Monthly Archives: May 2015

The Nature of Memory, Part 2: The Principle of Forgetting

In my last post, I talked about learning new music phrase by phrase with great care. In short, the more musically you play and the deeper your emotional connection to the music, the more likely you are to remember it. After all, we tend to remember that which is very important to us.

But despite knowing this, there was a long period of time where I wondered why I still seemed to learn and memorize new music slower than some of my pianist friends and peers. I wasn’t sure if I learned particularly slow… I only knew that I didn’t learn particularly fast. Even though I was not conscious of all of the points I discussed in the previous post until very recently, I was still trying to learn music phrase by phrase to the best of my ability. When I finished learning new pieces, my memory appeared to be quite solid compared to others who had also recently finished learning new pieces. I felt that this was possibly because of the amount of thought and feeling that went into my learning of each phrase. However, the idea of learning more than a few pieces a year seemed impossible.

The other aspect of memory that had utterly eluded me until around two and a half months ago was what I like to call THE PRINCIPLE OF FORGETTING: When you forget something and have to remember it again, your memory of it will become more solid, particularly with repeated retrievals from your memory. At the same time, learning something new only once (whether it be a musical phrase or something else) will make it much more difficult to recall that phrase or fact reliably from your memory.

Previously, I would learn a musical phrase and try my best to solve all the technical, musical, and memory issues simultaneously. Let’s say that I learned four phrases within a practice session and that the music was quite difficult. Perhaps I spent 20 minutes on each phrase to make sure that each one was memorized solidly and that it was up to my musical standard. The next day, I would play through the music to see whether I had retained the sections that I had memorized the day before. Of course, I would always find that the memory was not solid because I had only practiced it for one day. Maybe I would then spend at least 15 minutes on each phrase (slightly faster than yesterday) in an effort to really get those phrases solidly into my long-term memory. After that, I would move on to learn new phrases.

Sometimes I would become frustrated that the memory work I had done the previous day always seemed to disappear so quickly. And even though I spent time each day carefully reviewing each phrase, results seemed to come slowly or at least inconsistently. I now realize that I should have used the “principle of forgetting” to my advantage.

Spending 20 minutes on each phrase is an example of massed practice, which essentially means little or no rest between trials. This is what I was doing when I would try to achieve “perfect memory” of each phrase before moving on to the next one. Even when I would review already-learned phrases in subsequent days, I would also engage in massed practice, working on each phrase until it seemed solidly memorized and then moving on to the next one. It felt like I was accomplishing something significant, but the work was slow and I didn’t seem to learn very quickly.

An example of distributed practice – resting for longer between trials – would be more like the following:

  • Learn / memorize the first phrase for 5 minutes, trying hard to make the memory solid but realizing that it is not necessary for the memory to be “perfect” before moving on.
  • Spend 5 minutes each memorizing the second phrase, the third phrase, and then the fourth phrase.
  • Go back to the beginning and again spend 5 minutes on each phrase. You can also begin to link the phrases together as you go through the process multiple times.
  • Even if you go through this process only four times (resulting in 20 minutes spent on each phrase, the same amount of time as in massed practice), the music should be much better memorized than it would have been through the use of massed practice.

Dr. Sean Kang of Dartmouth College says:

In the research literature, the learning advantage of distributed over massed practice is known as the spacing effect. In general, the research evidence is clear that spaced or distributed practice is superior to massed practice for long-term learning and retention. Even when the total time spent on studying or practice is equated, if the review(s) is/are spaced apart rather than massed, long-term learning is enhanced.

When you move on from the first phrase to the second phrase, you will almost immediately forget the first phrase you memorized. This is desirable!! The more times that you have to retrieve something from your memory, the better it will be retained. This is referred to as the “study-phase retrieval theory”.

