Playing from the score versus playing from memory


By Robert Estrin


I’m Robert Estrin. I got a great question from a viewer:


‘How do You Approach Playing From A Score Compared to Playing From Memory?’


These are two completely different skill sets.


Let me tell you a little story. Years ago, I would go to competitions to accompany performers. Sometimes at the last minute, someone’s accompanist wouldn’t show up. Maybe it was a kid with some very simple accompaniment. They would ask some of the other accompanists to fill in. But some of them just couldn’t do it unless they practiced beforehand. They couldn’t sight-read even easy student pieces! They would have to spend time learning the score first.


I’ve also seen people who could read very well, but even if they practiced a piece for months, they couldn’t gain security in memorisation. They are two completely different skill sets. So, why do you need both of them anyway? That’s the first question I’m going to answer for you. There are some types of music where reading the score is intrinsically important. There are other times when playing from memory is of tremendous benefit.


Why would you ever have to memorise music?

You’ve got a music stand right in front of you, so why not just read the music? I play solo music from memory all the time. But why? Am I just trying to show off? The secret is that once you have something memorised, it’s much easier to play it without having to look up at the music. With solo music, there’s no reason not to have it all memorised. When you put the work into the front end, you can enjoy a much easier performance without having to look up and down from the music to the keyboard.


Why wouldn’t you memorise all your music?

First of all, it’s time consuming. But more importantly, when you play with other musicians, chamber music or accompanying, you absolutely must get a grasp of the entire score. You have to know what everybody is playing. The score shows not just your part, but it has the other musicians’ parts as well. It’s really important when playing with other musicians to have the score so you’re aware of everything going on, just like a conductor. 


Practicing pieces to be memorised compared to pieces to be played from the score require completely different methodologies.

When approaching a piece of music you want to memorise, you want to read through it just two or three times and then get to work one little section at a time starting with the right hand, learning absolutely everything: the notes, rhythm, fingering, phrasing and expression. You can master a small phrase in a couple of minutes. You do the same thing with the left-hand part. Get the left hand memorised, just a small phrase. As each phrase is learned, you put the hands together and then connect from the beginning. Eventually you have the whole piece learned and you continue solidifying the memory with and without the score. You get to a point where the music is part of you. It’s a great feeling of liberation!


When accompanying pieces of music, you don’t practice that way.
There might be certain key sections you work on that way, but generally speaking, you go through the piece slowly reading. Any parts that you can’t play satisfactorily, you can use the band-aid approach. Focus your attention on the parts that you can’t play up to speed and work on those sections until you can play them on a high level. Try to play so you don’t have to look down at your hands at all so you can keep your eyes on the score and play totally by feel. It seems impossible! There will be quick glances for leaps and things like that. But in your practice, try to make it so you don’t have to look down at your hands at all. You get to the point of total comfort, being completely absorbed in the score. That’s a great feeling because then if you need a quick glance here or there, you’re okay. But never move your head, only your eyes.


How is it possible to play a piece without looking at your hands? 

There are some incredibly great blind pianists who can play anything, even music with large leaps. So, it is possible! Think about what violinists and cellists do with no frets making big leaps without always being able to look at their hands. So, you can learn to play without looking at your hands. These are two completely different ways of practicing. With solo music it is worth memorising, but when you’re playing with other musicians, seeing the score is of great benefit. These are two completely different approaches to practicing. I’m interested in how others have dealt with these issues.


Now watch Robert’s lesson!




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