I have to confess that I don’t remember a whole lot from my freshman year Music History 101 class (in my defense, it’s been a few years). But there is one thing that stuck. Why this thing in particular? Who knows, but the one thing I do remember, is that Franz Liszt invented the piano recital. And that he was the first pianist to perform a full concert from memory.

Meaning, this playing from memory tradition that we’ve become accustomed to and assume is normal, was not always a thing.

So if playing from memory makes you break out in a cold sweat, now you know who to blame. =)

Of course, shaking your fist at the portrait of Liszt on your practice room wall isn’t going to change much. But lucky for us, there is quite a bit of research out there on learning and memory nowadays. And the evidence suggests that memorization is a skill. As in, something we can get better and more efficient at – with a little bit of know-how, and some practice.

Meet Molly Gebrian

Molly Gebrian is a viola professor at the University of Arizona. So she has had to play from memory on many an occasion, of course, but is also uniquely qualified to talk about the science of memory, as she was a neuroscience major in college and remains an enthusiast of all things brain-related.

In this episode, we’ll explore:

  • The three stages of memory, and why we need to emphasize each one, for successful memorization and recall (4:30)
  • Strategies for effective memory encoding (7:56)
  • Strategies for effective memory consolidation (5:57)
  • Strategies for effective memory retrieval (10:24)
  • The one “magic bullet” for practicing – if there was such a thing (10:16)
  • The biggest mistake people make when it comes to memorization (12:07)
  • How much retrieval practice we need to do to make sure our memory is secure under pressure (13:18)
  • Choking, and two ways to protect against it (15:13)
  • Molly says that my mom is a genius, and why (20:56)
  • The three “streams” we need to have going simultaneously when performing from memory (22:01)
  • Why it’s a good idea to pay attention in theory class for memorization (25:25)
  • What the research says on when you should start memorizing a piece (29:43)
  • Whether slow practice helps memory or not (32:59)
  • And a whole lot more!
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Noa:
My first memory of being nervous is memory related. I was probably four or five at the time and I was at Ithaca College’s summer Suzuki program. I was sitting on stage in this row of chairs with a bunch of other kids who are waiting their turn to perform and I was totally fine until this girl, a few spots before me started having memory issues, not just little notes slips here and there, but major blank outs where she stops and the pianist has to give her a hint and then she gets going again and then stops again. The pianist gives her another hint and I’d never seen anything like that happen before. So my five year old brain is suddenly like, Whoa, that doesn’t look like fun. What the heck is going on? Could that happen to me? Then I started going through the piece in my head and I was like, I can’t remember stuff!

Noa:
I’m five. So by the next person or the person after I’d forgotten about it. And I was fine and I got through that performance okay. But over the next couple of decades I went on to have my fair share of various types of memory issues of varying degrees of severity. And so understandably, it’s something that I know a lot of musicians stress out about. And at this point there’s quite a bit of research out there on learning and memory. And so in theory you’d think that a lot of these research based principles and strategies would totally apply to music as well. I want to make sure we hit some of those today, but before we get into any of those specific sorts of tactics or strategies, I thought maybe a good place to begin would be for you to tell us a little bit about some basic conceptual aspects of memory, like different types of memory and generally speaking, how information is stored and retrieved in our brain.

Molly:
Sure. Yeah, absolutely. Um, so first of all, thanks for having me here. This is really exciting to get to do this. Talk about memory and our brains. My favorite thing. So for different types of memory, we tend to think that memory is one unitary thing because that’s how we sort of experience it. But there’s many different types of memory. So you’ve probably heard of long term memory, short term memory, right? Long term memory is like my memory of my childhood, short term memory is you tell me your phone number, I have no way to write it down and I’d have to say it over and over again before I can write it down. There’s also something called working memory. And so that is something you’re holding in memory, but you’re also manipulating in some way.

Molly:
So if I tell you my phone number and say you have to remember this, but you can’t write it down, but you also have to add up the digits of my phone number while you’re trying to remember it and tell me what they add up to. That’s using your working memory and working memory has really limited capacity and it’s very taxing on the brain and it breaks down under pressure. And so when we’re performing from memory, we definitely do not want to be using working memory. We want to be using long term memory because long term memory is essentially unlimited. It’s very robust and stable. It doesn’t really react to pressure, definitely not the same way as um, as working memory. So there’s other types of memory, but that’s sort of the most important thing to understand for our purposes today. And then in terms of how we memorize things, we tend to think like you read something, you repeat it over and over in your brain and then like this magic happens and somehow it’s, it’s, it’s stored in memory and it’s this black box.

Molly:
But actually scientists that study memory have broken it into three stages. So the first stage is called encoding. So how do you get the stuff into your brain in the first place? Second stage is called consolidation. So basically, how does something go from short term memory? Like something you just learned into long term memory. So it’s more sort of stable and durable over time. And then the final part is retrieval. So getting it back out again when you need it. And if any one of these stages (encoding, consolidation or retrieval), isn’t done well, then you’ll have difficulty coming up with the material when you want it. And so when you’re memorizing music or anything else for that matter, you want to make sure that you’re addressing all three stages of the memorization process. And we can talk today about like different strategies for each stage.

Molly:
But it’s important to understand like you can encode great, you can consolidate, great, but if you’re not doing a good job at practicing retrieval, it can look like the information isn’t in your brain. But it actually is.

Noa:
Definitely want to find out more about each of those stages and specific strategies for each. But maybe even before we get there, is there a way to know if you’ve not done a good job of one of those? Do you know what I mean?

