memorization or sight reading while performing?

Discussions relating to the classical guitar which don't fit elsewhere.
BrianTakamine
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memorization or sight reading while performing?

Post by BrianTakamine » Mon Dec 04, 2017 4:01 am

hello,
I just went out last night to see a classical guitar performance at a local pub. I was surprised to see the guitarist sight reading the entire show, about 2 hours worth of material. He never, or at least, seldom looked down at his fingerboard, his eyes were pretty much on the music stand the entire time, with his fingers running up and down the neck like he was born that way.
The vast majority of performances I have seen have been you tube videos, with masters, and they are working from memory. With that in mind, I have been hard at work memorizing the pieces I play, with some success, and some failures which reliably show up in performance.

I suppose in the final analysis, the audience only wants to hear good music, played well, and the choice of sight reading or memorization is up to the performer.
I have in the past performed while sight reading, and I can tell you it is no picnic when the performance anxiety kicks in and the legibility of the sheet music is instantly transformed into a gibberal scattering of dots and lines. The "Roar of the Greasepaint", and all of that.

I don't know if there is a standard, and I am just trying to figure out what works best. I think it would be a tall order for a player to memorize 2 hours worth of music, although if they have been playing the same set for 20 - 30 years, maybe not so much. And while it might be nice to have the sheet music right in front to see, it would be a pain to never look down to place my fingers.

Any thoughts on this would be appreciated. Do you perform by memory, or sight reading, or both? Nothing scandalous about looking down at your fingers, from time to time, if you are sight reading?

CathyCate
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Re: memorization or sight reading while performing?

Post by CathyCate » Mon Dec 04, 2017 7:46 am

I am going to provide my definitions (disclaimers?) before sharing my views.

Sight Reading- in my piano and guitar worlds, this happens only once. It is what I do with new sheet music that I have never laid eyes on before.

Performance-It's what I do when I have an audience quietly seated in front of me, and they are listening to me play. They're also seeing me sweat...watching my efforts to appear calm with every wrong move, bad note, memory lapse etc...and probably hearing me curse (under my breath) on a really bad day. Generally, I memorize music for these occasions.

Was the guitarist at the pub providing background music for people who were engaged in enjoying food, drink and conversation along with his music?
If the guitarist gigs regularly at that pub or other local spots, he is more concerned with setting a mood that results in satisfied customers and repeat business for the establishment.
No tux required, since it inhibits a run to the bank before the check they gave him for playing bounces. :D Since it was unlikely that he was being watched by all the people all the time, having scores at hand made it possible to play a much wider assortment of pieces than he could have memorized for the occasion. As long as there were not long pauses as he turned pages or searched for the next book or piece of music, I think it was practical and acceptable for him to read from scores. I do the same without reservation or shame.

As a listener , if I do not buy a ticket, pay a cover charge or go to a venue especially to hear a certain musician play, I have a hard time considering it a true performance. I relax and enjoy the live music for the rarity it is these days in affordable restaurants and bars.

More thoughts:
As a player of any given piece in your repertoire. Once you have memorized a piece, it is sometimes a difficult thing to revert to using the music. The printed music is almost a distraction. This can be an unsettling experience. I suggest that once you have scheduled a performance and decided on your program or playlist, commit to using the score (or not) for each piece. Stick to those decisions and for that engagement practice each piece with (or without) the score. At performance time go for broke. What you have is what you have in reserve. Play the memorized pieces from memory. Play from the scores, the pieces you have rehearsed consistently that way. Hopefully, things will go more smoothly for you.

If your aim is to become a master player, limit the time(s) you play for inattentive audiences. If they aren't listening, you are not receiving the full experience, support and feedback that you need on your path to artistry. The players you most admire are probably not spending much, if any, time playing in pubs.

Hope this helps, whatever your chosen venues. All the best!

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souldier
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Re: memorization or sight reading while performing?

Post by souldier » Mon Dec 04, 2017 1:17 pm

BrianTakamine wrote:
Mon Dec 04, 2017 4:01 am
Any thoughts on this would be appreciated. Do you perform by memory, or sight reading, or both? Nothing scandalous about looking down at your fingers, from time to time, if you are sight reading?
This is a good question. In the past I've always performed from memory and I always memorize all of my pieces. I personally don't like being glued to sheet music whenever I want to pick up my guitar and play something. In my last performance however my memory drew a blank and I lost my place and had to skip a few measures. I realize that if I want to perform I personally have two options:

1. Memorize the piece thoroughly, knowing what the left and right hand is doing individually and not relying on finger memory. You know you have thoroughly memorized the piece if you can start playing the piece at various parts of the song. When most people memorize songs, they just rely on the momentum of their fingers, but if they stopped suddenly, they would struggle to pick up right where they left off. Playing through a piece at snail speed will help to not rely on finger memory.

