"Tales of a Musical Journey" by Irina Gorin, classissima, classissima.com, Elaine Comparone, Harpsichord.org, how to improve memorization at the piano, Irina Gorin, piano, piano addict.com, Seymour Bernstein, Uncategorized

The Haydn Piano Sonata in C, UNPINNED, and matters of Memorization

Well, it’s still not memorized yet, but the clips and staples mounted far too high on the rack, have been undone. I no longer need a giraffe’s neck to play through the sonata’s many first movement pages. The music has descended to eye-level.

Incidentally, my feeble excuse for using music was my relatively recent exposure to this work–It would take a while to absorb it minus an unreliable cut and paste exhibit.

And this brings up the subject of memorization, and whether it advances a composition’s performance. Many would attest that owning this masterwork without reliance on the score, would free the spirit and soul?

Or maybe not?

Here’s feedback from a few well-known music teachers/performers:

Irina Gorin: (creator, Tales of a Musical Journey, Books I and II–her own unique approach to teaching piano to beginners and on)

“For me performance with music looks a lot like practicing. I’m used to performing by memory, and I require from all my students that they perform from memory, unless there are some really big problems. But, so far, in 30 years of teaching, every single student of mine was able to perform from memory. There are tons of articles written about memorization and different tricks to help with that. I don’t think I have anything new to say.”

I interjected that Sviatoslav Richter, the great Russian virtuoso, often performed in public with music as exemplified in these videos:

Haydn Piano Concerto in D, movement 1

Handel Suite in D Minor

If I close my eyes, I enjoy these readings, without any distraction of watching the artist’s eyes glued to the score. And what difference should this detail of production make? It was Richter’s philosophy, in any case, that he “played for himself and not the audience.” His personal pleasure was transmitted outward.

To which Gorin responded:

“Richter had music only in a few very last years of performing, and he was over 70 years old. His late performances were not his best. Also, there are different types of performances” formal and informal. I would not mind sheet music if played for a circle of friends or home video, but the big stage is a different story. IMO :)”

Not to be argumentative, but pianists are put to a higher standard in this realm than instrumentalists such as flautists and clarinetists. The latter routinely march onto the stage with the music and no one much cares.

Certainly music critics, on pedestals of power, don’t specifically fault a performer for playing with the score.

A well-reviewed pianist, Leon Fleisher, played Book I of the Well Tempered Clavier with music propped on the rack at the Fresno Keyboard Concerts Series.

Would he have played better without the page turner peering over his shoulder? In some instances, the answer might be a resounding, yes!

I watched an awkward page turner push an Urtext album into accompanist, Martin Katz’s lap in Carnegie Hall. The soloist was either Milstein, violinist, or Shafrin Cellist. Ironically, MY MEMORY FAILS ME! Yet I do recall Katz carrying on gloriously without music to the final cadence. (A good example of MEMORY having come to his rescue!)

Seymour Bernstein explored this very subject in his popular book, With Your Own Two Hands, Chapter 10

Sub-heading, “Why Memorize?”

“There is something very important to be gained from memorization that many musicians themselves may not be aware of. Apart from freeing a performer in musical and technical ways, memorization, per se, despite current opinion to the contrary, actually sharpens the mind.” (He quotes, by analogy, students of ancient Greece who had to memorize all their texts and recitations as a key to mastery in public speaking AND to hone their minds)

Back to the piano: “Some performers are distracted by any visual contact with notation, and therefore prefer to play without a score. Better to risk forgetting, they feel, than do anything that might interfere with their involvement in the music. Other musicians have a complete sense of freedom only when the score is before them.”

Bernstein went on to discuss recording sessions, where he asserts, the decision whether to use music or not, resides with the recording company. He cites a case in point:

“I had been invited to record a recital for the BBC and was somewhat surprised to find in my contract, a stipulation that a page turner be present in the studio. The reason, of course, was that the BBC quite simply did not want to waste more time than was necessary with retakes owing to memory slips.”

In tune with Bernstein’s reflections, I noted a videotaped recording session memorialized on You Tube where Vladimir Horowitz has the mandatory page turner sitting beside him at a reading of Mozart’s Concerto No. 23. (Carlo Maria Guilini conducts)


Elaine Comparone, renowned harpsichordist, shared her own valuable insights about memorizing: portraitelainecomparone2

“Memorizing is as physical as mental but it’s not at all an intellectual process as such. Once you memorize a composition, then those tools are useful for preparing it for performance– kind of as an adjunct practice tool. But the piece has to take hold of your subconscious as well as your conscious mind via your fingers and your ears.”

This statement dispels myths about over-reliance on the analytic ingredients of score, making one further probe the depths of a memorization process.


