How to cram for a music performance

How to Cram for a Music PerformanceGreat performers know how to cram, but they don’t do it.

Muscle memory, which saves you during a memory slip or botched performance, doesn’t develop in a heartbeat.

However, if life and other affairs have taken its toll and your performance is coming up, here’s what to do:

Count down to your drop-dead date.

How many possible hours of practice are there until you’d be ready for the performance? How much progress have you completed? Turn this into a percentage. This is the scope of your task.

My friend still laughs about the time when, in his words, I tried to project-manage his girlfriend at my BBQ party—she’d wanted to “help out” yet refused to commit to the task I gave her (stab veggies onto skewers). She kept asking for new tasks and I kept telling her to make skewers because there was nothing else to do. In the end, it took 3 hours to get the skewers on the grill.

In your case, we are legitimately trying to project-manage your repertoire and you must stick to your goal no matter what. Don’t be the skewer person.

Play what you know.

Use muscle memory to your advantage and pick up old repertoire you’ve previously mastered. You might be surprised how well muscle memory might serve you. In fact, try to pick from your 4 staple pieces—if you don’t have staple pieces, start now.

Damage control.

If the performance is tomorrow and you are still not ready, take your piece of music and divide it into sections: what you know vs. what you don’t. If you’ve practiced properly, there will only be sections of music, lines at a time, that you don’t know (as opposed to not knowing every other note).

Look at which bad sections you can cut out entirely. For example, I’m playing a rondo next week; I can cut out a non-repeating section and few people will notice. Or, if there’s an opportunity to end the piece earlier, at a different V-I cadence.

There is a risk of encountering more memory slips using this method, so make sure you run the piece without the bad parts—your fingers are accustomed to having the bad parts in already.


Everyone should cram at least one performance—you will be forced to capitalize on your strengths, and learn how to think on your feet as a musician. You will also evaluate your playing in a new light; it will be like putting everything you’ve known about music on the line.

At least, that is what I’m telling myself as I cram for next week’s performance of Chopin and Liszt.

What every musician should know about performing under pressure


Thank you Erika P. for the photo above.

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7 years ago

Good luck on your performance (smiles). I’m sure you’ll be brilliant!
Where are you doing it? And are you going to record this one for tube?
Mike ;)