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A good friend who is an excellent, very accomplished amateur pianist memorizes ever piece she learns. She started doing this for her audition to Juilliard (she got in as at 16 on her second try) and has kept doing this for over 50 years. She always tells me she is a very poor sight reader and I never completely believed her. We wondered if the problem was her eyesight, so recently I asked her to sight read a piece of intermediate difficulty on my iPad where the notes are 20% larger. To my amazement as she struggled with the piece her head kept bobbing up and down every 2 seconds to watch her hands. When she would look up she would have to try to find her place again. A major impediment. I mentioned this to my wife’s piano teacher today and she said this is not that uncommon a problem with pianists who play only from memory. Evidently they get in the habit of watching their hands and don’t trust their ability to locate keys without looking. This of course makes sight reading very difficult.
Is this a trap that pianists should be aware of if their playing turns to complete, or leans heavily towards memorization as they are learning? My wife’s teacher also said that those that intentionally or not choose this road are very strong natural memorizers and learn to love the obvious advantages to playing from memory. The issue obviously is not those of us that occasionally memorize a piece. I am interested in others experience with this.

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This approach is particularly bad for pro or hope to be pro pianists like the one mentioned in the OP. They are more likely than amateurs to be expected to sight read well, and their job could be on the line if they can't do that.

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I'm surprised that she survived Juilliard (assuming she did) if her sight-reading really is as poor as that. Don't all pianists in reputable conservatoires have to take part in lots of chamber music and accompanying, where a lot of sight-reading is involved at first rehearsal?

Or could she just memorize the piano part of the Franck sonata as easily as Twinkle Twinkle?


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Well, apparently she has done just fine as a pianist. I would call myself a strong natural memorizer as well. Been trying to catch up on my sight-reading abilities, but it's tiresome.

Suggested reading: Bernard King, The Thoughtless Pianist. There's a chapter on sight reading in the book. Bernard King can be regarded as a real professional. Performer, teacher, juror and what not. A good sight-reader himself, I paraphrase him hear:

Good Sight-reading is a handy skill for learning a piece quicker. It is not necessary to play well.
The necessity to "read ahead" while sight-reading can lead to an emotionally detached form of playing.
Direct quote:
"In my youth I was an extremely proficient reader and got a lot of professional work in those areas where this skill is needed, but it was stressful und pressurised. I hold the exploitation of this skill by myself and others partly responsible for the constant problems with physical and mental tension that dogged my playing for some years."

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I'm a memorizer and have been since playing violin in high school. You learn a piece in sections. After each section turn the page over and do the notes from memory. Whether you play violin by reading or not, you feel the finger positions without looking. Being a member of the school orchestra, I'd look forward at the teacher (conductor) / audience most of the time.

Looking at your hands a few times when playing is unavoidable when playing a piece that requires big jumps. Robert Estrin suggests a quick glance to check you're landing on the right places instead of moving your head down & up.

Playing from memory is something that may have correlation to poor reading skills but not always. When you see someone who plays with his head up & down a lot, you can assume he is a poor reader than another who plays from memory but his head stays up most of the time. I've seen the young piano prodigy Ryan Wang from Vancouver Canada perform a 40 min. recital at age 9 from memory. There are advanced players who would perform with someone standing next to him turning the pages.

Playing from memory is not a requirement in concert performances but in a typical talent show like America's / Britain's Got Talent, no performer would come on stage with sheet music around. The way to avoid looking at your hands is to practice with a long piece of cloth over the keyboard intentionally so you work on playing by feel.




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Originally Posted by ErfurtBob
Suggested reading: Bernard King, The Thoughtless Pianist. There's a chapter on sight reading in the book. Bernard King can be regarded as a real professional. Performer, teacher, juror and what not. A good sight-reader himself, I paraphrase him hear:

Good Sight-reading is a handy skill for learning a piece quicker. It is not necessary to play well.
The necessity to "read ahead" while sight-reading can lead to an emotionally detached form of playing.
Direct quote:
"In my youth I was an extremely proficient reader and got a lot of professional work in those areas where this skill is needed, but it was stressful and pressurised. I hold the exploitation of this skill by myself and others partly responsible for the constant problems with physical and mental tension that dogged my playing for some years."
I don't think King's views on sight reading are the opinion of most professionals and teachers. Just because excellent sight reading is not necessary in order to play well, it doesn't mean it's not an important skill.

Excellent sight reading/ general reading ability is a necessity for most professionals since there are so many instances where they are expected to be able do it. Only a ridiculously small percentage of professionals can make their entire living from recitals and concerto performances where excellent sight reading is not necessary. Almost all professionals have to sometimes learn music quickly and poor reading and sight reading skills make that more difficult. How can someone teaching an advanced pianist demonstrate a passage of a piece they have not played before if they are not a reasonably good sight reader?

I certainly don't agree with King's comment that "The necessity to "read ahead" while sight-reading can lead to an emotionally detached form of playing." First of all, there is no choice but to look ahead when one is sight reading so if there's any downside there's nothing anyone can do about it. The first time one reads a piece this might possibly lead to "emotional detachment" but each time one reads a given piece one has to concentrate less on looking ahead so one can devote more energy to giving a musical performance.

