Having a memory slip in the middle of a performance is any musician's nightmare and let’s face it, it's embarrassing. For most performers, it’s one of the biggest anxiety-producing aspects of a live performance. Many people whom we meet have a good memory but are in fact no better than the rest of us. They have just learnt what memory methods work for them and which doesn’t, while the rest of us just hope we don’t forget. The good news is that entire books have been written about memory.
Scientists have made and are still making new discoveries about learning and memory all the time. Studies have proven there are more than a few tips and methods that can help you improve your memory. Here are a few tips that you can try out to improve your memory.
Organization doesn’t just refer to you knowing where your sheet music is, or filing it in alphabetical order. In this case, it refers to arranging your music material into different groups.
Studies have shown that humans excel at finding patterns. Our ability to cope with different patterns helps us to find items and process information easier and faster, as well as dealing with ideas and abstract concepts.
Organizing your music into groups, subgroups, and hierarchies of subgroups will help you learn the music. In other words, take a look at the music structure of the piece and divide it into sections with similar rhythms, note values, and tempo markings.
The goal is to help you understand and learn a piece of music. The similarities will help you in grasping the musical patterns, and at the end will help you remember better.
This is an obvious one, but it’s important to remember that practice increases the strength in which music is encoded in our memory.
Rehearsal is extremely important if you want to sound better and improve your playing skills. However, what some of us do during rehearsal might be considered a mindless repetition. This is especially true when we play something over and over without thinking about it.
As musicians, we can’t solely rely on muscle memory to take care of our business on-stage. Our goal must be to vary the ways in which we practice and encode the music into our memory. This includes forcing ourselves to recall the needed information through different methods.
Here are a few simple tips and techniques that you can try at your next practice session:
- Hum the entire piece without looking at your sheet music.
- Visualize the score in your head and mentally “play” through the song.
- Play the piece on your instrument from beginning to end, without making a sound.
It might feel silly in the beginning, but once you begin reaping the benefits, it won’t feel that silly anymore. If you can imagine and visualize yourself doing it, your fear of forgetting will slowly disappear.
Understanding a piece of music will provide you a proper foundation to work from. What do you think would happen if people sang a song or gave a speech that they didn’t understand? They would mispronounce words and take a pause at inappropriate times which would break down the performance.
No artist can rely only on just technique. Emotion plays a vital part in the success of your performance and whether you can rope in the audience. This means you need to make the piece of music more than just a compilation of notes and sounds.
To give the music more life, you need to link memories, images, characteristics, and emotions to the notes, phrases, and sections of the piece. The more vivid and specific these elements are, the better the music will be etched into your brain.
Studies have shown that our brains are excellent at retaining musical memory and that it’s linked to our autobiographical memory, like relationships and events.
In other words, when you choose a piece that you can relate to, you will understand the music better. And, if you understand it better, you will remember it!
Traditionally, memorizing music is done through repetition until it becomes automatic. But with more recent studies, repetition has proved that it's not the most efficient way to learn and improve your memory overall.
Here are three new methods for you to try:
1. Shadow Practicing
Start by playing through your piece of music without your instrument in your hands. When you make a mistake, repeat the passage four times while looking at the sheet music. Thereafter, repeat the step without looking at the sheet music and then continue with the piece.
Experts advise that you do shadow practicing before going to bed. Some studies suggest that your brain automatically rehearses what you did before going to bed throughout the night.
Through this process, your active memory becomes stronger and stronger. And with time, the piece becomes more solid and reliable.
2. Interleaved Practice
Instead of mindless repetition, choose a few sections that you find difficult and divide it into smaller pieces that you can work on. During your practice session, alternate between the different sections. Don’t spend more than five minutes working on the same section.
This is also known as interleaved practice, which is a very effective way for many musicians to avoid the repetition of getting bored.
Practicing in shorter intervals keeps your brain processing at faster speeds which boost your memory. In other words, these fast transitions allow your brain to work harder as it tries to figure out what to do next. It forces you to remain alert, thus giving you the upper hand in better memory.
3. Method of Loci
This method, also known as a memory castle, is where you link new material with locations or routines like your daily commute.
Malcolm Lowe once explained that he conceptualized each piece of music as a journey. The beginning of the piece is his starting point (e.g. leaving his house) and then he will trace a route like sitting on a bench, buying a hot dog, and watching kids play in a park before returning home, which resembles the end of the piece.
Linking the music to imaginary situations or places helps you in creating a believable story for yourself, which will help you remember the journey and the changes in the piece.
These methods might seem like a lot of work and effort, but how much fun is mindless repetition anyway? At the end, you may even reach a point where you might not get the music out of your head even if you tried.
About the Author: Joseph Evans
My name is Joseph Evans and I am a guitar playing, freelance writing, online teaching music lover based in Seattle, WA. Growing up in a musical family naturally lead to obtaining my Bachelor of Music (BM) in Composition & Music Theory degree, after which I taught and traveled my way across Europe for 7 years before returning back home to settle in beautiful Seattle. On a typical day, you would find me playing my guitar, pottering around in the vegetable garden, going on long hikes, reading and/or writing.