Tag Archives: it’s easy to memorise a piece when you’re playing one note at a time.

Yes, it’s easy to memorise a piece when you’re playing one note at a time.

Per tradition, it’s interesting that memorisation is required for the musicians (pianists) who play the most notes all at one time.

Hola a todos. Mi amigo/My friend and I recently watched a performance of the rarely performed Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy for Piano, Orchestra and Chorus in Nihon/Japan. Marta Argerich was the piano soloist with a very fine Orchestra and Chorus from Nihon, conducted by Seiji Ozawa. It was a concert in honour of his 80th birthday celebration. I can’t provide the details about the performers because they were not listed. Mi amigo didn’t care much for the piece, but I like it and especially the choral section if one has a well-trained Chorus, which this Chorus from Nihon was. They sang with perfect intonation and clear, good German diction.

One person made a comment of disapproval about Marta using her score and wrote, “With her experience I would think she would know that piece.” I wouldn’t. Even though she did know it and played it perfectly. I guess this commenter doesn’t know that Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy is rarely performed in the big scheme of things. Beethoven’s Ninth gets the programming time these days — it’s one of The Big Three — not his Choral Fantasy. I’ve often thought the two works should be programmed together because you already have the Orchestra, Chorus and vocal soloists there on stage so all you need to do is to bring in a pianist to perform the Choral Fantasy. The vocal soloists in the Nihon performance were not screamers, which one typically hears these days. Of the bunch, I especially liked the soprano soloist, which I rarely say about soprano soloists. She never screamed, but sang more beautifully and with little noticeable vibrato. One or two of the guys had occasional pitch problems. And just because Marta used her score which she placed on the music rack rather than trying to hide it inside the piano and had a page turner sitting next to her — which I was very pleased to see — doesn’t at all mean that she didn’t know the piece. That is an outdated myth. If she didn’t “know” the piece, she wouldn’t have played it perfectly. If the commenter had watched her closely as I did, Marta was mostly playing “from memory” at the beginning of the piece. She started looking at the score more closely as the piece went on. But clearly she “knew” the piece. What is wrong with some judgmental people? She just felt more comfortable with the score. And what’s the problem with using the score? Nothing else going on in one’s pathetic life than to be concerned about an artist using his or her score? This is one of the many hypocrisies/double standards of the Classical Music tradition.

Let me explain: For those who don’t know, according to (illogical) tradition and a tradition which makes absolutely no sense at all, a piano artist can use his or her score in some situations, but not in others:

In a piano concerto = no
In chamber music = yes
As a piano soloist, with or without orchestra = no
Accompanying another musician or a Chorus = yes

Let me elaborate on that a bit. So when a pianist is playing with a few (4) other musicians as in a Piano Quintet which is Chamber Music, the pianist can use the score according to tradition. But when a pianist is playing with a whole lot more musicians (as in with a Chamber or Full Orchestra), the pianist is supposed to play “from memory.” What difference does it make how many musicians you’re playing with and whether you’re the soloist or not? Which situation is the more stressful or anxiety-ridden experience where the pianist might appreciate being able to use the score? With an Orchestra where the pianist is the soloist, or at least that would be the more stressful situation for me. Yet that’s the situation in which tradition says, “No score allowed.” And what dictator came up with that convoluted idea?

As for other keyboardists, organists are allowed to use their scores whenever they want. That’s perfectly acceptable by tradition. Depending upon what repertoire an organist is playing, with the pedal work — between the hands and feet — an organist can be playing as many notes as a pianist. But pianists allowed to use the score? No, or generally no, depending upon the situation, as you see above.

So what idiot presumably with a lot of time on his/her hands and nothing else going on in their pathetic life dreamed up these ridiculous, duplicitous rules about when keyboardists can or cannot use his or her score? Or was it to emulate The Holy and Indivisible Trinity god Franz Liszt? Let me say this: The boy (Liszt) could play — nobody’s questioning that — but there’s no need to model the piano Classical Music traditions based on what he did, or what one person did. That’s ludicrous. What worked for god Liszt, worked for him. But no one else should be required to do what he did back in the 1800s. And that’s how outdated this caca is. (Franz Liszt lived between 1811-1886).

