Is the iPad Killing Piano Memorisation?

Is the iPad Killing Piano Memorisation?

piano memorisation

OK so I’m just going to get it out there: I’m not a memoriser. Never have been. Always struggled with it and I find it one of the hardest things to do on piano.

I never force my students to do it and I’m always in awe of people who can perform securely and comfortably from memory.

In fact, and here’s the big one: I actually don’t believe that piano memorisation is all that important.

There, I said it!

I know there are plenty of arguments about how memorising music helps you perform with greater emotion and depth. I know that playing from memory allows you to concentrate solely on the music rather than reading notes and it certainly is a good test of how well you truly know a piece.

I get it and I know that people will disagree.

In fact, I worked incredibly hard to be able to memorise two of my four diploma pieces a few years back and I know the feeling and freedom that comes from playing from memory.

But is it really that important? Should it really be such a big deal?

Related: Preparing for an AMusA performance diploma exam – why bother?!

When Huffington Post articles like How Does a Pianist Remember the 30,000 Notes of the ‘Rach 3’ get over 5,000 likes on Facebook, you quickly realise that for non-pianists, it’s almost incomprehensible how people can remember so much stuff. I think I heard Lang Lang once say that he had hundreds of the most challenging pieces (including a number of concerti) in his memory ready to go at any one time.

For a sight-reader like me, it’s unbelievable! It’s almost a party trick isn’t it?

Is memory important any more?

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending a recital by my good friend Jovanni-Rey de Pedro here in Melbourne, where he played a program of almost all Australian/NZ composers including Daniel McFarlane, Jo Kotchie and Chris Norton to name just a few.

While Jovanni’s playing and interpretation always impresses me, one other thing made an impression on me that night: the fact that he performed the whole program (bar Mozart’s Variations on Twinkle Twinkle) using his iPad and a bluetooth page turner.

  • Did his performance lack depth, emotion or meaning because he was looking at music? No.
  • Was the fact he was reading music a distraction? No.
  • Did anyone in the audience seem to be upset? No.
  • Did it mean that he wasn’t as good a pianist as someone who memorises? Definitely Not.

Indeed it was only a couple of years ago that my own teacher, Caroline Almonte, one of Australia’s all-time top teachers and pianists, performed “Rach 3” herself with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra using the score and a page turner.

Shock! Horror!

Related:  How to practise away from the piano.

But all this began to make me wonder: is the nature of piano performance changing?

With the advent of technology, students in all subjects are (hopefully) having to memorise fewer and fewer facts and figures, in favour of putting their knowledge into action: problem solving, working together, creating, exploring. This is due mainly to the fact that all of us carry the world’s knowledge in our pocket. Why do we need to memorise things that we can search and find in seconds?

The changing face of piano performance

ipad piano stand

Example stand: EPL Black Portable Fold up Tablet Stand (click to view).

So we come to piano performance.

Why then do so many of us put ourselves, and our students, through the misery that can often accompany preparing a performance from memory?

I’m not just talking about the slow and tedious act of properly memorising a score with more than just kinaesthetic memory but also the increased nerves that come with the thought of ‘losing your memory’ during a performance.

Other instrumentalists tend to use the music, why not pianists? Why is it so taboo?

I believe it’s generally accepted that Liszt is the person us ‘non-memorisors’ have to blame for this history of memorisation that’s plagued piano pedagogy and teaching since the 1800s. No doubt it came easily to him and probably had a lot to do with the fact that he was often playing his own compositions and arrangements…even I can do that from memory!

Here’s what Melanie Spanswick said about this in a post in 2012:

Liszt not only developed the solo recital idea but he devised how the piano was to be positioned on stage too (with the piano side-on so that the pianist’s profile can be admired and the lid up facing the audience to ensure full volume). He was also the first pianist to play from memory. This potent combination guaranteed total devotion from his fans and more importantly set the stage for all future piano recitals for the next 200 odd years…Liszt benefited tremendously from performing in this way and successfully conveyed the romantic image he worked so hard to cultivate. However, for those mere mortals who have since made the concert platform their home over subsequent generations, playing from memory has indeed been the cause of much misery. [My emphasis]

My question is: why put ourselves and our students through this if it’s not something that comes naturally and may even be detrimental to a performance??

