Verbal mediation enhances musical ‘big picture’ thinking and provides a structure for learning from memory. Some people visualise the musical score as they play. Others sing the main melody in their head, imagining the contours of the music. Rehearsing the piece mentally, away from the instrument, and hearing the music in the mind are important for memory work. I use air flights as opportunities to practise my musical memory. I close my eyes and imagine playing the piano keys as I sing the piece in my mind. I do this slowly, and if I cannot visualise a note, I know my learning is not yet secure. Sometimes I take this a step further, moving my fingers on the tray table. My phone has PDF files of my repertoire so I can further analyse the structure of the music. This in turn generates more chunking possibilities. Learning from memory requires a greater time commitment than using the score as well as further time in the maintenance of memorised repertoire. Over time the ear learns to take a larger responsibility for the lack of notation, and the process becomes easier.
For many musicians, memorised performance creates performance anxiety. These become less stressful as musicians experience performance success and learn to trust in the learning process. Stress is the enemy of memory. Consequently, worrying about a memory lapse may well be the cause of it. Learning to play from memory is primarily a right-brain skill, but when musicians worry about memory retrieval the focus shifts to the left hemisphere, and the memory-rescue problem persists. Practising in nervous situations will improve resilience to stress. Sometimes I learn the most difficult parts of a new piece first and challenge myself to convert these passages into easy bits. Unlike beginner musicians I rarely start practising from the beginning of a piece but proceed from many different starting points. If I do suffer a memory lapse, I will be in better shape to recover quickly.
Some people can play a piece from memory but like to have their music on the stand as a backup. This has never worked for me. I find that it confuses my brain, so for me it has to be one way or the other. I recall an occasion when I was playing piano in an outdoor concert with the school band. As we performed, a gust of wind blew away my music, and I panicked and lost my place. What surprised me was that I actually knew my part well and had no need for sheet music. Yet when I had the music in front of me it seemed like another part of my brain was taking over and being relied upon. If only I had a button to press so I could toggle my cognitive processes between the two hemispheres.
Practising in different physical environments is an effective way to strengthen memory. As we learn, our senses are receptive to the immediate environment, and the information we want to store becomes associated and connected with this environment. Specifically, the more ways in which musical information can be encoded the more likely one is to remember the material. If your instrument is portable, consider practising in different spaces, such as the bedroom, the lounge room, the garage, or even outdoors. Pianists should find unfamiliar pianos to play, as this prepares them for real-life situations. Beginner musicians require a private and quiet environment so they can concentrate and get into the flow of their learning. Children are susceptible to interruptions to concentration, and in this age of instant communication they require encouragement regarding the self-discipline required to regulate these diversions. Advanced musicians occasionally choose to practise in a difficult environment, such as a noisy one, to test their mettle.
This post will be continued soon with Part 3 of ‘Playing Music from Memory’.
from ‘Learning Strategies for Musical Success’ by Michael Griffin
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