I was glad to see Marta using her score because it gave a more chamber music feel to the performance, and much of the piece (before the Chorus comes in at the end) is like chamber music. Obviously Seiji Ozawa and the First and Second Concertmasters had no problem with her using her score, so why would some arm-chair critic traditionalist commenter on U-toob have a problem with it? Maybe he could kindly give us a link to his performance of the piece where he played it “from memory,” no?

As a pianist, I’d like to come to Marta’s defence. The following cannot be said too many times:

Unlike most other instruments, pianists play more than one single note at a time.

Have most people never considered that?

This topic has come up before, and will probably come up again! Some people forget or don’t know that most orchestral musicians play one, single note at a time. That’s one note at a time. Whereas a pianist can be playing 10 or more notes all at one time with every finger on a key. Then we are lectured to by the busy-bodies, arm-chair critics: You cannot use your score. And why the hell not?

No disrespect at all intended to other musicians, but if one has mastered one’s instrument, anyone should be able to handle one note at a time “from memory,” don’t you think!?

String musicians can play two notes at a time — bowing two strings simultaneously — if they have to, which they call a “chord,” although a chord in music technically consists of three notes by definition. Having a single note to play throughout a piece is much, much easier to memorise than playing a handful of notes like keyboardists, guitarists and harpists play, something that many (most?) musicians don’t consider or are unaware of.

If keyboardists only had to play one, single note a time, I should think that we could all easily perform “from memory,” if that is so critically important to some shallow people.

But in the case of Rachmaninov, for example, and I know from experience, a pianist can have up to 11 (eleven) notes to play all at one time — with the thumb on two notes — as in the case of his Études-Tableaux and Piano Concerto No. 3. With Rachmaninov, the entire piece can be thick chords or thick textures using every finger to play his thick (and gorgeous) chords. And the fingering has to be carefully worked out to play his pieces beautifully, but that’s the case with any piece regardless of composer. For some pianists, it’s not easy to memorise handfuls of notes no matter how long one works on the piece or plays it, sometimes to the point of becoming sick of the piece from having worked on it too long or having overplayed it. And as one gets older, one’s memory is usually not as good as it once was in one’s prime. The brain does deteriorate over time, just like the rest of the human body.

There’s one local Performance Pianist — I call him a “production pianist”; he has really pumped out the repertoire over the years — in San Francisco who has a history of usually performing “from memory.” These days, he’s using his scores more. Good to see that. I talked with him on one occasion about his feelings on this subject. He said that using the score or not should be up to the artist; whatever s/he is most comfortable doing to get the best performance. I agree. And isn’t that what it all should be about, getting the best performance?

Some idiot conservative concert managers live with the outdated myth that if a piano artist is using his or her score, it means that the artist is unprepared. Utter rubbish. It’s funny that this outdated myth only applies to pianists — and no other musicians — and pianists have the most notes to play.

At the Conservatory where I trained, of course all of us piano majors were required to play “from memory” in our end-of-semester juries or when giving a student recital, or for the Conservatory Symphony Orchestra’s Annual Student Soloist Competition.

At the Conservatory, one of the more senior-aged piano professors was asked to perform with the Conservatory Symphony Orchestra. She asked me to turn pages for her when she performed the first movement of a piano concerto. Nobody cared that she used her score and had me as a page turner. She told me privately, “I can’t memorise all this.”

But any other musician by tradition can use their score — such as all of those other musicians who are playing one, single note at a time — so why can’t pianists use their scores when, again, we pianist can be playing between 2 notes (as in a Bach 2-part Invention, for example) or up to 12 notes all at one time (both thumbs on two keys in some of Sergei Rachmaninov’s music)?