Distributed practice does not try to fight the fact that you will forget things when you first learn them. By initially spending only 5 minutes on memorizing each phrase and acknowledging that you will forget the phrases, you will save yourself a lot of time and frustration. When you re-memorize the phrases for the second, third, and fourth times, you should find that the memorization process goes much faster because the phrases are like old friends. Also, again, each subsequent retrieval will make the memory more solid and dependable. Conversely, massed practice does not allow adequate time for you to forget material, meaning less opportunities to practice retrieval and more wasted time.

I will continue my discussion on this concept in my next post!

The Nature of Memory, Part 1: What It Means to Learn a Phrase

blog5-7-15memory2 The huge change that recently took place in my practicing is comprised primarily of three main ideas. These ideas are very often used together or to support one another, and all of them have made an enormous difference both in how quickly I learn music and in how I am able to maintain the repertoire I can already play. The first of these Big Ideas has to do with the nature of memory. Some questions I have asked myself (and occasionally others) about memory over the years:

  • How can you memorize music effectively in the most efficient way possible?
  • How can you keep the music that you’ve memorized so far in your memory while continuing to learn new music?
  • How can you keep the music that you’ve learned not only memorized, but always performance-ready or at least near performance-ready (in other words, it takes time to maintain physical technique as well)?
  • How can you significantly reduce the possibility of memory slips?

Here are some answers I have heard from others:

  • I learn the piece with the music first. I take the time to memorize the piece at some later point.
  • I don’t make any sort of extra effort to memorize music. I play the piece with the music, and eventually it will simply be memorized.
  • I consciously make the effort to memorize the music as I learn it.
  • I memorize separate hands (or left hand alone) for certain sections or pieces in order to reduce the possibility of memory problems.
  • I purposely create “emergency memory spots” in my music that I can jump to in case of a memory problem. For instance, say that a short piece has eight distinct sections. I practice so that I can instantly start from the beginning of each of those eight sections if needed.

I will talk about my personal solution to keeping a good number of pieces at least near performance-ready at a later point. The ideas of memorizing separate hands and creating “emergency memory spots” will be addressed within the next few posts. In any case, I came to the conclusion that memorizing the music while learning it for the first time is the most efficient solution. Learning / memorizing should be one process. If you wait until a performance is close to memorize a piece of music, it is very likely that the memory will be unreliable. By memorizing a piece first, all subsequent practicing without the score will reinforce the memory. In addition, the piece will obviously spend a much greater amount of time in your memory before you perform, which will also make it more solid and dependable. When I memorize, I do so phrase by phrase, trying to create larger phrases whenever possible. For non-musicians, this means that I separate the music into logical, musically sensible sections that each express a coherent thought. There are many exceptions, of course, but phrases can often be four bars or eight bars in length. I also do not believe in the idea of “play the notes first, add the music later”. In other words, from the beginning, when I am learning the first phrase, I am trying to do the following:

