Is Your Repertoire Defined by Your Memory?

I had lunch the other day with a dear friend, a career musician, performer, teacher, adjudicator, and otherwise multi-faceted and brilliant thinker.

She was telling me about her plan to add 40 new pieces to her repertoire this year. I asked how she intended to learn to memorize and play a new piece every nine days. In contrast, it typically takes me 40 hours to learn a 3-4 minute song with lyrics. For me, the music comes quickly. It is the lyrics that take the most significant part of that time.

She reminded me that when preparing to perform a song, I memorize the lyrics word-for-word. This is in sharp contrast to coming up with my own interpretation of the guitar part, with a great deal left to be improvised in the moment while performing.

She is a wonderful pianist and a gifted sight-reader.  When I considered how differently we approach performing, I wondered if learning 40 pieces included memorizing them or preparing to perform them well while having the musical score in front of her.

Is Memory a Defining Skill?

We discussed: “Is having a great memory a core skill, a required attribute of a professional musician?” As wildly different as our musical worlds are, it seems opinions are as firmly held in her circles as in mine. And Oh! There’s a lot of pride, guilt, and shame associated with this question.

Here are some of the ideas that came up during our conversation. I will use the term “the music” to refer to sheet music or lead sheets or lyrics in physical or electronic form.

Performing with the Music in Front of You

(On the piano, or for me on my computer on a stand on the stage)

  • I am much more likely to play the song as written instead of making things up on the fly when I can’t remember. Are you faithful to the songwriter and live up to the expectations of the audience?
  • I can focus on the performance and the song instead of the effort of trying to remember.
    I have on occasion thrown in an extra guitar solo or sung an extra chorus to give me time to remember the next verse.
  • I can have a much larger, more varied repertoire because it takes less time to prepare if I’m not trying to memorize material.
    40 hours of preparation for a 4-minute song is a 600:1 preparation: performance ratio. That doesn’t include the time it takes to maintain that song in the repertoire (rehearse it to keep the song fresh in memory).
  • I am not limited to playing what I can remember.

Performing from Memory

  • I can perform without setting up tools (sheet music, tablet, computer, music stand). 
    I have spent a lot of time and money over the years to make this activity and the tools as unobtrusive as possible. This includes hardware, software, local backups, synchronizing multiple machines, access in the cloud. There was also packing, setup and teardown.
  • I can move around on the stage without being tethered by my line of sight to the music.
  • I am committed to the music that I am performing, at least to the extent that I was willing to invest heavily in learning it.
  • I have a clearer line of sight from me to my audience and I am not shifting my focus from the music to my instrument, to the audience, to wherever I go with head and heart while performing.

It’s not about Music Stands

This discussion could have gone down the black hole of debating whether or not using music stands (or sheet music on the piano) lacked professionalism. But we didn’t need to go there.

It was an interesting talk in other ways.

Faking It

In my case, I’m usually fine if I have the lyrics with me. It was good to have my friend point out: I don’t really learn the guitar parts. I learn the song’s structure and pull the guitar parts out of the air, making stuff up as I go along. It’s harder to get away with faking the lyrics to a well-known song. Well, you can do it, but you risk disappointing the audience. And over time, I have shied away from doing covers with iconic signature hooks for the same reason.


Sometime over the last few years, I stopped bringing the music on stage with me. I let all of the paraphernalia go.  When people noticed and commented or asked about it, if I was candid, I might admit, “I just got tired of the effort.”  How sad for me that I gave up just before it became relatively easy with the latest generations of tablet computers.


Somehow I had started to tell myself and others, “I decided it was time I learned the music”.  That sounds good, and that fits well with my change in direction; playing more originals. Was I was becoming a better musician? I think that it’s just as likely that I had greater liberty to make stuff up if no one knew what the songs were supposed to sound like anyway. And who cares if I mangle the lyrics if they were my lyrics to mangle.

Some of that has come around full-circle to bite me. It’s interesting and embarrassing to have someone request an original and have her comment that “it was so different this time” as she thanked me. It is a beautiful thing to have people want to sing along to an original that they have grown to love. It’s sad to disappoint them when I start making things up because I can’t remember with them.

I’m beginning to reconsider the business of bringing the music (sheet music, music stand, or a tablet computer) on stage with me. I’m noticing that my repertoire is dwindling with my ability to remember, and my musical choices are limited by what I can. The world is getting smaller and maybe, in this instance, that’s not an improvement.

Please tell me what you think. Join the discussion here: Is Your Repertoire Defined by Your Memory?

1 comment

  1. ST,

    Thanks for getting your own site up and running. I so appreciated your help on the BOSE forum and was sad to see they discontinued it. I was worried that I lost touch with you until I found this site.

    Great topic. Like you, the music is easy, the lyrics are the real task. I have a core of about 100 songs that are memorized from years of performance, but lately I’ve been “cheating” with a light sequencer that also provides lyrical support; Showbuddy with DMIXIS as the light controller.

    Whether it is the fading function of my upstairs organ, getting lazy, or simply bowing to the need to provide the client with more & more material, I have accepted lyrical assistance not so much as a need, but an augmentation of what I can now provide as a service.

    Again, good to find you out here again, hope all is well, and keep up all the good work.

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