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Score vs. Memory - Learning and Performing

The key to a great performance on any instrument is to have utter conviction in what you are performing. Therefore, I will immediately conclude this blog post with my personal opinion as to whether or not it is better to perform with or without music:

It doesn't matter.

Jack Mitchell Smith piano teacher pianist macclesfield congleton Cheshire

Unless there is a specific reason for you to not have music in front of you (an opera might be a slightly bizarre watch if all the players held a score in front of them), it is essential that you are comfortable playing and performing the music to the best of your ability whichever path you go down.

However, in this blog I would like to explore the advantages and disadvantages of using your powers of reading music against your powers of memorising music - not just in the long run for an eventual performance or recording - but for learning and practicing too.

Let's explore this in some more detail...

Using Music

Without having the score in front of you, you'd be relying on ear, instinct and prior knowledge of a piece of music alone. Therefore, you could consider a score like an actor's script. Not only does it tell you which notes to play (your words, following the metaphor), but it tells you how to play (stage directions etc.). Therefore, it stands to reason that we can use a score as an extremely strong starting point.

The Pros

  • Using sheet music is the most logical way to learn a new piece of music. At your disposal, you have everything you need. Dynamics, rhythm, tempo markings, fingering, articulation etc. - fairly obvious introductory point to the pros, but one that can be overlooked by those who would rather learn by ear alone (often resulting in awkward and uncomfortable fingering, lack of expression etc.)

  • As you begin to get more and more familiar with a piece of music, your association against what is printed improves, therefore your understanding of notation improves. This can lead to associations of rhythmic motifs, recognition of intervals you may not have commonly used previously, a stronger understanding of what note lies on what ledger line etc. - in other words, following the music is beneficial for your sight reading.

  • In addition to improving overall sight reading, you will recognise visual cues from following the score, which allows you to continue playing even if you forget otherwise how the music goes, what you have to do etc. - it can make it easier to pick up.

  • Your visualisation of the keyboard will improve greatly from looking ahead and only glancing down to reference hand position at times when you need to employ more drastic changes. Overall we have good understanding of the layout of a keyboard, but the more we consciously look at it when we play, the more we depend on vision to find our way around it. For many pieces, this is incidental, but for many other pieces it is crucial to have a good, deep-seated understanding so that large jumps between fingers / hands or large distance between the hands can be played with minimal effort.

The Cons

  • Playing with score can often lead to a dissociation with how well you actually do know the piece of music. Is your association purely from the score? If you never plan on playing the music without it then it might seem a moot point, but even so you may find that you struggle to get through the piece fluidly with the music because there are gaps in other sensory clues (unfamiliarity with the tune, no muscle memory etc.).

  • Performing under pressure is always difficult, and scores can be a hinderance during any kind of recital or recording. Glancing down and glancing back up to the wrong bar can create a bad association which translates during high pressure performance that may not necessarily exist otherwise. Further to this, little things like angle of the head is a contributory factor. Bear in mind that - unlike many other instrumentalists - pianists often have to play on all manner of different pianos. If I use a score and I've been practising on an upright, the sudden angle difference to performing on a grand piano (the music stands are higher) is off-putting as it skews my vision of the keyboard that little bit more. Further to this, it is worth bearing in mind that you must always practice with the score you intend to use. If you plan on using an iPad for your performance, practice always with the iPad. If you plan on sticking sheets of paper together to minimise page turns in an exam, get those copied as soon as possible and practice with the full spread.

Using Memory

It always strikes us as very impressive when we see somebody perform without a score, but could this be the more logical method of performance? It certainly takes more work to instil music into the memory to achieve the best performance, but what of the pros and cons of working this way?

The Pros

  • Memory is immediately transferrable. The more engrained into your mind a piece of music is, the more adaptable it is between instruments. Moving from one piano to another (as many performing professionals do!) comes with many issues - different dynamic, different pressure on the keys, different sound, higher or lower pedals etc. - so add that extra lack of familiarity to the need to reference you score and it can be burdensome. That's not to say it's the wrong approach, mind, but consider how confident you are as a pianist that you can read and translate to a new instrument simultaneously and under pressure before choosing that road.

