2014 Clavier Companion Collegiate Writing Contest
In the Spring of 2014, Clavier Companion sponsored its seventh annual Collegiate Writing Contest, inviting college students from around the world to submit 1,500 word essays on a pedagogical topic of their choice. The esteemed panel of judges was comprised of Linda Christensen, Andrea McAlister, and Lesley Sisterhen McAllister. We extend our congratulations to Wen Ling Chua, whose winning essay appears here. Two runner up essays, "Stopping Injury Before it Begins," by Sarah Rushing, and "A Brazilian Mountain Sketched in Music," by Christopher Madden, are published on our website and can be viewed at claviercompanion.com. We extend our congratulations to all of the entrants in a very strong field.
A closer look at strategies for memorization
Memorization is an important element of solo piano performance. The practice of playing from memory began in the mid-nineteenth century as a way to impress audiences and has been expected of solo pianists since.1 Contemporary pianists have maintained the tradition of performing from memory in competitions, solo recitals, and concerto performances. Memorizing a work requires the pianist to expend extra effort during the learning stage. Although some might find memorization an easy task, others struggle with committing a piece to memory or fear memory slips on stage. Thus, memorization can become one of the biggest challenges for pianists learning new repertoire. One reason for this may be a lack of effective memorizing strategies.
There are four fundamental types of memory involved in music learning and memorization:
Analytical memory (also known as intellectual memory) is the memory of facts and knowledge. In music, analytical memory involves the understanding and remembering of a piece's theoretical details or the recognition of patterns on a page.
Auditory memory (also called aural memory) is the ability to remember what something sounds like, and it allows us to imagine the sound of music internally, with or without a score.
Visual memory is the memory of how something looks. In music, this can be how something looks on the page or how our hands look on the keyboard.
Motor memory (also known as tactile, kinesthetic, or muscle memory) involves the memory of how we move our bodies, and it allows us to play through music without conscious attention to what is going on.
Many learning guides address the four fundamental types of memory in music learning and memorization and encourage the learner to develop each to its fullest extent. Music learning certainly involves the amalgamation of several memory systems, which ultimately provides the foundation for many of the skills needed to perform music. However, pedagogical discussions regarding learning, including memorization, rarely begin with the development of skills through a combined approach to enhancing memory.
A memory starts to form when we experience something in our environment, such as seeing or hearing a short melody.2 With this sensory memory, the brain retains an impression of what is seen or heard for immediate use. When that same experience is repeated, the short-term memory is activated.3 When the experience is repeated over and over again, the brain keeps the information indefinitely available: The repetitions create connections among neurons in the brain that are activated each time the experience is repeated, until the pathways among the neurons become permanent. Long-term memory processes are activated upon prolonged repetition of the experience. Long-term memory is relatively permanent storage; the signals through the neural pathways now fire quite easily, and we can recall memories formed hours, days, and even years before.
Memory consolidation—the act of moving through these stages—relies heavily upon repetition. The consolidation process begins with practice, but memory formation also requires rest in order to be completed.4 Even after we stop practicing, our brains continue to replay the new memories, and the neural connections that were formed are further activated. Thus, our brains keep practicing, even though we are not consciously working.5 Memory consolidation continues during sleep; this important step results in stable memories.6 Memories are also reconsolidated after they are recalled, which helps modify, refine, and strengthen them.
The following strategies for improving music memory are based on this learning and memory formation process and can help pianists approach some aspects of skill acquisition and refinement more effectively.
Begin memorizing early in the learning process
Many students begin memorizing a piece after it is well polished; however, the process of memorization requires them to essentially relearn the piece, ultimately making memorization take much longer than the initial learning of the piece. Developing a secure memory of a piece requires repeated rehearsing without the score. Why not begin the memorization process as soon as possible? Memorizing early provides more chances to play without the score. Beginning the process of memorization at the onset of learning the piece forces us to pay more attention to things we do not usually attend to when we are looking at the score, for example, the keys and our hands. This is something we can incorporate early in order to move the memorization process along more efficiently.
Memorize in small sections
During a memorized performance, performers often recall a linked series of several memorized sections. These separate sections are usually formed in rehearsals, during the memorization process. Small memorized sections are easier for the brain to recall than long sections. When memorized segments become too long, we tend to remember the beginning and the end of the segment, but have a shaky memory of what comes in between.7 This, called the serial position effect, provides a reason for keeping sections of learning short and manageable.
