David Hicken ~ Pianist & Composer

Advice For Pianists

The goal of all piano students should be to become so proficient at reading music that they can play any style of music they like.  The process of learning to quickly decipher and interpret music notation and turn it into musical sounds is long and arduous, but well-worth the effort.  Piano students need to constantly focus their efforts on the page of music in front of them, and one of the worst things that they can experience is having the music taken away and being told to memorize it.

The first pianist to perform from memory was Franz Liszt (1811-1886).  He was the ultimate showman, and considered by many at the time to be the greatest pianist in the world.  He was the first person to use the word piano "recital", which drew much criticism at the time.  He was the first to turn the piano around so that the audience is always to the right of the pianist - allowing the sound of the piano to be projected directly to the listeners.  This is how all grand pianos are still set up today unless microphones are used, in which case the placement of the piano doesn't matter.  Liszt had a remarkable technique and he used it to dazzle his audiences, not only with his own compositions, but those of other composers too.  He was brilliant from a very young age, and even went to Beethoven's home to play for him when he was just a boy.  Beethoven asked him to play a movement from one of his sonatas, which he did perfectly.  Beethoven then asked him to transpose it, which again, he did perfectly - eliciting much praise from the great master.

Liszt's decision to play from memory might not have been to show off, although it probably was.  It drew much criticism from fellow musicians at the time who thought it was the height of arrogance on his behalf.  Nobody played from memory - not even Schumann, his wife Clara Wieck, Mendelssohn or Chopin, so to have this young whippersnapper with his dashing good looks, dazzling technique, impossible compositions to play from memory was just the final straw!  Or was it?

Over time Liszt developed a legion of fans, and young pianists traveled from all over the world to study with him.  Every young pianist wanted to be like Franz Liszt, and he was truly the world's first music star.  Young pianists copied everything he did and this included playing from memory, which they then passed on to their own students and so on for the next 150 years.

Most of today's piano teachers, particularly in the United States, insist that their students memorize their music for recitals.  They do this because it is the way they were taught, and they never question it.  This causes undue stress for so many young people which is completely unnecessary.  Learning the music is difficult enough, but to play without music is even worse.  Young students are fearful of concerts for a number of reasons, but the prospect of forgetting their music during the performance can be utterly mortifying.  Those who have experienced lapses in memory during a performance often quit the instrument, never to return, and this is sadly the fault of the teacher and not the student.

Generally, vocalists perform without music because a music book can interfere with their connection to the audience as they tell their story.  Skilled singers can hold a book of music to occasionally glance at without the audience ever knowing.  This can work in smaller, more intimate settings, but not in a concert hall.

High school choirs are often required to perform without music, which is perfectly acceptable when performing musicals or pop music.  However, I don't believe that choirs should have to memorize classical music. 

Instrumentalists who perform concertos with an orchestra also tend to play without music because a music stand between them and the audience can be a real distraction.

On the other hand, members of professional orchestras  always play with music.  Accompanists always play with music.  Organists always play with music.  Why should the poor young piano student have to suffer so?

Some people will argue that playing without music can help a pianist to connect with the music more, and allow them to use more feeling and dynamics etc.  This is true for some people and not for others.  Some pianists play exactly the same with and without music, and recent studies on the subject show that people can play with just as much feeling when reading music as when they don't.

Some may also argue that it is more distracting to see the artist reading their music as they play, and this maybe true, however is it the "show" that you are paying attention to or the music?

Now please understand that I'm not saying it's bad to play without music.  Many people play without music successfully, and it's not even necessary in many situations such as for modern bands etc.  What I am saying is that it is not a necessary part of piano instruction during the first few years.  Teachers must have their students focus diligently on the printed page and have them learn how to interpret compositions by the great composers.  Students should be encouraged to play in front of people as often as they can, but under the most comfortable conditions possible (with music).

At some point during their training, a student should be asked to memorize something for the first time, and I suggest that this be a movement from a Beethoven sonata.  If something a little easier is required, then maybe a movement of a Haydn or Mozart sonata.  There are techniques that allow for easier memorization of a piece, but that's the subject of another blog post.  The ability to memorize music does not have to be developed over many years.  When you memorized your first poem, you didn't need years of training did you?  When the student is playing material at a level that warrants having it memorized, then that should be the time to start memorizing.

More and more of today's concert pianists are now playing with music, and audiences don't seem to notice anything particularly different.   Certainly these pianists are not criticized for reading from their music, and if anything, perhaps it even lends more credibility to what they are doing.

Most of my videos show me reading music from my iPad.  I use an app called "ForScore" which reads any PDF file, and I use a bluetooth footpedal made by Airturn to turn the pages.  It is an ideal setup because I don't have pages falling off the piano and never need to be concerned about page turns.  All of the music is stored in the cloud, so I don't have to worry about losing it.

Although I can and do memorize my music, it takes some time, and I'd rather just make the video and let people see that there is an actual piece of music available for the composition that I am playing.

There has been some pain and suffering involved in piano lessons - everything from the occasional rapped knuckles that were experienced by our grandparents, or the embarrassing moments experienced when we showed up for our lesson without practicing.  However, I would venture to say that more pain and suffering has been experienced due to having to memorize music unnecessarily.  Just don't worry about it and spend your time polishing the composition that you are working on.

Happy Practicing!

David Hicken

All of the concepts that I write about here are detailed in my eBook "Secrets To Better Piano Playing".  Click the image below to find out more.