We’ve all had them. Memory lapses while playing. You hit the third part of your march and draw a blank. An inability to recall the start of a tune you want to play. How do you overcome those moments and what can you do to make sure they never happen?
Learning some important facts about how human memory works can lead us to some great insight and methods to ensure we don’t forget that third part of the march, or the next variation of that piobaireachd, or the name of that tune. First though, let’s first bust a few myths about memory.
• Our memory works nothing like a computer or a video camera. “Photographic memory” is a misnomer. The way our memory works is vastly more complicated than any computer or camera and is influenced by a host of factors. The process of making memories is deeply connected to learning and requires our brains to create actual structures that are connected to other structures, all of them interconnected. (For the sake of ease and expediency, I’ll use computer-centric terms like “retrieval” and “storage,” even though our brains work nothing like that. A good overview of this is found in this article.
• Memory does not decay nor does it deteriorate significantly as we age. All the research indicates that human memory has limitless capacity. It is recall that is the issue. Research has shown that, in typical brains, rehearsing something for just 40 seconds is enough to move that memory out of short-term, working memory and form the connections needed for long-term recall. Once you learn that tune, it’s learned. Forgetting it or losing recall of notes or parts is a function of retrieval, not memory.
• Memory and learning depends on context. Learning a tune(s) will depend heavily on where and how you do it. It is why many pipers will find it easier to learn and play band material at band practice, yet struggle with the same repertoire at home in their practice rooms (or vice versa). People learn best when exposed to information in different contexts. When learning is highly context dependent, long-term retention and recall is adversely affected.
Techniques for Memory Improvement
Taking the above facts into account, here are some techniques to help leverage your memory and learning when playing the bagpipes.
• Mix up your practice. Session to session; within the same session; etc. Mix up your playing experiences. When situational demands are varied, it forces memories to be “reloaded,” which helps form more solid connections in long-term memory.
• Be in the good mood. Being in a good mood boosts memory and decision making. Being in a good mood will help you learn faster. At any age. Trying to learn new repertoire when in a lousy frame of mind will make learning the music and remembering the notes more difficult.
• Increase your energy level. Like being in a poor mood, low energy (feeling tired or groggy; being sick; or just dragging) can have a severe impact on our ability to store memories. Increasing your energy level will boost your learning and memorization. One of the best techniques to accomplish this is to take five minutes and imagine yourself doing something really exciting: Skiing, playing a sport, playing in an important piping competition! The resulting boost will put you in a better physical/mental state for learning. Research for this shows significant enhancements in recall.
• See nature. Look at a natural scene or get outside in natural surroundings. This simple technique has been tested and can result in a 20% boost in recall.
• Speak or sing. Saying words aloud boosts recall of those words by 10% or more. This supports the idea that singing some form of personalized canntaireachd can help boost memory. This is something that many pipers already know—singing the tune the way you want to hear it helps you play it, but it also helps cement memory.
• Write things down. Transcribing the music you are learning can help boost the retention and retrieval of that learning.
• Get exercise and eat your vegetables! Your grandmother was right! Numerous studies show a significant improvement in memory recall in folks who experience any of the following: moderate regular exercise (actual increase in brain mass), weight loss, quitting cigarettes, and eating vegetables (up to 40% memory improvement). Being healthy helps you learn tunes!
Click the links below for great Dojo University instruction on this topic.