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

One Comment to

“Memorizing a Whole Program”

  1. On February 5th, 2011 at 10:39 am Helen Bledsoe Says:

    That’s fantastic! For me it helps to keep a written list of my schedule of pieces posted on my wall or a music stand, having a visual is somehow comforting. I like to make the schedule working backwards from the day of the concert or the first practice performance. I try to keep the schedule flexible and open for sick days or unforeseen delays.

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