2. Memorize the piece while using sheet music as a guide. In other words, I am not truly sight reading as if I am picking up the sheet music for the first time. Once you've played through sheet music over and over, you are mostly relying on memory, but you wouldn't be able to really play the song through without the sheet music. So in this sense, the sheet music just ensures you don't lose your place or forget how to play various portions of the song. A third option would be to bring my sight reading to a really high level. I think a lot of guitarists are terrible at sight reading in comparison to musicians who play other instruments because we just find it easier to memorize than to process what we are reading.

I think each person has to decide what works better for them, and if they are willing to put the time in for either option. Another key factor is managing anxiety at a reasonable level which will greatly help with memory. We can often play a piece through without losing our place when we are alone because there is no anxiety, but in front of a crowd the anxiety causes us to draw blanks.
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bear
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Re: memorization or sight reading while performing?

Post by bear » Mon Dec 04, 2017 2:00 pm

I have some admiration for those who play from memory, I can't and never could. I used to joke that I knew the first 7 notes of 1000 songs. There are pieces that I've played a couple of times per week for years and I can only play a few bars from memory. Yet, I can recite Hamlet's Soliloquy or Jose Marti's poems.
I've watched my grandson sit a a piano and play a concerto for 45 minutes or more without a score. I imagine that if I thought it was important, I could do it.
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Claughton
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Re: memorization or sight reading while performing?

Post by Claughton » Mon Dec 04, 2017 2:18 pm

I think this is indeed a good question from lots of viewpoints.
On reflection I have never been to a concert or recital to hear a top performer who then reads from music and this includes concertos where the orchestra certainly has music in front of them but the soloist does not. Yet when I have attended string quartets (for example) they all have the music in front of them and certainly seem to refer to it. I am not enough of a musician to comment on this and probably others on here can give some useful insight.

Whenever I am trying to perform a piece to my own satisfaction I have to memorise it to have any chance at all of getting through it in tempo, without mistakes and with any kind of decent tone delivery. That is when I am playing for my own satisfaction (that is alone). I am a hopeless performer in front of anyone else so I don't even bother with that.
I am very interested in the comment about finger memory. For me it is absolutely the case that I cannot just pick up anywhere in the piece from memory if I falter. I always have set places in the piece where I have to go back to or forward to in order to pick again. On thinking about it this is curious....why should this be so ? especially since I can pick up from anywhere in the sheet music even though I am a very slow reader and cannot play well on first sight.

Chariot0
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Re: memorization or sight reading while performing?

Post by Chariot0 » Mon Dec 04, 2017 3:28 pm

I'm still a pretty new guitarist with only 3 years of experience but I play solo, in a trio and a couple of larger ensembles. I've memorized some of my solo pieces but I always perform them with the music in front of me and I follow along as I play. I think if you are a solo virtuoso performer than you are probably expected to play from memory. But I don't see why it really matters as long as the playing is good.

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Re: memorization or sight reading while performing?

Post by Jeffrey Armbruster » Mon Dec 04, 2017 8:17 pm

when I practice at home I usually have the pieces I'm working on in front of me--so, not sight reading (unless I'm deliberately sight reading!) So, my eyes aren't glued to the page. It's not an either-or situation. If I were playing two hours worth of material I would like to have the music available as a backstop.

It's usually studies that I like but not well enough to memorize that require the page in front of me.
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BrianTakamine
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Re: memorization or sight reading while performing?

Post by BrianTakamine » Tue Dec 05, 2017 2:30 am

Thank you for your thoughtful replies. I am currently trying to get more experience performing, open mike nights, open stage with the local classical guitar society, and once a week I play for my "shut in" mother in law. Yes it was a pub and patrons were certainly carrying on conversations. Properly speaking, I was likely the only one intently listening to the music, which was slightly hard to hear because of all the talking.

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Re: memorization or sight reading while performing?

Post by randalljazz » Tue Dec 05, 2017 10:09 am

CathyCate wrote:
Mon Dec 04, 2017 7:46 am


If your aim is to become a master player, limit the time(s) you play for inattentive audiences. If they aren't listening, you are not receiving the full experience, support and feedback that you need on your path to artistry. The players you most admire are probably not spending much, if any, time playing in pubs.

wise counsel.
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Alvisa
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Re: memorization or sight reading while performing?

Post by Alvisa » Tue Dec 05, 2017 5:51 pm

I too play in restaurants. However, to provide 2 hours of music without repeating pieces, you need to call on pieces that are either straightforward or unmemorised. As such, reading the pieces is a useful stop gap.

For background music, some flexibility in crashing and burning in the odd tune or just starting again / abandoning is ok; no one is listening that closely. On a more positive note, it is great practice in conquering nerves and builds confidence. It also develops your musicality as you usually have one stab at a piece before moving on, and can use the opportunity to be in a performance mindset and not a practice mindset.
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hoppy
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Re: memorization or sight reading while performing?

