Memory in Action: Part 1

One of the most frequent comments I receive after concerts is in fact a question:

How do you remember all those notes?!

Blinking in the bright lights, I often mumble something indistinct about repetition in practice and starting young. Occasionally I have the presence of mind to quip that I do not remember all the notes at once; just the next one.

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I put my hands up now and admit that neither of these are good answers.

 

 

I am currently memorising music to perform as conductor rather than cellist, which is a novel prospect for me, and one which caused me to think more clearly about how memory works for me.

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A friend recently shared this picture on social media which highlighted for me an important point in the process of memorisation, and one which possibly explains why many people find it difficult to be 100% confident performing from memory.

At first glance, the top of this pyramid seems to be the ideal state – Know it so well you don’t have to think about it. In this case, when you are on stage, your brain can leave the more mundane requirements, like playing the right notes, up to autopilot and busy itself with the real reason we play music at all – communication. But what happens when your brain, in its adrenaline-fuelled state of heightened awareness, notices in its peripheral ‘vision’ that your fingers are flying all over the instrument in a blur of virtuosity and cannot resist engaging?

This is, I believe, a prime time for the disaster feared by every musician: a memory lapse. Your heart starts hammering in your ears, fingers suddenly become clammy, time slows down (or speeds up) and you have to either improvise your way back in, or stop. Stuff of nightmares!

When your brain has a chance to second-guess the muscle-memory you have drilled into your body, there can be a painful gap as the autopilot stalls and the brain, which has shut down its right-sided functions to fire on all its creative cylinders, cannot immediately take over.

Therefore we must strive for a higher level of ‘Mastery’ when memorising music:

Know it so well that even when you do think about it you still know it.

 

How is this achieved? Conscious practice, tricks and exercises to programme the correct movements into the brain from all possible angles, mental visualisation, a knowledge of an entire score so thorough you can see clearly where you are, where you have been and where you are going at every moment.

Watch this space for my next blog post which will delve into the details of these methods which have helped me to memorise all sorts of repertoire, including complex contemporary pieces like this one:

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