With today’s tablets, you can put the piano’s music rest down and place your iPad on a Universal fold-up iPad stand like the one above from EPL or just rest it inside the piano frame itself. The iPad becomes almost invisible when viewed from the side while the performer has the security of a score if required.

Couple that with a bluetooth page turner and you have all you need to perform from the score without paper and with full control over page turns.

I have a feeling that change is coming in the world of piano performance and the Washington Post seems to agree: iPad pushes sheet music, and page turners, off the stage.

Is memory a waste of time for 99% of students?

I’m sure some of my comments will have readers up in arms so get writing and let me know what you think about the great memory debate. Please leave your views below.

Tim Topham

Tim Topham is the founder and director of TopMusic. Tim hosts the popular Integrated Music Teaching Podcast, blogs regularly at staging.topmusic.co and speaks at local and international conferences on topics such as integrated teaching, creativity, business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tim has been featured in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher Magazine, California Music Teacher and EPTA Piano Professional. Tim holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.

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  1. Hi Tim—are you saying that the universal iPad stand from EPL can be used inside a piano without using a desk? Can sit on top of the tuning pins? When I tour I never know what kind of piano I will be using and need something that is universal. I appreciate your response. Thank you.

    • Hi Wendy. Yes, if you remove the music rest, you can sit a variety of stands on the tuning pins. While I haven’t personally done that with the EPL stand, you should be able to do this with pretty much any music stand. And if the base is a bit wobbly, just sit it on a book or something between the pins and the holder.

  2. I decided to join on this discussion because it hit a bit of a nerve. Now right off the bat I have to say that I dont teach music You might be saying; then what the ___ business do you have to say anything at all here? Well, that is a good question. First off, I will tell you who I am. I am a Pastor. Ok, there I said it! In Pastoral circles, there is a debate over memorizing ones sermon or preaching by the seat of ones pants.

    I have done both. I have often written on my sermons and memorized them to death only to get up to regurgitate it and God says ; “Wait, that was a good speech you wrote, but now I will tell you what I want to say to the people”.

    I find that often its better to have a general outline of what I want to say, but leave the details to God. So how does that relate to memorizing sheet music, you might ask?

    Well, they are both tedious, but can both have value in the mere act of the memorization. Today, we have lots of lots of tools at our disposal. In fact, its tool overload. We no longer have to remember anything. We have our ipad, our cell phone, our calculators, our auto word correct, grammatical checkers, and on and on.

    We have tools to run just about every part of our lives for us. Soon, we may even have robots that will do all our chores like taking out the garbage. We dont even have to wash dishes anymore with the advent of the dish washing machine.

    My point is that our tools have taken over our lives to the point that we no longer have to do the things that we once did. I guess this can be seen as both a good and bad thing all at the same time. For me, I can see the value in both. But we need to remember that these things are tools and not our masters. Its when we let the tool become the master that we have problems and are in danger of being completely replaced because we are not needed anymore.

    • Welcome to the blog, NeedsMet. You’re the first minister that I’ve had comment (as far as I know). Thanks for your thoughts – you’re right that machines can easily take over if we let them and keeping things in perspective is best.

      I take the same approach when I present at conferences and workshops: I have a clear outline of what I want to say, but I never write or memorise a speech, rather I just discuss the points in a conversational way and it definitely connects with people.

      On memory, I think there’s still merit in memorising your times tables, for example, but for music, I’m less inclined to see the merit while realising that there are still times when it can be helpful.

      Thanks for your comment.

  3. Agree wholeheartedly. Chopin actually thought playing from memory was presumptuous and egotistic. Richter stopped playing from memory in his later years when he was having issues with his hearing. The custom of playing without the score was developed by Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt and quickly became mandatory for all “proper” pianists. I go to many concerts by leading professional pianists. I’ve heard dead, expressionless performances from memory and exciting, engaging performances with the score. Ultimately it doesn’t bother me: it’s about communication. The pro-memorisation lobby will all shout that it does matter, that it gives greater freedom to the performer, but I know from first hand conversations with pianists that the burden of having to memorise can create serious issues with performance anxiety and has led to a number of colleagues of mine withdrawing from the professional stage. We need to get away from the snobbery of memorisation: let’s enjoy making music, with and without the score.