Molly:
Yes. Well, I will say with consolidation because that’s sort of the easiest one to give you a strategy for what we know about consolidation. So again, that’s how does stuff get from short term memory into long term memory. So more durable storage. We know that sleep is critical for that. So when you’re sleeping, your brain basically takes this stuff that’s in short term storage and transfers it to long term storage. For muscle memory that happens during REM sleep. So rapid eye movement sleep when you’re dreaming for non muscle memory type things, like what is the note in that measure? Um, it takes place during non REM sleep. And so if you don’t get enough sleep, one or both of those types of sleep, REM or non REM gets shortchanged. And so then that transfer doesn’t take place or it takes place incompletely, like when you have like a corrupted file or something on your, on your computer cause it didn’t download, right. And then either you lose the information entirely or you, you can only access bits and pieces of it. So if you’re not getting enough sleep and that is eight hours a night, um, on a regular basis, you’re not doing a good job at consolidation. Um, so that’s sort of the easiest one to say. Like if you’re not getting enough sleep, you definitely have an issue with consolidation

Rob:
Just to understand, encoding is when you first learn it, is that right? And then consolidation is when it becomes long term memory from short term memory. And then retrieval is testing whether it’s in your longterm, or…

Molly:
Right. Retrieval is like getting it back out again. And that’s what we tend to think of as memory, right? Because that’s what like you take a test, you have to retrieve the date that Mozart died or something. Right. And so that’s the, the final stage of the process is what most people think of, I think when they think of memory or doing something from memory. But actually it’s, it’s a three part process.

Noa:
Do you want to go in sequence then maybe?

Molly:
Sure. How organized. Yeah. Um, okay. So one of the most powerful strategies for encoding, and actually I should say everything we’re talking about today is not really specific to music. The principles of how the brain works works for anything. So you can use these things for studying like for school or whatever. Um, so one of the most powerful um, methods for encoding information, so getting it into your brain in the first place is something called chunking, which you many people may have heard of before.

Molly:
But basically what chunking is, is taking smaller bits of information and putting them together in larger, more meaningful packets. So the example that I often give is phone numbers. So the area code for where you’re from. So I’m from West Hartford, Connecticut, 860 is the area code there. If somebody gives me their phone number with that area code, I don’t have to remember that. Right? You just know like that the area code is a chunk and then everybody from your town, the, the prefix, the next three numbers, it’s pretty much the same, right? It’s just those last four numbers. And so if somebody from your town tells you their phone number, you don’t have as much to remember and therefore it’s easier than if like somebody from somewhere else gives you this 10 digit string of numbers. Like I can’t remember that. So the more you can take what you’re trying to memorize, so for music looking for bigger patterns like Oh look, that’s just a D major scale rather than Oh my gosh, eight notes or something.

Molly:
The more that you can put it into larger meaningful chunks of information, the easier it is for your brain because it’s essentially less information. Right? And also when you put things into chunks, you connect that new information with information you already have stored in long term memory. And so it kind of hooks on to that long term memory information you already have, which makes it easier. Then when you get to the retrieval process. So for musicians, if you look at the overall chord structure, Oh look, that’s just one four or five one, right? That makes it easier to remember which specific notes are in there or like, wow, every single bar for these four bars has exactly the same rhythm, even though you know the notes may be different. So therefore for string players, like maybe that means it’s the same bowing, right? So that’s something that you can hold on to.

Molly:
So that’s a strategy for encoding. Consolidation, we kind of already talked about. Getting enough sleep. I would say if there’s one magic bullet for practicing, it’s get enough sleep. Sleep is amazing. I could talk all day about sleep. I won’t talk all day about sleep, but, and then for retrieval, this always sounds stupid when I say it, but the best way to get better at retrieval is to practice retrieving. And we don’t actually do that enough, right? Like how do people study for a test? They go read through their highlights. That is not retrieving. You’re practicing reading, right? Your test is not going to be, okay, read me your highlights and I’m going to grade you on how well you can read your highlights, right? You’re going to be graded on, can you come up with this information from scratch from your own brain? For us as musicians, often we don’t practice playing and performing from memory enough before we actually go do it, right?

Molly:
I can’t tell you how many times, both as a student and as a teacher, students will play something in studio class with music and think that they’re going to perform it from memory on their recital next week. No, you’re not. Like a week is not enough time to make the retrieval process automatic the way it needs to be. So practicing retrieval a lot, doing lots and lots of practice performances either in front of a video camera at home or friends, family, whatever, from memory to test that. Also practicing retrieving the information, not just from the beginning. So don’t always start from the beginning when you’re performing from memory, right? You need to be able to start anywhere because if you have a memory slip, you know you can’t go back to the beginning if you’re in the middle of the fourth movement, right? You have to be able to start anywhere. So testing your memory in that way. One thing I to do as a kid and I still actually do, I would assign letters to each section of my piece. I would put the letters on little slips of paper and put them like in a bowl or something and then pick them out and have to start there from memory cause that tests, can you start anywhere. But I think the biggest mistake people make with memorization is they just don’t practice doing it enough and so then the retrieval process is not automatic, which means you’re relying on working memory for the retrieval process when you’re on stage, which is is not going to work.

