Nov 282007

Recent exchanges on the MusicalFossils message board expressing concern about memory lapses offer valuable insights. I would like to talk about this issue from a different perspective than I have before.

I often hear my adult students bemoan that they don’t memorize as well as they did as children. The next statement usually has something to do with aging and memory loss. I refuse to accept that thinking except in extreme cases.

Memorizing is a skill that most adults no longer practice and that children do on a daily basis. If we as adults kept up our memorizing skills we would be more confident and capable — but we don’t. When was the last time we memorized a poem, verse or anything else? As it is, we have to refresh our memorizing skills all over again.

Successfully memorizing a piece of music is not so much an age related problem as a skill related problem. The skill of memorizing is like the skill of practicing. The habits that make for successful practicing make for successful memorizing. The issue is in the nature of the musical learning task and the adult (not aged) mind. In practicing, memorizing and performance situations, the interventions of the conscious mind (the verbal, wordy mind) are troublesome at best and catastrophic at its worst.

These interventions are least intrusive when playing at home, without an audience and on one’s own instrument. That is the safest playing environment. Music lessons increase the risk and for most, actual performance can feel down right life threatening. In those situations we search increasingly in our conscious, wordy minds for safety.

In most risky situations, we have found verbal reasoning to be a useful defense, but in musical memory and performance, it simply doesn’t work. It is a poor choice even though it feels intuitively correct. This kind of thinking wrecks physical performance tasks. Just as an athlete or video game player fails by going into the verbal, conscious mind during combat, so too does the performing musician.


A student lent me a DVD called “Wired to Win” about the neurology of bicycling and the Tour de France. The first two minutes are graphics of the brain during a physical learning experience like none I’ve seen before. It clearly shows how little the brain uses the verbal mind to learn physical tasks.

The graphics show the disorganized neurological firings that occur during the first attempts of learning a physical task. As the task is correctly repeated, the firings become more organized and occur as clumps of activity. Finally, in the mastered physical task, the whole task fires at once and the action becomes automatic.

Two things seem very clear to me. The first is that wrong repetitions produce wrong learning. The second is that physical learning takes place by physical repetition and nothing else. There are very few places for words in this process.

Skeet Shooting

My son Joe tells the story of going skeet shooting for the first time with his friend Casey. They were working with an instructor with mixed results. Joe’s friend was doing much better than he was, until the teacher vastly complicated the field of play by having two clays come out from the left and right simultaneously. To his suprise, Joe hit both clays. Looking at his friend, he saw amazement. Joe asked him why he was so surprised that he got them both. Casey replied he wasn’t surprised that he hit both clays, but that the instructor had told him that Joe would get them both on his first try.

The teacher knew that Joe had all the theory and mechanics right, but he was thinking too much. By complicating the task, Joe had no time to think. It worked. The same thing often happens when playing a fast piece from memory, it can be easier than a slow one. There’s no time to think and worry.


The implications for practice are clear. The playing must be done both correctly and often. Hours of practicing with varieties of incorrectness produce jumbles of neurological responses with no clear pattern emerging. One never knows what will come forth and the result is total lack of confidence.

This means doing everything correctly. Admittedly, this is a very tall order. Right notes, yes, but also right rhythms and no pauses, right movements of the fingers, arms, and body. This is why simplifying the practice task is often recommended. Clapping the rhythm is easier than trying to get the right notes and rhythms all at once. Getting everything correct hands separately is easier than together, at least for pianists. Playing slowly enough to do it right each time and gradually speeding up the process works wonders. Working on small bits over and over rather than going through the whole piece is less demanding, more successful and more encouraging. Whatever approach one uses, practice correctly as much as possible.

Words are useless here. It makes no difference what words run through your head, they have no impact on the actual learning. Rant and rave all you want, it has no impact on the actual learning. Talk to yourself, complain about your stupidity, swear at yourself or the music, it’s irrelevant to learning the physical task. Save the energy and put it into meaningful practice.

Words can be useful before and after practicing a section. Seeing patterns of repetition and differences on the printed page can help the body do it right. Seeing patterns of physical repetition and difference are helpful. After the fact, seeing exactly what was wrong helps, especially when the wrong is corrected at the sensory level.

Memorizing as a Wordless Activity

Recently an adult student said to me, “I know that I know what’s coming next but I don’t know how I know.” I think that “I don’t know how I know” feels very unsafe to adults. To children it is second nature, for they have not yet developed the consciousness to know that they can know how they know. We, in a situation where we have to learn to feel safe, know that we don’t know how we know. Where do we keep our knowing?

It is the nature of human learning that we automate new knowledge and skills, such as speaking a language or driving an automobile, so they do not continue to require of us the level of explicit awareness that was necessary during the learning stage. As mastery is attained, they drop into the accumulated repertoire of the subconscious —- thus freeing the conscious mind for the new and unfamiliar. Living consciously does not mean that we retain in explicit awareness everything we ever learned, which would be neither possible nor desirable. —Nathaniel Branden in The Six Pilliars of Self-Esteem  (1995, Bantam Books)

We must not attempt to keep the details in the conscious mind. We must be willing to trust “the accumulated repertoire of the subconscious,” even as we know it will sometimes fail.

I continue to believe that a large part of the answer to memory lapses is to focus the brain on awareness of the physical, auditory and visual sensations of playing and to always deal with what comes next in these terms. There is no place for words for it’s all about sensation. Counting to the motions of the large muscle of the body not only helps manage all the physical tasks, it keeps the verbal mind busy and focused on the body doing the work.

Meditative mantras are sometimes considered “mind protection” for it’s much harder to think vile, lascivious, murderous thoughts while saying a mantra than when the verbal mind is free. In the same way, counting the beats can be considered “mind protection” for it helps us avoid saying all those judgments and warnings that throw us off track during our playing, especially from memory.

There is no better way to guarantee failure than to see all memory attempts as tests. “Let’s see if I can do it this time?” Maybe it works some times, but mostly the performer within us steps aside to be the judge and forgets to be the performer and failure is assured. If the performer is not fully present, nobody else will be either.

No Guarantees

Nonetheless, failures occur. They occur in all our endeavors no matter how much confidence we have or skills we possess. Most of us feel comfortable driving a car even though the constant possibilities for death and destruction are impressive. Accidents do happen — and some are our fault, others’ fault or no one’s fault. How we handle those accidents might tell us something about our reactions to memory lapses.

After a car accident our driving is different. A very few people conclude that driving is too unsafe and quit. Some are traumatized and have considerable difficulties getting over the crash. Some become attached to the great cautiousness of trying to avoid another crash. Most of us feel a period of caution and drive more carefully and attentively for a while and then regain our old confidence.

We can see all these reactions to failures in musical memory and/or performance. We do have a choice in which route we take. We can say we’re too old and not try anymore, so that’s the end of that. We can become super cautious and our playing will be boring. Or, we can be unsure and vulnerable for the next attempts and get over it until it happens again — then realize that failure is part of life and move on.

When we know there is no guarantee and don’t feel the tremendous need for a guarantee, we begin to be able to memorize and to perform freely. When we begin to accept who we are as amateur performers, then we can share with pleasure what we know. If it doesn’t work, we can shrug our shoulders and say maybe next time.

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