very very powerful musical moment that would change performance experience and practice forever.

    • Sue says:

      The wonderful Aurora orchestra regularly does precisely this!

    • MusicBear88 says:

      I’ve done opera and I rarely have trouble memorizing it because I’m moving around and it’s a whole body experience rather than a static one. My primary musical career is as a keyboardist and I don’t believe that using a score stops me from interpreting, it just stops me from panicking.

    • M2N2K says:

      Performing music is VERY different from acting in a theater: the latter is at least as much visual experience as it is aural while the former is mostly and primarily aural – big difference! Actors on stage are supposed to be VISUALLY project the role they are playing which is why holding the script and looking at it would not be helpful at all.
      In music, on the other hand, performing from memory is totally fine and wonderful, but absolutely not essential. If some great interpreters feel safer performing with music in front of them, then I would much rather enjoy their artistry that way than force them to be nervous about it and having memory slips.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Where you are wrong is that you claim that having the score in front of them means that the musician is reading from the score. They “know the piece” but are using the score as an “aide-memoire”.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    Svjatoslav Richter begged to differ, and I can’t see how it hurt his performances.


    On the other hand, he rebelled long after his legend was well established.

    • Paul Carlile says:

      Richter became much more rigid in performance in later career, partly thru those ghastly Yamahahas he favored, but also thru clinging to the print. Compare with the relative freedom and daring of his youthful imagination. A great artist and musician even so; i heard him live a number of times, pre and post-score dependence.

  • Yujafan says:

    I doubt that Clara would have ever considered playing in a backless dress though …. She missed a trick there, but then ankles were too much for most

  • Alexander Tarak says:

    Didn’t Liszt perform from memory?

  • Chris says:

    One (to me obvious) reason is, surely, that whereas (some) soloists can survive on a few pieces of repertoire, – usually one per concert – most orchestral players have to play several in the same programme. They do not have the luxury of being able to practice their pieces for days, sometimes weeks, on end. They may only receive the music a couple of days before the first rehearsal.

  • Chris says:

    And to continue with my point, an exception to this general rule about soloists playing from memory, was the late, eminent pianist Sir Clifford Curzon who, (to my knowledge) always used the score, which he used to annotate with all manner of comments – and in various colours – as an aide memoire for him

  • Steven Larsen says:

    Good points, but a bit simplistic and a gloss over a more complex reality. Most of the concert artists I have known find memorization the inevitable result of hours of practice. During orchestra rehearsals they use music only to reference rehearsal numbers, and would rather not be burdened by turning pages (page turns for a violinist come relatively infrequently; not so for a pianist or organist). Others have idetic memory, and in fact “see” the image of the page in their minds.
    I don’t think that this is really an issue.

    • MusicBear88 says:

      Apparently Seiji Ozawa has an eidetic memory and it had to be explained to him that most others don’t; that there was a big difference between what he did and “memorizing” for others.

      • Steven Larsen says:

        Ormandy did, also (and quite a few others, for that matter). But he also said, “Just because I have the score in my head doesn’t mean I know it”.

  • M2N2K says:

    Who says they “must”? Most of them do, but not all. For example, Gidon Kremer has been using music in all of his performances for the last forty years or so and it did not hurt his illustrious career much, did it? Of course not.

  • Edgar Self says:

    I didn’t know Clara Schumann was first to play solo recitals from memory. Supposedly Liszt invented the term and form, but did even he use a score? I’ve seen Myra Hess play an entire recital with the music propped in front of her; I don’t recall that she had a page-turner.

    Composer George Flynn played his own work “Trinity” from the music, and Tzimon Barto had a miniature or pocketr score on the rack for a modern piece on his Ravinia recital a few years ago. Hw must have good eyes. Konstantin Lifschitz had a miniature score at his rehearsal for Shostakovich’s first concerto with the CSO, but never took his eyes off trumpeet Bud Hrseth sitting at the end of the bench except once to jump up with his score and confer with conductor Rostropovich.

