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Controversial Things We Don’t Discuss: Memorizing Music

Okay, I’ve been thinking and wrestling with a controversial idea about memorizing music for years now and have decided that I’m just going to have to confess what I decided. Now I know that I may risk harsh criticism from some, but I’m hoping that this will simply open up a healthy discussion.

My confession about my students memorizing music:

For the last two years, I have not required my students to play their recital piece from memory!

There. I’ve said it and feel slightly better. But before you stop reading, I need to tell you a few things and then you can help me decide whether not memorizing music is a good or bad thing for your students. (And I also need you to read to the end where I cite an opinion from a much more authoritative source like Stephen Hough.)

Things we piano teachers don't discuss: memorizing music | composecreate.com

  • First, you should know that I’m being bold about this subject because of this recent article that I read.
  • The week before our recital, each of my students is required to play their recital piece from memory for our state music evaluation, called Music Progressions. So, they do have to memorize it.
  • I speak frankly about memorizing with my students who are involved in competitions. They know that playing from memory at the recital will only help them be a better performer at a competition. So, most of the competition students choose to play from memory at the recital.
  • I still frequently have my students memorize pieces in the middle of the year so that they can have a AAA piece (A piece for Any time, Any where, for Anyone).
Memorizing music - the pros and cons | composecreate.com

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Why might you allow NOT memorizing music?

You can see from these points that I still value the skill of playing from memory. Why then would I allow my students a choice about memorizing music?

  • For every student who wants to be a competitive music major, there are at least 10 students who just want to learn the piano for fun. (I just made that last statistic up, but I think you’d agree that the number of non-music majors to music majors is probably much, much higher than 10:1. Perhaps even as high as 100:1 though this depends on your studio).
  • For those students and even for the competitors in my studio, a memory glitch in front of family and friends can be emotionally devastating! Some students even quit after a harrowing event involving failed memory. On the other hand, I’m also a mother and I realize the growth in character that can come from such an experience. But I figure embarrassment and failure will happen to every child at some point or another. Why should I be the one to provide a great opportunity for this? 😉
  • It is very uncomfortable for both the student and the audience when a student struggles with memory at a recital.
  • I want my students to enjoy playing at their recital.
  • I want students to look forward to their recital.
  • I want all of my students to enjoy sharing music with others and not to dread it.
  • I don’t like crying at my recitals.

Stephen Hough and others on memorizing music:

Here are a few more reasons to consider this option. Stephen Hough says,

…It goes against history to perform works of early eras from memory. It was only when Liszt, partly out of showmanship, began playing everything, including monumental Beethoven sonatas, from memory that the mystique took hold.

I like what the Anthony Tommasini (chief classical music critic fo NYT) says here:

Over the years I have observed that the rigid protocol in classical music whereby solo performers, especially pianists, are expected to play from memory seems finally, thank goodness, to be loosening its hold. What matters, or should matter, is the quality of the music making, not the means by which an artist renders a fine performance.

The quality of music making is what we should love, not whether a student can get through a piece by memory regardless of its musicality. If all of your students can play musically AND play from memory, then I think you should continue to require memorizing music. But, if you need permission to consider an alternative, then I humbly give you my permission. It’s not worth much, but sometimes it’s nice to know that another teacher has struggled through the same problem of memorizing music and come out with a non-traditional solution, even if she risks being ostracized.

I’m being a little dramatic about being ostracized. I think you all will be kind and simply have a great discussion about this. So, let’s hear it…what are the pros and cons of this decision of mine? What do you think? What do you do? Have you ever struggled with this?

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By |2016-12-31T15:20:03+00:00January 28th, 2013|Controversial Topics, General, Piano Teaching, Practicing|33 Comments

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  1. Stephanie January 28, 2013 at 7:19 am

    I love your posts as always. I posted your blog post to my facebook!

  2. Leia January 28, 2013 at 8:05 am

    As a student, I was never required to play from memory (my musical progress was shaped in large part by the ABRSM exams, and they don’t require it either), and I don’t ask my students to memorize their pieces either. I think it causes too much unnecessary stress to force memorisation, especially when they don’t “have” to. Often they will memorize a piece anyway because they play/sing it so often! But I absolutely agree – the quality of their performance is most important, whether or not they use sheet music.

