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4 minutes reading time (856 words)

To use, or not to use?

Peter Serkin uses it. So do Emmanuel Ax and Richard Goode. Sviatoslav Richter started using it. As a faculty member in 1980, Gilbert Kalish promoted a policy about it at Stony Brook University; it was ok to use it during degree recitals. Many top competitions prohibit its use.

Its use has been discussed and debated at great length in recent years, from the pages of this magazine (July/August 2013), to The New York Times, to the blog of concert artist Stephen Hough.1

Do you use it? 

What is "it"?

"It" refers to using the musical score when performing in public. Imagine not playing from memory in public!

There is a long historical tradition that has influenced pianists to perform from memory. That tradition is now being challenged, and the score is being used on many concert stages. This break with tradition raises questions. Does use of the score help or hinder a meaningful performance? Does using the score eliminate stage fright? Does not using the score create stage fright? Does playing by heart interfere with more heartfelt performances?

In the nineteenth century, pianists including Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt set a standard of playing from memory, thus introducing the dread of memory slips that are feared by so many anxious pianists. Liszt's concerts became theatrical as well as musical events. Prior to this time, pianists, many of whom were also composers, held the belief that if the score was not used the performer was perceived as improvising at the keyboard. This affronted the audience.

Since Liszt, the tradition of pianists performing from memory has become routine, expected, and virtually unquestioned. Have concerts become spectator sports where the pianist who performs from memory is lauded for remarkable feats? Have concerts become a daring act of memory, and is this act now considered equal to the transmission of musical ideas? Does using the score fetter or further a beautiful performance? Does use of the score guarantee elimination of memory slips? Is using music distracting for the audience and evidence that the performer has not internalized the music? Is using music in public an admission of some "flaw" or "failure"? Is using the score in performance equivalent to "cheating" or comparable to using a beta blocker to manage performance anxiety?

Recently, I attended a memorable piano recital where Richard Goode performed a formidable program of Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy, and Schumann. His pianism was personal and seemed technically effortless—the repertoire was emotionally and technically challenging. There was no overt attempt to display or hide virtuosity, although in other hands, there could have been blatant virtuoso outbursts and other gestures that brought more attention to the performer than to the music. The audience was hushed and engaged. There were no coughs and sneezes that often punctuate live recitals, especially in the pianissimo passages. There were no distractions, and an atmosphere of communion linked the performer, the music, and the listeners.

Richard Goode used music. While I cannot verify my assumption, I doubt that many in the audience of almost 3,000 people paid attention to the fact that there was a page-turner who sat next to Mr. Goode and turned pages during the entire concert.

I have no idea why Mr. Goode decided to use the score. He is a consummate musician and pianist who has performed from memory in many concerts. Why do some performers use music at times and not at others? One can only speculate. I am certain that one size does not fit all. As a member of Richard Goode's audience, I was not aware of music being on the stand. I was fully engaged with the musical experience.

Questions persist. Does playing without the score make one a better or lesser performer? More impressive? A spectacle of endurance and amazement for the audience? A better musician? A virtuoso hero? What does an audience feel about performers who play from memory? Are score-free performers rated higher than those who use the music? If so, why? What does playing from memory prove? Should students be encouraged to memorize music? Is there value in memorization yet using music in performance? Is using music in public a choice made without fear of being judged less talented; a choice freely available for each performer based on a number of personal considerations?

Do you or your students use a score when performing in a recital, jury, or competition? Why or why not? Let's talk about it—please write to me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

1 In addition to the 2013 Clavier Companion article, see the following articles:

Hough, Stephen (2011). Liszt, the man who invented stage fright. The
Tomes, Susan (2007). All in the mind. The Guardian.
Tommasini, Anthony (2012). Playing by heart: With or without a score. The New York Times.

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About Piano Magazine

Piano Magazine is the leading resource for pianists, piano teachers, and piano enthusiasts. We bring you informative, interesting, and inspiring ideas on all aspects of piano teaching, learning, and performing. The official name of Clavier Companion magazine was changed to Piano Magazine in 2019.

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