I Could Read a Book

Sviatoslav Richter onstage with score (and not looking at it)

Sviatoslav Richter takes a bow after performing with score (and barely looking at it).

Heard occasionally on the bandstand:
“Oh come on guys, surely you don’t have to read THAT one?”

Well, in theory we should all know just about every tune by memory. But this isn’t the ’50s and not even the busiest musicians gig every night anymore – and even when they do, it’s not always jazz gigs. Nor are these the days when they tried to roast Cannonball with I Remember April because it was the latest hip thing.

About 20 years ago I was gig-hot and used to go out without books (this was several years BI – before iRealBook). At one stage I had instant recall of hundreds of tunes, but I’m afraid they haven’t all stuck in my active memory, or my recollection of the detail is a bit foggy.

I’ll agree with the view that ideally you should play unpaged. But that doesn’t mean, once you’re fairly experienced, that you necessarily play worse when reading. It’s also not the case that good players don’t read – they do it all the time, and not just on detailed arrangements. Of course, nowadays good players tend to be good readers as well. And they’re not reading point to point, they’re scoping it out in chunks and memorising or refreshing their memory as they go…


The late great classical pianist Sviatoslav Richter caused quite a controversy late in his career when he started using a score in performance, and I don’t think even his most offended critics could have claimed that he played any the less magnificently for it. They still took offence, of course (it was in their job description).

Anyway, he wasn’t really reading. It would be absurd to assume that he didn’t actually know the pieces. He was renowned for his phenomenal sight-reading, memory, extensive repertoire and attention to detail. The score was there, one felt, as much as a comfortable aide memoire as anything else.

Pianists have Liszt to thank for the tradition of playing from memory. He asserted it was so he could devote full attention to the music; most of his contemporaries thought he was just showing off. Both camps are probably right.

Pianists have Liszt to thank for the tradition of playing from memory. He asserted it was so he could devote his full attention to the music; most of his contemporaries thought he was being a showoff smartypants. Both arguments have merit.

Incidentally, sometimes audiences will assume that you’re not really improvising because you’ve got a piece of paper in front of you. Some people might even go so far as to say you aren’t really a proper jazz musician at all – shock, horror! Jazz is ear music, man! Yeah right, but the eye can feed the ear, pal. (And frankly, some ear players don’t really seem to know their ear from their elbow…)

It would be quite useless to show them the chart and point out that you’re using a one-page harmonic skeleton to produce a performance equal in length and complexity to a concerto movement…

I think this is the crux of it, for me at least – the fact that you may flip open a book or poke at your phone when someone calls Inner Urge doesn’t mean that you don’t know the tune. The important thing is that you should have known the tune. Worked on it before, played it before, or at very least even just heard it before. You should, to some degree, have internalised it.

And here’s a little game for you to play with yourself. The next time someone puts a chart in front of you absolutely cold, aim to not need it after about the third or fourth time round the form. Rhythm section players can roughly learn a tune while comping. Anyway, it’s excellent training and will challenge and develop your harmonic understanding.


There are, of course, some tunes that you really do have to have not so much in memory, but in your bones. Blues, rhythm changes, Autumn Leaves, GDS, ATUR, things like that, you really shouldn’t have to read. This is really just a benchmark of basic training and experience, since these things are classics and the most commonly taught and played.

Opening a chart to blow on Take the A Train is a bit like hopping into the driver’s seat and asking which pedal is the clutch and which the brake. In that case, your passenger is reasonably entitled to feel nervous and say: “oh come on, surely you don’t have to ask THAT?”

It’s a vexed issue though. What do you guys think?

PS See also Maria João Pires Handles a Nightmare.

Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in c) Musicianship, e) Rants & Ramblings, g) Classically Inclined
6 comments on “I Could Read a Book
  1. Fred says:

    I agree with your comment….You should, to some degree, have internalised it

    I order to perform and solo over a song, you need to have it internalized….you need to be able to feel inside what changes are next, etc…..and this through all your prep work and practising at home

    • Jason says:

      Hello Fred. Thanks for dropping by.
      I reckon it’s a bit like this:
      On one end of the scale you have the goldfish, surviving one chord at a time. At the other end you have a salty old sailor who knows every harmonic current and gust. In the middle you have some pretty useful people who have sailed in similar waters, but have to consult the map and forecasts from time to time.

  2. Adam Cole says:

    I think you covered it all. Memorizing is great. Reading is great. Reading a tune when you have it memorized is not so great…halfway land is bad for music.

    • Jason says:

      Hi Adam. By odd coincidence, the first set last night included four tunes I didn’t “know”, absolutely cold with no rehearsal. I’d heard two of them, but never played them, so I had a good idea. The other two? Not an earthly.
      I scoped them out while playing, listened very intently to the leader for feel, mood and ideas.
      Anyway, back from the gig I consulted YouTube and was relieved to find that some of the things I’d played were actually there on the original recordings of the ones I’d never heard.
      It is possible to navigate waters you haven’t sailed.

  3. Chris Tandy says:

    Is it a musical myth that a classical pianist once had a ‘page-turner’ flip each page of the score set up on his piano, whenever he nodded.
    The point being that the page-turner realised the score he flipped was not the score for the piece he was playing. Apparently he was learning a new piece whilst playing something familiar to himself…….
    True?…and who?

    • Jason says:

      Never heard that one, but I guess it’s possible. Could even have been Richter himself.
      Haven’t done it myself in a classical context, but on jazz gigs I’ll occasionally be having a squizz at the next chart while playing the current one.
      Of course, a good player can do anything from a blues to Prokofiev while having a conversation about what colour to repaint the kitchen – Oscar Peterson would occasionally light people’s cigarettes while soloing – but I do think there are limits to multitasking.
      One thing I can say is that page turners should know the piece as well as the performer does, and ideally be able to play it. The usual instruction is to turn on a nod, but if you know the tempi, the complexity, the section changes and so forth, so you can anticipate the nods, so much the better.
      I’ve also had very good results with scores printed or reprinted on single-sided sheets, so the assistant isn’t so much a turner as a zipper across. The performer always has two pages in view, even if one is temporarily in motion at the zipping point.
      Anyway, I gather you’re enjoying some heather-scented air at the moment. Hope the break will be refreshing for you. Best wishes to you both as always. And mog too.

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