Pianists: Use your scores. Screw these outdated traditions.

Pianists: Use your scores, if you want to, and feel more comfortable while performing. It’s interesting that the musicians who have the most notes to play and who don’t perform on an instrument they are accustomed to — pianists specifically — are required to memorise their repertoire for a performance, according to outdated tradition.

Hola. The screwed-up classical music tradition dictates the following for pianists:

When giving a solo performance, a pianist should not use his/her score. S/he is to play “from memory.”

Why is that? I reject that. I say do what you want to do.

Tradition also dictates that when giving a performance as soloist with a lot of musicians (meaning an orchestra) for a piano concerto the pianist should not use his/her score.

And why is that? Just because someone wears the label of soloist for a performance they can’t use their score? What nut dreamed that up? I reject that too. It’s nonsense. Again, I say do what you want to do.

Screw this tradition nonsense as it pertains to “soloist.”

But. Tradition also dictates that if the pianist is performing with four other musicians (a piano quintet, for example) it’s perfectly acceptable to use your score.

Oh. So it’s okay then to use the score? Well I agree with that one, but how is that any different than performing with an orchestra? It’s not. There are just more musicians on stage with an orchestra.

This twisted thinking seems to be:

The more musicians on stage = the score is not allowed.
The fewer musicians on stage = the score is allowed.

That’s because the piano is the featured instrument/“soloist” (there’s that word again), whether it’s a piano concerto (with a full orchestra) or a piano quintet (with four other musicians).

This thinking is absolutely loco/crazy.

Tradition also dictates that if a pianist is performing with one other musician — meaning the pianist is accompanying a “soloist” –, the pianist can use the score in that case.

How nice. And I agree with that.

Whenever this topic of pianists using their scores comes up and I have the opportunity to explain this to non-musicians, while I’m explaining it to them they look at me as if I’m crazy because — as they say (and I agree with them) — what tradition dictates doesn’t make any sense using basic logic. True. I’ve been asked many times: Why is using the score okay in one situation but not in another, and who cares that you use your score?!

There’s a whole group of busy-bodied people who do care. They’re called traditionalists and the Classical Music SnotsTM. But I’m not one of them. I generally reject tradition(s). Not all traditions, but most I would say. For example, I can’t stand the holidays. So many traditions make absolutely no sense at all when one applies critical thinking skills to them — such as these outdated tradition about pianists using their score. It’s so trivial.

Also, over the years when I’ve asked people (again non-musicians mostly) how they feel about a pianist using their scores, literally everyone said to me: “Oh it makes no difference to me whatsoever whether a pianist is using their score or not. I’m there to enjoy the music and I’m not concerned at all about whether they’re reading music or not.” Some people have told me that they prefer to see a pianist use the score because it gives more of a “chamber music” feel to the performance. I understand that. That’s because, as I pointed out earlier, with chamber music the pianist is allowed to use the score, according to tradition.

So where did this silly tradition come from of when and when not to use a score for pianists and “soloists” in particular? It came from a tradition started by people’s messiah god Franz LisztTM back in the 1800s. El chico, Don Franz Liszt, played very well and did some things in performance that nobody had ever done before — so that caused some sheeple to ooooh and aaaaah over him (you know how the sheeple are) and because of that he became and continues to be some people’s “messiah” in the stuffy and orthodox classical music field. Conductor William Christie, founder and director of Les Arts Florissants, talked about the classical music tradition a little bit in this article.

There are some idiot traditionalists who say, “using the score makes the artist look unprepared.” *roll eyes* What nonsense! Does an orchestra and conductor look “unprepared” because they have their scores before them on music stands? No. And what intelligent person prejudges an artist based on how they “look” before the artist has play the first note to determine whether the artist is prepared or not?

Who’s unprepared in this scenario:

One pianist performs without the score and has memory slips during the performance.

Another pianist performs with the score and plays the piece in its entirety and very musically.

Who’s unprepared there? In reality, both pianists may be completely prepared, despite how the artist looks and despite the memory slips from the first pianist. It’s really best not to prejudge the artist based on superficial “looks.” Give the artist the opportunity to perform before making baseless conclusions about him or her. But often (conservative) traditionalists — known as the Classical Music SnotsTM— with their many prejudices like to prejudge people.

These days I’m seeing more pianists perform with their scores (see video at the bottom of the page, for example) and I’m pleased to see that. Pianist Nelson Freire used his score for a concerto performance at the BBC Proms. I guess the traditionalists had a diarrhea episode over that. I can hear them now: “How dare Nelson Freire use his score for something as important as the BBC Proms.” Oh, por favor!

In an interview, international concert pianist Cristina Ortíz said that she used her score when performing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra many years ago. She had just learned the Stenhammer Piano Concerto and hadn’t had time to memorise it, so she used the score. She said, “who cares if you use the score?!” Apparently no one did in Chicago.

