Sight-Reading And Memorizing: You Can Do Both

I cannot count how many times I’ve heard these two myths in my years of piano teaching:

  1. “I am really good at memorizing music but my sight-reading is horrible.” [most commonly from music students in beginning through advanced levels]
  2. “I am really good at sight-reading music but can’t memorize to save my life.” [most commonly from advanced students, accompanists, church pianists, chamber pianists and other professional musicians]

These myths are often spoken with the implication that we’re all either born as sight-readers or memorizers. The fact is, we’re all both. It’s all a matter of what we train ourselves to do. What might come as a surprise, however, is that these two statements are not two myths. They are one myth.

Before I go any further, I must give a disclaimer. It is true that everyone has their own unique potential in every area of life. Potential to sight-read and memorize are no different. For further reading on this, see my Talent’s Role in Artistry article (addressing the myth that “There is No Such Thing As Talent”). However, it would be both unhelpful and misleading to stop here and assume that every difference in sight-reading/memorizing skill we see from one person to another is due solely to talent. It isn’t: hard work and nurturing play very strong roles too. So technically, we could still say we’re “good at memorizing” or “bad at sight-reading” and have it not be a myth. But that misses the point of this article, which is to explore other reasons behind our poor or great sight-reading/memorizing skills.

So, suppose that everyone had equal potential to sight-read and memorize well (in addition to working equally hard throughout their lives as well as receiving equal nurturing of their discipline). Even in this imaginary world of equality in potential, we would still have people who appear to be bad at sight-reading and good at memorizing, while we’d have others who would appear to be good at sight-reading and bad at memorizing. This is no coincidence: there is interaction between these two skills that causes one to naturally work against the other.

Here is a picture of what tends to happen with fast sight-readers vs. slow sight-readers, assuming that both fast and slow music readers are observing musical detail to an equal degree and that neither of them is sloppy in execution of this detail:

Fast sight-reading lends itself to… Slow sight-reading lends itself to…

Practice Efficiency

Quantity …processing large amounts of music at a time since so little difficulty in physical execution is encountered and since it is so pleasurable to hear music played from beginning to end. This does little to advance memorizing skills. The good sight-reader becomes a better sight-reader. …processing small amounts of music at a time since each note is such a burden to read and it can take so long to read even one page of music. This does little to advance sight-reading skills. The good memorizer becomes a better memorizer.
Repetition …little (if any) repetition in practicing, since large sections of music are being played. If repetition does occur, a lot of time lapses between repetitions, making the repetitions minimally useful. …a lot of repetition in practicing, since small quantities of music are being played. Repetitions are productive since very little time lapses between the repetitions.
Speed …practice tempos that are fast, making it more difficult to detect mistakes and to fix them once detected. …practice tempos that are slow, making it easier to detect mistakes and to fix them once detected.

Memory Development

Audio Memory … development of what the piece sounds like on a macro level, developing a “big picture” for the music quickly. …development of what the piece sounds like on a micro level, developing a “big picture” for the piece later.
Analytical Memory …more analysis of music (indirectly!). Fast sight-readers may have less time to think about each note they play than slow sight-readers, but their experience causes them to analyze music as they go, such as seeing scales, intervals and chords instead of “just notes”. …less analysis of music (indirectly!). Slow sight-readers have more time to think about each note they play than fast sight-readers, but they lack the experience/knowledge to see intervals, chords and scales in the music instead of “just notes”.
Kinesthetic Memory …slower development of “muscle memory” (because of practice inefficiency tendencies above) …faster development of “muscle memory” (because of practice efficiency tendencies above)
Visual Memory …development of visual memory of the score since good sight-readers hate looking at their hands …development of visual memory of their hands since good memorizers hate looking at the music

Notes on this table:

  • Audio memory: developing a “big picture” for the piece later could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on the piece and the student.
  • Analytical memory: fast sight-readers tend to develop analytical memory before slow sight-readers, but it’s not because of the speed of reading; it is because fast sight-readers have typically read through more music than slow sight-readers have in their lifetimes. It is the experience behind a pianist, not the speed of reading, that determines analytical ability.

The last item listed in the table, visual memory, is the big key to why years of good sight-reading creates the illusion that memorizing skills are deteriorating, and why years of quick memorizing creates the illusion that sight-reading skills are deteriorating. The difference lies in where the pianist is looking. If a poor sight-reader wishes to get better at sight-reading, all they have to do is spend 15 minutes each day reading through music without looking at their hands (best to take moderate tempos and music that isn’t too difficult). If a good sight-reader wishes to tap back into their memory skills that they supposedly “lost”, all they have to do is force themselves to look at their hands when playing a familiar piece until it becomes comfortable. It is tempting for sight-reading pianists to give up after experiencing the discomfort of looking at their hands, even after only the first try. Depending on the complexity and length of the piece, it could take anywhere from a day to several weeks to become totally comfortable looking at the hands. During this time, the piece will appear to get worse since the pianist must sometimes stop to remember what comes next. In reality, the piece is not getting worse: improvements are being made to one’s visual memory. I call this transitional period limbo.

Experiencing Music As It Was Intended

Once the comfort of looking at one’s hands has been reached and the music is no longer in limbo, appropriately, it’s a lot like the piece of music has reached heaven. Pianists experience greater connection and flow with their music when it is played without the distraction of the sheet music. Once a piece is in heaven, pianists commonly report that trying to put the music back in front of them “messes them up.” Of course it does! Once visual memory has fully transitioned to the hands moving on the keyboard, the printed music will and should give the pianist at least a small jolt of discomfort. The pianist is no longer used to looking at all those black dots and lines on the page. Visual memory is the only one of the four memory types that changes when memorizing music, so it makes sense that pianists would experience disorientation when going from the score to the keyboard, or vice-versa.