  3. Corrie Anne January 28, 2013 at 8:25 am

    Thanks for sharing this!! What a fascinating article. I went to a concert with one of my adults students last weekend and was explaining to him how pianists began playing from memory. It was a piano concerto so he was definitely impressed.

  4. Erin January 28, 2013 at 8:56 am

    I agree 100% with everything you wrote. For recitals, I require my students to memorize their music and play for me by memory. Partly so they get the experience at memorizing their music and partly so I know (and they know) they know their piece really well. They then have the option to use the music when they perform, or not.

    My students have the choice to participate in recitals and festivals outside of my studio. Many of these require memorized music, and I make this requirement very clear before they register. I don’t want anyone to sign up for something they aren’t comfortable with!

  5. Laura January 28, 2013 at 10:13 am

    I’m with you. As an organist, I was not required to play from memory on recitals, but as a pianist, I was. Didn’t make much sense to me. I’m not against playing from memory, and I sometimes choose to play some sections of my organ literature from memory, but requiring it all of the time seems to me to be requiring a parlor trick. I agree that it’s the quality of the music making that really matters.

  6. Becca January 28, 2013 at 10:41 am

    As someone who has extreme difficulty memorizing pieces, I really like this trend and hope that using music becomes more widely accepted. Even if I’m just comping along to a chord progression, without the physical letters in front of me, I will invariably mix up two chords or reverse the order. And I don’t even want to think about how much time I need to spend on one page of a score to commit it to memory.

    Trying to explain this phenomenon to those who have no problem memorizing music is impossible and has definitely had adverse reactions from others. Mostly I think people believe it’s just lack of preparation and laziness, even if it’s not.

    I work on memorizing techniques with my students, so that if they need to do it they will know how. However I try to do it with pieces they either really enjoy or find really easy to help reduce their stress level.

  7. Faye January 28, 2013 at 11:27 am

    Wow – very brave of you to open this up to discussion. I have tried both ways for my studio recitals. Many students realize that they do know the piece better when memorized, but there are always some students that are too terrified to do it. I make exceptions for these students. After reading your blog, I may again experiment and let students decide what they are comfortable (and more importantly – happy) with. Thanks for making me rethink this!

  8. Joy Morin January 28, 2013 at 11:31 am

    This is a topic near and dear to my heart! I have basically decided that the skill of memorizing music is an important one, but that PERFORMING by memory is less important. So, I make sure my students also memorize recital pieces, but sometimes am flexible about whether they actually perform by memory at the recital, depending on the student.

    I have written a blog post that explains more fully my reasoning behind this decision, if anyone is interested: http://colorinmypiano.com/2011/03/14/thoughts-on-memorization-a-skill-integral-to-piano-playing/

  9. Chritina January 28, 2013 at 12:18 pm

    I like the quote from Stephen Hough. One of my college professors (a musicologist) wonders why we (piano majors) have to memorize Bach. Memory slips, especially in his fugues, are hard to recover from.

    Part of my philosophy, and I believe of many teachers’, is to treat each student differently because each one is unique. It is interesting that many of us require this of all of our students.

    I wonder, however, if this would make some students less prepared for a performance. Would they stop trying to learn new things about the piece once they have learned what is on the page? What is the next step? Maybe, exercises in memorization should still be used in the process of learning the piece, even if the performance is not memorized.

    But, I do think that an emphasis on memorization can actually cause a student stop learning about the piece as well. Once the notes are memorized, some students may never look at the music again (I know I’ve been guilty of it). There is still a lot to explore and experiment with after the notes and dynamics are memorized. Staying on the page could be helpful as well.

    So, I guess what I’m saying is that both are important! And depending on the situation and student, you could go either way…

  10. Sundy DeGooyer January 28, 2013 at 1:46 pm

    I agree with you. My kids are not required to memorize their recital pieces either.