If an amateur is a poor reader and/or poor sight reader they will take longer to learn a piece than someone who is a better reader since even the best memorizers have to read the music when starting a piece. They will not be able to have the enjoyment of putting a piece of new- to-them music on the music desk and playing through it with some pleasure because there will be such a struggle to read and play the notes.

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This discussion never gets old (IMO), it's always interesting to hear other people's takes on it, and Bernard King is new to me.

The question of whether being a good memorizer makes one a bad sightreader can also be flipped of course: does being a good reader (whether sightreading prima vista or just read-playing) make one a bad memorizer....

Although, now that I think about it, both of these questions actually should be rephrased (or reframed).

It's not that strength in one skill results in deficiency in the other, but that strength in one skill means you are less likely to focus on developing the other skill.

I am very comfortable read-playing, so I rarely memorize anything these days. But I used to memorize more, and I imagine that I could get better at memorizing if I made a point to do so....

But for me, the benefits of reading fair outweigh the benefits of memorizing. And having scores on an iPad and being able to use a bluetooth foot pedal for page turns make that even more the case now!


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Originally Posted by ErfurtBob
Direct quote:
"In my youth I was an extremely proficient reader and got a lot of professional work in those areas where this skill is needed, but it was stressful und pressurised. I hold the exploitation of this skill by myself and others partly responsible for the constant problems with physical and mental tension that dogged my playing for some years."
Why, indeed, did he put that stress on himself (assuming that he didn't need to, to earn his living)? And to say that was the cause of "physical and mental tension that dogged my playing for some years" is plain silly. In fact, I could say (truthfully) that the biggest stress of my life in piano and music is having to memorize pieces for my monthly recitals, and the constant fear when performing that my memory would fail me - and I only memorize all my pieces because I have no page-turner. Sight-reading lots and lots of unfamiliar music (music I'd never heard before) and playing from the score are enjoyable activities, which I do on a daily basis.

The vast majority of professional pianists - teachers, collaborative pianists, accompanists, répétiteurs - basically everyone who don't have to memorize any music for their living - have excellent sight-reading skills and never memorize anything. That's why they learn so quickly and are so employable. (Read up on Sviatoslav Richter and John Ogdon - the former worked as répétiteur in an opera house when he was younger, sight-reading huge Wagner scores before he became a concert pianist: when he later started performing from the score, his performing rep greatly expanded, encompassing everything from Berg and Hindemith to Szymanowski and Gershwin.) Three of my four teachers had never memorized any music in their lives (the last one was a concert pianist - and he only memorized when he was performing as soloist), and they all held teaching diplomas.

I remember singing Beethoven's Ode to Joy and Schoenberg's Gurrelieder in an ad-hoc choir a few years ago, rehearsing initially with a pianist who was sight-reading from the score (prior to the orchestral performance) - she was drafted in at the last minute from the opera house, where she normally works as répétiteur for Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Puccini, Strauss and Wagner operas. She was clearly enjoying herself, sight-reading music she normally wouldn't have got the chance to play in her day job. And, yes - I (and most other members of the choir) was also sight-singing, enjoying myself in music I wouldn't normally get the chance to sing.........


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This is interesting to think about. I do struggle a bit to memorise pieces, and I wish I had a photographic memory — for pieces I've memorised, if I lose my place I have to go back to some sort of anchor point, I can rarely just recover into the same measure. I tend to memorise pieces backwards partly to help me build these anchor points, which is much harder if I start from the beginning.

My teacher felt that memorising was an important phase in learning a piece. Not that you need to do it to perform it well enough to be a professional, but that if you don't memorise a work then your intellectual understanding of it isn't quite complete, which I would tend to agree with, but then I don't think my intellectual understanding of any piece is ever quite complete, memorisation or no :-)

But when I do memorise pieces, I generally close my eyes as I'm doing it — not so much because I'm trying to avoid looking at my hands, but just because closing that visual input allows me to concentrate on the music in ways that are, to me, part of the point of memorising the piece in the first place.

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Originally Posted by Jun-Dai
My teacher felt that memorising was an important phase in learning a piece. Not that you need to do it to perform it well enough to be a professional, but that if you don't memorise a work then your intellectual understanding of it isn't quite complete, which I would tend to agree with
I agree with this. I've never observed someone sightreading a piece and truly doing it justice. It simply isn't possible because you need to know everything that comes later on, and how what you're playing at the moment fits into that.

Edit: Of course, reading can be part of performance, but if a performance is good, the score is usually used as a memory aid -- and it's 90% memorization anyway. People miss mentioning that when talking about reading vs memorization. The sound memory of the piece, and the intellectual memory, for example, play a great role, even if you are technically using the score.

Really good memorizers can memorize a concerto in 2-3 weeks, so I don't think that memorization truly slows a person down when it comes to performance -- I think you can have a career as a concert pianist with excellent memorization skill and okay sightreading skill. Of course, playing chamber music is a different matter.

