A Cheat’s Guide to Score Memorization

score memorization

Music is a spe­cial lan­guage for com­mu­ni­cat­ing feeling. 

Your job as the con­duc­tor is to work out what the com­pos­er felt, not what they wrote. There is no music in a score. Only grammar. 

Felix Wein­gart­ner says that the con­duc­tor who can­not take their eyes off the score, “is a mere time-beat­er, a bun­gler, with no pre­ten­sion to the title of artist.”

The sin­gle biggest change you can make to your con­duct­ing to help the musi­cians express the emo­tions of the music is to mem­o­rize the score.

Is score memorization only for professional conductors?

Absolute­ly not. Score mem­o­riza­tion improves every­thing you do in rehearsal and con­certs, and is applic­a­ble to all grade lev­els of music, from begin­ner bands to pro­fes­sion­al ensembles.

Why should we memorize the score?

Every time we look down at the score, how­ev­er briefly, three bad things happen:

  1. The line of com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the musi­cians is broken.
  2. The con­duc­tor los­es all facial expres­sion because the left hemi­sphere of the brain takes over and goes into gram­mar-read­ing mode.
  3. The eye focus­es on the exact bar/beat being played because of the ver­ti­cal align­ment of the music and the bar lines. The only way to know what is com­ing ahead is to know the music by memory.

How much detail do I need to memorize?

Con­sid­er the first two chords of Beethoven’s Third Sym­pho­ny … Do we learn any­thing about the mean­ing of these chords or about how to con­duct them by dis­cov­er­ing they are E‑flat major chords? Would we con­duct them dif­fer­ent­ly if they were F chords? Is our under­stand­ing of the mean­ing of these chords influ­enced by dis­cov­er­ing which chord tone the third horn plays? … These kinds of details are the composer’s pri­vate busi­ness, not the conductor’s busi­ness and cer­tain­ly not the busi­ness of the lis­ten­er. (David Whitwell, The Art of Musi­cal Con­duct­ing, 2nd edn (Austin: Whitwell Books, 2011), p. 132.)

To be able to say whether, in a dimin­ished sev­enth chord, F‑sharp–A–C–E‑flat, voiced in twelve wind instru­ments, that the note of the third horn is C or E‑flat may be very grat­i­fy­ing to the conductor’s ego, but it will hard­ly make a dif­fer­ence in the qual­i­ty of his per­for­mance. (Peter Paul Fuchs, The Psy­chol­o­gy of Con­duct­ing (New York: MCA, 1969), p. 27.)

These two quotes put my mind at ease when I first con­tem­plat­ed mem­o­riz­ing scores. You don’t need to know the minu­tia of a score to be able to con­duct it from memory.

To con­duct a con­cert from mem­o­ry you need to know details of tem­pi, time changes and major entries, and most impor­tant­ly, you need to know the feel­ings or emo­tion of each sec­tion of the music, so you can con­vey this to the musi­cians with your entire body.

To con­duct a rehearsal from mem­o­ry is hard­er and you’ll need a greater knowl­edge of detail. A more thor­ough knowl­edge of entries and who is play­ing what and when as well as a knowl­edge of rehearsal marks.

Guess what? You can already do it.

Imag­ine either of these two sce­nar­ios, both of which have hap­pened to me more than once. 

Sce­nario 1: you are in the mid­dle of con­duct­ing a con­cert and all the lights go out, maybe from a storm—in my case it was a par­ent lean­ing against the light switch on the wall—twice!

You’re in the dark and can’t see. The play­ers can squint and lean clos­er to their stands and they are car­ry­ing on. What do you do?

Sce­nario 2: You are con­duct­ing out­doors and a gust of wind blows your score off the music stand and out of reach.

The band are still hap­pi­ly play­ing, watch­ing the pan­ic-strick­en look on your face. What do you do?

In both these cas­es I just kept going, and of course, the band didn’t stop, they didn’t fall apart, and I was forced to con­duct the remain­der of that piece from mem­o­ry. What sur­prised me, after the ini­tial shock, was that it was actu­al­ly more enjoy­able and the musi­cal result was bet­ter. My eyes nev­er left the musi­cians, because there was noth­ing else to look at, and so the musi­cians and I had far bet­ter non-ver­bal communication.

These sit­u­a­tions, although forced on me, showed me that by con­cert time, I can already con­duct from mem­o­ry. The hard­est part is not mem­o­riz­ing the major ele­ments of the music. The hard­est part is over­com­ing the fear to not open the score!

Where do I start?

Quick tip: Here is where I first start­ed with try­ing to con­duct from mem­o­ry. Chal­lenge your­self to do this. You have a score on your stand. Call for the play­ers atten­tion. Now, just before you are about to give the upbeat, DON’T LOOK DOWN. Trust your­self. You know how the first bar goes. Sing it in your head. Now, with the body lan­guage that reflects how you want that first note to be played, give the upbeat. Don’t take your eyes off the musicians.

This is a very sim­ple idea, but it can have a great effect on the ensem­ble. Imag­ine if you are in the band, and just before the piece is to start the con­duc­tor looks down at the score. The musi­cians are think­ing, “Do they not know how it goes? Is the first bar dif­fer­ent today from the last ten times we’ve played it?” Every­one is capa­ble of this sim­ple intro­duc­tion to score mem­o­riza­tion. Before the upbeat, DON’T LOOK DOWN!

The Cheat’s Guide to Score Memorization

  1. Select the reper­toire. Score mem­o­riza­tion starts here. If you’re seri­ous about choos­ing the best reper­toire for your ensem­ble then you would make a short list of prospec­tive works for the year ahead and you would lis­ten to them sev­er­al times while perus­ing the score, if pos­si­ble. When you final­ly set­tle on your year’s reper­toire you will have already lis­tened to each work many times and would already know the major tem­pi and styles.
  2. This is the cheats guide, so most of your score mem­o­riza­tion can be done on the podi­um and with­out sig­nif­i­cant time spent in study. For Grade 1 and 2 music, you’ll know the tem­pi, time sig­na­tures, and major entrances after a cou­ple of rehearsals. For Grades 3 to 6 you will prob­a­bly need to invest some time in learn­ing the score out­side of rehearsals.
  3. Use the score in rehearsal but pro­gres­sive­ly refer to it less and less over the course of the rehearsals. If run­ning a sec­tion that has been pre­vi­ous­ly worked on, make sure you don’t look down. By the time you get to the con­cert you won’t need to refer to the score at all.
  4. Music at Grade 4 lev­el and above can have a mul­ti­tude of time changes. Is it ok to use a score then? On the con­trary, the more tech­ni­cal­ly chal­leng­ing the music is, espe­cial­ly the time changes, the more impor­tant it is to mem­o­rize the score. With­out mem­o­riz­ing the score you will end up afraid to take your eyes from the score for fear of get­ting lost and you’ll be doing noth­ing more than beat­ing time.
  5. Start sim­ple. Play a march. No time changes. No tem­po changes. It doesn’t mat­ter if you aren’t expres­sive at all. Start the band. Stop the band. Don’t even open the score. Look at that! You just con­duct­ed your first piece from memory.

Peter Paul Fuchs, in The Psy­chol­o­gy of Con­duct­ing, sums up score mem­o­riza­tion perfectly:

The deci­sion is not “to mem­o­rize or not to mem­o­rize,” but to con­duct from mem­o­ry with or with­out the use of a score. (Peter Paul Fuchs, The Psy­chol­o­gy of Con­duct­ing (New York: MCA, 1969), p. 31.)

Good luck.