The Practice Notebook

flutist Zara Lawler shares tips on learning music

Memorizing a Whole Program


Recently, I received a question from a reader about memorizing a whole program.  (You can read his question at the bottom of this post).  He is learning 17 songs. He noted that it was not possible to cover each every day, and asked about how to learn so many pieces at once, and more generally, how to prepare for the act of performing them all on one concert.

I’ll start by talking about managing such a long list of works:

First, rank the pieces, so that you know which ones will take the most practice time.  Make three categories:

  1. The Majors: pieces that will take the most time and effort to learn (this will include pieces that are brand new to you, are technically challenging and/or are especially long)
  2. The Minors: pieces that you have studied but not yet memorized, shorter works, and/or pieces that are more simple
  3. The Worry-free Zone: pieces that you already have memorized or you know will be easy to get into performance shape

When you choose the order in which you will study your pieces, make sure that the Majors are at the front of the list!  It’s OK to throw in a Minor from time to time:  it will help you to feel like you are making progress.  Just don’t give in to the temptation to put off the scary pieces—that only makes them scarier.  Think of the Worry-free Zone as dessert, and work on them last.

Work on as many pieces at once as you can, balancing the study of new pieces with the review of old ones. For example, if you have two hours for memory practice, you could spend 30 minutes on each of 4 songs.  Once you have learned those 4 songs, adjust your practice routine to be 30 minutes on each of 3 new songs, plus 30 minutes of review of the first 4.

As time goes on, your ‘review’ list will get longer and longer, but since you’ll know all those pieces better and better, 30 minutes might still be enough time for review.  When you feel like you really know a piece, you can downgrade it to something that you only review every other session, leaving you more time to review the pieces that are less settled.

So, no, you do not have to cover all of every piece every day.  That’s the whole point of memorizing!  When you have done good work, thoroughly learning a piece in small sections, then larger sections, and then tying it all together with mental practice and rehearsal, you can trust that you have it, at least for a day or two.  It’s a little like juggling:  you keep many balls going in the air, though you are only actively working with one or two at a time.

Please notice: I did not suggest waiting until one piece feels finished to move on to the next.  With a big load like this, you want to be making progress on several fronts at once-that way, when the performance rolls around, you won’t feel like you’re cramming.

Now, a few words about putting it all together into a concert:

Playing a whole program without music in front of you is a big challenge—and can be a wonderful experience for you and your audience.

Once you’ve memorized the pieces individually (do not skip ahead to this stage!), start devoting some of your mental practice time to learning the architecture of the program.

Some things to observe in your study:

  • Key, time signature, last and first note of each piece, in program order (so you can imagine yourself ending one piece and then starting the next)
  • A few important words or thoughts for each (In the Brahms I have to remember to not rush the middle section.  In the Debussy, I want to keep my tone light and fluttery.)
  • If you are performing with an accompanist, who starts each piece?
  • If you are planning on doing any talking in the performance, make sure that is part of your mental practice, too.

Rehearsal, especially if you are working with an accompanist or other colleagues, is also a great way to get comfortable working without a score.  Use that time to drill your pieces, especially in sections.  Learning to feel comfortable taking a piece apart without the score is a vital stage in feeling confident in your memorization. Nonetheless, have your score with you at all rehearsals, and don’t hesitate to refer to it when needed.

Also, make sure you have practice performances scheduled!

And last but not least, I want to emphasize a principle that will be covered more in a later post: practice, don’t test. This psychological stance is crucial for optimal memory work, especially when large amounts of music are involved.


Photo credit:  ethanhickerson

Reader Question: New Instrument


Greetings, all, and happy spring!

Thanks to all who have been reading, and sending in questions and comments.  I intend to post some more reader-inspired articles from time to time.  So, if you have a question, feel free to email it, or add it as a comment to a post.  I will try my best to reply (though as Richard, today’s question author, can attest, it may take a while).

Below is Richard’s email on a very interesting topic:  adjusting to a new instrument.  He has kindly accepted my request to post his email and my response.