Noa:
It reminds me a little bit about the whole like growth versus fixed mindset thing and how a lot of times the things that we feel more insecure about because it’s not fun to practice those things and kind of expose ourselves to that struggle, we tend to avoid them and so it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy of not actually getting enough practice with it. So I’m curious about this retrieval practice. You talked about doing more run throughs and so forth. There’s a great video of David Kim, the concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra, talking about how when he has to do a concerto performance with orchestra, he’ll do 30 or 40 practice performances like for legit audiences with a pianist and so forth, which is a lot to set up for yourself, but it makes sense that otherwise you know you’re going to be practicing on stage and that’s not a good idea. Do you have a sense of, I mean does the literature say anything about how much retrieval practice is enough or is it something we just have to intuit and figure out for ourselves or…

Molly:
I have not seen anything myself that says like, okay, you need a minimum number of practice performances before you go on stage. I mean the number 10 is often thrown around, but I don’t know that it has any empirical support. I think it’s just a nice round number. You know, that’s kind of a lot for myself personally and we were talking before this, this webinar started that memorization is like the only thing about music that has ever come easily to me. I memorize easily and I’m not, I don’t worry about having memory slips. That being said, I want to be able to play something very easily from memory in my practice room without worrying about memory slips at all. I’m practicing it from memory. I haven’t looked at the music in a while, at least a month before the performance, at least at the very minimum. Usually it’s more like two months before I have to actually go perform it from memory so that I have ample time to practice from memory starting in different places. So I have ample time to do run throughs for both myself and in front of other people so that I get any kinks out of the way with more than enough time that I’m not worried like, Oh gosh, maybe this isn’t going to happen.

Noa:
So it’s more of not how many times do I need to do a run through, but it’s just a timeline that gives you a sense of, okay, I’m probably going to be safe if I can do this at this point.

Molly:
Yes. I mean, but if I, like if I said okay, it’s a month before my recital, I have this totally memorized and I didn’t do any run throughs in that month, then that would be just as bad as like the day before being like, okay, it’s memorized. You know? And so the point of all that time is so that you have ample time for run throughs. I mean I think the, the 10 the 10 number is a is a good ballpark figure. But like I said, I haven’t seen any like scientific support that says like you must have that many. But it’s a good rule of thumb.

Noa:
Sometimes people will talk to me about feeling like something’s totally memorized in practice and they can play it in their sleep and then they get on stage and suddenly things fall apart. Could you say more about what’s going on there and how to deal with that?

Molly:
So, um, that was something, so in the sports world that’s called choking, right? That choking is, um, you’re totally prepared. Like you, you’ve practiced and you’re prepared for this thing. You have the necessary skill to do this thing, and yet you, you get in a high pressure situation and you, you can’t do it. Um, golfers apparently are notorious for choking. And so yeah, that was one of the other things I looked into when I started looking into this. Memorization and research is what causes choking and they’re in, in the scientific world, and most of these have been applied to sports, but they definitely apply to us too. There have been two theories. So the first theory is, okay, maybe choking under pressure is caused by distraction. So you’re in front of all these people looking at you. There’s people coughing and sniffing, a little kids cry, you know, like there’s all sorts of distractions.

Molly:
It distracts you from the task at hand. It overwhelms your working memory because you’re always going to be using working memory in some capacity. No matter what you do. So it overwhelms working memory and therefore you choked. So that’s one the distraction hypothesis. The other hypothesis is called the explicit monitoring hypothesis. So you get under pressure, there’s people watching you and you start like micromanaging every little detail of what you’re doing. So rather than thinking in broader patterns, you’re thinking every single specific little note. So they set up experiments to test these. So in the distraction hypothesis one, one thing I remember they did in one study, it was with golfers, they put them in a high pressure situation and they had to sink a putt. And at the same time they had to count backwards from a hundred by sevens out loud. That’s hard to do, right?

Molly:
Especially while you’re trying to sink a putt. And what they found is that actually under those conditions, the golfers did better when they were given a distraction. So it can’t be the discretion hypothesis, right? If it was the distraction hypothesis, they would have done worse. So it’s not that when they put people in a high pressure situation and tried to kind of turn up the explicit monitoring. So what they would do, again, this was with golfers, they’d put them in a high pressure situation, have them try to sink putts and say, okay, we’re going to video this and we’re going to send the video to the top golf coach in the country and ask them to review your technique. And then people choked left and right, like they could not play golf at all. So scientists think that choking is due to explicit monitoring. So micro-managing every little aspect of, of what you’re doing.

Molly:
So then the question is, okay, how do you prevent this? Right? Because the minute you think, okay, don’t explicitly monitor like what are you going to do? You’re going to explicitly monitor. So they found two things are very protective against this. The first is videotaping yourself in practice. And the thinking is that one, the videotape like is people watching you, right? And so it helps you cope with that feeling of, of being watched and to get over that sort of inherent need to sort of micromanage everything you’re doing. And then the second thing they found that protects against it is to for people to think about big picture things. So for us as musicians, that means phrasing, sound, whatever you’re trying to convey emotionally to the audience, the more you focus on those things, the less you are able to explicitly monitor and it and it protects you.

Molly:
That being said, you can’t just turn on those things for the very first time on stage, right? You can’t practice from memory at home, like thinking about every single finger and every single note and then get on stage and be like, okay, no, I’m not going to think about any of that and I’m just going to think about my phrasing because you’re not going to believe it works. So you have to practice performing from memory, thinking solely about what am I trying to express to my audience? So you get used to using your brain in that way, so you protect yourself when you get on stage.

Noa:
This reminds me of, I don’t know if we ever talked about this before, but the Olympic gymnast, Sean Johnson, who in 2008 won a bunch of medals. Uh, she did this Freakonomics podcast interview. She was talking about how, I don’t know if it was just her or the team in general or if all gymnasts do this, but she was saying that in addition to having a completely choreographed well-rehearsed automated physical script for her movements, she also needed to work out a mental script and choreograph the thoughts that she needed to have through a 92 second floor routine or whatever. And she said that if she didn’t have that choreographed in advance and hadn’t practiced it, her mind would go to task, irrelevant details, worrying about getting her, worrying about falling, worrying about a score, worrying about the judges, competitors, teammates, coaches and so forth. So this was kind of a self protective way of making sure her mind was focused on things that were going to help her perform better, not things that were going to be distracting.

Noa:
So is this basically what the function of working memory and optimal performance would be then as opposed to being focused on technical details or worrying about something coming up in two lines and whether you’ll remember it or not?

