The Practice Notebook

flutist Zara Lawler shares tips on learning music

Memorization: The Post-it Trick



One of the keys to successful and pain-free memorization is to only memorize very small sections at a time.

The Problem

Working on only small sections sounds simple enough, but memorization is a tricky business.  It can be really tough, psychologically, to make yourself concentrate on only a very small section at time when you really want to be playing the whole piece.  Good music has a certain feeling of inevitability about it:  one phrase naturally leads to the next and seamlessly carries you and the audience through time.  And the better the music, the stronger that sense of inevitability.  So it can be really hard to make yourself stop at the end of a single phrase.

Flutists, try the first page of the Martin Ballade, and you’ll know what I mean.

If the music is very complicated, with lots of notes and accidentals, you might find yourself deciding to work on memorizing only a portion of a phrase.  And that, my friends, is an even tougher discipline:  to play, over and over, just half of a phrase!

The Solution

So what’s a flutist (or any other musician trying to memorize) to do?  My solution is to put blinders on, just like one puts on a horse drawing a carriage.  The easiest way I’ve found to do this is with Post-its:  I cover up the music that I am not memorizing, making it way easier to focus on only the section I’ve chosen.

Usually it’s enough to just cover the next few notes with a single Post-it:


But if I’m really having a hard time focusing, I’ll cover up the whole next phrase, and even some of the previous one:


A Related Problem

Another common memorization pitfall is giving in to anxiety about learning the entire piece, when what you need to be doing is simply concentrating on a small section.  This is totally normal, of course:  who hasn’t said, or heard a colleague say, “I can play the little sections, it’s playing the whole thing that’s hard?”

When I get caught up in that particular brand of anxiety, my inner monologue goes something like this:  Well, this phrase may be important, but what about the next one?  And the one after that?  And that tricky one at the end? I sometimes get so caught up in the enormity of the task (Play the entire Ibert Concerto from memory?  Seriously?), that it’s hard to concentrate on the small, manageable task of learning one small section at a time, even though in this blog I’m always singing the praises of small sections.

The Same Solution

The Post-it trick is not just a visual focus aid, it also helps you psychologically by hiding the enormity of the job.  It’s similar to when long-distance runners use “short focus:” they look only a few steps ahead at a time, and then can run a whole marathon that way.  It’s also a great trick for getting up hills, since at a short focus, it’s hard to perceive the slope of the hill.  Which is just like using the Post-it trick to keep you looking only at a small section, and not thinking about the whole piece.

Some Details

I’ve also learned to use Post-its in dark colors, or to use two of the light yellow ones, so that I’m not tempted to just read the music through the Post-it.  Another good way to maximize Post-it opacity is to put the sticky part a little above the music you want to hide, as the part of the Post-it that sticks off the music is less see-through.

If you don’t have a stack of Post-its at the ready, you can just use folded up scrap paper:


Horses wear blinders so that they don’t get spooked by other traffic on the road, and musicians need them for a similar reason.  By putting Post-it blinders on, you make it easier to concentrate on the small section you want to practice.  And, perhaps more importantly, this keeps you from getting spooked by the things you are choosing not to concentrate on.



In this photo, the horse is you.  The people on the motorcycle are the phrase after the one you’re practicing, and the tanker is the looming fear of playing the whole piece from memory…I think you get the picture!

Photo Credits: Black and white photo of horse: DMahendra Color photo of horse in traffic: Randy Son of Robert Other photos: me!

3 Comments to

“Memorization: The Post-it Trick”

  1. On May 5th, 2009 at 10:42 pm Anne Anderson Says:

    Yes! Love it! I used post-its all kinds of ways when I was teaching….why didn’t I think of this. It also helps for us visual learners, to see just those notes on the page, and just that line in that location, so that we can “beam up” the image in our minds when we are playing.

    And you are so absolutely right about feeling compelled to play the whole thing through rather than focus on one section…Bach, Bach, what am I going to do with you?

  2. On May 8th, 2009 at 5:00 pm Bonnie Whiting Smith Says:

    I like the horse with blinders analogy a lot, actually. (And. . . I always wondered what you were doing with the post-its. I think I’ll try this trick this afternoon; I need it!

  3. On October 19th, 2009 at 6:23 pm The Practice Notebook » Blog Archive » Just say “No” Says:

    [...] NOTE:  Another form of strategic inhibition is the Post-It Trick. [...]

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