  11. Jennifer Foxx January 28, 2013 at 2:20 pm

    While I encourage memorization, I don’t require it. I would rather a student play a piece well with the music, then flop without it. I myself have always struggled with memorizing music which is one reason I don’t require it. Not everyone is good at it, and for some it causes even more stress and anxiety. To me, it’s not about memorizing, it’s about the performance itself. I just want them to do their best. So if that means using the music, so be it. Some of my students do better when they memorize, it’s their choice.

    I think you will find that many of us are on your side Wendy. 😉

  12. Christine January 28, 2013 at 4:57 pm

    I am one who has difficulty memorizing so of course, I am happy about this. Memorization wasn’t a required by my teachers growing up and at college the only time I memorized was for Guild auditions. After that though I did have a teacher who required one new piece memorized every 8 weeks and there was a recital every 8 weeks that not even parents were allowed to attend. There was however, a professional colleague of the teacher there to critique. It may be that my anxiety about memorization is linked to that experience. Perhaps if I had more experience memorizing for situations that are not high pressure I would have a different opinion but I much prefer an artistic, secure performance with the score to a painful one without. I do have some students who memorize because they are good at it but I do not require it.

  13. Anna Fagan January 28, 2013 at 7:32 pm

    I have been teaching for over 35 years, and have *never* required students to play from memory for my recitals. For Guild Auditions, yes. For contests, and other events that require memory, yes. I’ve been a church musician (piano & organ) for almost 40 years, and I can’t imagine memorizing 3 or more pieces of music to play each and every week! I think that my ability to play musically with the score in front of me — while turning pages — is one of the reasons that I sight-read as well as I do.
    Another point to consider is the amount of time required for most students to memorize a piece well … I would really rather spend that same amount of time helping the students to learn MORE music!

  14. Mary Folkman January 28, 2013 at 7:34 pm

    I agree with you. With me, it has varied. With younger students, I often have them play two short pieces at the recital and have their choice of memorizing one. My older students have probably already played their piece for one adjudicated event or another, and I give them the choice. I always close my recitals by playing something myself. This was an idea from Dennis Alexander, and I have not yet tried anything from memory, although I keep telling myself I should. I agree that there is a degree of “being in the music” if it is memorized, but I don’t want to put my students through the stress that I went through at their ages. This is where I part company with many people in my local MTNA affiliate, and also the public school fesitval people who do not require violinists, clarinetists, etc. to memorize. Why only pianists?

  15. Nancy January 28, 2013 at 9:29 pm

    Wendy, I agree 100% with all of your reasons for not requiring memorization at recitals. Your solution is an excellent one. It is important to memorize some pieces (although I do know some still struggle a great deal more than others with this). I loved playing Guild while growing up and this required memorizing many pieces. I HATED recitals, though! I am so glad you thought this out and decided to discuss it.
    For the same reasons you mentioned, I think I would prefer to change my policy for recitals as well. It should be an opportunity for enjoy making music and sharing your accomplishment with friends and families.
    Your point about future music majors and non-majors is a good one. How many adults have said “I used to take piano but…”. For many of them, it’s the recital with the attendant stress that made playing unpleasant. This was brought out in the book, The Piano Shop on the Left Bank.
    Certainly students could be better musicians if they memorized some of their pieces but had time to focus on a larger repertoire and sight-reading as well.

  16. Susan Paradis January 29, 2013 at 7:32 am

    Great article, Wendy.
    I ask students to memorize their recital piece. But I let them use the music at the recital if they wish. I think students are more worried they will forget than they are about actually playing in front of an audience. I’ve had students take the music with them to play, and then not open it. However, I caution students that if their piece is halfway memorized and they need to look at the music in a few spots, they will do a lot better if they look during the entire piece, because when they look up to find that unmemorized section, they will usually lose their place and stumble.

  17. Karen Koch January 30, 2013 at 10:33 pm

    In the interest of beautiful performances and recital-loving students, I came to the same conclusions several years ago, Wendy. Students have different goals for their study, and I see my job as facilitating their goals while enlarging their aspirations. Auditions, Guild, and Contests require memorization of course, and I ask all students to memorize some music, but at recitals they perform from memory by choice, not by dictum!