  • Follow all written markings, including notes, rhythm, articulation, dynamics, tempo indications, performance directions, etc. (anything that is printed on the score)
  • Decide what I am trying to show the audience in this phrase and adjust my balance accordingly. Play that line or voice somewhat louder while playing everything of lesser importance somewhat quieter (or a lot quieter).
  • Voice all chords. Decide which note is most important and make that note somewhat louder, while playing the other notes somewhat quieter (or a lot quieter).
  • Shape everything. The melody or most important line can have larger shapes (crescendos and decrescendos that may not be indicated in the score), while the accompaniment or all less important lines can have smaller shapes.
  • Using a combination of prior knowledge and research (e.g. listening to a few recordings), have some awareness of the style and period of the piece and specifically the compositional style of the composer. If you have never even heard the piece before or you don’t know it really well, listening to a few recordings will give you some idea of how quickly or slowly the piece is normally played, what sort of rubato (taking of time for expressive purposes) may be appropriate, how to better interpret the articulation and dynamic markings, subtle characteristic elements of the music that are difficult to notate, etc. etc.
  • Try to decide on appropriate pedalings. Past experience, listening to recordings, and just listening to yourself carefully can help a lot here.
  • Contemplate what the character of the piece may be. Is it carefree, majestic, desolate, furious, mysterious, anxious, jubilant, nostalgic, transcendental…?
  • Maintain a steady tempo (unless, of course, tempo changes are indicated and/or the piece does not call for you to maintain a steady tempo) and have an idea of what my performance tempo will be. Play at the performance tempo if possible. If it is not possible, have some idea of how to reach the performance tempo in the future.
  • Have an awareness of the meter. A piece in three feels very different from a piece in four, for instance. To have a sensitivity of the hierarchy of the beats (e.g. the first beat being the most important) is also important. This awareness may somehow influence the way the phrase is shaped, the way certain timings are taken, and many other subtleties.
  • Play with a beautiful sound. One of the greatest misconceptions laypeople have about the piano is that it is like typing – you press the key and the sound comes out. This would be more true of the organ, which invariably sounds beautiful (assuming it is a good instrument) no matter how you depress the key. On the piano, the slightest change in the speed of the attack, the use of the pedals, the use of balance and voicing, the portion of the finger utilized, the tiniest tension in any part of the body, the way one LEAVES the keys, and many other factors will all subtly affect the beauty of the sound. This is because the way the playing mechanism of the piano – hammers striking strings – is highly sensitive to the smallest changes. I am sure I will talk about this more at some point in the future as well. I try very hard to play this new phrase with a beautiful sound (unless there is something about the music that requires me to play with an ugly or jarring sound). If I cannot, I at least have some idea of what a beautiful sound is so I know how far away I am from my goal. Again, listening to recordings of great pianists helps a lot.
  • Play with a very good technique (physically relaxed, smooth, efficient movements). This often affects your ability to accomplish everything else that I listed.
  • The most important thing: Establish an emotional connection with the music that transcends the intellectual. Attempt to communicate an emotion / intention / message to the imaginary audience.

blog5-7-15memory I often hear the complaint that there simply is not enough time to do all of this. I think the point is that you are making your best effort to do all of the above (and whatever else you feel is necessary). If it is totally overwhelming, at least try to focus on one or two elements at a time as you learn new phrases, and over time, try to incorporate more and more. Eventually all of the aforementioned elements will become an intrinsic part of the learning process (just like, for instance, simply playing the notated rhythms correctly). I definitely am not successful in all of the points I listed when I first learn a phrase, but the point is, I’m trying. For example, it was very difficult for me to balance and voice things correctly when I first started studying piano seriously. I would often put it off until later, or worse, completely forget to do it at all! But because I got into the habit of trying to sight-read pieces with good balance and voicing, I can now incorporate those elements when learning new music without a second thought. You tend to remember the things you care deeply about. The more details you know about a person, for instance, the more likely you are to remember him / her. By attempting to learn the phrase with this much detail, you give each note deep meaning and direction, and it becomes much more likely that you will remember the phrase as a single, very meaningful unit. It is much easier for the mind to remember the phrase as a large, meaningful chunk rather than as single notes or small groups of notes. Both muscle memory and your mental picture of the phrase will be extremely clearly defined, making it very difficult to forget. In addition, I always tell my students this:

If you play extremely musically, it is much easier to feel emotionally connected to the music. If you are emotionally connected to the music, you will demand of yourself extremely musical playing.

In other words, high musical standards and powerful emotional connections to your music-making can feed off of one another and make each other stronger. Feeling great emotion while playing of course makes it much easier to communicate a message to the audience, and again also makes memory slips much more unlikely. And besides, that emotion is the whole reason why we are making music in the first place! This post turned out much longer than I originally intended, but congratulations if you got to the end! I would say it was only during the course of preparations for my recent recital that I began to feel like I have a better control over all of these elements when I am learning new music. However, I did not yet talk about any of the huge changes that I made recently. Next time I will explain the first reason why, despite all of this, my learning of new repertoire was still too slow!