My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The art of not playing by memory

Image taken by Marga Serrano, from Wikimedia.
OK, I'm going to admit right here and now that one reason I am a collaborator, as opposed to being a piano soloist, is because playing by memory freaks me out. In this role, I don't have to worry about being questioned about why I am using music. As the pianist, it is my job to keep things held together when someone I'm performing with, who is often playing by memory, has a momentary, or not-so-momentary brain blip. Having the musical road map in front of me is, therefore, a given.

But here's a problem with not playing by memory...

What happens when I have the music right in front of me yet I persist in making numerous mistakes, sometimes even losing my place? What can I possibly say to explain why I can't not play by memory? Honestly, it's kind of embarrassing.

I've recently found myself in this very odd place as a collaborator. I have found reading music, especially during a performance, unusually challenging these past few months. And for someone who has always excelled at sightreading music, it has felt like someone has pulled the rug out from under me. It had even gotten to the point that I was starting to feel nervous about performing. I had to figure something out before my fear starting spiraling out of control.

So what was going on? How could I get over this hump? Or was it even a hump to get over? Maybe this problem was simply a symptom of getting older (gasp!)

Fortunately, I don't believe my aging mind and eyes were the culprit, at least not at a significant level. Here is what I discovered and how I'm working to reverse my downward slide.

State-of-mind: I have been dealing with the odd state-of-mind that I find myself in when I have basically memorized the music but still have it in front of me.  I find it exhilarating to know a piece so well that it is completely internalized.  Combined with the adrenalin that comes with performing, the experience can be even more exhilarating, almost to the point that I feel like I'm having an out-of-body experience.  But the fact is, especially when I'm playing with others, I rarely have everything completely memorized.  I never set out intentionally to memorize the music and as I mentioned earlier, I don't have a whole lot of confidence in my memory.  So if I'm experiencing one of these sensational memory euphorias (or so I think), and I am shocked into reality by some distraction or wrong note, I look up at the music and find myself completely lost.  I don't know where to look, I momentarily forget what key I'm in, etc...
  • Solution? I remember a mentor of mine in college, Jean  Barr,  repeatedly reminding me, "Keep reading, Erica, keep reading!"  It seems like such a redundant thing to say, but obviously I need to hear it on a regular basis.  It is easy to take my eyes off the music when I'm really into a performance but doing so can be risky.  So I need to keep Dr. Barr's tape playing in my head..."Keep reading, Erica, keep reading!" 

State-of-the-eyes: At performances, in an effort to keep my eyes on the music, I often forget to blink my eyes.  Pretty quickly my eyes start clouding over, making it virtually impossible to focus and to see the notes on the page.
  • Solution? This problem has two easy solutions.  First, I went to the drugstore and got some good eyedrops that actually re-coat my eyes with moisture every time I blink.  And the second solution - I constantly remind myself to blink my eyes.  When I get to a rest in the music or an easier section, I tell myself, "Blink!" 
Looking down at the keys: This is slightly embarrassing, but in spite of what I preach to others, that you should try not to look down at your hands, I had fallen into the bad habit of doing just that.  To expect my brain to be able to process all those factors - the geography of the keyboard, the notes and indications on the page, the music in my head, the music that the other musician is producing - it's too much.  It's no wonder that my brain kept blowing a fuse!
  • Solution? Stop looking down at the keyboard!  Pretty simple.  
So that's what I discovered.  After purposefully practicing these three things and incorporating them into my practice and rehearsals, I think I'm back on track.  It seems a bit silly to practice blinking and to practice keeping my eyes on the music, but if in the end it helps, who am I to criticize?  


  1. When I was a performing classical guitarist (many moons ago, in college and university), the trend amongst the guitar community was to always perform from memory - unless we were playing something from the 20th century - or, as you mentioned, ensemble pieces. In my final recital, however, I had a particularly nasty "Fantasy" by John Dowland that I simply was unable to memorize. I had somehow developed a mental block against this piece. As a work around this I made a copy of the 8 page manuscript and shrank the pages so I could tape it to one piece of large paper - that way it fit on my music stand which sat very low, over to the left of me on the stage. Knowing that the music was there was enough - I only had to look at it at the very beginning and at one key point in the middle (which had been circled in red) - other than that, just seeing the paper made me confident enough to play the piece.

    A friend of mine would take her music out to the piano and put the closed books on the instrument - not in a position to be used - lying down. Just having them there gave her the confidence, as I needed with the Dowland.

    Ironically I'd been able to memorize the Bach Chaconne without any difficulties, and a longer Sonata by Mauro Giuliani - but not the Fantasy by Dowland.

    Memory is like that sometimes. There's nothing wrong with you, it's just one of the tricks of our minds.

  2. The not-blinking thing sounds like some sort of facial tension, too. Perhaps practice relaxing your jaw (this is all where it starts, it seems). I find that letting my tongue relax so it is not touching the inside of my mouth instantly relaxes my jaw and face.

    Also, I wonder if consciously memorizing, and then going back to reading, would help. For me, going back and forth between playing from memory and then reading helps reinforce everything that I need to notice. (Not that I have much performing experience on the piano end of this, but I certainly do as a cellist.)

  3. I applaud your honesty, Erica! I do wish more musicians would have the courage to be so authentic and open, especially "A-Listers"

    Whilst I understand the thinking behind playing from memory, for me personally, it is an irrelevance and creates so much additional stress, I prefer to play with the music.

    Despite this, I've never received one criticism.

    Your blog post was incredibly helpful to me in it's analysis. You've managed to identify the reasons whereas I've been swimming around in a cloudy pond blaming everything on age - lol!

    Many thanks indeed for taking the time to write this.