New Speaker:
Yeah, that’s a great question. I hadn’t thought about that before, but yeah, I mean your working memory is always sort of online helping you navigate the world and so it’s much better to give it a task that’s going to be helpful to you. Like this, this sort of mental, what am I expressing or, or whatever. Than, you know, micromanaging, like what note comes next. Oh, are you going to miss that shift on the second line? You know, whatever.

Noa:
This makes me think of something my mom made me do, which I, I was okay with up to a certain point. It was sort of fun. And then as I got older and thought I was smart, it became not such a thing that I enjoyed. But then as I got older still it’s like, huh, I wonder if she was actually sort of a genius. And that was this narrative approach to memory. Like all my Suzuki books, if you look back at them, there’s pictures drawn and there’s, it’s like colored pencil. It looks like a coloring book more than a piece of music. Cause she would have me tell her what the story I imagined would be from measure to measure phrase to phrase. And she would kind of fill it in appropriately based on what was happening at that moment. And I never had a problem with memory when I did that. It’s when I resisted that and didn’t do that. I think that I was a little bit more sketchy. Can you say anything about that as it relates to some of what you’re talking about, whether that’s really a thing?

Molly:
Yeah, absolutely. So I would say yes, your mom’s a genius. I mean moms tend to be right and you know, at a certain point you think, Oh my mom doesn’t know anything but moms know everything. So yeah. And that actually brings me to something else that I wanted to make sure I talked about, which is um, so I did my master’s at NEC with Carol Rodland and she would always talk to us about when you perform for memory, you have to have three streams going simultaneously. So auditory memory, what does it sound like? Muscle memory, what does it feel like? And then the third would be like cognitive memory. Like what is it, what are the notes and rhythms? What are you trying to express? Like all that other information. And Carol has no background in neuroscience, but she’s absolutely spot on that those three have to be equally strong.

Molly:
Everybody has one that’s the strongest for me, it’s muscle memory for most musicians it’s auditory memory, but it really doesn’t matter, whichever ones are not your strengths, you need to work on those because if you only have one and that one breaks down, you’re out of luck. Right? If you have three and one breaks down, you have two left. If two breakdown, you’d have one left. It’s very unusual that all three are going to malfunction simultaneously. So what your mom was doing was helping you secure that third one, right? Like drawing pictures, telling the story. You know what’s going on in the music right now. Some other strategies if people want them for these strengthening these different ones. So for people for who muscle memory is weak, a lot of these examples are string specific, but you can adopt them for your own instruments. The first is to to play. Like for me, I’m a violist, play air viola with no sound, but actually like do the right, do the right fingering. And I tell string players too, when you do this, put on headphones with no sound because when you push your fingers down, right, you can still hear the pitches. So you don’t want any input from the aro. You want to be able to do it totally without Peter Slowik. My teacher in undergrad, he would, he would take people’s instruments and de-tune them. So it was like a whole bunch of crazy open strings, not ADGC. And then have them play their piece from memory, not trying to make it sound right, but with the right finger it sounds hilarious actually within one string it’s fine. And then the minute you have like double stops, it’s like ridiculous. I’m going through and saying without like doing it or playing like what finger is playing each, each note going through and saying that.

Molly:
So that’s some ideas for muscle memory and you can adapt this for other instruments, right? It’s not like stuttering specific for our own memory. Can you sing through the whole thing on pitch without your music and without playing um, either on LA, LA, LA or much more effective, sing it through on note names, sing it through on solfege. Just sing it through on finger numbers. And then for this like cognitive memory thing that all the other stuff like, yes, draw pictures, have your narrative, get out a blank piece of staff paper and write out from memory as much as you can remember. So notes, rhythms, bowings, articulations like, Oh that, that whole thing. Mental practicing from memory is also really powerful. So can you feel and hear yourself play every single note and know, you know what every note is without actually doing it. But doing all these things gets the information into your brain, into different modalities.

Molly:
And your mom was helping you have sort of a visual modality actually, because there were like, you know, pictures involved. The more modalities you can use, the more your brain has to draw from. And if one modality kind of falls by the wayside because you’re nervous or whatever, you have other ones that can kind of pick up the slack for you.

Noa:
As I was hearing you talk, it made me wonder, did you teach theory when you were at UW Eau Claire also? I did, yeah. It made me wonder if this is sort of an argument to for better understanding or paying more attention in theory class.

New Speaker:
So yeah, thank you for bringing that up because actually when I was talking about chunking, that’s why we practice technique and that’s why we study theory and aural skills. Because when we practice technique and we learned here in aural skills, it increases our chunks, right?

Molly:
It increases theory and aural skills increase our understanding about how music works. And so you have larger chunks when you’re a little kid, I-IV-V-I means nothing to you. But if you’re like the, the first Bach cello suite prelude, it’s starts with a I-IV-V-I progression over, over a ton of pedal. And if you know that, it’s much easier to remember what notes you’re supposed to play because you would never play, it’s in G major. You would never play an F sharp in a ton of chord. Right? Um, but if you don’t have that theory knowledge as to why F sharp makes zero sense in G major, then it’s more difficult to memorize.

Noa:
Cool, so hopefully the theory, all the theory teachers are like, yay!, I just want to go back real quick to Peter Slowik’s detuning your viola thing. So just to be clear, so he detuned it and then he made you play for real out loud,

Molly:
For real, out loud. And you’re not trying to make it sound right, you’re just supposed to do the right fingering and the right the right position. So it sounds ridiculous, right? Because the notes are like totally wrong, but it really tests your muscle memory because you can’t rely on what it sounds like. Right. And so for people for whom the auditory modality is the strongest one, when it comes to memorization, you can’t rely on that because it sounds wrong. So you have to rely solely on your muscle memory.

