Should Soloists Always Perform from Memory?

Andre Watts performs from memory

“Performing from memory can be a beautiful thing.”
The Musician’s Way, p. 82

As someone who has performed countless solos, I know the upsides and downsides of playing with and without a score.

We musicians often hash over whether to memorize or not, so let’s consider some of the issues here.
Pros & Cons of Memorizing
Pianist Stephen Hough thoughtfully examined the pros and cons of memorizing in a 2011 article in The Guardian.

For me, the main downside of memorized performance is the time required to memorize securely. Many musicians point to another pitfall: the anxiety brought on by the possibility of forgetting on stage. But we can free ourselves from that fear with deep memorization strategies.

Nonetheless, the upside is that I find performing from memory is worth the effort – it allows me to experience a hard-to-describe expansiveness because I’m untethered from a score and my brain isn’t processing so much visual information.

There can be a visual benefit for listeners, too, in that their view of my playing isn’t obstructed by a music stand. And many listeners prefer not seeing a stand, as researcher Aaron Williamon described in his paper “The Value of Performing from Memory.”

Even so, I still feel great soulfulness playing with a score, and I can commune with listeners regardless of the music stand being there. The quality of my playing is the same whether I’m performing from memory or not, although my personal experience differs. What’s more, I can position my stand unobtrusively.

So, when memorization isn’t practical due to time constraints, the nature of a piece, or individual preferences, are our performances somehow 2nd-tier because we bring music or an electronic display on stage?

I think not. And for a simple reason.

What Really Matters
In The Musician’s Way I wrote, “Every audience prefers an exquisite performance from score over a mediocre one from memory.” (p. 93)

Performing from score isn’t 2nd-tier because what really matters is that we do justice to a composition and offer each audience the best musical experience we can given our circumstances.

We might dream of memorizing every piece we present, but that personal wish doesn’t pertain to the repertoire we perform, our co-performers, or the audiences who hear us.

Let’s reject inner voices telling us that we should memorize every solo, and set aside opinions from critics, teachers, or others regarding whether to perform from memory or not. Let’s make our own decisions and perform enthusiastically either way.

In a New York Times  article, “Playing by Heart, With or Without a Score,” Anthony Tomassini wrote, “The rigid protocol in classical music whereby solo performers, especially pianists, are expected to play from memory seems finally, thank goodness, to be loosening its hold.”

Yes. Thank goodness.

See Part I of The Musician’s Way for in-depth practice and memorization strategies.

Related posts
The Benefits of Accessible Music
Feeling Ahead
The Four Stages of Memorization
Mental Imaging
Practicing Performance

© 2013 Gerald Klickstein

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14 Responses to “Should Soloists Always Perform from Memory?”

  1. Candice said:

    Jan 14, 13 at 21:54

    Last year I went back to playing piano after close to 40 years. I studied for 10 years, but really never took it seriously. When I started again I was terrified I’d have to start at the beginning but fortunately that did not happen and I am making good progress. Except for one thing. My 60 year old brain cannot memorize a thing. Now, perhaps if I had more time, I could work harder at it but after a full day in a demanding job, I’m lucky I have any energy or brain capacity left to play at all! I feel bad about this but haven’t pushed myself to memorize. I didn’t have this problem when I was 16 years old! Any recommendations, advice?

  2. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Jan 14, 13 at 22:05

    Hi Candice – Wonderful to hear that you’re enjoying the piano again after such a long hiatus!
    It’s possible that you could adjust your learning process to make memorization easier. Check out my post “The 4 Stages of Memorization” –
    If the concepts in that article appeal to you, then the practice strategies detailed in The Musician’s Way would almost certainly help you.
    That said, maybe you don’t need to be concerned with memorization right now – you can just take pleasure in your rekindled romance with the piano and let the memorization go.
    Here’s another thing to consider, summed up by Annie Murphy Paul on her blog: “Why It Gets Harder To Learn As We Get Older”
    Thanks for contributing!

  3. Roy Sonne said:

    Jan 14, 13 at 22:53

    The benefits of performing from memory,greater freedom of expression, and better communication with the audience, are benefits that I know well and experience in my own solo playing. I think that many musicians, perhaps 25% of all musicians, perhaps as many as 50% memorize easily enough to enjoy those benefits.
    For the rest, including many professionals and most students — memorizing is a burden and a source of tension and frustration. How many times have we witnessed performers playing far below their level of proficiency, just because they were required to memorize. (Or they inflicted the burden on themselves.) I have known many people to become so obsessed about memorization that everything else got neglected.
    So for those folks — why bother? Anybody who is not heading for a career as a professional soloist, has no necessity of ever playing from memory.

