Why do soloists in Classical recitals play without sheet music?

There is a strong tradition whereby Classical soloists at all levels play without their music.

This means the nervous intimidation of a public performance is enhanced an order of magnitude by forcing a memorization test. Maybe for professionals, or professional wanna-be’s this is ok, but for students the memory portion is unrelated to the interpretation test.

I wonder how this came about. I remember reading that in Chopin/Liszt’s time, it was considered bad form to look at the keys while playing the piano! These legends were quite happy to gaze at the music (or the ceiling) instead.

Oddly enough, for chamber music the opposite is true - these players almost always play with their music.

The soloist must draw upon not the notes, but the music. A soloist is expected to know the notes, and the most important aspect of his/her performance will be the expression of those notes. Of all the times I performed a written solo (occasionally in a jazz setting when I wanted to preserve the structure of a gifted composer/performer, pretty much only Monk and Trane) I memorized it. The performance flows from within, not from the page. I think music enthusiasts like myself expect that, at the very least, the performer has the notes in his head. What we want is the expression of those notes.

Just a thought.

Not having to look at the music frees up that much more concentration to be put into where your fingers are going, and how you’re playing the notes – plus, especially for longer pieces, there’s no worrying about turning pages. Even your average grand piano can only fit about 7 pages side-by-side above the keyboard; music stands, of the type imployed by those with smaller instruments, can hold maybe three if they’re taped together.

However, when you’re in an orchestra that does a concert with different music every week or two, memorizing the music becomes much less imperative. You’re not soloing as much, and you don’t have quite as much time to practice the piece. (this is all based on what I’ve seen – IANAProfessional Musician, nor do I play one on TV)

I’m not a professional musician either, but I think the answer is that they have these solo parts thoroughly memorized. Just getting the notes right is only the first step in interpreting the music. Soloists become consumed by and live and breathe these particular works. Solos for particular instruments are very well-known to professional musicians and when they practice them, they work hard on their technique and interpretation. The memorization was done long, long ago.

As for the orchestra, most of the time the sheet music is essential to keeping up with where you are in the piece. As I say, I’m not a professional but I was in orchestra and band in school. There’s a lot of counting involved to keep your place, because not everyone is playing all the time. But of course every musician knows his or her part well.

There’s my two cents. If an actual musician or afficiando who knows more chimes in, I’ll certainly bow to knowledge of a higher scale.

[sub]Sorry, I couldn’t resist.[/sub]

I apologize for the hijack, but I wanted to say:

I disagree with this as a rule, but probably because I have a hell of a time memorizing music and am trying to excuse myself. :wink:

I agree. From my experience in learning the piano, I think it’s unfortunate that you’re expected to perform from memory when you’re still honing your skills. I can’t tell you how many fights I had with my teachers on this – I played so much better when I had my music in front of me. I was very stiff and expressionless when I had to perform from memory because I was concentrating more on simply remembering the next notes (which I often forgot, and you know how embarrassing that is) than on playing them with feeling.

So while I am very much in agreement that professional soloists should perform without their music, I wish students (well, except for those at Peabody and the like) were cut some slack.

[sub]BTW, I kick ass at sight-reading.[/sub]

Well, IANAPM, but I have had experience playing classical music, and I found it didn’t take me long at all to memorize a piece. Memorizing a piece helped because then it freed me to focus on my interpretation of the music rather than trying to figure out what notes went where. Now professional musicians practice for hours and hours a day. Say 6-8 hours. Maybe more, maybe less. Professional musicians study musical scores inside and out. They look at common themes in music, themes associated with particular composers, and on and on. I imagine all the practicing and the exploration of styles and themes–by themes I mean certain patterns of notes or rhythms in the music–helps in their coming up with their interpretations of it. Anywho, if you’re practicing music that long, chances are you’re going to memorize it.

From a practical point of view, when you’re soloing, it’s distracting to have to turn the page, or nod to get someone else to turn the page. It doesn’t look nearly as neat and professional and IMHO can take away from not only the musician’s concentration, but also the audience’s focus on the soloist’s interpretation of the music.

Well, that’s my 2 cents. :slight_smile:

I am a professional classical musician.

You are all pretty much correct.

At a high level of playing, the memorization is not about “testing” the player. It’s just the way it’s done.

And yes, sometimes great soloists will have the music on a stand nearby during performance. This is usually because of short notice to prepare a piece and maybe not enough time to fully memorize.

I personally have no problem performing solos with the sheet music. If you’ve spent enough time sight reading, you don’t get bogged down in the black dots on the page anyway. Essentially, you’ve already got the piece “in your fingers”, as they say, and the written page is more like a security blanket.