Noa:
That sounds awesome. That almost makes you want to get my violin out and try it.

Molly:
I’ve tried it on my own because anything I give to students I want to try first. It’s, I think it’s really fun because it sounds hysterical. So yeah, get your violin out and give it a try.

Noa:
I feel like it would totally screw me up because I think I go more based off of how things sound; I would keep trying to adjust; it would obviously not work, it’d be crazy.

Rob:
When you’re working on any one of these types of memorization, is there a like a process that you go through the music to make it more likely to, like do you try to do more complete run throughs and then spots or do you like work from like each line separately so that you can retrieve it in different ways? Like do you have, yeah. Do you have a way of going through music like that?

Molly:
Right. Well, so the answer is both. Yes and no. So the no part of the answer is I have never had to work at memorization. Stuff just gets memorized for me. So once I’ve practiced it enough so I can play it, it is also memorized. That being said, I have memorized stuff on purpose just to see what that process feels like for other people because many of my students find memory really challenging. And when I do, it’s, I kind of think of it as like the brute force method that I’m trying on purpose to memorize it. Often I will go a section at a time, um, something that makes musical sense. Right? So like a phrase, like you wouldn’t want to just stop at the end of the line if that’s not at the end of the sentence or the end of the phrase because it doesn’t make me musical sense.

Molly:
Right. It would be like an actor stopping at the end of the line even though the sentence like continues to the next line. Um, sometimes I work from the beginning, more often I work from the end actually. And in general, in my practicing, I tend to work backwards because if you start from the beginning, it’s too tempting to just keep playing. And then you get into stuff you haven’t worked out yet. But if you start from the end and like, okay, I’m going to memorize the last phrase of this piece, and you get that down, then move, move back a phrase. And usually my first go to, because my muscle memory is the stronger one my first go to is, can I sing this thing? Because I want to know if I know what it’s supposed to sound like. If I can’t. Usually what I do is I work on first singing it in my terrible voice to myself, you know, either out loud or in my head. Once I feel like I’ve solidified the singing, then I’ll then I’ll play it because if I just rely on the muscle memory that I’m not working on my, on my weakness. So my strategy is, yeah, working backwards.

Noa:
At this point of the interview we began turning to questions that been submitted by attendees.

Molly:
One of the questions I saw before we started was a question about when in the process should you start memorizing. That’s a question that I get a lot when I give presentations on this. There’s a study that was done by a Jane Ginsborg is her name in 2002 on singers looking at exactly this question, when should you start memorizing? And there’s so much interesting data from that study, but the upshot is that you should start memorizing or playing from memory as soon as possible. Like from the very first practice session on a piece that you know that you’re going to have to perform from memory. And the reason is when you start performing or playing stuff from memory, from the get-go, you give your brain more opportunities to correct its mistakes. And so when I’ve tried this like, okay, I know I’m going to memorize this thing, you know, let’s try out this research.

Molly:
Usually it’s just like one bar. Can I play one bar from memory today? That’s, you know, maybe the only bar I’ve practiced today, can I play that from memory? So it’s not big swaths of the piece, it’s just like little bits. But the sooner in the process you do it, the more opportunity your brain has to correct whatever mistakes you’re making. And when you correct mistakes, it actually helps solidify it in your brain. We like to avoid mistakes, but mistakes are useful. And if you’re not sure you’re doing it right, play it from memory and record yourself. And then listen back to the recording with your music. Anything you didn’t do right, you know, make a mark and then fix it at a subsequent practice session.

Noa:
The next question had to do with how memory might change with age and how for this person memorization used to just happen automatically, but now that they were in their seventies it has begun to feel like more of a chore and something that requires much more effort.

Molly:
The younger you are, the more plastic your brain is. And what that word means is the more, the easier your brain changes and therefore learns things. So in order to learn anything, your brain has to change. New connections have to be made and strengthened or or not. And that is easier, the younger you are. That being said, like we have the ability to learn throughout our lifetimes, right? It doesn’t like stop when you reach a certain age, but the older you get, the less plastic your brain. And so it may take longer and it may feel more effortful than when you were like 10 or whatever. But it doesn’t mean that it’s not possible. It just means that you, yes, have to have better systems in place that you have to really be aware of of these three types of memory, which is your weakness, and really beef up that one. Most kids, I think when they play from memory they’re just using whichever one comes naturally to them without even thinking about it. Like when I was growing up as a Suzuki kid, I was relying 100% on muscle memory. It’s not like I worked on that or something, you know, and then you get older and the music gets harder and your brain’s less plastic and then you have to be really specific about how you go about memorizing but also going about it in a really deliberate sort of way.

Noa:
Molly also addressed an interesting question about slow practice or super-slow practice to be specific and whether that kind of practice might have any positive effect on memory as well.

New Speaker:
So yes, you should practice slowly like all the time for everything. If you’re, if you’re going too fast and you can’t hear your mistakes, that’s not, that’s not a good strategy for any type of instrumental learning with specifically with memory, I have not seen any research that says like going super slow will solidify your memory more than like a normal tempo.

Molly:
That being said, when you go really slow, you tend to notice more details, right? More details of both, the mechanics of how to play more details of sort of intricacies and nuance of expression and the more details you have in the richer your understanding of the music, the more your memory you have to sort of hang your memory on, if you will. You know, the more details you have of a visual scene, the easier it is to call up that scene in your memory later. And so I would say that it’s not the speed per se that can help with memory, but it’s the collection of details that that helps. So, but yes, a little practicing, definitely slow practicing.

Noa:
The next question was about those little tiny micro memory slips that can sometimes happen in performance. “I have several students who memorize work very hard, but on the day of a performance like clockwork, something gets lost and a slip happens or notes get popped. It’s very frustrating for them. And for me, since I’m not sure how to address the little details of memory work, many would say that kind of polish is impossible. Is that correct?”

