Playing From the Score Versus Playing from Memory

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Welcome to, 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?” They’re 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. They couldn’t sight read even easy student pieces! They would have to spend the time to learn 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 memorization. They’re 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 memorize music?

You’ve got a music rack 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 memorized 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 memorized. Put the work into the front end and enjoy a much easier performance not having to look up and down from the music to the keyboard.

Why wouldn’t you memorize 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.

Practicing pieces to be memorized compared to pieces to be played from the score requires completely different methodology.

When approaching a piece of music you want to memorize, 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 memorized, 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, use the band-aid approach. Focus your attention on the parts that you can’t play up to speed and I work on those sections until you can. 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 with 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 could 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 the score. These are two completely different ways of practicing. With solo music it is worth memorizing, but when you’re playing with other musicians, seeing the score is of benefit. There are two completely different approaches to practicing. I’m interested in how others have dealt with these issues.

I’m Robert Estrin here at, Your Online Piano Resource.
Please feel free to contact me with any piano related questions for future videos!