How to Never Forget Another Piece of Music

Wouldn’t it be nice to never forget another piece of music? And wouldn’t it be great for our practices to always feel new and engaging?

Instead of “two steps forward, one step back”, why can’t we keep the “two steps forward”?

It’s sad when we lose the hard work we’ve done to learn music. We learn it then forget it. But what if we could keep that piece polished and ready to play anytime?

Common Problems when Learning New Music

Eventually, new music gets old. It’s exciting and novel for a time. But then, the glows wears off. The honeymoon is over. And in comes the urge to start something new.

To get a piece up to our highest level takes time. By the time we get it there, we’ll know it inside out. We’ll have done work on every little detail. And while this can be enjoyable work, we also crave freshness.

The goal is to start new music, keeping the joy alive and motivation pumping. And we also want to maintain and preserve the hard work we’ve done with the current and previous pieces.

When we want to move on, the current piece may be in one of a number of different phases….

Not every part is up to performance level

We know the notes, but we can’t get through the whole piece at our desired level. Some parts feel easy, others not so much.

Some parts are as close to perfect as we can envision. Others still need technical or musical work.

We get tired of the tune

Here the work is not done, but we’re sick of it. Like the fifteenth chocolate, we no longer enjoy it like we used to. We don’t dislike it, we’re just over it.

The piece is ready for performance, and we’re ready for something new

And here we’ve mastered the piece, and have it at our top performance level. Our work is done for the moment. We don’t know where else to go with the piece, and we feel it “finished”.

After all this work, it feels like a waste of time to continue practicing it daily. We suspect we would be better challenged and engaged with a new piece of music.

One Good Solution: Cycle Pieces In and Out of Guitar Practice

For each of the above scenarios, we are ready to start a new piece. Meanwhile, we want to keep the current piece alive and maintained.

The way to do this is to leave it for a time, then return.

Easier said than done…

What often happens is this: We leave, and by the time we return, the piece is no longer where it was. We don’t remember certain sections. Problems we solved earlier have become problems again.

We grow disheartened, and call it a loss.

So we we stay focused on our new piece, until it also falls into this same pattern. The result is that we have practiced for years, but can’t play many pieces.

We have a pile of sheet music, but can only play the one on top.

How do we set a piece down without abandoning it completely? How can we safely and securely move between pieces and keep our practice fresh and exciting?

The Fine Points: How to Successfully Leave and Come Back

There is a method of cycling in and out of pieces that allows us to keep our enthusiasm while also managing the work.

If we wait too long before returning to a previous piece, we lose our good work. If we come back too soon, we don’t enjoy it as we could.

Timing is Everything

When we first set a piece down, we need to return to it very frequently. If we were practicing it daily, we can begin skipping a day.

After a few days of this, we can practice it every three days. Then every four.

It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. We can use “spaced repetition” to increase the time between practices.

This is the theory behind Leitner Boxes, Anki, and other learning systems.

Over the course of a month, we can space our practices to a week, two, or more.

Important: At some point, we may find we can’t remember the piece, or some element has declined. In this case, we should increase the frequency for a short time. Afterward, we can continue to space practices further apart.

Set Expectations for Revisiting Pieces

But what should we do when we revisit pieces? How should we practice them?

We could play through the pieces when we revisit them, top to bottom. Or we could plan the practice methods we’ll use.

For one piece, we may use slow practice. For another, we may use dotted rhythms or speed bursts. We may work the entire piece, or just the tricky spots.

If we plan in advance how we’ll practice, we’ll be more effective with the small time we have. Our practices will build our overall skills. Instead of just maintaining our repertoire, we’ll grow and improve – both in the piece, and for our others.

Keep a Running List of Pieces You Learn

To successfully cycle pieces, it helps to keep a running list of all the pieces we learn. When we start a new piece, we add it to the list.

If we want to be more organized, we can even note the date we last practiced each piece. We can plan our week so that each piece gets attention when it needs it.

Doing this allows us to maintain very large repertoires. In time, pieces will need attention only once every month or two. They will remain fresh and polished. And our practice will feel fresh, exciting and alive.


Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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