Memorization, one of the most elusive skills in the music world, the cherry on the cake of performance anxiety and yet one of the least discussed and decoded elements that exist in the performing arts sphere.

Much work has been done to theorize why music appears to be able to unlock the memory of patients with mental degeneration, or how parts of the memory can allow the body to retain the ability to play music even deep into the clutches of dementia or Alzheimers. But yet very little accessible information points us in the direction of how to effectively memorize music beyond a vague and unexplained list of tips; such as detuning the instrument (if you can) or naming note names as you play the notes.

The truth is that while many of these tips may work on a short term, singular basis, unless we understand why it is that these practices activate something in our memory that helps us truly remember what we are playing, many of the effects of the mysterious process will fail to be long lasting and their efficacy will be patchy.

So what is memory? Where does it come from? What exactly is going on and how can we harness it to optimize our playing?

1. Understanding what memory is

The key to accessing memory lies in understanding which physical and mental actions take place when we memorize. Memory is defined in psychology as the faculty of encoding, storing, and retrieving information.

Interestingly – but not surprisingly considering that memory is one of the biggest challenges musicians face – most performers excessively practice the third stage of retrieving information often without actively or consciously encoding information or preparing information for storage.

It is easy to fall into this trap, as most of us have the experience of learning something and eventually realizing that we already know it by heart without having to focus specifically on memorization itself. This is a dangerous way to conduct a memorization process as most of it relies on muscular memory, which, when the lights go down in the concert hall is proven to be a mostly inaccurate way of remembering because we fail to engage our conscious mental faculties and take charge of the fingers in order to create movement.

In order to be able to take from the storage cupboard every time we walk on stage and guarantee success, we must stock the storage cupboard before every performance and in every practice session.

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2. Create an optimal environment for “Remembering” and Focus

Every moment that whizzes by brings with it millions of pieces of information that the brain processes without us even trying.

Constant sensory inputs are rushing through the consciousness, with hundreds per second being used to draw conclusions. The sensory input weight for most of us rests with the eyes, which in normal circumstances take in 10,000,000 bits per second. This means that every time we play a 3 minute piece our brain is confronted with somewhere in the region of 198,000,000,000 sensory inputs.

However, the brain can only process and synthesize into meaning around 5,000,000 a second.

This is where focus comes in. Our consciousness creates sense out of the inputs we receive whether we focus or not, but, how we divide our focus, where we centre ourselves around is up to us. If we fail to concentrate on looking for certain inputs, our brain will encode 5,000,000 random sensory inputs to create meaning, most of which are unlikely to be a haptic or visual story of the notes we are playing.

However, if we concentrate on remembering three consecutive chords in note names, finger position and sound, the inputs the brain is focusing on will join together to create a picture that helps us to encode these factors into our memory bank. We therefore need to remove as many ‘useless’ inputs to our senses as possible when we are practicing; for instance by removing any visual or auditory distractors such as the TV, music, people talking or even a cluttered space.

Create the optimal space for your practice so that most of those 5,000,000 inputs will be centered around your playing, and not on reruns of Frasier.

3. Define and remove distractors

Most of us will have had the experience of listening to music and trying to look into the distance, and, in order to see better, lowering the volume or turning the music off completely. It may seem like an odd quirk, but is in fact due to us requiring the absence of audio inputs in order to provide synthesis of more visual inputs.

In music performance we rarely split up what we see from what we hear, or what we feel with our fingers, but in fact if we wish to focus solely on one operation with the brain, we should engage in more sectional rehearsal with our bodies.

This is for instance why people suggest to detune the guitar, in order to remove expected auditory inputs, or play with a blindfold to remove visual inputs. The origin of these methods is goodhearted, but unless we understand why we are engaging in these practices we will almost always fail to focus on the thing we are aiming for and instead provide ourselves with yet more confusing distractors and interference.

As an example, detuning the guitar will create an absence of the pitches (auditory input) we are expecting, therefore forcing our recall process to rely solely on visual and haptic sensations.

Unfortunately though, whilst this method might occasionally work for some, due to the fact that this is still an auditory sensation (and one that is even more oppressive than hearing the notes we expect) our brain continues to take in auditory inputs - perhaps even more than if we had simply played the notes our brain was expecting.

Therefore if we wish to remove auditory inputs, we are far better off investing in noise cancelling headphones, or even listening to a familiar regular noise to cover the sound of our playing that allows us to focus ‘fully’ on the physical and visual sensations taking place.

4. Distinguish between practicing learning and rehearsing recall

One of the most complex but important practices that we should engage in when working on memorization is that of practicing learning. Focused and conscious repetition is key to the memorization process, but instead of focusing on quantity of repetitions we must practice quality repetition.

What frame of mind do we need to be in, and what do we need to be actively thinking of to perform a section correctly from memory? These are things we must discover in our practice, we must remember to not focus just on the outcome of a repetition, but on the mental processes that brought us to success, it is this that we must aim to recreate on the concert stage.

No amount of repetition will bear the fruit of success if we are not practicing conscious and active control over the movement of our fingers and the recall of the music we are performing. It is therefore important that we spend enough time on the memorization (encoding/learning) process before we dive into practicing recall.

Being ‘ready’ to practice the recall process should only be engaged in when we are sure that we will be able to remember what we are about to play. In fact there is very little need to practice the recall process in our practice room itself given that we are in the same circumstances as when we first learnt a piece.

No amount of repeating works that we do not properly know will help us know it.

One of the mistakes a lot of us make while practicing is playing something three or four times from an earlier point to try to remember a passage and happening upon it through luck. By the time we have repeated this passage four times, we have practiced forgetting this passage three times, and unless we consolidate the information we have just remembered in a way that differs from how we originally forgot it (most likely muscle memory), we are unlikely to remember this passage in a high pressure situation such as on stage or in a lesson.

Instead, swap practicing memory mistakes for putting the instrument down and returning to the music notes in order to consolidate lexical learning, or sing the passage through in your head to consolidate auditory learning.

It is incredibly important that in our memory practice we stop testing ourselves and instead take the initial learning process more seriously. As a guideline, learning and encoding a piece of music will make up 90% of your memorization practice, replacing the more common 90% weight of practicing forgetting that many of us are accustomed to.

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Dave McLellan

Concert & Chamber Guitarist

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