    • Here! Here!

      Thanks for your comments, Fran, and great to reconnect with you. For those readers who don’t know, Fran is a regular reviewer for https://bachtrack.com/ so knows her stuff!!

  4. September 2013, Angela Hewitt, who has recorded the pieces she was performing, played with the ipad and blue tooth pedal. She spoke about her choice – delightedly I might say! and a subsequent review in Limelight magazine didn’t mention this aspect of her performance at all – and carried a photograph of her, the piano and the ipad beside the article http://www.limelightmagazine.com.au/Article/358911,live-review-angela-hewitt-plays-bach-and-beethoven-musica-viva.aspx .

    I was at one of these performances- and ecstatic! right, methinks, nows the time- if its good enough for Angela then its good enough for me, and my students! Time for a change to technology.
    I memorise easily, but have often used music for performance. I have more than 60 hours of repertoire but not all of it is committed to memory. I like having the security of the notes in front of me – even if I’m not reading them. Sometimes I don’t have the music there. Depends on the day. My students have always had the choice, though currently they are still with the paper version ( most of mine is paper too though the new stuff is on the ipad).

    Thanks Tim for bringing this notion forward. I have always had similar sentiments to yours and really, what does it matter if the paper or pad is there? Its the music which is important.And now the professionals are performing with the ipad then the public will get used to it too.

    • Thanks Susan – I wasn’t aware of Angela’s performance and I’m so impressed that the writer didn’t even think it worth mentioning in the article! I also love the photo of her with the iPad clearly on the piano behind. There is no doubt that there is a shift occurring… I can only hope, for the sake of students like I was, that it comes to universities and convervatories sooner rather than later.

  5. YES!!!! I have never been a good memorizer either. While I encourage students to do so if they can, I never require it. Though sometimes they might participate in a program that requires it, then they really don’t have a choice. I do admire those who can memorize easily though…

    • Thanks Jennifer – 100% with you there!

  6. Having performed as a storyteller on the stage and in more intimate settings, there is something very special that happens when there is no book in between you and your listeners. The story magically carries different meanings for teller and listener in each different setting. I have always wanted this to happen for me and my very small audiences in performing music, but I need that music up there to feel secure. Perhaps it affects how listeners hear the music, I don’t know. But I am fascinated to think of what the iPad can offer in creating a less intrusive reference for the performer. As for my students, my goal in studio recitals is that they have a good experience sharing music with others. For some families these are the only live music performances they experience! Students can use their book or not. In RCM exams I encourage memorization, especially as a way of focused learning, but often they will use their book for one or more pieces. Better to lose all or part of the marks for memory in favour of a confident artistic performance. Bravo for giving us a chance to talk about this, Tim!

    • Thanks Karen – glad to hear that you’re on the same page to me. I’m sure your students will be thankful that you haven’t pushed them down the memory lane (is that a pun?!) but offered the opportunity for their own choice.

  7. From Barbara (having trouble leaving a comment):

    Thank Goodness, someone finally said it! I spent A LOT OF TIME learning to read music, why do I then have to pretend that I don’t??? For me, memorizing is a huge waste of time…time that I could be using to learn even more pieces that I’ll enjoy. Also, just because the music is sitting on the piano, doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m reading it, but I play better when it’s there — just in case:) Thanks for putting this out there, Tim. You may have just changed the world for music-reading pianists! I can’t wait to see all that paper and all those iPads on the music stands!!

    • Thanks Barbara! So great to read your comments 🙂

  8. All beautifully said, Tim. Thanks for the post. Teaching piano reminds me every day that we all have such unique brains and combinations of abilities. It strikes me that playing the piano is such a huge and complex undertaking that it gives us all opportunities to beat ourselves up. Good memorizers beat themselves up for not sightreading well, and we good sightreaders bemoan our poor memory work. Let’s move to a place where we embrace in one another, and ourselves, what we do well. We can no more control in which lobe of our brain that we process music than we can change our eye color. If we’re going to catch up with our understanding of how we make music, we’re going to have to stop making concerts by memory a requirement. I encourage all of my students to memorize some — half of them do it easily, right? But I don’t force performance by memory. Some just do it automatically; others process music like I do and need the score. My very forward-thinking piano prof forty years ago often performed from the score. Nobody can say he isn’t a fabulous pianist, although it probably cost him a concert career. 🙁

