Aug 25, 2023

How Do They Do It? -

- the virtuoso pianists, violinists and other  -ists who take the stage, bow, glance at the conductor and launch into 30 or 40 minutes worth of  concerto, with no printed music in sight.  Beethoven's 5th piano concerto  - the 'Emperor' - keeps the soloist busy for 38 minutes - about par for the course.  It's an astonishing feat of memory. But memory of what, exactly?  Partly 'muscle memory,' where your arms/hands/fingers know where to go next;  partly 'score memory,' where you 'see' the printed music unrolling in your imagination; partly 'sound memory,' where you 'hear' what's coming next and play it.
Whatever, it's an amazing. almost eerie ability . . . that occasionally goes wrong!
I wish the following little story was true, but it seems 'too good to be true' somehow.

The Russian pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninov was accompanying a violinist in a performance of somebody-or-others sonata for violin and piano.  Two virtuosi who, whilst combining superbly as musicians, did not get on with each other particularly well off stage.  The violinist was playing from memory; Rachmaninov, at the piano, was playing from score.  The violinist sensed his memory was about to let him down; he was losing his place in the music. Disaster!  Still playing, but getting closer to, as you might say, his collapse point, he edged toward the piano and, in a rest passage, indicated the score with the tip of his bow and muttered to Rachmaninov 'Where are we?'
Rachmaninov leered, and said 'We're in the Carnegie Hall.'

Read a medley of responses to the Poets and Storytellers' prompt here. 


  1. That's funnie We're in Carnagie hall Yes all our senses have a memory. Makes me wonder when you have a bad short time memory would that effect all these memories?

  2. Surely it's apocryphal – one likes to think both would be concerned to give the audience the best possible performance. That being said, what it takes to play such long and complex pieces of music, with or without a score, is wonderful indeed. I'd never thought what a feat it must be of all kinds of memory, too.

    1. It's so apocryphal that the good doctor has posted it many, many times. Sorry Doc . . .

  3. Interesting and informative. If the story is true Rachmaninov could be a jerk.

  4. Interesting about the different senses working together...

  5. Memory can be a fickle friend. Here's to musicians who need one in full working. Hehehe...

  6. Thank you for the laugh. I needed that. I shared it with my Piano Man, who said, "True or not, it's a hoot!"

  7. Love your post!!! I cannot fathom the memory required for a professional musician performing sans score. When I was in high school, participating in many State-wide contests with my flute, every performance required memorization. At age almost 82, I can still pick up my flute and play several, which were my favorites then.. and now. Talk about muscle memory. And now, my fellow writer .... I know what I must write about. I had been totally stumped before! Thank you.

  8. My gosh! At a moment of near panic Rachmaninov could still afford to joke. Perhaps he was upset but trying to cover his feelings and calming himself in doing so. Great anecdote Dr FTSE. Apologies for being late!


  9. The senses do work in strange ways both having a great presence of mind to Crack a joke and also auto playing the keys on seeing the score without much effort after herculean practice. True or notboth reflected hear, something nice to ponder


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