  4. Thanks, Peter, for sharing your experiences with memory. I love your idea of circling the tricky sections in red so that you could instantly find what you needed to look at. I haven't tried that yet but will definitely try it out next time I perform. It's amazing how we can work against ourselves when it comes to memory. It's like we need to forget that we think we can't do something by memory in order to get over our little neuroses. Mind games! ;-)


  5. Harriet, thank you for your comment and thought that perhaps the lack of blinking might have to do with some facial tension. I hadn't even considered that - I am, after all, perfect and immune to such habits. Ha! Just the opposite, in fact. I think you're right, that a lot of the problem stems from the fact that I haven't really memorized the music in a thorough, cognitive way. Part of the problem with that is that I've had to learn so much music in a very short amount of time, and difficult music at that, that I simply don't have the time to memorize it in the best way. It would be interesting to take the time to really do that with at least one of these pieces to see if I would be more comfortable, reading the music.


  6. Ah, Marion! So great to hear from you. And thank you for your kind comments. It's such a joy to find a like-minded individual who is also trying to live a more transparent artistic life :-) There is definitely safety and comfort in numbers.

    Happy practicing, performing, and living!


  7. A good way to keep pieces in your head is to play them mentally, imagine yourself playing. This should help with memorising pieces.

  8. Thank you for that tip, Anonymous. That is a very helpful way to memorize music :-)


  9. Interesting! It's good to hear from someone like you because it seems I have the opposite problem--I literally cannot play a piece in a somewhat polished manner until it's long past memorized. (I wonder if you've ever encountered someone like me in your experiences with other pianists?) I even got some ribbing from Mr. Pressler while accompanying one of his pianists on a Mozart concerto, since it was pretty obvious to him that I was "playing by heart" (that ended up being a blessing, because I was left without a page turner on concert night! but anyway...)

    I can guess where this issue came from, though: the electric keyboard I practiced on for the first 3 years of study was slightly narrower than standard, so with all the switching between mine and my teacher's piano, I never developed that internal mapping of where the keys are! Therefore, I must rely on visual cues only...which is a huge problem when trying to sightread anything that doesn't stay in one hand position. Even with pieces I've memorized, if you turn out the lights or have me look away from the piano, it sounds as sloppy as if I were bashing through it for the first time. (Sometimes I can do okay with Bach with my eyes closed, but obviously the range of his keyboard prevented him from jumping around too much.)

    So generally, if I don't have enough time to memorize an accompaniment before bringing it into a lesson, I'll engage in some strategic recomposition and re-voice any big leaps that would otherwise require me to train my eyes on my hands (and mine are tiny, so that's pretty much any leap!)...this made Die Forelle SO much easier! :)

  10. Wow, Nicole. First of all, it's very nice to meet you! I just spent a bit of time looking at your webpage and I see that our paths almost crossed in Michigan a few years ago. My husband got his DMA as a voice performance major, graduating in 2004, I believe.

    Anyway, I am very interested in all that you have to say and I definitely don't think you're alone with having to memorize music before you can really play it. I taught piano sightreading at Eastman to freshman piano performance majors when I was there and that was the case for the majority of students. I think there could be many reasons behind this common issue - too many to go into here.

    I find your situation with the piano keyboard so intriguing and keep pondering the connection, if there is one, with where you find yourself now in terms of feeling comfortable with piano topography. Without a doubt, it feels completely different to sit in front of an electric keyboard versus your standard grand or even upright piano. I think even the difference in the weight and material of the keys makes a difference. Even the keys might have been a bit more narrow. It reminds me of the challenge it can be to play the harpsichord. It can be very disorienting!

    I'll have to think about if there are any tricks one can employ to ease the transition from one to the other.

    I do have a question for you just for mentioned that you rely on visual cues. Are these visual cues ones found in the music or are you referring to having to look at your hands on the keyboard?

    Once again, it's really nice to meet you! I look forward to more conversation.


  11. Hi Erica! How cool that you also have a Michigan connection--Go Blue! :) Yes, just to clarify, the visual cues I was referring to are the actual keys on the keyboard, having to look at my hands. Sometimes even when I'm playing memorized, I'll momentarily have to "hunt" for a chord, or if I'm not watching too carefully, I'll accidentally land on a chord a 4th/5th away (where the topography is most similar)...of course, immediately noticing that it sounds wrong! Interestingly enough, I've noticed no problems playing on harpsichords or fortepianos with narrower keys (I took a semester of basso continuo accompanying with Ed Parmentier, which was a blast--that's actually the one form of accompanying I feel quite comfortable with!), because I grew up having to make those adjustments between two keyboards.

    (Another possible example of this--a friend of mine bought an old player piano for a steal, and I'm convinced its keys are slightly narrower. Here's why: I tried part of the Waldstein on it--a piece I know intimately and have for years--and it was a bit sloppy. However, I then tried Campanella on it cold, and it was just about the cleanest I've ever gotten it! Because I'd done the Beethoven for so many years, I probably did develop good enough muscle memory that a narrower key would mess me up; however, Campanella just doesn't feel quite right on a standard-to-wide keyboard. Speaking of which, I pretty much learned that one entirely by ear so I could keep my eyes on the keyboard the whole time I was working on it)

  12. Wow, Nicole. This is all so interesting. Thank you for taking the time to clarify all that. I'm definitely going to be thinking about your examples because there must be some interesting and useful truths that I could glean from them and possibly apply to my work with teaching folks how to sightread and get more comfortable with keyboard topography.

    Thanks for all that food-for-thought!


  13. You're most welcome! I hope my quirks might help some of the other pianists (or even other instrumentalists) you work with :) I'm looking forward to your future insights, especially as someone who has rather suddenly grown a private piano studio of 7 students here at IU and might be confronting similar issues with a few of them...

    Thanks again! I'm off to browse the rest of your blog :)