Molly:
Okay. So the next question about memory slips, I sort of answered, I would totally disagree with the kind of polish isn’t possible. I mean, if you’ve ever seen Suzuki kids perform, they, they’re pretty darn polished, especially with their memory. A lot of them, you know, and so, you know, when I, I was this as a Suzuki teacher for years before I started doing college teaching and you know, with kids, I don’t talk to them about auditory memory and muscle memory and cognitive, like I don’t use those that terminology. But you can play games with kids to help strengthen their different muscle memories. I mean de-tuning tuning a kid’s violin and making them play like that is the most fun game ever.

Molly:
Right? They don’t need to know that it’s strengthening their muscle memory or whatever. And so I think you can do the same kind of thing with kids and it will help them out on stage. Make sure with kids that they are getting lots of practice performances. Just like just like adults need some like, like know your, your story about when you were five. You know, most kids don’t think about a memory slip until they think about it. Right. And then it can be totally terrifying and some kids don’t really know how they’re gonna react to being in front of people until they’re actually there. And so allowing your kids to sort of practice that, that type of thing too. Since we’re talking about kids, I want to make sure I also talk about sort of my pet theory of memorization because I think this is another way to help strengthen memory.

Molly:
So I have noticed both in my own teaching and also when I was a student that in general, and this is not every person under the sun in general, Suzuki trained kids have an easier time playing from memory than non Suzuki trained kids. So whenever I have a student who who seems to memorize very easily, it doesn’t really worry about it, almost invariably they were Suzuki-trained. Whenever I have a student for whom memory is really hard and terrifying, almost invariably their first experience playing music was, was reading, right? The very first experience in front the instrument was reading music. You find them professional musicians that when a pro, they’ve done this with violinists, so when they have professionals play a piece, they know well in this case it was the Mozart third violin concerto from memory. You find that, so they’re playing silently from memory.

Molly:
So no sound. You find that the auditory cortex is active in professionals but not amateur. So there is no sound, but the auditory cortex is active and professionals, but not amateurs. Conversely, if you take professional pianists and you play them a recording of a piece, they know well, their motor cortex is active and it’s not just randomly active. So the motor cortex, there’s a specific area for each part of the body. And so there’s like a specific part for your thumb. There’s a specific part for each finger. And you find that when you play a recording for a pianist of a piece, they know well when the thumb would play the note, the thumb area is active. When the pinky would play the note, the pink area is active, which is so cool. And so what this research together suggests is that in professional musicians, the motor cortex and the auditory cortex become linked, become coactivated.

Molly:
That’s what the scientific terminology is. And I am convinced that in Suzuki trained kids, this motor and auditory linkage happens at a very, very young age. Whereas in non Suzuki-trained kids or any, I should, I should, I’m saying Suzuki cause I’m Suzuki trained, but any tradition in which you’re trained by ear because that’s, that’s the thing about Suzuki that you’re trained by ear. So you know like bluegrass or anything like that would have the same linkage. Whereas kids that are trained to, you know, play from music from their first experience. The thing that gets linked in the brain is the motor cortex and the visual cortex. And then you take away the visual of the music and you’re left with only the motor memory. Muscle memories are known as what’s called implicit memories. We don’t really have good conscious awareness to this information. Like if you try to describe to somebody how to ride a bike, like I don’t know, you just write it, right?

Molly:
Cause that’s implicit information. So when I have students that have difficulty memorizing, I do two things with them. One is they have to play something from memory every day to get used to that process. But second, and the thing that seems to work the best is they have to figure out how to play something from memory, from by ear every day. So start with, you know, Mary Had a Little Lamb, like little kids tunes. Christmas carols are great too cause they’re usually pretty simple. Then move on to like movie themes or TV show themes or whatever and then move on to like actual like classical music or whatever tradition you’re playing. And because the, the act of trying to figure out how to play something by ear without looking at the music seems to promote that connection between the auditory motor cortex that also seems to promote playing from memory with greater ease.

Noa:
So, in other words, having, having someone listen to a soundtrack on YouTube and then without sheet music trying to reproduce that.

Molly:
Exactly. Yeah. Figure it out. Don’t, don’t write it down. Don’t look at sheet music. Just do it totally by ear. Try to figure out how to play it.

Noa:
This is unrelated. I’m just personally curious as another Suzuki trained kid. When you listen to pop music do you hear the lyrics or do you just remember the tune?

Molly:
Ha, ha, I don’t listen to pop music. Um, but um, were I to, you know, I often don’t really understand like I can’t understand the lyrics. Um, very well. So yeah, I’m really just listening to, to the music and if I happen to listen to the lyrics, often I mishear words and I’m like, what the heck? That doesn’t make any sense. And then I have to go listen to the, what, look up the lyrics.

Noa:
I was just curious. I don’t know if that’s a thing, but I am not good at understanding what the words are and just hear…I can remember the tune.

Molly:
Right, right, right. Yeah. Yeah. That’s interesting. That’s another doctoral dissertation, right? For somebody.

Noa:
The next question had to do with how to balance the technical elements of a piece with memory and expression with this particular person finding that sometimes when they memorize the performance ends up being technically sloppier but more expressive.

Molly:
So you should be taking into account both things, right? Um, because the expressive aspects are a richer source of information will protect you against choking like we talked about before, but the technical elements, those are the specifics of your muscle memory and your auditory memory, right? If you have sort of a fuzzy sense of how this piece goes, your auditory memory of the piece is not going to be very strong.

