Is your memory better than you might think?

This is a tale of two halves.

A few years ago I was having difficulty sleeping at night, and someone suggested to me that the way to clear stressful thoughts was not to try to stop thinking, but to think instead of non-stressful things. I guess that’s where counting sheep comes in. I really can’t remember why, but I decided that I would memorise digits of Pi – just one long endless, random number which holds no fears.

3.1415926535897932384626433832795028841971

See, pretty harmless eh? I started out learning 10 digits at a time, in groups of three, three and four numbers ie 141  592  6535, and would go to bed with the next ten running around my head, mulling over any triggers and patterns which might help me to remember them. I would then learn the next ten, and see whether I could add them to the previous set. All very stress-free. The thing is, after a month or two I had reached 500!! Five HUNDRED digits, recited in my head or out loud, from memory.

I learned two things from this exercise; the obvious one is that I have some obsessive tendencies (although to be fair I think I already knew that.) The other is that the human brain is simply extraordinary.

Actually, I suspect that in our modern world we are exceptionally lazy when it comes to remembering things. There are far too many easy options which lead us to bypass using our brains: reading and writing for instance – if we write something down, we don’t need to remember it. But if we really put our mind to it (quite literally in fact) we might be surprised by what we can remember.

Part two.

When I was in my teens I played piano pieces from memory, but this was only ever a rudimentary muscle memory which worked until the tiniest of slips occurred, at which point everything stopped very abruptly; no one ever taught me a systematic and fail-safe way of remembering music. Since then, as a schoolmaster, I have always been an accompanist first and foremost, and so I have always had the music in front of me. Until recently I had never considered that I might ever be a real pianist, since real pianists play from memory and I couldn’t do that.

Two years ago I had a conversation with a former Monkton pupil, a music scholar here in the 1970s – a conversation which was to transform my musical life. He didn’t go into music but continued to play the piano, and in his mid 30s he decided that he was going to learn Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no.1 from memory, and give a performance with orchestra in front of a large audience of invited friends. It was an inspiring story, and left me thinking that if this man, with all respect just an amateur musician, could do this, then surely I could too?

Enter Mozart’s Piano Concerto no.20 in d minor, K466, a work which I have loved since my childhood. With a performance date set for June 2011, I gave myself six months to learn the whole concerto from memory. It was a thrilling a deeply empowering experience, and by March I knew that I would meet my target. By June I was as well prepared as I have ever been for anything, and I was very pleased with the performance, which I directed from the keyboard (I can’t think why, maybe just to make it a little more difficult!)

I learned two things from this exercise; the first is that, with a growth mindset, we can achieve things which are way, way beyond what we might at first imagine are possible. The other one is actually a question, and one which I now find myself asking, as a teacher, on a daily basis: why is it that we allow our pupils, whatever their level, to continue to read the same music week after week, sometimes even month after month? Is it because we don’t think it’s important to learn this skill (it is by the way!) or is it because we don’t think that they can do it? If we help them to really put their mind to it, we (and they!) might just be surprised by what they can achieve.

The numerous layers which go into forming that fail-safe memory are for another blog, but what I have discovered – sadly far too late in life, but I intend to catch up now! – is how liberating it is to really know the music which you are playing. One of the most exciting aspects of this, for me at least, is the intimacy which this creates; ultimately it’s just me, my fingers and the keyboard, which is so exciting.  And for a pianist, this means that you can watch the choreography of your hands (which is in itself a memory trigger) and, without the worry of having to work out what notes are coming next, you really can just focus on the music itself.

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3 responses to “Is your memory better than you might think?

  1. Pingback: ‘My piece is in…F? G? Er, I don’t know!’ | music@monkton

  2. Excellent post – is amazing what you can do if you set your mind to it, and it is hugely satisfying to achieve. We sing Messiah from memory – yes ALL of it!
    Started by doing just 4 choruses from memory, then adding another 4 or so a year – since 2006 our annual performances have been entirely from memory – no scores on stage at all. Very scary, but enormously satisfying to achieve!

  3. Please let me know when you’re next singing Messiah, I’d love to see this in action! Impressive 🙂

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