    I’ll be interested in others’ comments.

  • Curl your fingers says:

    Pinchas Zukerman (or as Jascha Heifetz called him “pinch ass”) uses the music for practically everything now, including VERY easy pieces.

  • Hans van der Zanden says:

    They had eight children, seven alive when RS died.

  • Daniel Poulin says:

    I remember Leon Fleisher playing a Mozart Concerto in Toronto after a few years of retirement due to his hand problem. He played it with the score that he obviously was looking at regularly. Well, I’m sorry to report, he made quite a few mistakes. He did not even have the excuse of playing from memory. And despite his below average performance he got a long lasting standing ovation! Also, there is a video of Sviatoslav Richter (on YouTube) playing Haydn’s D Major Concerto. Now, if there is a work on the lowest scale of difficulty, this is it. I must say that I find it bothersome to see a seasoned exceptional pianist looking like a conservatory student trying to go through an easy work.

    • Bruce says:

      Sometimes audiences applaud simply because they are glad to see the person performing again.

      Also it’s possible that Fleisher was able to communicate something through the music in spite of his technical mistakes. (Arthur Schnabel was famous for this. I don’t know if he used music or not, but his problems with marksmanship didn’t seem to get in the way of his career.)

  • John Borstlap says:

    I once attended a concert with Mdme Messiaen playing solo in one of her husband’s bird pieces, but I had also attended the rehearsels, where she used a very small pocket book with hints that she laid IN the instrument, invisible for the audience. That helped her through at the concert. The reason is that birds never have much formal training in overall musical structure and their riffs are much alike.

  • Alexander Tarak says:

    There is fascinating footage of Richard Strauss conducting and rehearsing Till Eulenspiegel with the VPO.
    What is revealing is how often he looks at the score.
    If Richard Strauss deems it desirable to rely on the score when conducting music he wrote himself, lesser mortals shouldn’t feel in anyway embarrassed or inferior when not performing from memory.
    Moral of the story: you never truly know the score 100% (unless of course you can write the whole thing out on paper. Which most people can’t).
    However much you have studied the score and may think you know it, there is always more about it you can learn (especially with orchestral scores).
    Beethoven, it is said, had a very poor memory.

  • CurlyQ111 says:

    Seems pretty simple: a soloist practices the solo and performs it for months, spending countless hours on the specific piece. The orchestra typically gets the music close to the rehearsals and they’re playing different music every week. Plus, when a soloist practices to that professional level, memorization comes along with such repetition.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    The problem comes when playing without the notes is regarded as the only acceptable “proof of concept” for having memorized a piece. There are just too many factors and variables in public performance versus the studio or practice room.

    I witnessed a cult-like tyranny about not playing from the notes by the faculty in a not-at-all-distinguished music department at a smallish university. Following this “dictate” did not seem to be serving the music at the student or faculty concerts I heard, particularly when I knew what they were capable of in the practice room.

    And I took enormous pleasure when Soulima Stravinsky came to give a master class and recital, and at the master class in response to a pointed question strongly “defended” his playing an entire program of his father’s piano music, much of it written for him and central to his repertoire for about half a century, with the scores opened in front of him; he said of course he knew the music, and could easily sit with blank music paper and pencil and write it all out without hesitation. But if having the score opened up allowed him, as a practical performing musician, to play with even just a tiny bit more relaxation or ease, even if he never really looked at the notes, he would and should do it. I don’t know if he knew he was undercutting the play-without-the-notes mantra of the faculty in the crowd. I hope and suspect he did know.

    • Paul Carlile says:

      Well, i wouldn’t blame anyone needing the score open for most of Stravinsky’s music, largely unmemor(isa)ble after his early period, very uninspired. Some music is simply unmemorable!