Molly:
If you have a fuzzy sense of, you know what notes you’re playing, your muscle memory is not going to be very strong. This sort of classic issue in string players is when you play chords, you may know what the top note of the court is, but like what are those notes on the bottom like, I have no idea. That’s because both your auditory and your muscle memories are a little bit fuzzy. And so you need to attack both the elements and the technical elements. They need to be equally clear in your mind, equally clear in your ability to execute them because together they make sort of a richer palette for your memory to draw on when you’re, when you’re retrieving that information during performance.

Noa:
And here’s Rob who had a question about spaced or distributed practice.

Rob:
I read a book about memory and language learning and it was by a former opera singer and it was cool how it was laid out, like it kind of dove into some of these concepts of memory in the brain and neuroscience I guess. And then it related that to how language works. And so I’m, I’m recognizing a lot of the same concepts like retrieval and in the book it recommends an app that uses a specific kind of memory retrieval spaced,

Molly:
Yes. Spaced, interleaved. Yeah,

Rob:
Yeah. It kind of recommends like, okay, there is a certain number of things that will be easier to retrieve and you don’t have to review them as much. And then there’s a certain number of things that’ll be harder for you to retrieve. So the idea is you have to identify which ones they are and force yourself to practice retrieving them more often because you, for some reason the, the connections aren’t as strong. So I’m wondering like this has been really effective for me in learning language, like learning words and stuff. And I’m sure there’s a way to learn music in this way. And I’m wondering like are there similar processes or similar like, yeah, what do you think?

Molly:
Yeah, no totally. So spaced retrieval, that’s what you’re talking. So spaced retrieval is, um, so you, you space out your, your instances of trying to retrieve something. So like I study all my flashcards with my vocabulary words for this language today and then, you know, I study them again tomorrow and then maybe I’d take a day off and I study it like on, on the fourth day. So you’re spacing out your retrieval. So you give your, your brain a chance to forget and you see what you forgotten and what you haven’t forgotten and the things you have forgotten, you need to review more of the things you haven’t forgotten that are still there. You can let them go for longer because every time we try to retrieve something, we strengthen that information in our, in our brains. There’s a lot of research on the benefits of spaced retrieval and this actually ties into this, this next person’s question actually about like my friends and I don’t practice for a couple of weeks and then things go more smoothly.

Molly:
So when you don’t practice and when you, when you space your retrieval, the brain is still at work. It’s not like, you know, you stop doing that thing and your brain just like does nothing with it. A lot happens in our brain when we sleep. Again, sleep is like if there’s a magic bullet for practicing, it’s sleep. So a lot goes on in our brain when we, when we sleep, I like to picture my brain as full of those like little minion guys, like with a one big, I like running around in my brain, like plugging in things like to make things work and then like, you know, like Christmas lights, like all of them are there, then it lights up, right? So these little minions are running around in my brain like plugging neurons into each other. Once everything’s plugged in the way it needs to, then suddenly on the outside it feels like, Oh wow.

Molly:
Like I could do that. Well I feel like it, you know, it feels sort of easy all of a sudden. And so I think what’s happening when, you know, you practice a piece a whole bunch and then you either take a bunch of days off because you’re frustrated or because you can’t practice it for whatever reason, and then you come back to it and suddenly it feels like, Whoa. Like this is easier than it was before. It’s because in the meantime, those little minion guys had been running around, still plugging things in. And it’s like ready to go for you. When you, when you come back to it, it also is that, so not only do neurons get connected to each other that weren’t before when we learn something, but connections that are not useful get pruned away. And so it may be that some of that pruning went on right to sort of to sort of help you with that.

Molly:
And when you do this spaced retrieval that that you’re talking about, it gives your brain a chance to sort of do that sort of internal background processing that has to happen. And then when you come back to studying your vocabulary words or playing your piece. It’s sort of clearer, okay, what do I know and what do I not know? And then you take the things that you don’t know and you work harder on those rather than spending a bunch of time on the things that you, that you already know. So yeah, there’s lots of books on, on spaced retrieval and also interleaved practicing. So that’s not just doing a whole big block of something, but constantly changing between different things. That’s also been found to be really effective for for learning and memory in general.

Noa:
It seems like that would also speak to the danger of relying on how familiar something is right after practicing it as an indicator of how well you really know it.

Molly:
Right, exactly. Yeah. I think a lot of people have this strategy of look at the music, try to play it from memory. Right? Like look, look away, look, look away. And if they can do it, when they look away, they take that as an accurate measure of how well they haven’t memorized. No it’s not. You just looked at it. Right. Are you going to be able to do that in your concert? Look and then play, look and then play? No, I don’t think so. Right. And so you need to give your brain time to forget cause that’s the test of, do you actually know it? You know if you read something in your textbook and then close your textbook, yeah. You can remember what you just read, I hope. Right. But if you read your textbook and then tomorrow try to come up with what you just read, that’s going to be much more difficult, but that’s a much more accurate representation of do you actually know that information? Do you actually have this section of your piece memorized?

Noa:
This led to a question about interleaved or random practice, which is another type of practice, schedule or method of organizing your practice time.

Molly:
Okay. What’s the best way to structure interleaved practice? That’s sort of beyond the scope of our talk today cause we’re talking about memorization, but there is no best way to structure practice. It depends on what you’re doing. I can talk about structuring interleaved practice specifically for aiding memorization. So again, interleaved practice is, so the opposite of interleaved practice is often what’s called repetitive practice or massed practice. So you do the same thing over and over and over and over again. Um, interleaved practice is you do thing a, then you do thing B, then you do things C, then you do thing B again than a, then D like you’re, you’re switching between things constantly.