Post by hoppy » Tue Dec 05, 2017 7:17 pm

The concept of the virtuoso soloist without music was something Paganini started (although that might be apocryphal). Most guitarists play a limited active repertoire of solo pieces and tend to work towards recital of those pieces from memory. There is very little interest in accompaniment repertoire and guitarists tend not to be as good sight readers as other instrumentalists because it isn't practised in a group/performance environment. New Music tends to be an exception and I've seen a lot of use of sheet music for that where the piece is very complex.

Other concert instrumentalists tend to play with other people and do so from a wider repertoire - memorisation would be impossible with the exception of the soloist who more often than not takes the recital approach. Some of that is 'sight read' i.e. for the first time but a lot of the use of sheet music is an aide-memoire (which I expect was the case in the OP - of course you have to be looking at it even when playing from muscle memory to keep your place - it doesn't mean you are sight reading) they also receive the conductor's edit of the piece which is marked up. If you consider the additional time it takes to memorise you can have a much wider repertoire if you use sheets. On a related note, Trinity exams used to give you marks for memorisation but that has gone now and you can bring the music in with you with no penalty.

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Re: memorization or sight reading while performing?

Post by AndreiKrylov » Tue Dec 05, 2017 11:17 pm

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Re: memorization or sight reading while performing?

Post by Smudger5150 » Tue Dec 05, 2017 11:58 pm

I'm just an amateur who's played a few open-mic and folk clubs.
But I have 2 thoughts on the matter:-
What do the audience expect/prefer? And can someone play from music without looking at their guitar?
With regards the 1st question, I think I've seen one or two recitals with sheet music where it hasn't detracted from the experience from me. But some on this site has said that it is off-putting and they don't enjoy the performance as much. However, one person who said this said they were listening to a player who kept turned pages even in the middle of a piece! Well that clearly would not be ideal for me either and I've never seen that done be the performer unless done at the end of a piece!
As for playing with looking at their guitar - if one could get to that level of playing where you don't need to look then I would think that it's ok to have sheet music (presumably as an aide memoire as someone has said). I'm aiming to get to this kind of level because I don't think I could memorise all the pieces I want to play!
And I've read that players like Yo Yo Ma (cello), Manual Barrueco and Hupert Kappel have practised/played in the dark to ensure they don't need to look at the guitar whilst playing. Of course, they would have memorised their pieces! But as I progress, I find that if you can get to the correct position (e.g. fret 5, 7, 4 or whatever), then playing the notes there can be done without looking.
I'm mean, getting to position 9 is generally easy to do because the hand hits the soundboard to know that you can't go any further in this situation. so after that, it's just(!?) a case of training to move in between position 1 and 9. Easy eh?! Well, I'll let you know if I ever manage to learn to do it without looking :smorfia:
Well, I can kind of get to position 5 without looking (sometimes), so maybe with only 6, 7 and 8 to worry about, I'm not too far off (hopefully)!
Beyond the 12th fret is a different kettle of fish, so to speak...
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Jim Davidson
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Re: memorization or sight reading while performing?

Post by Jim Davidson » Tue Dec 12, 2017 5:17 am

For my absolute best playing I need to memorize.

I'll read if I'm performing chamber music, or have a large amount of reasonably easy music to play such as in bars, parties, or weddings. I prepare my scores the old-fashioned way with some tape and scissors to minimize page turns.

I think that playing by memory is better overall for musical quality, if anything because your mind could be focused on better things (musicality and phrasing) than the notes themselves. It is after all, tricky to shape a phrase well if you don't know how it ends!

At the same time, I've heard some damn good readers. Earlier this year I saw David Russell read off a tablet for a significant portion of his set.
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Re: memorization or sight reading while performing?

Post by powderedtoastman » Tue Dec 12, 2017 5:36 am

I find that with the really simple pieces, I don't necessarily devote enough time doing solid focused practice on them to memorize them passively. With the slightly more difficult pieces, I tend to memorize them without focusing any special effort to the memorization in itself, by way of having spent enough time and enough repetitions on it.
Pieces that I've listened to a lot before playing also get memorized easier I think...

I have no issues with performing something with the music in front of me if it's not memorized, and in fact sometimes I would like to try to keep myself from memorizing something, so that I can stay with the score and keep improving my reading skills.
There's also a weird gray zone where I've mostly memorized something to the point that the score feels like a distraction, but if I don't have the score I will probably forget something. That sort of piece is dangerous to perform, because I may not be actually looking at the right part of the score at the part where I need it!

Funny how the brain works... and what we're doing, by learning to play and perform, is sort of hacking the brain!

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