(As usual, thoughts and ideas are welcomed from the teaching and student community about a controversial area of performing)
See PIANO WORLD.com thread related to this topic:


And on this note, here’s my personal confession about memorization in performance that may ring familiar. It’s in the form of a letter sent to a piano teacher:

“One of the big issues for pianists is the psychological dimension of memorization, and sadly, many teachers equate a student’s inability to memorize with his failure to properly organize or analyze the score according to theoretical and structural content in his protracted learning process. (harmonic rhythm, modulations of course included in this universe)

“But as COMPARONE points out, this type of analysis is not enough.

“I once played a recital, that began without music on the rack.. it was being recorded for airing later on Valley Public Radio. It opened with the rather straightforward first Scene of Childhood, “Of Foreign Lands and People.”

“I knew that piece in my sleep, yet I don’t even know what I played for the first phrase. At that point my music was taken out and put up before me, with my page turner standing by.

“Am I to feel any less of a musician because I play with music? Did this mean that I hadn’t studied my pieces thoroughly, as you know my learning emphasis is ground up, baby-step, layering. (and impart this approach to all my students)

“I gave one of the most inspiring performances of my life at Temple Beth Israel WITH music, and I couldn’t imagine ever having played for two hours without my music.

“I guess I’m writing this because each musician must decide for him/herself what works, and what produces the highest performance standard at any given time that he is capable of.

“So it follows that I refuse to be hard on my students if they cannot play without music. I still say it’s a tradition-bound construct that does not universally apply across the board to ALL musicians. (flautists, violinists, cellists, and the like)

“Recently, I watched violinist, Sarah Chang perform Beethoven sonatas with music, and I enjoyed her performance just the same which affirms my opinions in this universe of discussion.”


Pertinent LINKS




SEYMOUR BERNSTEIN, author, With Your Own Two Hands







4 thoughts on “The Haydn Piano Sonata in C, UNPINNED, and matters of Memorization”

  1. I thoroughly agree with you about the value of memorization being a personal thing. If I had the time to memorize every piece I play in a chamber music situation, I’d be thrilled. But I don’t and besides, I wouldn’t want to subject a colleague to the vagaries of my memory, which serves me well only after many, many repetitions as well as mental work (hearing and playing the piece in my head.) Recently my mental work resulted in a solution to a problem in the first movement cadenza of Bach’s D minor harpsichord concerto that had plagued me for a while. I realized I had been misplacing the beat in my free interpretation to the extent that I felt like I had too many beats in the bar. Having solved the problem mently,I tried to execute the correction in a dress rehearsal with dismal results because I had never actually played the new version. So in the performance I went back to the old, tried and true way and will work on my “correction” for another time. The lesson for me is that no amount of “mental” work can replace the actual physical practice.
    By the way, Irina may be right about Richter’s not playing well in later years. I don’t know. I do know that I love his accompaniments of Schubert lieder played with Fischer-Dieskau that one can view on YouTube. They are a treasure.


  2. Thanks for sharing your valuable insights–we can all learn from la creme de la creme performing musicians such as yourself. Your cadenza epiphany might apply to my flashback experience playing Beethoven 2 with a second pianist.. I think my beats dissolved in the final scale in 6ths–can’t remember for sure–but it was a good thing I knew my scales around the Circle in 3rds, 6ths, and tenths. Rubinstein was known to improvise his way out of memory slips. That’s worth another blog and a half….


  3. Here’s a viewpoint not from the concert stage, heaven forbid, but from the adult learner’s humble keyboard. I can sympathize with everything in the post and in its responses. But I am (a) an older learner whose memory is OK but not as quick as in younger people and (b) a learner with an (as yet) patchy knowledge of harmony and only 2 years’ worth of learning under her belt. These conditions mean that I can’t memorise a piece based on its harmonic structure. Instead I have to invent mnemonics and that overloads the poor old brain. And eats into practising time. So recently I decided to try and learn everything by reading only. It takes huuuuge amounts of time but I fancy it gives me a sounder knowledge of the piece ultimately. Haven’t yet lived long enough at the keyboard to find out whether I’m right though….


  4. Thanks for sharing. Yes, there are many memory tricks, that pianists/students might not share as candidly as you have.. I agree that mnemonics is one that is very valuable. I use solfege devices and might have letter (note) groupings that spell words. You can’t imagine what’s inside my head in the learning process, sometimes revealed in my annotations. Then again, because I happen to have a conservatory theory background, I do enlist harmonic knowledge to its best advantage, and perceptions of structure, repetition, sequence, deviation.. and the rest, also kick in.. All ultimately fuse, and become absorbed on an unconscious level in the act of playing. I think “reading” is another sound approach.. I always believe that one’s own approach that works is valid, and is best appreciated.. until something different comes along to awaken to another universe of knowing.


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