As an adult professional musician (church organist), I discovered that, once I became a mother (a year ago), I had less time to practice (from approx 4 hrs a day to about 1.5 hrs a day), but--now I am learning music far thoroughly because I (and I don't connect this to motherhood) now work in very small batches on each piece (a page a week from 4 to 5 different works) vs trying to tackle much larger chunks of each piece each week. Result is that I learn far more thoroughly than before. Neither in college or grad school (of a prestigious music school) was this level of thoroughness broached. The mentality was to cram as much as possible as soon as possible. And I did, and feel like it gave me less than the pace of work I do now.

This made me wonder, what was the breadth of repertoire expected of professional musicians in various time periods and how was learning of repertoire approached?

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    Keep in mind that until the 19th century -- and relatively late 19th century -- musicians performed their own repertoire/compositions. Learning and performing others' repertoire is a relatively modern invention.
    – Aaron
    Commented Jan 27, 2021 at 21:11
  • oh very true, which is why I am working on improvisation now Commented Jan 27, 2021 at 21:22
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    @Aaron generalise much?? Obviously at least orchestral players, choir singers etc. have performed mostly music they hadn't written themselves throughout history. Vice versa, lots of musicians perform mostly their own music today. It really has nothing to do with “modern invention”. Commented Jan 28, 2021 at 13:10
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    Wait, if college and grad school both got you to cram as much as possible as soon as possible, how come they didn't expose you to a page a week from 4 to 5 different works? Your claim that you learn far more thoroughly than before, then imply that college and grad school tried giving you pieces in much larger chunks, doesn't add up (at least IMO). If anything, I'd believe that you learn music less thoroughly now since you get surface-level partial chunks much more often.
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Jan 28, 2021 at 13:54
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    @leftaroundabout The question is clearly about solo literature.
    – Aaron
    Commented Jan 28, 2021 at 14:40

1 Answer 1


This isn't much, but I have always remembered it. The details are so interesting. It's a letter from Mozart to his father and he mentions the good musical memory of one of his students.

Paris, May 14, 1778.

I HAVE already so much to do that I don't know how I am to manage when winter comes. I think I wrote to you in my last letter that the Duc de Guines, whose daughter is my pupil in composition, plays the flute inimitably, and she the harp magnificently; she has a great deal of talent and genius, and, above all, a wonderful memory, for she plays all her pieces, about 200 in number, by heart...

  • the amount of pieces she plays by heart doesn't really give an idea of the rate at which she learned them--that would be curious Commented Jan 28, 2021 at 0:26
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    the letter also doesn't says what kind and length of pieces, I hope you get more answers Commented Jan 28, 2021 at 16:42

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