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Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

Memory's Mysterious Moods 2

Three steps to memorising music

The single greatest fear of all performing artists is that of forgetting. Never mind wrong notes, or playing out of time and out of tune, no, they are as nothing to ‘drying up.’ The very thought of coming to a grinding halt half-way through a piece in front of your family, friends or in concert, is enough to send a shiver up your spine. Nothing is more likely to undermine your confidence.
It is true some people have better memory than others. But then some people have greater facility than others. We have a natural predisposition for different aspects of playing and that includes memorising.

Technique is considered a matter of practise. Not so the ability to memorise, although Stravinsky didn’t think so when he played a recital of his own music and had a few memory lapses. After that he said he sat down to practise in such a way it wouldn’t happen again - and that was with his own compositions! On the other hand pianist Arthur Rubinstein had such a gift for memorising that he once accepted a wager and was locked into a room with a piano for a brief period whence he emerged able to play a new piece from memory. Toscanini was celebrated for conducting symphonies and operas entirely from memory.

There is only piece in the history of music I am certain you can all memorise in a trifle - John Cage's 4’33” seconds of silence! OK, joking apart, there are ways you can improve your memory and feel more confident about playing from memory. Broadly speaking the three key aspects of memorisation are:

1. Reflex
2. Visualisation
3. Association

1. Reflex memory is the most immediate. The fingers seem to have a mind of their own, which is good news. Finger memory is a sequential memory - once you get going it’s like an engine, it seems to go by itself. It is assisted and sometimes driven by playing it by ear, so do encourage your ear to lead you to the next note. But like engines, the ear and the fingers can go wrong unless you prop it up with.....

2. Visualisation
Anticipate the next move while playing very slowly. Plot the movement of each finger. Now put the guitar down and visualise the finger movements in slow motion to and from each fret and each string. Struggle for a minute or two and then pick up the guitar and play the same passage very slowly. Concentrate on remembering the fingering sequences. Now put the guitar down again and visualise it all. See, it’s easier now! You are creating the building blocks of a stronger memory.

So far we have aural, reflex and fingering-pattern memory. What else can we do to help the memory? Well how about the tried and tested method of all memory exercises - the association of ideas?

3. Association
In instrumental playing this means that placing a finger on the third string at the second fret produces the note A. It means that that the next passage is a fingering sequence like a scale of G backwards. It means that the next chord is not just four notes together but also C major at the third position.

In each of these examples the memory works like this -
reflex memory + visualisation of fingering patterns + musical recognition = strong memory

Here is a plan to try this out and check how reliable is your memory -

a). Play a brief passage you already think you have memorised.
b). Repeat very slowly anticipating in your mind the next moves.
c). Repeat a little faster.
d). Put the guitar down and visualise fingerings, frets and strings one at a time.
e). Play again and this time name the notes as you play them - all of them.
f). Put the guitar down and name the notes in slow sequence - all of them.
g). Try to recognise musical patterns, connections and harmonies.

Inside your brain you are at the cinema. You are watching a film of yourself playing the phrase.
Try to visualise the frets, strings, fingers, notes, musical patterns and harmonies at one and the same time!

If you have never done anything like this before you may find it difficult. But keep at it. You may never become as good as Rubinstein and Toscanini but you will be better by far than you were before.

This has been my rough guide to memorising music.

Read more:
Kato Havas: Stage Fright, its causes and cures

Igor Stravinsky: An Autobiography

Arthur Rubinstein: My Young Years


Listen to:
John Cage 4’33” (Silence)
BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lawrence Foster

April 2011

Printed from: http://www.carlosbonell.com/blog/?p=470 .
© 2019.

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