The Practice Notebook

flutist Zara Lawler shares tips on learning music

Memorization: The 15-Minute Rule



Remember the 10-Minute Rule? You can click here for the why and wherefore, but the rule itself goes like this:

Never practice any one thing more than 10 minutes at a time.

The 15-Minute Rule is one of only two exceptions I make to the 10-Minute rule.  It goes something like this:

If you are memorizing, you may work on a single small section for up to 15 minutes.

I make this exception for several reasons.

  1. Memory work takes longer than regular practice.
  2. Memory work is a combination of physical practice (playing) and mental practice (thinking/observing), and so you can go a little longer on a single passage without the same risk of repetitive stress injury.
  3. Memory work is a focused mental effort, which means you can go a few minutes more before you start to drive yourself crazy.

For me, it is not unusual to have to do two sessions of 15 minutes on a single passage –  especially if it is one that involves a lot of technical work and I have to start slow and work my way up to a faster tempo.  Many times, one session of 15 minutes and a second of 10 or less is plenty.  If you find yourself repeatedly having to spend more than two 15-minute sessions per passage, that’s probably a sign that you are trying to memorize too much music at once, and need to choose smaller sections.

As you may know, the 10-Minute Rule has one other exception, the 12-Minute Rule, whereby if you are
SURE you will get your one thing mastered with just two more minutes of practice then you can go for it.  There is no such exception with the 15-Minute Rule.  If your chosen passage isn’t memorized in those 15 minutes, come back to it another day.

As I’ve said, one of the main ideas behind the 10-Minute Rule is preserving your sanity. This is even more important when memorizing music because of the fear so many of us feel about standing up on stage with no music in front of us.  You want to make your memorization practice as sane as possible, so that you will feel as confident as possible up on stage. When memorizing music, you are really learning two things at once:  how to play without the music in front of you, and how to feel when playing without the music in front of you.

If, while memorizing, you allow yourself to do what I call “desperation practicing” (Another two minutes!  Just another two!  I can quit anytime!  Really!), you will carry that feeling with you onto stage.  You will have, in effect, practiced feeling desperate.

In contrast, by observing the 15-Minute Rule, you practice feeling calm and in control. Know that you will have another session if you need it.  Know that you are in control of how you use your time.

Feeling in control of how you spend your practice time will translate directly into feeling in control in performance.

Photo Credit:  CarbonNYC

posted under Memorization
One Comment to

“Memorization: The 15-Minute Rule”

  1. On June 18th, 2010 at 3:06 pm The Practice Notebook » Blog Archive » Experimenting with Drugs (don’t try this at home!) Says:

    [...] I narrowed it down to a string of 7 notes, and I spent 20 minutes on it (breezing right past the 15-Minute Rule in my desperation), and still couldn’t learn it successfully.  Since that’s no more [...]

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