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12 minutes reading time (2437 words)

One pianist's choice not to memorize

The traditional requirements of memorizing piano music for public performance have made nervous wrecks of many pianists. Fear of a memory slip can become an enormous specter overhanging each concert, reducing practice to campaigns solely focused on committing the scores safely and perfectly to memory. To reduce the likelihood of disaster, memorization becomes the raison d'être, and I believe that nothing could be more antithetical to artistry.

Artistry is the goal

Artistry is related to love and life, which by nature are risky and spontaneous. Perfection, not to mention the struggle to achieve it, can be devoid of meaning, sterile, and therefore boring and lifeless. The real struggle should center on getting to the core of the music, while holding onto the excitement and immediacy of the moment. Therefore, the quest for artistry and the quest for "technical" perfection can be, strangely, almost mutually exclusive. At least they are mutually exclusive unless the pianist realizes the true meaning of the word technique: the facility required to express the meaning of the music. 

In order to commit a recital-length program to memory, one must almost become a recluse. Georg Solti, who was a wonderful pianist, said it all when he was asked why he never played piano recitals anymore: "To be a pianist, one must do nothing else." A pianist could learn enough literature to fill several programs in the same amount of time as it takes to memorize a single program, yet most pianists still fear to commit that "transgression" and bring the score onto the stage.

Carol Montparker


There has been a stigma attached to the use of the score onstage, fostered by the traditional and conventional musical community, as evidenced by the prerequisites and rules of almost every competition and auditioning committee. The pianist has thousands more notes per program, yet is the only instrumentalist expected to memorize. Our lot as pianists is, no matter which choice we make, a fearful one: we either fear the derision of the righteous if we use the score, or we fear a memory lapse. I have yet to meet the pianist, from world-famous to garden variety, who is not plagued with anxiety related to memory. 

This ongoing struggle has existed ever since Franz Liszt invented the phenomenon of the solo piano recital, and, along with Clara Schumann, set the precedent of eschewing the music. In fact, Clara was called pretentious by critics for daring to play a Beethoven sonata without the score! Prior to those early forays, pianists with such names as Mozart, Clementi, and Beethoven read their own scores, guiltfree, in front of their audiences. 

After paying my dues as a memorizing pianist for more than fifty years, I have, during the last several years, begun to perform with the score on stage. This commitment has required courage, but the ranks of with-score crusaders have been slowly but surely increasing to include some quite illustrious names.

Common objections

There are many objections to pianists performing with the score, but they can be refuted: 

1) The pianist using the score is still "dependent" on the printed page and has not fully absorbed the music, making it his or her own. 

Does it follow, then, that the same pianist playing chamber music with the score, or any other instrumentalist using music (winds, brass, and string players, even harpsichordists and organists), is inadequately prepared and dependent? Is there anything more beautiful and deeply interpreted and communicated than the chamber music recordings of Artur Rubinstein, performed with the music? Or a Beethoven sonata, performed with the score, by Myra Hess? 

2) A performer who is glued to the printed page cannot play with spontaneity and freedom of expression. 

I find the opposite to be true—the pianist who is released from the mortal fear of a lapse, is then, and only then, fully free to be expressive. My pieces are all memorized, and therefore I am never "glued to" any page! If I experience a flicker of fear or faltering, just a glance at the landscape of the page can restore my emotional or physical equilibrium. Recently, when I mentioned these ideas to the world-famous pianist Radu Lupu, presupposing that he would scoff at the idea, he surprised me by his good-natured approval, asking, "Why should I scoff at it?" 

3) The page turner is a distraction. 

If the pianist reduces the size of the pages, and tapes the small copies side by side, entire movements can be played without a single page turned. I learned this trick many years ago from the late great cellist, Janos Starker, who came onstage in New York City brandishing the score (in mini-copies) of the Bach solo cello suites. He announced to the audience, "For those of you who wonder why I would have the score, since I have performed and recorded these suites hundreds of times, all I can say is that every time I behold the score I see something new!" That was the most elegant rationale for using the score I had ever heard!

Music rack designed to support a mini-score, © Carol Montparker and Alan Stevenson.

The mini-score

I have designed a small, unobtrusive lightweight balsa music rack that was built for me by a wood-craftsman friend; it lies almost flat over the pin block, supported by the ribs. It perfectly accommodates a small pasted-up score, and, with its slight inclined angle, it is barely visible to the audience and therefore not at all distracting. 

Mini-scores are perfectly sufficient when we remember that the pianist is no longer reading note by note. By the time the concert arrives, the pianist is reading topographically, noticing the shapes, contours, and intervallic relationships of the passages and thinking in whole phrases rather than single notes. 

Another bonus is the ironic fact that using reduced-sized scores can provide an excellent tool for weaning oneself away from the printed page, should one wish to commit the music to memory. Sometimes we find that the next step after practicing with the small page is just glancing up, momentarily, for that comforting, reassuring glimpse at various points along the way. That transition process happens all by itself for most people. 

Radu Lupu noted to me that he would gladly use a mini-score, but didn't think he could ever find his place on such a small page should he need it. I should add that I have marked certain landmarks in the score in bright red, to catch the eye in an emergency. It is also worth noting that when one uses a reduced score there is an interesting new perspective: a sort of bird's-eye overview of the terrain that yields additional insights regarding the shape and construction of the work. 

For the more modern folks among us, there are digital page-turning devices and illuminated screens of the score. Personally, I prefer paper scores (and books), and as an audience member I find the glaring presence of those screens on the music stand distracting, if not surreal.