    • Here’s to this comment: “If we’re going to catch up with our understanding of how we make music, we’re going to have to stop making concerts by memory a requirement.” That sums it all up nicely, KN and is exactly what I’m getting at. Until this time, students will unfortunately continue to beat themselves up…

  9. Practise memorising small fragments by transposing them. Simple. It forces you to think of mobile do, to compose a piece rather than learn it by rote ‘hand/finger position’ memory. And Art Tatum is reported to have said: “learn the tune in all twelve keys and it will come to you.” even blind, he had trouble memorising too. But he found the key to it by transposing. Try sometime like the anon. Musette in the A.M. Bach Notebook, or the little Oscar Peterson Minuets or Bartok’s Mikrokosmos 1. There short enough, that by transposing them ’round the circle of fifths you won’t get bored. You’ll find them memorised by the time you reach the fifth transposition: G home key, C, F, Bb, Eb, Ab… And for the next piece, go the ‘other way’: G home key, D, A, E, B, Gb… Simple. Effective. Pianism, not wannabe.ism.

    • Yes, but my point is why should I spend the time doing that? I know that I could eventually work them out and no doubt I might have memorised the original better but I have far better things to do!

  10. Don’t throw it away altogether, though! I always memorised remarkably easily without trying. Everyone I knew was either good at sight reading (I have always been shockingly poor at that) or at memorisation and improvisation. So most of those who struggle to memorise will probably struggle to improvise as well. My memory once failed at the end of a performance of a Bach Partita and I made the last ten or so bars up. Nobody noticed except the adjudicator and my mother who was close to a heart attack. To me these abilities compensate for my lack of reading ability and if you devalue them where does that leave me as a pianist?
    Besides that, the ability to memorise has hidden value as you get older. In my early 50s I was suddenly called upon to accompany diploma candidates after a long career gap. All the music was challenging and I found myself practising day after day and making little real progress. My ability to learn pieces with the music had dropped right back with age. I could no longer play with security things I would have breezed through in my teens and twenties. One day I hit on the idea of consciously trying to memorise the music, something I’d never had expend any effort to do before. And as soon as I did that, my note security was back and I could get through the music without making loads of mistakes.
    So memory, I think, is like a muscle; and to use that muscle makes you a stronger all round performer.
    By the way, I do understand the non memorisers out there too, as my own daughter came out on the other side of the divide and can sight read well but struggles to learn her music.

    • Hey Ann. I’m interested in your comment: “So most of those who struggle to memorise will probably struggle to improvise as well” as I certainly buck that trend! I love improvising and in fact, I’m much more at home doing that when performing than when playing written music. Is anyone else in this category or am I a bit alone? Would be interesting research…

      I was interested in your story about how memory work has enabled you to play things more easily as you get older – just goes to show how individual we all are! Thanks for your thoughts.

      • I’m with you on the improvising! Give me a piece of music and I will use it as a “guide”. So much easier than reading every single note on the page.
        Now about memorizing……. for my students…… I don’t require recital pieces to be memorized. If they do, great. If they don’t, they use the music. Many times I will test their memory by covering music and they will discover that in the process of practice they have memorized it. But I don’t require it like I used to. Why not learn to play another piece instead?
        I was really interested in your opinion on this topic. Maybe there are lots more “secret non memorizers” out there who just needed someone to say, “ Chill on the memorizing” ! It’s okay to have the music on the rack! Just play it beautifully!!!!

  11. IPad Pro is going to be a great tool for reading music from. Thinking of getting one for that reason alone! Memorization? Overrated Tim! Far more impressed by great sight readers!

    • Totally agree – the iPad Pro is going to be a game changer! I’m only sorry I upgraded at the start of this year! I think a lot of old iPads are going to appear on eBay from music teachers. Readers, if you haven’t heard, a new iPad is being released in Nov 2015:http://www.apple.com/ipad-pro/

  12. I absolutely, 100 million percent agree! I have always hated memorizing. I am a visual learner and a sight reader and don’t enjoy memorizing at all. I could never remember anything long term, just long enough to get through a recital and then it was gone. Memorizing was the main reason I didn’t major in music in college. I couldn’t stand the idea of 4 years of miserable memorizing followed by memorizing pieces for a senior recital. If they would have let me use my music, it might have been a different story. I have been teaching piano for 15 years now and never force my students to memorize. Some of them like to and that is great, but for others it is a source of great stress.