  4. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Jan 15, 13 at 21:45

    Hi Roy – Great to hear from you and read your sage thoughts. I’m with you: when memorization proves arduous and unsuccessful, then musicians do well to unburden themselves from feeling obliged to play from memory.

  5. Bob Woody said:

    Jan 15, 13 at 23:13

    Gerald – I enjoyed reading this. I think the Williamon study is really well done and presents some compelling reasons for memorized performance. At least from the audience perspective, and all other things being equal. But as you get at here, committing to a memorized performance often results in other things not being equal. Ideally, memorizing will work out to be better than equal, that is, a more intimate knowledge of the piece allows the performer to better master it and communicate a more “from the heart” rendition. Instead, though, memorizing can come from a sense of compulsion and induce more anxiety in performance. All in all, a great topic for discussion here!


  6. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Jan 15, 13 at 23:29

    Thanks, Bob. Your point about gaining intimate knowledge of a piece really resonates with me. As you know, when we learn deeply, esp. from the start of the learning process, memorization can become a natural progression of our learning, provided that we actually know how to learn deeply and we have the time do so. Conversely, when musicians lack deep practice skills and their execution depends more on automated sorts of learning, then memorized performance will typically be fraught with difficulty.

  7. Brad said:

    Feb 01, 13 at 12:27

    I agree, always do what’s best for the music. At the same time, I think many students and enthusiasts fool themselves into believing it is not important to memorize their music. I suggest we always memorize our music in the practice room but perform in whatever way works best at the time. Memorization is often synonymous with ‘knowing the score’ well.

  8. Jack H. Coldiron said:

    Feb 08, 13 at 17:40

    For many years as a Baritone soloist and voice teacher I memorized the recital I was to present. Memorization has always been a difficult step for me. But I did memorize. It took an inordinate amount of time and effort. I was not a pleasant person to be around during this process. As time went by I found it more and more difficult to memorize to the point of feeling secure in my presentations. So I began to use the score and was able to feel better about my singing and the result with the audience. I was not tied to the score and was able to make good eye contact with the audience. I was also able to present a wider range of literature which was an important matter to me. I have enjoyed very good results from those who hear me and realize that they are not greatly bothered by the score and/or music stand. My performance was also more musically satisfying.
    In a recent interview with Thomas Quasthoff he was asked about using the score in a recital which he performed in the USA he was quoted as saying…”If I can do a better and more musical performance with score in hand I will do it. I am not concerned about what people say about it.” I tend to agree.

  9. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Feb 08, 13 at 22:54

    Thanks for contributing such a helpful comment, Jack – much appreciated!

  10. Gino DeFalco said:

    May 11, 13 at 09:03

    I always liked a nicely improvised guitar solo putting exactly what you’re feeling into the moment. But, there’s something to be said for a well executed solo from memory which can still be done with what you’re feeling in the moment.

  11. Avguste Antonov said:

    May 21, 13 at 01:40

    Well written.

    Personally for me, because of the repertoire I perform in recitals (American living composers), I always use the music.
    I do the same with concertos. The fact is that I don’t trust my memory at all. And with excitement, nervousness, it is way better to use the score than to risk a bad performance

  12. Gerald Klickstein said:

    May 21, 13 at 07:02

    Well said, Avguste. Both performers and audiences prefer top-quality performances from score over less-secure ones from memory.

  13. CP said:

    Jun 29, 13 at 13:04

    What great responses to a great article.

    I find myself envious of people who can perform WITH the score, actually. I sometimes have a self-depricating feeling that these performers are better musicians for being able to express while referencing the sheet music. Suffering from performance anxiety compels me to have everything memorized, as the times I have used the score have left me lacking in confidence and prone to mistakes. It seems from reading this that I am on the opposite end of the spectrum.

    I do not have memorization issues with music, which is something I’m sure my wife wishes applied household things, but I think that if I had the confidence to perform with the score I would likely be able to get more music under my fingers. I also think, however, that I am able to express and enjoy the music I have memorized a little more than when I am referencing the sheet music.

  14. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Jun 29, 13 at 15:52

    Thanks for sharing, CP – very interesting points!
    Many musicians concur with your finding that memorization can enhance expressiveness, provided that we memorize deeply and trust our memorization.