  • Memory connects pathways that we don't necessarily join together when reading from music. When reading from music, we can often find ourselves still interpreting and relying on the music to the point that we hit the correct notes but fail to give them meaning. Yet we don't even realise that, necessarily, because a tunnel vision approach when reading is often more focused on playing the notes that are written rather than how you are playing them, therefore we focus on their pitch or the overall tune and go no further. When we take away the visual aid and rely solely on memory, we do actually realise the full potential of a piece of music, hearing for the first time moments where we could hold back or push forward, maybe a touch of pedal to colour a certain passage, or take the dynamic down to create a more pleasing performance (sometimes even in complete contradiction to what the score notes!). Our senses begin working together and our muscle memory and strong ear for the music are now both much more attuned to what is technically right, that our emotional side can finally be brought forward.

The Cons

  • Once again we look at high pressure performances (recitals, recordings, exams etc.). Our minds can become so inwardly focused if we are in any sort of nervous disposition that we can forget to look at a piece of music as a whole. Therefore, we can maybe begin playing correctly, but because we're not necessarily thinking ahead we forget which notes to play next - like stumbling over your lines in a stage play. Were the score there, the visual aid could be a great prompt, however one single memory lapse or error can break a live performance. More often than not, this is due to the familiarity of the piece and is not reflective of a pianist's actual ability. Performing from memory needs to be developed and can't just be achieved by deciding to ditch the score one day and expecting muscle memory to do the bulk of the work (read my very next point!). Unfortunately, there is very little way to put yourself under the right amount of pressure to replicate an actual recital where you can practice playing by memory under pressure. Facebook lives are good, or even recording a video (although this isn't the best as you can stop and go back - you want to play it through once well!), therefore our memory can dessert us at inopportune moments when faced with high pressure situations.

  • Secondary to playing from memory is the actual memorisation process. Learning to play a piece of music from memory can take as long as learning to play it well with music prior to deciding on memorisation, and the reason for that is because we need to make sure the music is well rooted. This goes beyond muscle memory. What if your hands just stop mid way through a performance and you don't know how to get back on track? Learning pieces from memory takes time as it often involves breaking down a piece into individual, manageable sections (this can sometimes be as little as 2 or 3 bars!) and creating associations beyond the 'my fingers can do it' approach. Can you visualise what the music says. Can you hear how it goes? Do you know how the left hand sounds independently to the right hand? Full memorisation is a long and, frankly, laborious - if phenomenally rewarding - process.

Memory as a Learning Tool

Further to my last point in the cons of playing from memory, I would just add that if you do have the intention of playing without music, the best time to start learning from memory is at the very beginning. Use the score to set yourself a few bars and then work with them and memorise, rather than develop the music to performance standard with the score and then committing it. This will help to cement your own associations rather than any that are purely visual aids from the score.

On that note, it stands to reason that you can use memory at any stage, and in fact I encourage it as a learning tool for many of my pupils. I frequently snatch the music off the stand and try and get them to replicate it as best they can after a couple of play throughs (always whilst reminding that mistakes are not the enemy!).

Why does this help, though?

It actually goes back to development - or utilisation - of your musical ear. If you are learning piano at whatever level, you have a musical ear. End of. But sometimes we can nourish it and encourage it to create an even stronger musician.

Beethoven's 'Ode to Joy' finds its way near the beginning of many, many piano learning workbooks thanks to its stepwise melody (a melody where each note is next to or the same as the one prior) and simple hand position (usually C position - right hand thumb on C, 2 on D, 3 on E etc.). Yet, despite its ease, every time I come to it with a pupil of any age I marvel at the fact that they focus rather intently on what's written in front of them to ensure that they play the notes exactly as written.

Cue - score is pulled off the stand after one (maybe two, if I'm feeling generous) attempt(s).

We have to learn to remember certain things cognitively - i.e. some things just have to be cemented in our minds as there is nothing to relate it to. The very starting position of a piece of music is often this, such as that 'Ode to Joy' starts on an E. So I will ask them to remember that, play the first note and then play, following the shape of the melody.

What inevitably happens?

Despite initial fear in some of my pupils at the prospect of now being 'unassisted' on the keyboard, they usually give a much more confident rendition that they do with the book. They all know how the tune goes. They know when it goes up and down and - again, cognitively - they know that, whilst not necessarily being able to recite out loud from memory the individual notes - all the notes will be the next one up or down from where they are. If they get stuck, I encourage them to sing through up to that point (singing is a fantastic way of engaging with pieces you are learning) and working it out from there, noting also where notes are the same as the one prior.

And these are beginners and the majority of people who come to me to begin learning piano are often convinced they have no musical ear. Yet this is proof that they do!

Furthermore, it reaffirms the belief that using memory is a very strong tool for learning.


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