  18. Jessica January 31, 2013 at 6:57 am

    I don’t absolutely require my students to play from memory at the recital, but for those that we were preparing for a few months beforehand, we did memorize. I did some student questionnaires at the end of the semester and almost every student listed the pieces they they had memorized among their favorite pieces. I am trying to work on having them memorize outside of preparation for the recital, many of them will memorize a piece each month this semester so that they build up a repetoire. I do think there is huge value in playing from memory, but would definitely not require it for a recital!

  19. Michelle February 1, 2013 at 1:20 pm

    I completely agree too. By the time the recital comes around, most of my students are just ready to relax and have fun. They do lots of festivals and exams through out the year, so the recital is my time to spoil them a bit. Not only do they not have to memorize anything, but they can play whatever they want… even if it’s Mary Had a Little Lamb with only one finger! Lol. Plus, it’s also the time to hand out awards. Loads of them.

    As someone who never had trouble memorizing anything, I think of it as a blessing that I’ve had to work with students who absolutely struggle to memorize. It’s softened me a lot on the “it must be memorized” mentality and has helped me developed strategies for working with these students. It’s also led me to look for playing opportunities, besides my recitals, for those that can’t memorize. And I wish there were more! Students that have difficulty memorizing want to participating in festivals too!

  20. Sharon Edwards February 5, 2013 at 1:02 pm

    How can I find out about where festivals are held in Virginia or surrounding states? I would love for my students have more opportunities to use their talents.

  21. Stephen Hughes February 5, 2013 at 1:48 pm

    Hey everyone. Have time for a quick response – great forum!

    I do agree that required memorization can take it’s toll on a students musical path and should be thought out very carefully by the instructor. However, one thing not mentioned…doesn’t memory improve ones ability to play musically, convey emotions, and free up concentration? As teachers, we need to teach our students how to memorize effectively and develop confidence in memory prior to performing. This would help avoid those performances we all dread.

    My main thought is that if we take a back seat to memorizing then our students become just ‘readers’ and not ‘players’. I was a great sight-reader when I was young and depended on my reading skills to play the instrument. However, when in situations where I needed to play without music, I struggled.

    Maybe we should focus on having the student memorize short pieces or at least a level below their current study level. Shoot for memory for the performance first; have them record themselves performing at home in front of family; give them every opportunity to ‘practice’ performance from memory before the event. And if the student is still not confident by that time, then they can use the music. Just my two cents worth…

  22. Lisa Emmick February 5, 2013 at 6:54 pm

    Bravo! I have never required students to play from memory at recitals, although most have their piece memorized at recital time. I always allow them to take their music to the piano with them to play. It helps avoid any slips in memory, and I think allows them to be more relaxed when it is their turn to play, knowing that the music is right there “just in case.” During the year, we work on memorizing favorite pieces out of our lesson books so we have something “in our back pocket, ready to play at a moment’s notice.”

  23. Mary Majerus February 5, 2013 at 10:02 pm

    Wendy, this subject of memorized music is one we must keep evaluating for each student has different talents to develop for situations they face in life. I have made it a goal for them to memorize their favorite pieces and use them as warm up selections to improve their technique and musicality. These eventually become their performance pieces when we visit nursing homes, group lessons, recitals. If a student is really anxious about a piece, I definitely encourage they use their music. It is not meant to be a traumatic experience so I want them to enjoy performing with music or without. I find the more relaxed I am about this, the more relaxed they are in performing whether from memory or with music. The main focus is to have them all enjoy their beautiful pieces and share that joy with others. Thanks for giving us permission to use our common sense. This is why I love educators: we care about our students and one another’s success. God bless!

  24. Donna McLain February 5, 2013 at 10:35 pm

    Amen! I agree with everything you said and have kept a similar policy. I highly encourage memorization for the experience and polishing a piece. But when it comes to recital, I don’t discourage a student from having their music (especially for the comfort that it is there if needed). I’ve noticed several play from memory even when right in front of them.