One local solo pianist I’ve seen for years is now using his scores, or at least he was in the video I saw of him performing. He was also casually dressed which was very good to see, although still in funeral-black. He rarely used his scores in the past, although when I talked with him after one performance about it he said, “I have no problem with a pianist using his/her score. It should be left up to the artist.” Exactamente. This pianist always played “from memory” in part because he told me, “I like to get out of the score and for me the score can sometimes get in the way.” Well, that “from memory” routine can get pretty old and tiresome too for pianists.

I’ve seen so many local pianists over the years have memory slips — it made my stomach ache each time — and I felt sorry for them because I know how that can be. One pianist I went to hear left out most of the second movement of a Beethoven sonata because she couldn’t get back on track following her memory slip, so her performance of that sonata ended much sooner than it would have been had she played the entire piece. She looked like she felt like crawling under the piano when she took her bow after the Beethoven. I felt empathy for her. She played well, even though we didn’t hear all of the sonata. Had she used her score, we would have heard all of the second movement.

Some people don’t seem to understand that one’s mind can do any and all kinds of things during a (solo) performance. Even someone who is thoroughly prepared and can “play the piece in their sleep” can have memory problems with their mind messing with them during the nervousness and stress of a performance. It does not matter how much someone has drilled a piece/rehearsed it or even if they have performed it hundreds of times before. The artist can still have a problem with the piece if their mind starts to create problems for them or if the mind wanders or is distracted for some reason (like someone walking by the piano during a performance as happens locally on occasion at one concert venue). There can also be very tricky places in a piece which can throw the pianist off when playing “from memory” no matter how much they’ve drilled that particular place in the score.

I went to hear a pianist from the University of California at Davis School of Music perform Rachmaninov’s Etudes-Tableaux (they are very difficult pieces). She played “from memory.” I enjoyed her performance very much and Rachmaninov is one of my favourite composers (along with Anglican composer Herbert Howells). She played beautifully but during one of the pieces she had a memory slip like most everybody else I’ve heard at one time or another. I was sitting in the second row and I heard her say, “Oh shit” rather loudly during one of the Etudes. LOL. She kept going. I think she automatically skipped to another section in the etude. Even though we’re taught to say nothing when something goes wrong, she did voice her memory slip. I thought it was funny, not that she made the memory slip but her response to it.

There can also be a first and second ending which can be very similar in a piece and if playing without the score the pianist can have a memory slip when approaching the second ending and get looped back around into the first part of the piece again until the pianist is able to remember the second ending correctly from memory and go on. With memory slips, hopefully the artist can improvise in the style of the piece to try to remember how to go on. Sometimes that’s impossible as the pianist doesn’t have the ability to improvise.

Also, if a pianist (or any musician for that matter) makes a mistake or has a “slip of the finger,” it’s best to immediately forget about that. But some pianists can’t do that so they start obsessing/thinking about that mistake they just made and that their performance is now not “perfect.” Sigh. Well, doing that then causes the musician to make another mistake — because their mind is not on what they’re currently playing sort of on automatic pilot — so then there’s two mistakes to obsess over. Then another slip happens and another and at that point the musician feels like starting over but can’t do so. When I was teaching, students were constantly asking me, “can I start over?” My answer: No, keep going. You can’t start over in performance so don’t start over here. Don’t get in that bad habit.

None of the above that I’ve just described that can happen during a (solo) performance has anything to do with an artist not being completely prepared. But all of this can effect an artist’s performance wherein the artist may appear to not be prepared from the perspective of the audience.

Most instrumentalists play just one note at a time. How difficult it is to memorise single-note lines?

Here’s a sample of a violin score

Here’s a sample of a Bass Clarinet in B Flat score

Here’s a sample of a flute score

Yes, most instrumentalists play one note at a time. But pianist have notes in both hands — and lots of notes in both hands in some cases — look at Rachmaninov’s beautiful huge chords of his Sonata No. 2 for solo piano, for example:

Here’s a sample of Rachmaninov’s Sonata No. 2

Here’s a sample of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3

Here’s a sample of Henri Mulet’s Tu es petra (toccata) for pipe organ

Of these six examples, which one would be easier to play and memorise?

I’d go with the violin, bass clarinet and flute as being much easier. From having worked on the Rachmaninov Sonata No. 2 and the Third Piano Concerto, I know from experience how difficult they are. They’re nothing like playing or memorising a single line of notes.