Some musicians say, “Well as long as you work on a piece, you can play it in your sleep.” I suppose that’s true for anyone playing one, single note at a time. But if one is playing a handful of notes in both hands all at one time, it often doesn’t matter how long you’ve been working on the piece. I’ve had other pianists tell me, “The fingers have a mind of their own in performance.” And indeed they do! I know exactly what they mean. Things can indeed happen in performance that have never happened before (including some distraction in the performance space) or, such as memory slips, no matter how well you’re prepared. If you’re playing one, single note at a time, it’s usually no big deal when that happens and there’s quick recovery. But if you’re playing thick chords in Rachmaninov or complicated fugal textures, or anything more than one note at a time it can turn your “perfect” performance into feeling that it’s becoming a disaster — where you feel like crawling under the piano — and a quick recovery can be more complicated.

I’ve seen some pianists locally who never recovered from a memory slip, leaving out a chunk of a movement in a Beethoven Sonata, as an example. I went to hear this local Bay Area pianist awhile back. She played “from memory” and in her Beethoven Sonata she couldn’t remember how to play the second ending in the second movement. So, the second or third time around that she approached the first and second ending, she stalled again and played the first ending again. She kept getting stuck at the second ending because they’re usually similar. Finally, she improvised in the style of the piece — good idea and the sign of an artist — and got past the second ending somehow, even though she never did play it. She skipped over it. And her performance of the piece was about 15 minutes less in length than it was supposed to be because she skipped to near the end of the movement where her memory kicked back in for her. I felt sorry for her. My stomach was turning for her. She played well. I enjoyed her performance. She just had a major memory slip because she wasn’t allowed to use her score, per Classical Music’s fucked-up-in-the-head traditions. Let’s tell it like it is! Ugh, don’t get me started! She looked like she felt like crawling under the piano when she took her bow. Yes, I know that feeling. She felt absolutely disgusted, because I’m sure she knew the piece, but because of performance anxiety she couldn’t remember the second ending. And first and second endings can be tricky places in a piece because they’re so much alike.

During a performance, I’ve seen some string orchestral musicians look “wowed” by the playing of a pianist playing a Rachmaninov piano concerto, for example. It’s as if the string players were feeling inferior playing their one, single note at a time throughout the piece while the pianist was playing two handfuls of notes all at one time perfectly.

But no musician should feel inferior to another musician regardless of how many notes they’re playing. The point of this article is about memorisation and the insane hypocrisies, double-standards dictated to pianists. I have the utmost respect for orchestral musicians and their artistry.

Excluding opera singers screamers (let’s tell it like it is) on the opera stage, vocal soloists are allowed to use their scores. And singers can only sing one note at a time, yet I had one concert manager (a coloratura soprano) strongly encourage me to play “from memory” in a piano performance I gave locally in San Francisco years ago. I played works of Rachmaninov, Poulenc, Howells and others. Then months later, she performed and sang her single notes throughout the piece using her score. Ms Hypocrite. (roll eyes) I would loved to have walked over to her at the end of the performance and said: Mi amor/My love [sarcasm], I noticed you used your score, not that I have any problem with that. It’s just that I thought this was a “from memory” establishment. Or that’s the distinct impression I was given when I performed here. Hmmmmmmmm? Hypocrisy? A double standard? (And then walk away from her).

With all the problems we have in this world, whether someone uses their score when they perform should be the least of our concerns.

For the performance from Nihon/Japan I mentioned earlier, they were using Editions Henle Verlag. I saw that blue cover — I know it well since I often used the Editions Henle Urtext when I taught piano — Marta was carrying her score when she came out on stage and I also saw the choristers vocal score.

I am seeing more pianists performing with their scores these days, which is good to see. Although some pianists lay the score down inside the piano near the strings. Why do that? Note to Pianists: Don’t feel ashamed to be using your score. There’s nothing wrong with that. Everyone can see you’re using your score because they can see you turning pages during the performance, so just put it on the music rack as you normally would do. Muchísimas gracias. Chau.—el barrio rosa