    The crying reminds me when an adult performed in recital. She knew her piece well but couldn’t handle the pressure. Her two girls were also performing that day. After that day, she said she would say nothing to her girls about memorizing or performing because it was so hard for her. After that experience, I never require my adults to perform in recital. It is always optional.

    I always struggled with memorization and even blanked out myself during performances. I actually can memorize better now than when I was a child. Other than a recital when do we have to have our pieces memorized?!?

  25. Dorothy Kirkpatrick, NCTM February 5, 2013 at 11:31 pm

    Growing up I memorized everything. the last Guild program I played was a 20 piece program and it took a few years to build it to that. I was not involved in the many other extra activities that most children are today. I had piano, choir, school, youth group at church and so on, and piano.
    Today I have difficulty memorizing larger works and play with music as I am a pretty fair reader.
    My students are almost all involed in NFMC Gold Cup Festivals and have to memorize two pieces. If they choose to use music in recitals they may. Like you, I much prefer my students to feel comfortable even if they never even look at the sheet while performing. It is their choice.

  26. Jean February 7, 2013 at 12:29 pm

    As a child, I hated to memorize unless I absolutely had to. So as a teacher I didn’t require memorizing unless the student participated in competition. Five years ago I started taking lessons (at age 58) and wanted to memorize Chopin’s Polonaise in A Major which I had played for my 7th grade recital (unmemorized). It took about a month to memorize all the pages and another 8 months to really perfect it for performance. I played at my teacher’s studio classes and totally murdered it. I went home and told my husband I would never play in public again. Fortunately, I did play it and did my very best for our Federated Teacher’s recital one year. I share that story as it made me change my outlook on memory work. It is important; however, I still don’t feel it is always necessary for every student. I agree with many comments and think your post was excellent food for thought. The goal in our studio is for the students to enjoy making music first and foremost. We have all types of musicians in our studio and every one is different. So whatever works for the student works for us. Thanks for your words of wisdom.

  27. Lisa Shirah-Hiers February 21, 2013 at 5:55 pm

    As a student I had a terrible time with memory lapses. All my teachers ever said was to “practice more” and “get tunnel vision.” But no one ever really taught me how to do that! I discovered on my own that practicing meditation could help me improve my concentration. So I teach students to practice focusing only on their breathing–counting to 4–a simple form of meditation that should be practiced away from the piano. For students who have real issues with nerves I allow them to play with music and/or encourage them to play something slightly too easy on recitals. If you are worried about playing something at the very limit of your technic it is hard to focus on nerves too! So I like to separate the two issues. Playing from memory vs. playing with nerves. I still get very nervous when I have to play in public and it is just that much harder when you’re playing something difficult AND your hands are shaking. Playing in public/dealing with nerves is a skill that must be practiced like any other. If using music or playing something “too easy” helps develop that skill of focusing then I’m all for it! FYI–I’ve heard it was Clara Schumann who started the trend of playing from memory…..

  28. Susie Norman February 3, 2016 at 9:36 pm

    As a piano teacher to autism spectrum kids, I have never required memorization. Seeing my students experience success through diligent effort is the most important thing for me. My students don’t participate in competition, so I don’t have that to deal with. I want my kids to partake in what music can do on an emotional level, as spectrum kids can have great difficulty connecting emotionally. My opinion on this comes from an entirely different place than most teachers, but I honestly believe the benefit to the brain, on multiple levels, can be achieved without memorization.

