On Memorising Too Well

Every performing musician must have worried at some time about the possibility of a memory lapse. That is why the way we go about memorizing music, and the way we prepare for performance are two topics that come up over and over on internet forums (sorry for the bad Latin!) and are discussed at length in books and magazines.

In this article I want to draw attention to an aspect of musical memory that is not often dealt with. I think it was Josef Hofmann who first expressed in writing the opinion that the reason so many musicians have memory problems during performance is not because their memories are too weak, but because they are too good … and have incorporated all kinds of things in the memory that have no necessary relationship with the memorized piece itself.

When you play your body responds to a set of stimuli with conditioned actions. Some of the stimuli are internal, from your mind, and from the feelings of your body (hand shape, arm position, … ). Others are external, the sound you are making, the feel of the keys, the image of the printed music .

The entire set of circumstances impinging on your sensory systems triggers learned movements. The movements change the inputs (internal: kinaesthetic sensations, external: what you are hearing) and they in turn trigger the next movements. And so it continues, throughout the performance.

This process can be fragile – if anything changes in the usual stimuli, the wrong responses can follow – or worse – a crash.

The only absolutely essential memories are your internal representation of the piece: its sound its structure and internal relationships; and the sequence of movements you need to make to play it.

Everything else is unnecessary, particularly the musical score, yet it often becomes an integral part of the stimulus/response system that controls a pianists playing. Many pianists are lost without a printed score – even if they hardly refer to it while they are playing – but merely use vague impressions of it as prompts to action.

Pianists can also (and often do!) rely on less obvious, and even more unnecessary, external stimuli to supplement their less than perfect internal memory. The feedback from the keys, the feel of the fingers on the keys, the sight of the fingers on the keys are all important in setting up the conditions that trigger the next action – yet any change can derail a performance. A different piano with different resistance, or different sonority, ivory keys rather than plastic, narrower than usual gaps between black keys … all of these can cause a disaster. A slight difference causes a mistake and the entire sequence of stimulus response stimulus response is broken.

More worryingly, other factors that are irrelevant to the music, such as the direction or strength of the lighting or a particular picture on the wall – even the pattern of the wallpaper – can also become mixed up with your “action cues”. It is this kind of unnecessary link that Hofmann was concerned about. It is partly for reasons like this that sportsmen and women often take a lucky mascot to competitions. The problem is so general that even playing in unfamiliar clothes can cause a problem. All this is well understood in all the performing arts, which is why the dress rehearsal is so important.

Differences, from what you are used to, can be in your internal state as well as in external circumstances. Performance anxiety can make the performance situation feel very different from practice. The presence of an audience … or even of a microphone … can make you nervous, and your apprehension can affect your entire mental functioning. Just as a change in external conditions can derail the external stimulus response chain, so the change in your internal state can derail the far more important system of internal sensory-nervous stimulus-response chains.

How to overcome these problems? Of course it is important is to concentrate on learning the music itself – increasing your intellectual grasp. But there is more than that to be done. To start with, simply being aware of the nature of the problem is a help. With no other deliberate effort the mind puts more emphasis on the constant, unchanging essentials and less on the inessentials. You can help this process by varying your surroundings, your practice time, your clothes, and seeking out a variety of pianos. You can also try to duplicate in your practice as near as possible the exact conditions of performance.

You can inure yourself to the nervousness of being listened to in many ways. There is a great deal more to say about it than I can say in a few sentences here. But a few tips are in order. A surprisingly effective way of reducing anxiety when performing is to always turn on a recording device when practicing so that eventually it will cease to trouble you. Remarkably this can reduce your nervousness before a live audience, as well as your nervousness in a recording studio. Weaning yourself from the printed score, when “finger memory” is almost able to carry you through the whole piece, is straightforward … but it requires an effort that many of us, being naturally lazy, find hard to make. When all this is done there may still be some unecessary and dangerous “cues” remaining that you are using in your performance. These have to be explicitly identified, and some way found of playing safely and reliably without them.


One response to “On Memorising Too Well

  1. Your article brings up scary memories of my first public performances; I was so scared that my hands were all shaky and sweaty, and I my playing was a disaster…. Thanks for your tips of handling it, I will pass it on to my students!