Eight pages of a Mozart sonata in mini-score, with important landmarks marked in red.


Have I not earned the right to have the courage of my convictions? Myra Hess said the following to anyone who questioned her use of the score onstage: "Will anyone truly, in good conscience, begrudge me, or any other pianist who wishes to enjoy her own concert, the presence of a safety net, just in case?" 

The responses to my ongoing campaign to use the score onstage have been varied and interesting. One pianist-friend pointed me in the direction of a pirated DVD of the great Artur Rubinstein in a grotesque struggle with a memory lapse at a solo recital. I have had the stamp of approval from several world-renowned concert pianists, including Mr. Lupu and another pianist who shared a grisly tale of blithely leaping from the end of the exposition in Beethoven's Opus 7 Sonata straight to the coda, thereby committing the most truncated performance of its first movement in history! These stories are told retrospectively with humor, but at the moment of their occurrence they are anything but humorous. András Schiff stated very generously in an interview I once did with him, "For me, memory comes easy. Does that make me a better pianist? No!" 

I have known certain other pianist-colleagues who flaunt their prowess in performing from memory, as though that is the supreme criterion. Unfortunately, those pianists have given some of the most lackluster, unspontaneous, and standard performances I have heard. 

Some years ago, during an interview for Clavier magazine, the pianist Gil Kalish spoke to me on this very subject. As a pianist who does use the score in both solo and chamber music performances, he was completely open about his feelings and his choices. 

For quite a while I felt guilty about it. Frankly, I'd rather not use the music, but, at some point, playing by memory became so stressful that I decided not to put myself through that anxiety. An experience many years ago at Tanglewood gave me a new perspective on the issue. I was invited to play a program of Haydn sonatas in the "big shed" as a prelude to the Boston Symphony Orchestra concert. I knew these Haydn sonatas by memory and had every intention of playing them without the score, but as the time drew closer I decided not to put myself through that. I was terribly self-conscious about it and envisioned someone with a hook removing me from the stage in disgrace. I played well, though, and afterwards as people congratulated me I pulled aside a good friend from the administration and asked, "Tell the truth, did it bother you that I used the music?" He responded, "Oh, did you use the music? I didn't notice." My students don't use music at concerts or auditions, and I never encourage them to use a score; but if a student should come to me terrified about a concert, I might say, "For goodness sake, put the music in front of you!" It's not a crime. What counts is what you have to say as a musician.1 

To experience a memory lapse onstage is a terrifying experience, but to be a pianist in the audience watching a pianist experience a memory lapse can be even more upsetting. You secretly wince, shudder, pity, empathize, and pray it ends quickly. If and when a derailment does occur, it is fortunate if the pianist can keep within the harmony and reconnect to the text as unobtrusively as possible. But, oh, the ugly, nightmarish ramblings we have heard. How can the presence of small pages be more objectionable to anyone than the chaotic sounds of a train wreck?

Memory for students

One of my students is a public school music teacher who does not have the time to memorize, but he does wish to perform publicly and has chosen to perform with the music. He was playing for one of his colleagues who openly criticized his use of music. This criticism got under his skin, diminishing his confidence and enthusiasm and upsetting his equilibrium. The irony was that he was playing extremely artistically and freely. I sat him down to examine how he really felt about his own use of music. Was he ashamed? Did he think it was a "crime," to use the words of Mr. Kalish? Did he think he could play better without the music? He came to his own conclusion that he felt like a victim of convention and custom, and he truly wished to stand up for his rights to play however he wished, with or without the score. It took courage, but he was able to separate the real issues for himself and identify his own convictions and realities: He wanted to perform; he did not have the time to memorize with all the other work he was doing; and, most importantly, he was playing as artistically as he would want to. 

At the many piano conferences and organizations at which I have performed, countless pianists have admitted to me how unfair they think these customs are, and they secretly wish they had the courage to fly in the face of convention and walk out on stage with music! Why not have a group mutiny? 

Even without the goal of memorization, learning a piano score is incredibly difficult (most instrumentalists only have to learn single-note lines). If time and energy are factors, is it not preferable to spend those precious commodities on learning more music literature, than drilling away for superhuman perfection? 

I recently took on a student who is an older woman with a considerable background at the piano. She has inherent good taste, a fine ear, and a good technical grasp of the literature we choose. After several weeks of work on a Brahms Intermezzo, she was already playing it quite beautifully, and I suggested that we move to yet another Brahms piece in the same opus. She looked disappointed and replied, "We didn't finish the piece." 

I asked her whether she meant she had not memorized it, adding that we never could say we "finished" studying a masterwork—one lives with it and adds layers of meaning through the years. I reminded her that she could, and should, continue to keep the work under her fingers. I also suggested that life was, if not short, then not that long, and wouldn't she like to get to know as many great works as she could? She immediately saw my point and dropped all her old beliefs about memorizing. If she were to perform the piece, I would have given her the choice of memorizing or not, and coached it to a fare-thee-well.

There's more to life . . .

There are many students and pianists for whom, like András Schiff, memorizing the music happens with no effort at all. That was the case for me from the age of five until relatively recently. Now I am teaching more than ever, writing, gardening, etc., and I am simply unwilling to spend the bulk of my time committing music to memory. I always have a mountainous pile of music on the left side of my music desk waiting for my attention. With all the exigencies of busy schedules, more resistive memory, the challenge of new music, or simply the desire to stuff as much music into my life as I can, while I still can, I, for one, feel entirely justified using the score onstage or anywhere else.

For the full interview, see Montparker, C. (1993). Following the path of opportunity. Clavier 32 (5), 10-14.

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