  29. Melinda February 20, 2016 at 11:24 am

    Hi Wendy!
    I recently discovered your webiste via the Teach Piano Today podcast (which I only recently discovered as well!) you were featured in. I have to say that I’m really loving all the amazing resources you have to offer. Recently, I’ve come to the same conclusion about the “statistic” of music majors vs. people who just want to learn to play for enjoyment. Or, in my case, 100% of my students come from my church and their #1 goal is to be able to become proficient enough to play all the hymns out of our hymnal and songs from the Children’s Songbook my church also publishes. I used to teach so that all pianists-if they ever chose to become a music major or minor-would be able to succeed, but I’m finding that approach doesn’t really work and is not as satisfying to student or myself. All this self reflection and searching led me to the Dow’s and now to you, and I’m sure others will pop up as well! I typically have required memorization of 1 recital piece for the benefits of memorization and have not had students have problems with this. However, I *always* seem to panic about my student’s ability to memorize before the recital date, for the more advanced students especially, even though we choose a piece months in advance. Right now I have more advanced students than ever before and I’ve already told them all they need to memorize 1 piece, and if they picked a second piece, memorization is optional. So what I’ve been thinking is that I’ll do what has been suggested-they will have to play it from memory for ME before the recital, but towards the end, I will surprise them by saying that they don’t have to perform by memory if they don’t choose to. I recently had my students write down goals and not one of them wants to become a music major as of right now 🙂 Although, there are a few who would really like to become piano teachers in the future! I really look forward to reading more and using more of what you have to offer!

  30. Wendy Stevens February 20, 2016 at 11:30 am

    Hi Melinda,

    Thank you so much for your comment and welcome to ComposeCreate! There is a wonderful community of creative teachers that like to share their ideas, so I know you’ll get lots of ideas from both the resources here as well as the comments many teachers share! I think your thoughts are right about the students you have. It’s important to help them exercise their memory, but their view of the fun of recitals does get a little skewed if they are so nervous about success. You’ll probably find that your thoughts on this will continue to evolve, but that’s what creative and great piano teaching is about…adapting and responding to the needs of our students.

    Thanks so much for being a part!


  31. Sandra Dowhan February 28, 2017 at 11:42 am

    I see most of these comments are three years old. But I would like to leave a comment, all the same.

    I hsave noticed in recent years that people performing New Music are not required to memorize it. And I have long known that organists often use their music scores. …As a person who always struggled with memorization, I feel somewhat put out that the ‘rules’ are different for pianists in the more traditional genres.

    As a seasoned music teacher, I am so aware of how my students come to me with different learning styles. Their brains work in differing ways. Some are more aural-dependent and some are visual-deoendent. …In other words, for some it is “in the ears and out the fingers” and for others it is “in the eyes and out the fingers”.

    I have had students who are excellent music readers, and play much better when they have the score in front of them. Other students will be hampered by the score up there on the rack, as it serves more as a distraction.

    My focus is always on the individual, and what will serve them best. I want playing or performing on the piano to be a joyful experience, so I would never put any of them in a situation where they could potentially be humiliated! …I have had many students go on to music degress, from bachelor to master or doctoral degrees; but most of them are not on the music major path. A lot will never make it past level 5. I have to meet each student where they are in the process, and walk with them from there.

  32. Bridget May 11, 2017 at 6:11 am

    We split the difference in my studio. I do not require memorization in the Christmas recital in an effort to not make that particular recital stressful, and with a bunch of duets it’s simply not practical. In the spring recital I ask that they memorize one piece, not more if they are playing more than one. We talk about the importance of memorization for growth as a musician, and a repetoire list for AAA like Wendy suggests. I do bring a binder with everyone’s music ready to go for the recital as a “safety net” though, and would never not allow a student to perform due to nerves, lack of memorization, etc. It’s an ever-changing craft to be a musician. If we don’t make it this year there’s always next year!

  33. Kathryn Rowe July 20, 2018 at 3:48 pm

    I agree that playing a piece by memory for a recital should be an option left up to the student. You gave lots of good reasons why playing with the music might be a better idea: to not risk embarrassment, to enjoy the experience, to not make the audience uncomfortable if there should be a slip, etc. All good reasons, but here’s mine. I really want my students to read the music fluently, and that means keeping their eyes on the page most of the time. I encourage all of my students to take the message in through their eyes and send it down to the fingers without looking constantly at their fingers. This way, the student learns keyboard geography. Their hands feel the distance between notes instead of looking for each key. The student listens better to what he/she is playing. Their ears tell them when they make a mistake. They don’t lose their place in the music so easily. And, most importantly of all, they read their music rather than learning a piece by ear and constant repetition. I cheer when my students play a piece while keeping their eyes on the music. It’s a great skill to have. Sincerely, Kathryn

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