How many pieces do YOU know?

Daniel Wolf at Renewable Music takes the discussion of current repertoire in an interesting direction, towards the question of “how much music do you, or can you, know well….”

Back in my training days as an ethnomusicologist, we were taught some of the basic questions to use with musician informants in the course of field work. One of the most basic was “How many pieces do you know?”* There seemed to be a near-universal upper limit of about fifty-or-so repertoire items whenever the question was narrowed to “How many pieces do you know well?” Similar quantitative limits were encountered among musicians of many traditions, which, in our informal survey, included Native American singers, Javanese Gamelan musicians, and String Quartets, who were either asked to list, by name, the pieces that they “knew” and were ready to play. (emphasis added)

What an interesting question, and one I’ve honestly never tried to grapple with. That bit about “ready to play…” that’s where it gets complicated and tough. Modern players can get through hundreds of pieces in a year thanks to their razor sharp sight-reading skills, but I’ve often found myself talking to a professional orchestra musician who can’t remember ever having played the Mahler symphony they recorded just a few weeks earlier. Does reading something without mistakes equate to knowing it? Studio work is even more confounding, since  you can record a piece without ever playing through it without stopping, and the players may not end up with any sense whatsoever of what the form of the piece is, or what order the various takes actually belong in.  I once did a piece for a Radio 3 recording that was so insanely difficult the producer wanted to come up with start and stop points for editing before the sessions began- he thought that it was unlikely we’d be able to do more than about 30 seconds at a time without stopping (in the end, we read through it with only one stop in the session, a testament to the virtuosity of modern players).

But, reading a piece doesn’t mean you know it.

Neither does memorizing a piece. Ormandy had a famously amazing photographic memory- he could memorize anything in one flip-through, but he often said that “just because I’m memorized it doesn’t mean I know it.” In his case, just memorizing the piece only meant he was sight-reading the picture of the score stored in his head. AC Douglas recently called reader’s attention to the archive of Ormandy scores which document the process of getting from memorized to mastered.

I may have the number wrong, but I seem to remember Karajan had 60 operas memorized which he said he could conduct from memory, with all the text memorized, if you woke him up in the middle of the night. Considering opera was only a minority interest in his repertoire, that’s pretty scary. Barenboim’s recent exploits aren’t too surprising- he’s always had that kind of facility for a huge volume of repertoire. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m all that convinced by some of the conducting work he does.

I used to be amazed by the best instrumental teachers at conservatories, who could teach and demonstrate, in great detail, just about any piece for their instrument.  I’m sure some of them had way more than 50 works memorized at any time- but probably 35 of those they taught ever week of their lives.

Fiddlers and jazzers tend to know hundreds or thousands of tunes, but can take advantage of the fact that so much of their repertoire fits into standardized forms (blues, rhythm changes, 32 song form, etc…). Still, it’s amazing to see how fast they can memorize a new tune (usually one hearing is enough).

I leave pieces on my repertoire list based on whether I fee like I could perform them under pressure on about a week’s notice. Most of the standard rep pieces, like the Beethoven, Brahms, Dvorak and Tchaikovsky mainstays, I could just open the score and be ready to conduct, but how well is well?

Carlos Kleiber probably had less than 20 pieces in his repertoire at the time of his death. In spite of the fact he could play all the Mahler symphonies at the piano from memory, he only ever conducted Das Lied von der Erde, as he felt it was the only one he thought he could do well. Learning a vast repertoire can be a great education, but quantity is no guarantee of quality. If the king felt that Beethoven 6 was too hard for him, maybe us mortals ought to ask ourselves how well we’re doing it?

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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4 comments on “How many pieces do YOU know?”

  1. Paul H. Muller

    I play in a college orchestra as a volunteer and we rehearse over 5 or 6 weeks before a performance and even so I have trouble remembering what we played at the previous concert.

    But I wonder if there is a difference between memorizing and knowing. What is important about the performance may not be reducible to notes or dynamics or things that can be remembered. The feel of a piece sometimes calls out a response from the player in a way that I’m not sure can be memorized. Jazz musicians seem to be able react to each other and to the piece and it comes out differently each time.

    In a perhaps related question: do you think the conductor should work with a copy of the score in front of him or should the piece be so familiar that it is unnecessary?

  2. liz garnett

    This is really interesting, as it begs the question as to what it means to *know* music. Being able to perform it at the drop of a hat is probably as good a working definition as any, but this still encompasses a wide range of types of knowing, depending not only, as you point out, on the relationship with notation, but also the role of the performer in the whole. People may know their own parts inside out, for example, without having grasped much of what’s going on around them – they can play/sing the piece without necessarily really knowing the music.

  3. Lisa Hirsch

    Kleiber’s approach was eccentric in the extreme, among professional conductors. I mean, think of the stated size of his repertory in contrast to any other professional in the last century or so. If he thought Beethoven 6 was too hard for him…maybe he was wrong. I would not take his approach as representative or the norm or as something to emulate.

  4. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Lisa! I quite agree with you about Kleiber not neccessarily someone to emulate, but he is one to study. I’m reminded of my brief visit with Krystian Zimerman earlier this year about traveling the world in a van with his titanium legged, multiple keyboarded, digitally monitored piano. Again- a young pianist would be insane to copy his way of working, but studying these uncompromising artists can at least get us looking more critically at the compromises we make and asking tougher questions about whether we had to make them… At least when I do Beethoven 6, I want to know why Kleiber thought it was so hard (the bootleg of his one performance of it is quite fab) and make sure I’m taking it as seriously as it deserves. Am I doing too much repertoire? Should I demand more rehearsals? What would Carlos do?

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