I’m not trying to make this a competition between instruments and what instrument is more difficult. That’s not the point here. I’m merely pointing out that from experience I know that it’s much easier to memorise a single line of notes than thick textures with handfuls of notes which both pianists and organists play. Pianists and organists also play the “single note line” (which is usually the melody) plus we play all the accompanying notes/texture too. That’s much more difficult and complicated than what other instrumentalists play and have to memorise. And in the case of pipe organ, organists have the pedal work to master which is the same as playing another keyboard (so that’s 2-3 keyboards/manuals at a time in the case of pipe organ). Organists also have registration changes while they’re playing, unless one has a registrant. But I can see why some musicians apparently embrace this tradition of memorising for someone wearing the label of “soloist” when s/he only plays one note at time. Yes, that would be very easy to do coming from a piano and organ perspective. I know for me, a piece by JS Bach seems easy after playing Rachmaninov or Scriabin. I should also point out that organists don’t seem to have this rigid requirement that pianists do. From my experience, it’s acceptable for organists to use their scores or not for solo performance.

Some years ago, concert pianist John McCabe in the UK began using his scores for piano concerti. He told his concert manager that for his engagements with orchestras to please request a page turner. He started using his scores because of memory slips during concerto performances. He said he knew the concerto he was playing with an orchestra perfectly well from memory. He told the interviewer that the reason he started using his scores was because in one performance he got distracted. He missed his piano entrance because he said he heard someone in the orchestra play an entrance that he had never heard before. Well, his mind began thinking about that and he forgot to come in with his piano entrance. He said that this happened again. So in his case it was a matter of being distracted, which can easily happen.

At the school of music where I trained, a pianist had a major memory slip during the student soloist competition concert. She was playing the first movement of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 with our Symphony Orchestra. (She should have used her score no matter how well she knew the piece.) When she began her memory slip, that caused the violin section to fail to come in because they didn’t get their cue from the piano (or apparently from the conductor either). The conductor was trying to deal with the pianist and her memory slip to get her back on track, somehow. Then part of the wind section missed their entrance because they didn’t get their cue from the violins. Then the brass section failed to come in because they didn’t get their cue from the wind section. Well, the whole thing almost shut down. It sounded rather bare at one point with just a few instrument playing something. I guess the conductor didn’t think to pick up his conductor’s score and go over to the piano and show her the score and whisper to her kindly: “This is where you are, mi amor. Play something, por favor! Let’s get this thing started up again.” LOL. Fortunately, the pianist played something and that part of the concerto gradually got back on track, but it was slow-going and tense there for awhile. Here’s an interesting article: When memory fails, great musicians have ways of coping: Some keep playing.

Except for Pianists, don’t most instrumentalists perform on their own instruments?

Yes they do. So strings and winds, for example, perform on the exact same instrument they prepare their pieces on, which means they play the same instrument all the time even in performance. Pianists and organists don’t have that luxury. Other than Vladamir Horowitz, pianists can’t haul their piano (and piano technician) around from one performance space to another. The piano one is required to play in a hall can very much effect one’s playing, especially the action of the piano. (I’ve played on some pianos with terrible action.) I remember international concert artist, Cristina Ortíz, asking on her blog, “Is it just me, but does no other pianist have a problem with the piano in Queen Elizabeth Hall (in London)?” It’s a concert grand piano (I presume), but apparently it’s inferior to the grand piano that Doña Cristina has in her home. She also says the placement of the piano on the stage or with an orchestra effects her playing. The piano has to be just right for her to feel completely comfortable in performance. Doña Cristina much prefers the Hamburg Steinway piano which we don’t have here in The Imperialistic Empire/the US, and that’s one reason she does not like to perform en Los Estados Unidos/the US. (Who in their right mind would want to come here anyway, for any reason?) From what I know about the New York Steinway and the Hamburg Steinway, the main differences are in the action. The New York Steinway manufactures their own action whereas the Hamburg outsource their action to the highly-regarded Renner action manufacturer en Alemania/Deutschland/Germany. The Hamburg Steinway tends to have a thicker soundboard. Another reason Doña Cristina does not like to perform here is because of the piano placement for piano concerti where the piano is stuck out like a what-not on the stage in front of the orchestra rather than being more inside the orchestra (as part of the orchestra, the way it’s done in Europe for concerti performances). She said that she only needs a few seconds with a Steinway to tell whether it’s a Hamburg Steinway or a New York.

Also, every piano is different and it’s different than the piano one prepares one’s repertoire on. The acoustics of the room are different. That effects one’s pedaling. When I was teaching, some students would often ask me to write in pedaling. Instead, I taught them to listen closely to themselves while playing and pedal accordingly, and veer on the side of “dry” rather than “wet” when pedaling. Any pedaling I might write in their score would only work for the room I was teaching in and that acoustic. Usually a pianist has little time to adjust to the new piano in a recital/concert setting and the room’s acoustics before a performance and s/he has to deal with that while trying to play “from memory.” That can be very stressful and difficult. Whereas most other instrumentalists come out on stage and play on the instrument they’ve rehearsed on for years (depending upon how long they’ve owned their instrument) and they are completely comfortable in that context because they’re playing their own instrument. Again, that is not the case with pianists (or organists, other than church organists giving a performance in their own church).

