Font size: +
7 minutes reading time (1405 words)

With or Without Your Music


Around ten years ago, a detailed study was made by neurosurgeons and seasoned performers to determine the chief cause or causes of stage fright. Opinions were conclusive: it was ascertained that eighty percent of performance anxiety is caused by a fear of memory slips. If this is so, then the question remains: how best to secure our memory—in order to diminish the effects of stage fright and survive performances? I keep reading about all sorts of remedial measures to take. Curiously, few if any writers on the subject ever mention the very organ through which music enters our consciousness: namely, the ear. In my opinion, the ear is the mainstay of playing from memory and making music altogether. I consider all other methods of memory as backups to support what the ear ought to be registering.

To all music teachers and students, be prepared either to shout "bravo," or else to disagree vehemently with what follows. As I approach the age of ninety-two, I have finally concluded a fact that has been stirring in my subconscious for decades:

I have observed that people with perfect pitch are not really performing from memory; rather, they are playing by ear. For example, I recently heard a pianist play at a party I attended. I discovered that he never took lessons, and yet he played the songs he knew in any key we wished. He had perfect pitch.

When one stops to think about it, it seems rather absurd that too many music teachers and performers bypass the sense of hearing when confronting memorizing. I don't have perfect pitch, and my relative pitch leaves a lot to be desired. I have always wondered if my sensitivity to pitch was impaired when I was only nine months old. At that time my ears were lanced due to abscesses in both ears. Perhaps certain nerves related to pitch sensitivity were severed during the procedure. According to my mother, the operation took place on our porcelain-topped kitchen table. My mother insisted that I was too young to recall the incident. Yet I remember the scene perfectly, and I recall screaming in pain during the operation.

I am one of those musicians who is supersensitive in matters of interpretation—without having the faintest awareness of what pitches I am listening to. For all I know, my unusual ability to interpret music is a compensation for a lack of pitch identification. If your sense of pitch is as faulty as mine—and you insist on playing from memory—then do what I have done for the greater part of my life. Begin each practice session by forcing yourself to play by ear using the hunt-and-peck method. The best exercise is to pick out right-hand melodies of your pieces with the index finger of your left hand. Don't be discouraged if you can't find the second pitch of a piece that you can play perfectly from memory. Face the blatant fact: you only know that piece with your automatic pilot and mental memory, and not with your musical ear. In addition, play familiar pieces and songs in various keys and sing solfège exercises. I recommend the Hindemith book Elementary Training for Musicians. It was a textbook I used when I taught solfège classes many years ago in a school for prodigies. Month after month, year after year of such ear training in order to sensitize your ear to intervallic relationships will eventually pay off. If you have the discipline to implement the above suggestions, I can assure you that one day, you will have a memory slip and find the next tone with your musical ear, and not just with your intellectual or muscle memory.

When the above extreme measures are taken to develop your sense of pitch, performance anxiety will most likely be greatly reduced. And if it isn't, don't continue to suffer. Use your music and always have a page turner, unless you arrange your scores so that you can safely and easily turn for yourself. You also might experiment with the relatively new method of using an iPad, tablet, or computer and a foot pedal. This method is becoming more and more popular among performers.

Music Departments and Conservatories of Music

While more and more well-known performers are now using their scores, directors of music departments and conservatories of music continue to enforce memory as a requisite for all auditions and juries. As a former faculty member of a well-known music department in a university, I was not able to persuade the director that certain pupils could not survive performing their juries from memory. I feel strongly that the greatest talents are often rejected from auditions or fail their subjects because of this stubborn adherence to an archaic practice. We must remember that the luminaries of the past, such as Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann, were pioneers in playing from memory. Before them, and through the 1800s, few performers performed without their scores. But then, according to what I have suggested above, Liszt and Clara Schumann were not playing from memory; they played by ear.


Occasionally, certain organizations take practical measures in dealing with the possibility of memory slips. The directors of the BBC in London make a one-time recording of the performers chosen for their broadcasts. To avoid wasting time making splices because of memory slips, they require that all performers use their music and bring a page turner with them. After passing the stringent audition, I was perplexed by this requirement and consulted with Sir Clifford Curzon, with whom I was studying at the time. He instructed me to practice with my music so that I would feel as comfortable as I would were I performing chamber music. Since then, having my scores during performances has greatly reduced performing anxiety.

Yes, most performers know about the freedom one feels when they perform without the score. They find comfort gazing at the keyboard. And they find turning pages a nuisance, and page turners a distraction. If you decide to perform with the score, there is one fact to keep in mind: you don't really know the music unless you memorize it. In addition, the greatest sight readers hardly ever look at the keyboard when they are playing. They have established an intervallic sense of distance, similar to what most string players have on their instruments. In addition, memorization is crucial when the score is in front of you and treacherous skips or certain technical configurations require eye contact on the keyboard. Altogether, your kinetic comfort on the keyboard is greatly enhanced when you know the score from memory.

For years now, I have always performed with my score. Formerly, I took stringent measures to be prepared by memorizing hands separately, by analyzing chords and structures, and by training my relative pitch. I thus ended up playing very well in public from memory in spite of performance anxiety. Yet, no matter how stringently I prepared, a fear of memory slips haunted my emotional world often weeks in advance of a major performance. If I had to do it all over again, I would have used my score for all performances.

Page Turners

Nervous or inexperienced page turners can ruin a performance. In my opinion the best page turners are people who can't read music. I instruct them to sit quietly beside me when I begin to play. When I give them a quick glance, they are to stand up and hold the corner of the page with their left hand and stare directly at me. When I nod, they are to turn over carefully and quickly, and then sit down again. I do the turning for de capos or repeats. Quite naturally, this method works as well for page turners who can read music. It is a method that frees them from having concerns about whether to turn the page before or during the last note of a page, or from the possibility of getting lost in the score.


Since we are all different, we will choose what is the best all-around approach. For example, if musicians have visionary defects or are poor sight readers, they will choose to play from memory and risk the consequence of stage fright due to a fear of memory slips. Others view playing from memory as a challenge they intend to master. Teachers and our colleagues should be free to offer advice. But in the long run, we must choose our own path.

You have to be a member to access this content.

Please login and subscribe to a plan if you have not done so.

The Hidden Life of the Humble Arabesque
Decatastrophizing the Memory Lapse


Already Registered? Login Here
No comments made yet. Be the first to submit a comment

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.

Follow us on

Terms of use

Have Questions?

We are happy to help.

Editorial questions? This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Advertising questions? This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Subscription questions? This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Technical questions? This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.