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I play in an amateur wind orchestra and I noticed that generally people do not play from memory at all and look into the sheets for the entire piece. I'm no exception for the most part but here and there I tried to lift my eyes up and remember the piece in my head - usually failing after just a couple notes and getting my eyes back to the sheets quickly. Now when there are critical points of the piece like changes in tempo for example people will keep an eye on the conductor but usually we'll quickly get back to looking at the sheets.

Now I've heard that in professional orchestras many players can play quite a big chunk of the pieces from memory. But are there any advantages to that? I can see that you might be able to keep a better eye on the conductor but even when looking at the sheet you can still get a glimpse of him at all times (though that can depend on your seat). And I also do see why you should learn a solo piece from memory. But as for our amateur orchestra, we are never in a position where we do not have access to a sheet in front of us. Not even when playing solo pieces.

What are the advantages of playing from memory? Isn't it much safer to just stick to the sheet? Do professionals actually practise playing from memory for an orchestra piece or is it just a side effect from playing the pieces a lot? In an actual performance do they play from memory even if it's not a solo piece or do they play the "safe game" for the entire piece?

Should I start to actively practise playing from memory when playing in an amateur orchestra?

  • 7
    You can read the dots AND watch the conductor. Really. – Laurence Payne Nov 22 '18 at 13:29
  • Looking at the answers already, this seems to be pretty opinionated. It's a good question, though, and certainly should stay. – Tim Nov 22 '18 at 15:31
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    I think you do both in practice: when you're familiar with a piece, you need the score to know where you're at, what's coming, etc but you don't really re-interpret everything because memory allows you to read it very fast with some glances and memory will fill the details. I wouldn't rely on memory alone because it's very easy to repeat something 3 times while everyone else knew it was to be repeated 2 times only :) and that's why keeping the sheet music in front of you is very helpful. I think it give you the path to follow and the details come back from memory. At least that's my experience – Thomas Nov 22 '18 at 19:50
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    There is a third option, which is that you know how a certain section of your part sounds, and your ear training is good enough that you can play the notes based on that memory. In reality, people are probably switching back and forth among different strategies. Dot-reading mode is just one strategy for reading music. – Ben Crowell Nov 23 '18 at 18:26
  • There are two ways to play from memory. If you can play something from memory because you hear the tune in your head and can play it entirely by ear, that is a reward in and of itself, and you should definitely work on that as a skill. Memorizing a particular work by rote isn't as useful, and usually not necessary unless you are the soloist, or in a marching band. – John Wu Nov 26 '18 at 8:23
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At least for me, but probably for many other musicians too, playing from memory works completely different compared to playing from sheets. What I memorize aren't individual, absolute notes. Rather, I know the chord progressions (more the chord functions rather than concrete chords), the anchor points of whatever melodic material I'm playing (in terms of scale degrees or chord-note), and for details like passing notes in between I merely memorise “the sound”. From this I then reconstruct the absolute pitches while playing.

This works well for rhythm-group work in a Rock / Jazz etc. ensemble. It also works very well for any kind of solistic playing, because knowing the piece means you can essentially sing your part and it will get stuck in the head automatically. Rendering such a melody onto the instrument is something a soloist should be able to do even without having ever practiced the piece.

It does however not work very well at all for most of the voices in an orchestral work. Such parts don't generally make musically sense on their own, only together with the rest of the orchestral. So to apply the above method, you'd pretty much need to know the entire score. This is really not feasible in most situations.

