4 Conducting from Memory

Memorising the score to the fullest extent possible is fundamentally a good thing. If it results in a deep knowledge of what everyone is doing at any given moment, it is difficult to see how it can be unhelpful. I remember seeing Simon Rattle conducting Mahler’s 2nd symphony in concert without a score. At one point the bass clarinet entered 2 measures early and he was right there, getting them back in the correct place almost immediately. If you know it that well, by all means dispense with the score.

On the other hand, I have heard orchestral players complain about undeniably great conductors who (they felt) used the rehearsals to “vaguely assimilate” the piece so they could conduct the concert without the score. The clear implication being that if something had gone wrong, the conductor wouldn’t have been the one who solved it. If this rehearsal time could have been better spent, the musicians have every right to feel this way.

There is a difference between conducting from memory and conducting without a score. Bernard Haitink always had the score there; he just doesn’t open it! He believes that if we take the score and the music stand away this is unnecessarily ostentatious and can be seen as an attempt to set ourselves apart from the players. In this video of him conducting Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, you can see the nice Bärenreiter edition score on the stand before he comes on, and it remains closed 44 minutes later. 

I would say there is also a practical point here. If you take away the music stand, there is a danger your beats will drop down because there is nothing there for your stick to crash into if you go too low. Players beyond the first row, who are not on risers, may then have a problem seeing your beat.

Conducting from memory can also put the orchestra on edge. I remember one conductor who gleefully announced to the orchestra at the end of the dress rehearsal that in the concert he would conduct the Rite of Spring from memory – for the first time! The orchestra didn’t share his enthusiasm.

Another slightly simplistic statement is that if you conduct from memory, you will have better eye contact with the musicians. You should always have as much eye contact with the players as possible, even if you are conducting a complex contemporary work with the score. The players will prefer a little less eye contact and no mistakes to seeing your face 100% of the time but having to rescue your errors. 

The best advice is to conduct without the score only if you are absolutely certain you will be better than you would be if it was there. You can always change your mind later – it’s much easier to conduct from memory when you have done a piece 15 times. 

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