Identify memory cues
Cues play an important role in learning and memory. When we memorize in manageable sections, memory cues are naturally formed. While cues serve to prompt a memory of the material that follows, they also provide starting points that can be used in case of memory slips during performance.8 Remembering cues can ensure a strong memorized performance. Such cues may include the beginning of a section or phrase, a cadence, special chords, or places that the performer has difficulty remembering. For contrapuntal music, the beginnings of every subject, counter subject, and answer could serve as cues. Cues do not necessarily indicate only large sections; they can also mark smaller sections or even individual measures.
Vary your practicing
Varying the way you practice a skill makes the learning of the skill even stronger.9 Varying practice approaches is effective primarily because the learner is prompted to stay focused and engaged during the learning process. Each time an aspect of the practice is changed, be it tempo, articulation, rhythm, or even practice environment, the learner's attention to the skill is heightened.10 For example, playing a known piece or section at a slower tempo requires intense concentration. Some techniques that add variation, and consequently heightened mental engagement, include practicing hands separately, playing one hand loudly while the other hand shadows silently, playing one hand and singing the melody of the other, practicing on different pianos, or playing for different people.11 These tasks are difficult, especially when practicing from memory, but the extra cognitive involvement and focus may result in stronger memories.
Strengthen all your senses
Engaging all four types of memory—auditory, visual, motor, and analytical—as much as possible during the memorization process may yield stronger memories. Pianists can engage their auditory memories by listening carefully to the music they play as they memorize. Away from the piano, they can practice hearing the music in their heads (without playing).12 Other approaches include playing and listening to polyphonic lines separately, listening to different recordings of a piece, and singing along while playing.13
Pianists can develop their visual memories by memorizing parts of a score through silent reading.14 Making a connection between what we see on the keyboard and what we hear serves to further strengthen the memories being formed. Other common memorization approaches include alternating between playing and silently visualizing a few measures, and supporting motor memory by focusing on what our hands on the piano look like at certain spots in the music.15
The analytical memory of what one is learning is very important because it can provide cues that trigger the motor memory. Analytical memory can involve recognizing key signatures, harmonic progressions, or patterns in the music. This can also include remembering the story behind a certain piece or the mood or color of a particular chord. Analysis benefits the performance of a piece on many levels, including its memorization.
Once the brain has formed a memory of a skill, it is activated every time the skill is merely imagined. Mental practice that focuses on what a piece sounds like, looks like on the page or on the keyboard, or feels like in our bodies activates the neural connections associated with that skill.16 In short, we're practicing to an extent without the physical exertion. An interesting approach to mental practice comes from Dr. Noa Kageyama, a music psychologist, who recommends lying down and relaxing the entire body when practicing mentally.17 This mental rehearsal approach helps musicians associate a feeling of calm and ease with the memory of the skill.
A thorough understanding of the brain's processes in forming memories can lead to much more effective practices in developing musical memory. Keeping abreast of current research on memory is an important part of honing a best-practices approach to effectively developing the memory. Memory formation does not happen in a short time; it happens and is refined over hours, days, and even months. Careful practice spread out over time allows the brain to reconsolidate our memories. The most effective and efficient memorization strategies can vary between musicians, so understanding our own how we learn and tailoring an approach that works for each of us will yield the best results.
1 Gordon, S. (2013). "A Choice to be Made," Clavier Companion 5 (4), p. 12.
2 Cherry, K. (n.d.). "What is Memory? An Overview of Memory and How it Works," About Education, retrieved from psychology.about.com.
4 Cash, C.D. (2009). "Effects of Early and Late Rest Intervals on Performance and Overnight Consolidation of a Keyboard Sequence." Journal of Research in Music Education, 57 (3), p. 263.
6 Duke, R.A., & Davis, C.M. (2006), "Procedural Memory Consolidation in the Performance of Brief Keyboard Sequences. Journal of Research in Music Education, 54 (2), p. 120.
7 McLeod, S. (2014). "Serial Position Effect", Simply Psychology, retrieved from simplypsychology.org.
8 Newman, W. S. (1986). The Pianist's Problems. New York: Da Capo Press, p. 137.
9 Kageyama, N. (2010), "Does Mental Practice Work?" The Bulletproof Musician, retrieved from bulletproofmusician.com.
10 Mishra, J. (2005). "A Theoretical Model of Musical Memorization." Psychomusicology 19 (1), p. 6.
12 Mishra, J. (2002). "Approaches to Memorizing," Flute Talk 21 (5), p. 18.
13 Wan, H.Y.A. (2008). Physical and Mental Issues in Piano Performance: The Interrelationships between Physical Tension, Performance Anxiety, and Memorization Strategies. Saarbrücken, Germany: VDM Verlag, p. 70.
14 Ibid., p. 71.
15 Ibid, p. 76.