Hi Zara,

I came across your website while trying to answer a question for myself.  I recently got a good flute – a Muramatsu DS – and am finding that it is teaching me a lot.  I’ve never had a good flute so it is quite eye-opening.  I can find a great sound on every note, but it seems I don’t get to the point of the sound being fairly consistently good until I’ve played for 45 minutes or so.  I think the flute may be forcing me to work my embouchure in ways that my previous flute did not. It rewards me for the work - eventually  – with a great sound – but I think I’m also fatiguing my embouchure – over practicing a bit.  Oddly enough it’s feels more like it’s my lower lip – not my upper lip – that gets fatigued.   My lower lip seems to not be able to hold the position it needs to get a good sound.

Does any of this sound familiar?  Is it possible to over practice and fatigue the embouchure?  Thanks for any advice you might have, particularly how I can get to the point where I can practice 2 – 3 hours and just be fine.


P.S. – If you have CDs I can buy please let me know.

Dear Richard,

Thank you for your email and question.  I want to apologize for taking so long to get back to you by way of saying, yes, that does sound familiar.  In fact, I spent part of the month of January over-practicing myself!  Hence the decreased time for keeping up with my blog and for writing thoughtful replies to good questions like yours.  Sigh.

First of all, congratulations on your new flute!  A good instrument can be a good teacher, as you are finding out.  I’m guessing that some of your frustration is due to a phenomenon that I haven’t covered in my blog yet:  your brain is ahead of your body.  Now that you have a new flute, and you hear yourself sounding so much better than you have in the past, your brain has made a cognitive leap, and decided that you should sound that good, or even better, all the time.  And trust me, with your drive and willingness to work, you will.

The problem is that it takes your body a lot longer to learn a new skill than it takes your brain to set a new standard.  Your ear hears yourself sound even marginally better on your Muramatsu, and instantly your brain gets all sorts of grand ideas about how you should sound all the time.  It might take your body weeks or months to learn how to sound that way—not only to figure out what the various muscles of your embouchure need to do, but to develop the strength to do them consistently.  In the meantime, though, your lips are straining to achieve that sound all the time, and getting fatigued in the process.

If you have friends who play brass instruments, you’ve probably heard from them about how over-practicing can really harm their “chops” and compromise the quality of their sound.  The same is definitely true for flute players.  I think, though, that because our embouchure is, by definition, more gentle (we don’t buzz, we are not squashing our entire embouchure against the mouth piece, the air pressure we use is so much less, etc), we can generally go much longer than brass players before this happens, and that’s why you don’t hear about it for flute players so often.

This is one of the reasons I stick by the 30-Minute Rule .  Even on days that I practice 4 hours, I take breaks every 30 minutes, because without them, my sound starts to suffer, because my lips (and brain) start to get overtired.

Every once in a while I break the 30-Minute Rule, and I always notice that my sound gets worse, and I start to go a little crazy. This January I was trying to learn some new pieces for a recital, so I kept saying to myself, “Well, I’ll just practice a few more minutes, since I REALLY need to learn this music…”  And after a few sessions like that, I find myself thinking, “Wow, why do I sound so bad?  With all this practicing, I should be sounding great.”  Then I remember the 30-Minute Rule, and get back to it, and suddenly I sound better again.

So, when you say that you’d like to be able to play 2 to 3 hours at a time, I counsel you strongly to integrate breaks into those hours.  If you think about it, a professional orchestral flutist not only has breaks written into her contract, but she isn’t playing for every moment of the rehearsal.  There are rests written into the score; the conductor takes time to work with the strings alone; etc. You need to build that same kind of rest time into your practice routine.

Try sticking to the 30-Minute Rule, and working regular breaks into your practice time.  Try taking the long view, and trusting that your physical abilities will develop over time to match your new instrument’s potential.  If after another couple of weeks you are still feeling this same frustration, particularly that it takes you so long to get to the point of feeling warmed up, then it may be that you need a better warm up routine, or some other fix.

Hang in there, and enjoy your new instrument.



PS.  At the moment, I don’t have any CD’s for purchase, but I hope to have one in the next year.  I’ll keep you posted.  In the mean time, you might enjoy this webcast of a recent concert.

Photo Credit:  D Sharon Pruitt