Not only that, but what is printed music anyway? It is a very limited way for composers to write down their intentions for how people should play their music. Subtleties of voicing, balance, pedaling, dynamic phrasing, rubato, etc. are almost never notated in the score. Music isn’t music until it is realized in its audio form. Playing music from secure memory represents a pure performance of the true musical image.  Putting sheet music in front of a pianist who has the music memorized is a lot like taking a beautifully-recited poem and reducing it to Morse Code. Audible dashes and dots may convey the intentions of the author, but it does not convey the poem itself. This Morse Code is as much a distraction from the poem it represents as sheet music is from the music it represents.

Having said that, once a piece is securely memorized, it is important for a pianist to still refer back to the score to check memory accuracy, whether it is once a month or twice a year. The pianist should have realistic expectations while doing this. They should not attempt performance tempos, but should instead pick apart sections, note-by-note if necessary, in order to reaffirm memory. Trouble reading notes should be expected, and if it’s expected, then it’s not “trouble!” (Frustration only occurs when reality does not live up to expectations.) When mistakes are caught, they should be corrected with the score until the corrections are finally translated into visual movements of the hands across the keyboard and re-memorized that way.

Sight-Reading:  Is It Really The Most Important Skill?

Looking at the table above, it becomes apparent that while sight-reading is a tremendously marketable skill to have, it isn’t actually necessary for concert-level playing.  I’ve heard very good performances of Rachmaninov and Chopin played by pianists who are so bad at sight-reading that they resemble typists who are learning to “hunt and peck” for the first time (I can think of a few transfer students I’ve received in my years of teaching). I’ve also heard very uninspired performances of the same composers played by pianists who could practically sight-read the music perfectly upon first try. I could name a few well-known pianists, but I will refrain out of respect.

Another example would be one of the two 2009 Van Cliburn Gold Medalists, Nobuyuki Tsujii, who is blind.  Tell me: how well do you suppose he reads music? Everything in his repertoire he has learned by listening to others play. He doesn’t read music, at all. And he made it to the very top of the top. This is proof that while the skill of sight-reading is certainly useful, it is not critical to the performer. In fact, given the tendencies listed in the table above (notably in the “Practice Efficiency” categories), one has to wonder if good sight-readers are actually at a disadvantage when it comes to going down the performance path? Perhaps!

Achieving Balance

As a teacher, I think both skills are important to develop in students, because there is no way for me to know which students will grow up to be church pianists, accompanists or teachers in need of good sight-reading skill, vs. which students will grow up to simply continue performing memorized pieces for themselves, friends, family, on the concert stage in college, or even as a career. Consequently, I like to have students always working on both polishing/memorizing as well as reading. When my beginning students are playing in method books, I require that everything from the Lesson/Recital/Solo books be memorized. If it’s not memorized, there is no possibility of getting a sticker. I also require that everything from the Technique book not be memorized. If a student plays an exercise and looks at their hands even once (with exception to spots that require hands to jump), there is no possibility of getting a sticker. Consequently, students are fairly well-balanced when it comes to reading and memorizing. While merely looking at music while playing isn’t “sight-reading” if it’s the 30th time it’s been played, I still consider this practice of keeping the eyes following the score something that enhances reading skills as long as the student is doing so mindfully.

Also speaking as a teacher, I watch for a certain red flag for those who have an aversion to memorizing (which is quite common among beginners): staring at the wall (or the music rack) while playing from memory. While there are some rare pianists who look away from their hands for purely expressive purposes (i.e. helping them to listen to the music by not “distracting” themselves with visual sensations), most students only look away from their hands as a result of trying to hold on to their precious memory of the black dots and lines on the score. And they wonder why it’s so hard to memorize the music! (I also think it would be pretty hard to memorize the audio patterns of a poem in Morse Code, don’t you??) I help them to let go of this cherished but wasteful memory by replacing it with hands moving around on the keyboard – a visual sensation that is much easier to remember. I tell them to look at their hands all week long and to expect to go through the limbo period, and they always come back with a new realization that they can memorize more easily than they thought.

Great Sight-Readers And The Pain Of Memorizing

I believe that when one becomes really good at sight-reading, they often perceive an illusion that they are getting worse at memorizing. The table above already discusses one of the main reasons for this, namely that the pianist spends less time tasting, chewing and digesting each note they play (as opposed to the slow reader who has to put so much thought into every note). There is another reason: Those who can sight-read well get their pieces up to “performance tempo” so quickly that the normal time it takes them to memorize a piece of music hasn’t been reached by the time the piece is performance quality. As a result, time must be spent consciously memorizing the piece. Most people will say that this is a pretty painful task. I would be one of those people! There have been times when I’ve had to memorize pieces that I could literally play perfectly upon sight. Fortunately, the process of phrasing, rubato and other musical experimentation, careful harmonic analysis of the score, etc. has a way of causing focused repetitive practicing that also happens to be extremely helpful for the memorizing process. But without that, the good sight-reader is doomed to torture of repeating a piece of music solely for the purpose of memory. Not fun. And that is why various professional pianists hate memorizing music so much.

Slow sight-readers are usually the ones saying, “I never have to try to memorize my music – it just happens.” In reality, they aren’t better at memorizing than their musical neighbor – more likely, they are just worse at reading music than their neighbor! Their own inexperience (or fault) becomes a virtue in their performance-oriented musical journey.

(c) 2009 Cerebroom

About Chad

Chad is a pianist, composer, piano teacher and blogger with a Masters Degree in Piano Performance. He received the 2005 Nevada Arts Council Fellowship Grant for the composing and performing on his Ostinato CD.
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2 responses to Sight-Reading And Memorizing: You Can Do Both

  1. Anonymous

    Awesome information!

  2. Anonymous

    This was such a good article!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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