  • Kevin Lenaghan says:

    I am a classical pianist who just hit 40, and my memory used to be a lot better! The way that I have always thought about the trade-off between memorizing/not memorizing is based mostly on the complexity of the music. A highly trained classical musician should have no problem playing something like the Beethoven piano concertos (and most of the sonatas) from memory, and removing the score definitely does allow for greater emotional expression. Musicians can simply “feel” the music better without the crutch, and distraction, of the score.
    HOWEVER, certain music is so complex that memorization is kind of pointless, other than for stunt purposes. I am thinking of pretty much anything that is atonal, polyrhythmic or otherwise unpredictable (i.e. Ligeti etudes, Boulez sonatas, etc.). I once heard a BRILLIANT pianist with an amazing mathematical mind attempt to perform the entirety of Messian’s “Vingt Regards” without a score. He did a wonderful job in an outdoor venue (complemented by real bird song) but understandably got lost a couple of times in the 5th and 6th movements. His performance would have been better served with the score (and a page turner) in my opinion.

    • M2N2K says:

      You are not suggesting that Messiaen’s music does not need “emotional expression”, do you? It does of course, and having a score would indeed be helpful because truly fine musicians can “feel the music better” when they are not worried about having memory slips. Actually, it does not even matter how performers “feel the music”. What matters is how they can communicate and project the music to the audience so that the listeners can feel the music.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Probably he got confused because the real birds sang fragments which were not in the score.

  • iStrings says:

    I played everything by memory always and I have to admit that it was cheating because I could see the music in my „visual“ memory clearly. Nowadays, being over sixty I am still able to play all those pieces (inclusive e.g. Bartok solosonata) by memory but often with a „film brake“, by switching to „auto pilot“. And since this is a bit scary sometimes, I better use the score.

  • Bruce says:

    After all these comments, it should be clear that playing from memory is freeing for some people and inhibiting for others; ditto for using the music.

    In other words, people are different.

    We’ve had soloists who use music and soloists who don’t. It never seems to make any difference in how well they play. If they’re going to be boring or make technical mistakes, they seem just as likely to do that with the music in front of them as without; ditto for playing brilliantly. Having the music does seem to protect against memory slips, which we’ve also had from soloists (though rarely).

  • Bruce says:

    Something I remember reading in a friend’s book of interviews with famous pianists:

    The author/interviewer asked them all how they memorized music. Several people talked about the form of the piece or the harmonic structure & progression. Rubinstein was very up-front about his visual memory: “I even memorize the coffee stains!”

  • Paul Carlile says:

    The article is thought-provoking but, for me, not totally convincing:

    “Show me a brilliant improviser and I would be willing to bet that they struggle to memorize music..”

    I know several who improvise and memorise, (myself- modestly included; i’m an enthusiastic improviser and memorise everything easily as i hate reading notes and am a pitiful sight-reader, cos i detest it!). It’s more likely that the excellent sight-reader has a memory problem than the improviser.

    No mention is made of the continual evolution and metamorphosis of musical style, performance and even instruments. Baroque & Classical style suits, and often, needs the score, (fugal, interwoven voices…etc). Romantic solo piano music evolved away from that both in writing and expression. Late-Romantic even more so, Rachmaninoff and Medtner, for example, strongly disapproving of performing as soloist from score in any circumstance. The writing is much more “physical,” page-turning impractical and encumbering, orchestras larger, pianos more powerful, needing much more concentration on all these factors. The expression is often more heroically indivdual than ever, starting with Liszt, thru Brahms, Tchaik, Grieg, Skriabin, Busoni, Rach, Med, Prok.. not lending itself physically or expressively to grimly clinging to print. Medtner said that if the mind and body hadn’t absorbed the music, (as sound, as opposed to visual reference), it wasn’t ready for public expression. Imagine Hamlets and Macbeths striding onstage with the text before them!

    Ensemble music and accompanying is different cos with the participation of several equal members it’s important to follow where everyone is, plus the expression of the “soloist” in, for instance a quartet or quintet is more of an intimate dialogue with the other partners. Accompanying singers, again, one must often jump forwards, backwards, upwards or downwards(!) as the mood (or memory lapse), takes them. Even so, for performance, i memorise all piano accompaniments, glancing at the score simply to verify that they haven’t skipped a verse or worse!