    • Thanks Susan… how sad that you (and no doubt others) would be avoiding a course that they’d love to do on one issue that is completely avoidable and of no major consequence anyway! Great to read your thoughts.

  13. Thank god someone else feels the same as me when it comes to memorization for the piano!

    • *thumbs up*

  14. Excellent article Tim. And much food for thought.

    • Cheers Jo – nice to hear from you 🙂

  15. Tim, this reader’s arms are definitely up — in the air, applauding everything you say. I’ve read articles, discussions, arguments, opinion polls for years and years and years about this. I am thankful the ‘memory isn’t and shouldn’t be required’ camp is growing and seemingly gaining ground. To heck with Liszt (and Lang Lang and all the other tiny percentage of pianists with superhero memories) — we mere mortals outnumber them by far. What I found most thought-provoking in this post, though, was your analogy with students’ learning of other educational subjects — that there is less and less emphasis on rote learning of ‘facts’ and more and more emphasis on problem-solving, working together, creativity and exploring. Well, YEAH.

    And certainly the trend in the mainstream educational system has progressed away from the rote memorization that was so common 100 or 200 years ago — being American, I picture small pioneer children lined up on a wooden bench, writing sums on their slates and reciting poems, essays, and other information by memory — much faster than it has in music. Let’s get modern!

    Very cool post!

    • Hey Starchix – Thanks for your comments… and it’s given me another thought: What if we were to get students to spend all the time and energy they normally spend on memory and instead put it towards learning to improvise, create and explore music (as in my post). How different would the world of pedagogy be then?! Piano teachers can be a traditional bunch, but the movement is happening. I’ve no doubt that we’re heading in the right direction. Thanks for your supportive comments!

  16. I agree, and in fact, have never asked my students to memorize for a recital. I’ll push them a little bit if they want the challenge, but it’s not a requirement, and only about a quarter of my students memorize their pieces. I do feel there are certain pieces that are almost unplayable if they’re not memorized — the Chopin étude I’m currently working on is like that, but is also easy to memorize.

    My sister and I are both pianists, but I memorize easily and she doesn’t. She actually avoids performing because she doesn’t want to memorize. That’s a shame, and she shouldn’t feel like she can’t perform just because she’s afraid of having a memory block.

    For someone who doesn’t naturally memorize well, I absolutely agree that it’s a waste of time that could’ve been spent on more important things. But some people, like myself, do perform much better when they’re off the music. Even a non-musician would probably notice the difference between when I’m playing with the music, and when I play without it. Every individual is different, and there shouldn’t be a cookie cutter approach to memorizing, or to anything else!

    • Good thoughts, Amy – thanks for sharing. I think you’re right that yes, some people are naturally more gifted at memorising and for them, the current system is fine (although some works must be challenging even for you… Bach fugues/20th Century atonal music perhaps?). I guess my argument is that it should be up to a performer to decide whether to use music or not and we should not penalise or think of these pianists differently. As piano teachers, we hold a large amount of sway when it comes to whether our students have to memorise and so any change to this has to come from us… That’s why I think it’s an important discussion. Keep the ideas flowing 🙂

      • Yes, it should be up to the performer, and they shouldn’t be looked down upon if they choose to not memorize.

        Usually if a piece of music is extremely difficult, it’s going to take longer to learn, and therefore, memorization will come in the process. I never actually try to memorize my music, I just always do. A Mozart sonata might take a week, a Bach fugue might take a couple months! But I would probably not perform a Bach fugue only a couple of months into the learning process.

        As for atonal music, that opens up another can of worms. Should a musician feel like they either have to perform atonal music, or not perform at all? I feel so much pressure to perform 20th century music that I just don’t like. I’ve played a fair amount of it, and I don’t like the sound, OR my audience’s reaction to it (they don’t like it either!) I find this expectation for all musicians to perform atonal music similar to the expectation for all musicians to memorize.

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