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Originally Posted by ranjit
I've never observed someone sightreading a piece and truly doing it justice. .
Of course, no-one in his right mind would perform any piece by sight-reading (though John Ogdon has come close to doing so more than a few times - and I'm talking big concertos -, and Mikhail Pletnev has recorded music he's never played before, sight-reading from the score).

But most good pianists can easily sight-read an easy piece that they've heard before (but not seen the score), like Schumann's Von fremden Ländern und Menschen, Träumerai, Kind im Einschlummern and Der Dichter spricht from Kinderszenen, and make it sound like a truly professional, considered performance (in fact, I could whistle).


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Another thought — it's interesting to me how different reading and playing from memory are. They seem (for me) to use very different parts of the brain. For example, no matter how many times I have played a piece or how well I know it, memorisation is never automatic, it takes a conscious effort (obviously knowing the piece well helps a ton), and conversely I can memorise a piece but still not know it very well.

Also — and I think this comes down to my not having a photographic memory — if I'm playing from memory, even if I have the music in front of me, it's very disruptive to switch to reading the music because then I have to figure out where I am. And if I do choose to read the music (so as not to lose my place, or for some other reason), it feels very different, almost like a different piece in some ways. I have no idea if this comes across to a listener at all. When reading I'm confronted with the written instructions and I'm mapping what I'm doing to that and it feels very grounded, whereas when playing from memory I've built out a sense of how the piece flows and how the voices relate to each other and I'm wading through imagery and reminders that my brain surfaces as I play along. It feels like a tradeoff, and I often go back and forth on a piece I like.

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Originally Posted by ranjit
I think you can have a career as a concert pianist with excellent memorization skill and okay sightreading skill. Of course, playing chamber music is a different matter.
That may be true, but since only a very tiny percentage of professional pianists make their living only from concertizing, it's not relevant for even most professional pianists. Or for amateurs.

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Originally Posted by ranjit
Originally Posted by Jun-Dai
My teacher felt that memorising was an important phase in learning a piece. Not that you need to do it to perform it well enough to be a professional, but that if you don't memorise a work then your intellectual understanding of it isn't quite complete, which I would tend to agree with
I agree with this. I've never observed someone sightreading a piece and truly doing it justice. It simply isn't possible because you need to know everything that comes later on, and how what you're playing at the moment fits into that.

Edit: Of course, reading can be part of performance, but if a performance is good, the score is usually used as a memory aid -- and it's 90% memorization anyway. People miss mentioning that when talking about reading vs memorization. The sound memory of the piece, and the intellectual memory, for example, play a great role, even if you are technically using the score.

This latter part is why we need be careful, or perhaps more specific, about our terminology. There’s sightreading a piece either for the first time, or before it’s learned, and then there’s what I call “read-playing” a piece that’s quite familiar, already learned or close to it, or perhaps completely polished. This is closer to, but not completely, using the score as a memory aid.

The other thing is that, if you're planning to play from the music, you (the generic you, not necessarily anyone in this thread) may be more successful if you practice keeping your eye on the score, following along etc.

I think I got a lot better at that from two things, one from playing with an iPad, so I can use the foot pedal for page changes, which makes me motivated to follow along with the score since page turning is no longer a hassle. The other is playing with another instrumentalist.


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Martha Argerich from Argentina plays entire concertos from memory at 80. Totally stunning performances...


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I thought every good music school has sight reading exam. It's strange that Juilliard doesn't.

Concerning what King wrote, it's very true in my opinion.

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Originally Posted by bennevis
Originally Posted by ranjit
I've never observed someone sightreading a piece and truly doing it justice. .
Of course, no-one in his right mind would perform any piece by sight-reading (though John Ogdon has come close to doing so more than a few times - and I'm talking big concertos -, and Mikhail Pletnev has recorded music he's never played before, sight-reading from the score).

But most good pianists can easily sight-read an easy piece that they've heard before (but not seen the score), like Schumann's Von fremden Ländern und Menschen, Träumerai, Kind im Einschlummern and Der Dichter spricht from Kinderszenen, and make it sound like a truly professional, considered performance (in fact, I could whistle).

Traumerei may not be a virtuoso piece, but it is not an easy piece if it is played well. It was a standard encore piece of Horowitz.


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Originally Posted by thepianoplayer416
Martha Argerich from Argentina plays entire concertos from memory at 80. Totally stunning performances...

I bet she’s no slouch at sight-reading either :-)

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Originally Posted by ShiroKuro
This latter part is why we need be careful, or perhaps more specific, about our terminology. There’s sightreading a piece either for the first time, or before it’s learned, and then there’s what I call “read-playing” a piece that’s quite familiar, already learned or close to it, or perhaps completely polished. This is closer to, but not completely, using the score as a memory aid.
Sight reading refers only to the first time one reads a score. The occasionally used "prima vista" sight reading is a redundancy and incorrect usage. The second time one reads a score is not sight reading. Any time after the first is called reading so if one wants to indicate the first time one should say sight reading.

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Originally Posted by thepianoplayer416
Martha Argerich from Argentina plays entire concertos from memory at 80. Totally stunning performances...

The memory part is not at all unusual for an 80 year old professional pianist.

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