Playing from memory – Memory process and its stages

Acquisition – memorisation stage

Acquisition is memorisation – which is a process of creating musical imagination and committing full musical image to memory, including all its elements: formal construction, melodic pattern, cadence, harmony, dynamics, tempo, articulation, all the performer’s emotions, as well as all the movements required for its production. If one is to achieve a lasting and reliable memory of some material, it needs to:

  • be seen – which involves taking in the entire musical notation and, depending on the existing knowledge and experiences, memorising as much important information from the text itself as possible,

  • be heard – which entails creating a certain logical whole in one’s musical imagination and hearing it with one’s inner ear,

  • be thoroughly understood – which encompasses, appropriately to the possessed knowledge, analysing a piece in detail, and while doing so – committing it to memory. Associations must be found between the information already remembered and the information to be learned,

  • involve making some movements related to it – that is, practising a piece with adequately chosen, well-thought-out moves, which in effect will ensure remembering and consolidating only the correct motor habits.

Memory storage

Memory storage is a skill of retaining what was committed to, recorded in memory, and it entails a clever repetition, planned out in time in such a way so as the remembered records are not weakened. Knowing our student’s capabilities, out of concern for keeping already practised and remembered repertoire items in their memory, the teacher must not allow those to be forgotten. This can be achieved through a variety of ways, e.g.: asking the student to present in class, within reasonable time periods, a fragment or the entirety of a piece, maybe two parts that differ slightly, in order to demonstrate that they remember such differing elements, or possibly a specific fragment, e.g. transposed into a different key, or only performing the left hand part, while humming the right hand part, or a quick fragment played in a very slow tempo, alternatively a fragment in piano dynamic played in forte dynamic.

Stage of retrieval from memory

While retrieving information from memory, it is important to make every effort to recollect a forgotten fragment on one’s own, without peeking into the scores. Such recollection helps one to believe in one’s ability, to find out that recreating forgotten content from memory is possible. Therefore, we need to bolster student’s conviction that a piece once learnt is recorded in their mind, and all that is required is finding a way to retrieve it from memory. A child that is unsure of their memory, who got used to the fact of forgetting, quickly gives up trying to recollect information and consequently loses already acquired knowledge. Memory retrieval might be the most critical process, since it frequently happens that a piece of information has been committed to memory, but it cannot be remembered. If in such a situation we decide to attempt to relearn the same material, the process is going to be much shorter and easier than the first time.
Thus, we should not allow our student to get accustomed to forgetting, to ‘losing access’ to a material once memorised, and most importantly, to lose faith in their memory, because such an attitude in conjunction with laziness may turn into a habit of forgetting. We need to make every effort to ensure that a child believes that they are able to retain the learnt material in memory. Let us remember, the more memory techniques we apply, the more pointers we give and the more information items we provide during memorisation process, the easier it will be to recreate the studied material with the use of such pointers.

Edyta Lajdorf BMus (Hons) RCM, MMus, LRSM (Teaching), SMISM

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