I once asked a local pianist if he enjoyed performing. He said, “I have mixed feelings about it. You can be thoroughly prepared and know the pieces inside-out and able to play them in your head away from the piano. I play these pieces just fine at home, repeatedly. Then you get into the performance environment and “the fingers have a mind of their own.” I’ll make some slip of the finger or some mistake that I’ve never ever made before and depending upon how drastic it is that can send me into a tail-spin. My memory disappears temporarily, in part, because I’m on a new piano or a piano with not-so-good/bad action and my pedaling is different now because of the acoustic of the room, and I have to start improvising in the style of the piece until I can get back on track.” That’s a lot to deal with. I said: Yes, I completely understand. Well maybe you should use your scores in performance. He said, “I’m leaning more and more towards that these days.”
Good idea. More pianists should, because isn’t the best performance the ultimate goal? Regardless of these ridiculous and outdated rules that some nut(s) came up with about using or not using the score depending upon the situation. Ugh.

When I trained, all pianists were required to “play from memory” and I did so (but never felt completely comfortable with it), and since then I’ve rejected this memorisation nonsense after giving it a lot of thought and from teaching students.

I also now see this performing “from memory” routine as being a bit pretentious and trying to put on airs of superiority. It looks pretentious, as if the person or group performing without their score(s) is trying to give the impression to the audience that, “We don’t need our scores” (spoken with nose in the air) and “We’re better than those other musicians who do need their scores.” (Oh really?….and then you proceed to have a memory slip!) I’ve seen videos of some choral groups perform “from memory” and I really didn’t like the looks of that at all because they look like a bank of statues (literally) regurgitating the score on cue on auto-pilot while all staring motionless at the conductor. Without their scores, their bodies gave no indication they were even getting into the music. (Whereas musicians who hold their scores often move around a bit which I like to see, especially with a well-trained Chorus). To me it looked artificial when you have that many people in a group looking frozen in place with only their mouths moving while singing. I noticed that when the camera focused on a certain chorister on occasion that his/her mouth would not be moving as if the person were having a memory slip.

Often when I accompanied instrumental soloists, they came out on stage or in the performance area with a music stand to hold their score. The “soloist” hadn’t memorised their single note lines?

Everybody is different. Not everyone needs to do what almighty messiah god Liszt did. I don’t really care what he did, so I don’t feel this need to emulate him. From what I know about him, he was considered the “pop culture” of his day. *roll eyes* I don’t worship people and feel the need to do what somebody else does. I’m very independent and I do what I want to do. And there should not be some Declaration from on high in the style of a congressional resolution about what classical piano artists/soloist should do.

Now, when are they going to get rid of that outdated funeral-drab black and white “formal” performance attire that musicians have been wearing for generations in the classical music tradition? What nut created that tradition of wearing “formal” attire for performances? How about having everyone — Orchestra, Chorus and “soloists” of all varieties — in beautiful bright Latin colours. Put some vivid colour on that dull, drab, conservative stage. Why is the slowly-dying classical music field so afraid of colour? You’re not at a funeral or a memorial. Speaking of that, I have noticed that it’s improved slightly in Britain (for the Proms) and in Caracas with Orchestra and Symphony Chorus members wearing open black shirts and black pants/black dresses. They’ve at least buried that tired white shirt tradition. Chau.—el barrio rosa

Below is a brief clip — I’m sorry it’s not longer but it’s all I could find of this — of a performance from the Salzburg Festival. You’ll see that everyone is using their score including pianist Martha Argerich. Doña Martha has a page turner. I especially like this orquesta desde Caracas, Venezuela: Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. They’re superb. You can also hear them in this performance from Caracas.

[Note: One of my commenters, Conservatory student, contributed to this article.]


When I was teaching private piano instruction

3 comments on “Pianists: Use your scores. Screw these outdated traditions.

  1. E in Sunnyvale

    Thanks for the great article! Didn’t know until now that Liszt was the one behind the memorization nonsense. Also educational to hear how things are from the pianist’s perspective (one I’ve never experienced first hand).


  2. Alejandro

    Hooooooooooooola. Can I get conservatory credit for this? 🙂 Muchas gracias for sharing your insider and teaching experiences.

  3. David in Bedstuy

    Very thorough!

    I learned that other instrumentalists don’t have a clue re what solo pianists have to deal with in concerts, as you’ve explained so well. If they did, they would not say some of the things they do.

    I perked up when you mentioned CO. I have a couple of her CDs.

Fin. The End.