    For string or wind soloists, with only one line to follow, plus having more the habit of ensemble playing, score-reading performance is more understandable, less page-turning for a start!

    Other non-musical factors may stimulate the musical memorisation, such as Toscanini’s vanity, (didn’t want to wear glasses), or fail fabulously like Stravinsky, as Composer and Soloist who couldn’t remember the second movement’s opening of his Piano & Wind Concerto at the first performance, (not surprisingly; it’s a dreadfully dreary, uninspired dirge).

    However, everyone has their different talents and we may be witnessing yet another evolution. While S Richter suffered a certain stiffness from score-reading in later life and C Curzon had ghastly memory lapses even with the score before him, certain of today’s soloists don’t have the same limitations; M-A Hamelin memorises and reads equally well the most complex music in performance and Yuja Wang seems not at all bothered in Ravel or Bartok concertos to have reference to the score (or i-pad!) sometimes.

    If you don’t memorise easily, use the score and accept the compromise if neccessary. In a lot of music, it honestly doesn’t matter. Personally, i prefer a soloist who is totally committed, body and soul, with no extraneous support.

    • Simon Gregory says:

      ‘Show me a brilliant improviser and I would be willing to bet that they struggle to memorize music..”

      Untrue. Olivier Latry, Vincent Dubois,Wayne Marshall for starters. And, but no longer with us, a long line of other French organists such as Litaize and Vierne (yes, I know they were blind but that rather reinforces the point).
      Organists always seem to be looking for excuses, pleading a special case where none exists.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Sorry, but your comments are ridiculous and mere snobbery when you say “use a score and accept the compromise….I prefer a soloist who is totally committed”. Many soloists are better, and can give more committed performances when they have the score in front of them. They really are not sight-reading.

  • MacroV says:

    To answer the question in the headline: It’s a very different thing for a soloist who may have 20-30 concertos in his/her repertoire (and probably fewer than a dozen active at any time) and an orchestra that is playing a different program every week, some of them possibly for the first time. Plus, if a soloist gets lost, the orchestra has to adjust; the orchestra needs to use music because you can’t have each of 100 players going his/her own way. The soloist also has the muscle memory from all the repetition of practice and prior performance.

    Even soloists who play from memory generally use music in chamber music or solo recitals.

    Whether it’s wise to play from memory is a different issue. Those who are in a position to choose, obviously can do so. The problem likely comes if someone new on the scene feels obliged to play from memory and has trouble doing so.

  • Simon Gregory says:

    ‘Show me a brilliant improviser and I would be willing to bet that they struggle to memorize music. One is not better than the other; they are different and of equal merit.’

    Not true – two come immediately to mind, Olivier Latry and Wayne Marshall.
    Organists should play from memory, they’re always looking for an excuse.

  • David B. says:

    Playing a solo piece, be it a concerto or some virtuoso piece, is nothing like playing in an orchestra. Orchestra players have to perform different pieces — many of them quite long and new to them — on a weekly basis. They’re not paid to be individual “artists” but to be part of an ensemble, and without scores there simply isn’t much they could do, just like construction workers without blueprints.

    As a solo player, however, the pieces you play are music you’re supposed to know intimately. It is assumed you’ve studied it extensively if you think your interpretation of it is worth sharing with an audience, let alone a paying audience. Now, how credible would such an interpretation be if the player didn’t even know the notes he had to play? How credible would an actor be if he had to steal glances at the script in the middle of a performance? Not to mention that many of the pieces in our repertoire are so complex you simply couldn’t play them if you didn’t know them by heart.

    This article is obviously the work of an ignorant dimwit and a poor attempt at justifying his own mediocrity. You also have to be pretty damn stupid if you think anyone, even such an important figure as Clara Schumann, could single-handedly start a global trend of the kind. And let’s not even address that postmodern BS about Schumann denying Clara a career… Jesus, this blog…