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    Thanks for your answer. I think I understand what you mean. Whenever I tried to play from memory it felt as though I was just focusing on what I played right before instead of actually thinking what musical note would make sense in the context of the piece. – Carpid Nov 23 '18 at 8:13
  • "It also works very well for any kind of solistic playing" Any kind as long as it's informal and you are allowed to play whatever you want. There are many solistic contexts where it wouldn't be ok like that. Or at the very least you would need to be able to fill in the blanks in exactly the right historical style. – Nobody Nov 24 '18 at 12:33
  • @Nobody I explicitly mean also “formal” solistic playing. I find it much easier to memorise the solo voice of a cello concerto or -sonata (well enough to get every note right) than the tutti cello part of an orchestral piece, even if the former is technically more demanding. – leftaroundabout Nov 24 '18 at 14:03
  • @leftaroundabout Oh, sorry, from the way you described it I didn't think you meant getting every note exactly the same as written. When I learn stuff by heart (exactly) I work quite differently, but I also think that stuff that makes musical sense on it's own is easier. – Nobody Nov 24 '18 at 21:56
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Orchestra musicians should always be playing off of the sheet music. The concert is probably 1.5-2 hours of music, and it needs to be played precisely. In addition, professional orchestras rehearse about twice before the concert, so trying to memorize the music would be a waste of time.

Veteran orchestral players may end up with large chunks of common works memorized out of sheer repetition (if you're 60 and have been playing in orchestras since high school, you've probably played Beethoven's fifth symphony dozens of times), but it's still unlikely that they could play the whole thing exactly correctly without the music.

6

Reading off the sheet is normal, but at rehearsals it's pretty much necessary. Watching the conductor is important, and is far easier when most if not all your attention doesn't need to be on the dots.

Also, if you know the music, it frees up your ears to actually listen to what others are doing. That's difficult if you're still reading the pieces.

I've been in situations where all my music has been knocked over (in a live band situation with no stage available), or the wind has blown it over/away. If I hadn't leaned it, therefore knowing what to play, I'd have had to stop!

  • Clothes pegs are your friends! – RedSonja Nov 23 '18 at 12:19
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    @RedSonja - often use them! But the washing had just been done, and because it was a windy day... – Tim Nov 23 '18 at 12:35
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Typically only the soloist is expected to play from memory. it is really not all that feasible to memorise hundreds of pages of music that some symphonies consist off. That being said playing in a symphony is a bit more complicated than just a two hour long sight-reading exercise.

A well-drilled symphony will have a good understanding of the score, its main themes and have good knowledge of the motifs and the general structure of the piece, but a complete memory of the score is simply unnecessary.

5

Should I learn to play from memory in an orchestra?

In my opinion yes. But not necessarily practice it at a concert, at least not all the time. There are actually several interesting things happening to me as an amateur, and probably to you as well, when playing from memory instead of reading all the time.

Important difficult sections are good to know from heart. Typically at the start, when tempo changes, technically difficult sections, when you play the melody or counter melodi. These are the places when you are required to focus outside of the sheet music or where reading can slow you down.

Not needing to read the music gives place for you to focus on other things. You listen to yourself in relation to the rest of the orchestra. Things like phrasing, intonation, relative volume.

I would suggest that you talk to the director and suggest that the wind band learns one or a few (not many) tunes to be played without sheet music. My experience is that it can be a very good training tool and I have experienced it leading to a much more coherent and better sounding orchestra. You might even use it as an effect in a conserts. Imagine the band playing among the audience, when going on stage, with all lights out.

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A concerto soloist will usually play from memory, but the orchestra is expected to be able to take notes, mark passages on the sheet music in pencil, converse with others about parts and markings. After studying orchestral excerpt books your memory will be reinforced by having the sheet music.

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    All the note taking is done during rehearsal, at which time the soloist brings their score to makes notes as well, although they mostly play from memory then too. – 11684 Nov 22 '18 at 14:16
  • Outside community orchestras, you're lucky to meet the soloist until the day of the performance! – Laurence Payne Nov 22 '18 at 23:14
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Usually the score will have pencilled notes by you, or by the conductor or by someone else. In particular for bowing a stringed instrument such as a violin.

The sound (and appearance) is generally considered to be better when all the bows move up and down at the same time. It makes for a professional-looking orchestra.

If you can memorise all the extras as well then fine but sometimes it's just easier to mark your own sheet music and follow that.

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