Memory is one of the most important skills required to build a musical career.
Following on from our deep dive into what we currently know how memory functions, what a memory is built up of and how to both train yourself to code information as memory into your brain and actively recall that information at a later date, this article looks at 10 ways of testing the completeness of your coded memory, and what to do if you find yourself stuck so that you don’t find yourself on the concert stage wondering how the next bit goes…
1. Detune one or two strings (remove tonal stimulus)
Detuning the strings of the guitar to test the memory of a piece is a classic, funny and challenging exercise that plenty of concert guitarists use.
The reason it works as a tool for memory is that it removes the familiar tonal memory we use to play a piece through.
This exercise forces you to focus on the direction of the melodic pattern of a piece alongside muscle memory to get you through. Should you falter, stop and immediately recall your last motion, did you perhaps put your second finger on the 2nd string and now you are lost? Retrace your last finger steps and work out which step led you down a wrong path from back to front (not chronologically).
Once you have localized this mis-step, commit to memory the correct movement sequence, find an appropriate place to start again from and cover this passage paying special attention to how the fingers move, visualize the correct fingering, verbalizing what is happening e.g ’the third finger plays on the 4th fret of the 2nd string meanwhile I prepare the second finger for the 3rd string’.
Each time you repeat this recall test, detune different strings so that you do not hang onto a familiar new tuning of the instrument, the aim is that the detuned strings remove the familiarity of the auditory stimulus.
2. Wear noise canceling headphones or practice next to the hoover (remove auditory stimulus)
In order to push exercise 1 even further for more watertight reliable memory results, add noise canceling headphones or a non musical external noise such as a hoover to the mix.
Where in exercise 1 the brain could fill the gaps caused by taking away the logical tonal memory stimulus with at least some sort of pattern of notes, this exercise removes any sense of musical line, forcing the brain to rely completely on the memory of the muscles, and the coded choreography of the fingers (which is both a haptic and visual sensation).
Should you falter, retrace your steps as in exercise 1, paying special attention to where you were when the memory faltered, this is your key to the gaps in your muscular spatial memory.
3. Turn guitar around and play on the back of the neck (remove tonal and visual orientation)
To push this memory test even further, turn the instrument around so that the strings and sound hole are facing your body and attempt to play the piece through.
Focus on the movements of the fingers and both hands when the orientation of the fretboard and strings is removed.
Should you not know where to begin with this exercise, or should your memory falter and you not be able to retrace your last steps, read the music while completing this exercise, breaking the piece down into passages to commit to this silent, movement-reliant memory and eventually build up into being able to “play” the full piece through.
4. Listen to other music whilst playing through (provide auditory distractors)
For this exercise, we introduce an auditory distractor into the mix to test the strength of our focus during recall, put on your favorite radio programme and then attempt to play through your piece.
Should you falter, retrace your steps without looking at the music, it is important that you train yourself to focus sustainably during this exercise without being supplied a visual reminder.
5. Recite the alphabet or count aloud whilst playing (create attention distractor)
Learning to ignore outside auditory stimulus is one thing, but providing the distracting stimulus yourself whilst focusing on the task at hand is a whole other game.
This exercise is useful to train the wandering mind to come back to focus, which can be especially helpful if you find it difficult to enter ‘the zone’ whilst playing under pressure. Whilst playing through your piece either count, recite the alphabet or tell a story aloud. Notice the process at work and how taxing it is whilst doing this exercise and pay special attention to where your playing or speaking fall away or where you have to stop.
Training this exercise in passages will ameliorate your ability to withstand outside distractors and improve your capacity for focusing on your playing while your brain is receiving all kinds of new information, not least pressure.
6. Sing a piece in its entirety away from the instrument (test reliability of tonal memory)
Singing a piece in its entirety is a fantastic memory test that can be completed without the instrument.
Going slowly, sing correctly the notes of the piece, paying attention to notes that you are not 100% sure of, taking note of the parts for which you need to think harder in order to remember before singing and in case it should occur the point at which you stop.
Use the bank of your memory to retrace your steps, avoiding looking at the music or listening to any recording to remember.
Should you stop mid piece, find a close-by beginning of a phrase to rerun this passage from, avoid starting from the beginning again unless you absolutely have to.
7. Recite the note names of a piece in its entirety (test reliability of logical melodic memory)
For this exercise you can choose to either sing or simply say the notes whilst naming them either with solfeggio names or letter names.
This test connects the auditory part of your memory with the logical melodic memory (the part with which you verbalize and explain).
As with the previous exercise, avoid using the written music to retrace your steps should you falter, if you require a joint stimulus to get you through try miming the movement of the fingers on the instrument or play through at the same time as playing it through very slowly.
8. Write out on a piece of paper the harmonic structure of the piece (test reliability of harmonic memory)
For those of us who enjoy harmonic analysis and have an understanding of it at a high enough level to tell a complete story of a piece, sketching the structure of a piece out on paper as a harmonic journey can help to improve our logical harmonic memory and prepare us to fill in with improvisation when melodic memory fails.
This test can be performed on paper away from the instrument, playing the piece through on the instrument whilst verbalizing the harmonic journey aloud, or by improvising alternative melody choices that share the same harmonic structure.
9. Write a piece out in its entirety away from the instrument (test reliability of visual lexical memory)
Here is another memory test that can be completed away from the instrument, perfect for those of us who are paying special attention to and attempting to decrease the physical toll of practice on our bodies this year.
Write out the whole piece, not just notes but all of the important markings (even the things that might not be in the original score, but things that you do musically during playing and your own personal fingerings).
Pay special attention, and mark in the score perhaps in a different color, the bits that take the longest to remember. Check the score by playing it through at the instrument and working out any mistakes without looking at the original score.
Repeating this exercise until you can write the piece out completely with no doubt and no mistakes helps strengthen the reliability of your visual lexical memory, useful for logical verbal recall when your muscle or melodic intuitive memory fails under pressure.
10. Play the piece through incredibly slowly and then incredibly fast (remove familiarity)
This exercise removes the familiarity of the feeling of playing through a piece.
Performing at a deathly slow tempo forces the brain to pay attention to each note that passes - something that during normal playing we are not always used to.
Notes that we don’t usually pay attention to but that enter the spotlight under the pressure of playing this slowly can easily throw us off, pay attention to which notes throw you off whilst completing this memory test.
Similarly, playing a piece through faster than the normal playing tempo offers the simulation of extra pressure and more adrenaline running through the body whilst playing through a piece, use this as a test for how your recall stands up in these circumstances.
These are just ten ideas for exercises that every player could include in their memory practice to improve the diversity of their styles of recall, but the real possibilities are endless.
The most important takeaway is that focusing on how you code your memory and then getting creative with the ways that you test your recall rather than just playing something through endlessly and hoping to remember it is so much more effective, leads to more reliable memorisation results and is also a million times more fun!
Did you learn something new?
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