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I have been a pianist for a while but initially, I didn't read a lot of music and spent the first 3 years learning scales, chords, techniques....without looking at the notes on paper.

After 3 years, I started the following:

Read music away from the piano 20-30 minutes/day... all kinds.

Applied it on the piano using things like Mikrokosmos and simple tunes.

Visualising the notes in my head whilst practicing scales.

I can now read music well and play medium difficulty pieces by simply following the notes.

However,

These days, depending on the piece, I am torn between just reading and playing or memorising a piece.

I think it's important to say that I studies Bach, Mozart and Chopin fairly deeply but more work needs to be done. This was memorised only!

This in time has enabled me to "improvise" in their style also due to my early learning.

My question:

Why is this happening? Is this normal? What do other pianists do? Should I do both and choose one over the other depending on what I want to achieve? What's your personal journey?

  • Read music away from the piano? What does that mean? How do you know if you read it right, if there's no actual reference to audible music? – Tim Jun 8 '17 at 11:32
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    So, you hear all the harmonies etc. inside your head? – Tim Jun 8 '17 at 13:20
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    @Tim I think it was Kodaly (who was famous as an educator as well as a composer) who said "The most important thing for a musician to learn is to hear with their eyes, and see with their ears". – user19146 Jun 8 '17 at 14:25
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    He meant "you should be able to hear the music in your head just by looking at the score, and if you hear something you should be able to write it down accurately in music notation". Of course he meant you should be able to mentally hear everything written in the score, even for a full orchestra score - not just "the tune". – user19146 Jun 8 '17 at 16:56
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    This all seems perfectly normal. I am not a pianist so I am not making this an answer, but I read music on other instruments and relate well to everything you've described at some level. I would recommend simply one thing: practice "sight reading", or, sitting down to play a piece you've never seen before (whether you've heard it before is less relevant; I suggest a mix of both familiar and unfamiliar for more experience "feeling out" an unfamiliar melody strictly from the page). Do this with easier music than what you're used to studying, and slow down if you need. Just keep at it! – Darren Ringer Jun 8 '17 at 19:05
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I think the correct answer will depend on the individual. It depends on what your goals are for your music (what do you want to do as a pianist?) and your aptitude for reading music and/or playing by ear.

From your question I would conclude that you have the aptitude and ability to continue to hone your skills at reading music and also the ability and skill and gift of being able to play by ear and improvise.

For me personally, music is more of a hobby but I do have the ability to play by ear. I believe that ability contributed to my unwillingness to commit to learning to read music with any degree of competency.

My mother was a pianist and could play any written piece of music set before her just by reading the score on paper. I was always amazed and impressed and envious of that ability. I set out to learn to read music myself on the piano that was in our home. But because I have the ability to play by ear, I found myself reverting to playing by ear and from memory once I painstakingly learned an arrangement by reading and playing the notes indicated on the score.

It would take me a long time to get through an arrangement to see and hear what the composer had in mind. But once I could play it through one time - it was much easier for me just to play it from memory from that point forward. So I took the shortcut and never learned to read music very well.

Then I switched to guitar and ventured even farther away from developing an ability to read music - but have learned to play acceptably well by ear.

If you want to be a professional pianist and be able to play music that is provided for you to play - it might be best to advance your music reading skills. If you play for your own enjoyment (or the enjoyment of friends) and play songs you select, it might not be as important to be a proficient sight reader of music, if you can play by ear and improvise.

Of course if you want to compose music, there could be an argument for furthering and improving your music reading ability. Or you could do like I do and compose by ear and record the notes by playing them on an instrument while recording.

As for me, I am able to continue to compose my own music to accompany the lyrics I write for my original songs, continue to expand my repertoire of cover songs that I can play from memory, and continue to entertain folks with my music on stage in venues where I am paid to entertain, and continue to enjoy the heck out of playing music. And I forgot almost everything I learned as a child about reading music (and feel no need or desire to learn at this stage of the game).

But your goals and aspirations and motivations and abilities and willingness to spend time learning the more academic side of music (reading and composing on paper) may lead you down a different path. There is no right or wrong approach to learning as long as it helps you accomplish your goals and most importantly - as long as it advances and supports your enjoyment of making and playing music.

The choice is yours. Just be sure to enjoy the journey - whichever route you choose to travel.

  • Interesting. Your early path seems to be very similar to mine. I guess I'll do both. I am a perfectionist and must be excellent in all parts of musics, including all techniques and music types. You made an excellent point. – user33232 Jun 9 '17 at 13:18
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    @user33232 I used to be afflicted by perfectionism (and to some extent in some areas I still am). But when I let go of the need for perfection when it came to performing music, I was able to enjoy it more and expand my repertoire more rapidly. I enjoy performing for an audience and one thing that freed me from the confines of perfectionism was arriving at the realization that in most cases the only person who knew I made a mistake in my performance was me. Strive for perfection - but don't let it hold you back. – Rockin Cowboy Jun 9 '17 at 15:35
  • It's not getting hold of me, thanks for the warning. It instead drives me to learn more. I believe a musician should look at all aspects, all music styles....etc... even my last day on this earth will be about learning something new musically...as my great aunt once said. Great advice though..👍 – user33232 Jun 9 '17 at 17:26
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When you deliver a speech, what do you use? Use cue cards containing the exact words? Use a rough outline but otherwise make it up as you go? Do you memorize the speech? I think it depends on how important the speech is, how much time you have to prepare, and how well you know the topic.

Same with music. You can memorize, read from a chart, or read from a score. Depends on how important the performance is, how much time you have to prepare, and how well you know the tune.

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