How to play by heart

About the Author: Stefan Joubert

Stefan Joubert is the director of the Paris Music Institute. He is passionate about music education for adults and believes that it is never too late to start learning a musical instrument.

In Antiquity, anatomical treatises considered the heart as the seat of emotions, passions, will, courage, but also of thought, intelligence, and memory. From the 13th century onwards, people learned and knew "by heart." The expression has endured through the centuries even though we have known for a relatively recent period that memory is a matter of the brain and not the heart.

Piano and violin

Playing by heart can be very stressful for many musicians, but it brings so much pleasure (once the fear is faced) to be able to detach from the sheet music and immerse oneself entirely in the music being played. Historically, musicians performing in concerts played little or not at all by heart, except for opera singers who needed to feel free in their movements in order to embody their character.

Concerts could last three or four hours, featuring numerous musicians one after another. It was in the early 19th century, with the advent of the modern piano, that the piano recital alone became a very popular concert format.

The first pianist to play by heart during a recital was Clara Schumann, performing Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata, but she was harshly criticised for this "audacity." "What arrogance to sit at the piano and play without the sheet music!" exclaimed Bettina von Arnim (a friend of Ludwig van Beethoven who attended the famous recital). Franz Liszt followed suit and also performed recitals by heart.

Piano and flute with score

Here are some tips that might help you learn a piece by heart:

  • Learn the fingerings, the dynamics, and know the piece inside out.
  • Analyse the structure of the piece.
  • Use your photographic or tactile memory.
  • Practice.

1. The first step is to learn the piece. Be sure of your fingerings, dynamics, and indications, such as accents, phrasing, and tempo changes. This initial work can take a lot of time, depending on your availability to practice. Do not rush through this crucial step. A poorly well-learned piece can lead to hesitations, which will not help in performing without the sheet music. For pianists, learn each hand's part separately. The melodic part is with the right hand, and the rhythmic part is with the left hand.

2. Analyse the structure of the piece by identifying the starting key and any modulations. For example, the piece might begin in C major, move to G major, and then to A minor before returning to C major. Look for different sections in the score, such as the exposition, development, and recapitulation, which slightly differ from the exposition. You should end up with three parts that can be divided into several phrases. Work on each sub-part separately. Once you are satisfied with your work, try memorising the first phrase, the second, and so on. Imagine these phrases as short songs. For most people, the melody is the most straightforward element to memorise. Then, try to link these short phrases together, paying close attention to mastering the transitions between each part, as this is where you are most likely to make mistakes.

3. Photographic, eidetic, or absolute memory is one of the different types of memory. This is when, after viewing the "page," the musician can retain the mental image as if it were printed. A famous example is the great conductor Lorin Maazel. Some people also have a visual memory without it being photographic. They remember the page turns and develop "geographical" landmarks to the point of being unsettled by reading a different edition of the same work. There is also "tactile" memory, also known as "kinesthetic" memory, related to the sensations of skin contact. This method is very interesting for musicians (fingers on the neck, on the strings, etc.). Try closing your eyes and playing your piece by heart; you will observe the tactile sensations even more, perceive the sounds more clearly, and be more focused.

4. Don’t hesitate to practice playing the piece by heart several times a day. If you don’t have the opportunity to play your instrument, take a photo of your sheet music with your phone. When you are in public transport, a waiting room, or simply in your bed, you can check what eludes you when you try to sing the piece without the sheet music.

Violin and cello players

Otherwise :

Step 1 – Place the sheet music a bit further away from you during your practice session, so you have a slight point of reference if needed.

Step 2 – Completely remove the sheet music. You will make mistakes at first, but that is absolutely fine.

Step 3 – Record yourself to identify the weak spots.

During the concert, LET GO! Trust yourself. The number one enemy of letting go is fear, in this case, stage fright. Everyone knows this stage fright, but what exactly is it?

"Stage fright: an irrational fear or anxiety that someone experiences when appearing in public, undergoing a test, or performing a dangerous exercise..." The trigger is the audience, which is perceived as a potential aggressor, whether real or imagined.

What are the symptoms? Stomach aches, sweating, muscle contractions, vomiting, digestive issues, a tight throat...

Practice experiencing stage fright by "testing" your piece in front of a few friends or just one person, or simply (which is a bit more challenging) by imagining yourself facing the audience while performing the entire piece alone at home.

There are many methods dedicated to overcoming stage fright (which I will share in a future article dedicated to musicians' stage fright): the Alexander Technique, yoga, heart coherence, meditation...

Who asks you to play by heart? Is it that important? What difference can it make? Is it too anxiety-inducing for you? Sviatoslav Richter played with sheet music, and Arthur Schnabel had real memory issues...

What difference does it make for the audience to attend a concert where the musician plays with the sheet music?

Are orchestra musicians asked to play without sheet music?

Major competitions, like the music education system, remain committed to "by heart" performances.


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