Molly:
For memorization, a great way to use interleaved practice is, well two things actually that I do. One is that, you know, divide your piece into sections, write down the number of the sections on a little slip of paper, put it in a bowl and pull out the section and play that part from memory because then you’re playing your piece from memory out of order essentially. And so you’re, you’re mixing up the order of the piece that really tests, okay. Do you actually know this piece? If you can start anywhere in your memory doesn’t get messed up. The other thing I do with interleaved practice is on my phone. I have an app called an interval timer, which allows you to set a timer to go off every X number of minutes, seconds, hours, whatever. So mine, I have set to go off every five minutes. The way I’ll do this with memorization is all I’ll start practicing and I’ll start my interval timer.

Molly:
What I’m practicing is something like totally different. Like I’m learning orchestra music or something, and then my timer goes off, I stop whatever I’m practicing, I go play the beginning of my piece. I’m trying to play from memory and then I go back to whatever I was, I was practicing. And so you’re doing something completely different. You have to switch gears, play for memory and just like go, don’t look at the music and then go back to what you were doing. I will also combine that with the drawing the sections out of the bowl thing. So practicing something else. Interval timer goes off, I draw something out of the bowl. I have to start at letter D in my concerto from memory and then I go back. So those two things are really good ways to structure interleaved practice specifically for working on, on memorization.

Molly:
Um, there’s a whole paper I wrote on interleaved practice specifically also on my website if people want to read more about that. Noa, on your website, actually there’s great articles about that and that’s the first place, Bulletproof Musician is the first place I ever learned about interleaved practicing. So it’s thanks to you that I know anything about it at all.

Noa:
We should give a shout out to Christine Carter, the clarinetist who wrote that article, and did her dissertation on this.

Molly:
Yes, for sure. Yes, that article is great.

Noa:
The next question was about how to tell if something is really, truly memorized and ready for performance.

Molly:
Okay. Yeah, that’s a great question. Put yourself in really adverse situations. So play it from memory in front of somebody that’s super intimidating to you. Play it from memory. If you are not a morning person, set your alarm at 5:00 AM, get up, don’t look at your music, play it down from memory when your brain is like not awake yet.

Molly:
If you are not a night person, you know, stay up like two or three hours past your bedtime and play the thing down from memory. Um, you know, any sort of, any circumstance that sort of either freaks you out, like playing in front of somebody that you find really intimidating or puts your brain in a state where it’s, it’s not at its best. So early in the morning or late at night will really test you. Can you actually play this thing from memory? Cause if you can do it at five o’clock in the morning when you haven’t had your coffee yet and you’re, you know, just a mess, then you know it’s, it’s really securely in your brain. I also for myself, when I am going to perform from memory, I make sure that I can go through the whole thing at tempo, mental practicing only. So I’m not singing, I’m not moving my fingers. I’m just feeling and hearing every single note in my head at tempo very clearly and there’s no note or no anything that is a little bit like, wait, what’s that note there? Is that C sharp or C natural that everything is crystal crystal clear. Once I can do that then I know that it’s there.

Rob:
I always tell people to play along with the orchestra recording after working on it by themselves. Then like you give your, your self a whole nother thing to listen to and to focus on. The tempo is moving all over the place and maybe it’s not consistent and suddenly there’s like 20 different instruments to listen to. And so if you can still like play through the music while you’re listening and that can like teach you a lot and it can like expose a lot of things that aren’t really well memorized I think.

Molly:
Right. No, that’s a good idea. And actually what you just said and what somebody just wrote in about distractions. I totally forgot that I used to do this. I would sometimes like um, Anita said in her comment that her teacher would turn on the radio and so play along with the radio. What I would do is I would turn on a recording of the piece I was playing from memory, let it go for a little bit and then play for memory with it. So like I wasn’t, sorry, the recording is ahead of where I was, so I’m being distracted by hearing my piece, but I’m not playing at the same time as it and I have to sort of block that out. That’s it. Because the radio or just some like random other piece. It’s pretty easy I think to, to block that out. But the same piece that you’re working on or start playing your piece from memory and have you know, somebody in your household turn on a recording of that piece in and you have to keep going. Yeah, that’s hard. That’s a good test too.

Noa:
Another question had to do with when to practice slow and when to practice fast and what the benefits of each might be related to memory.

Molly:
You have to be able to play something slow, right? I think most students go way too fast in general, but just because you can play something slow does not necessarily mean you can play it fast, right? You can’t go from like super slow tempo to at tempo and think it’s going to be successful because your brain has to work much faster and differently and your body may work differently. Right? Um, so specifically for memorization, um, you have to make that you can execute it as at a faster tempo, but also that your, your brain can move at a faster tempo. Often at a slow tempo. We can pay attention to every little detail of, this is the note I’m playing.

Molly:
This is the bowing I’m doing or whatever. And then at a faster tempo, you don’t want to be paying attention to all those details. And so you need to be thinking in bigger shapes and bigger pictures. And so often I’ll, I’ll tell my students they need to click something up with a metronome, not for the purposes of getting their fingers faster, although that’s a great thing to do, right, to get your fingers faster, but for the purpose of clicking up their brain that their brain can move faster. And I think that’s also something with memorization that your, your fingers may sort of outpace your brain and then you get to a point where you have no idea what you’re doing. If your muscle memory isn’t strong enough. Um, so, so clicking up your brain from a memory to be able to play better at a fast tempo.

Noa:
There was also a question about naps. Are naps helpful for learning and memory if you can’t get eight hours of sleep?

Molly:
There’s a book that I always do a sort of a commercial for anybody that knows me is going to laugh because they’ve heard me count this book. It’s called “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker. It’s an amazing, amazing book. Everybody go buy it online. Like right now he’s one of the leading a sleep scientist sleep neuroscientists who study sleep. And um, he talks a lot about naps in that book. And basically naps can have a beneficial effect on learning and memory, but not as great as getting a full night’s sleep. And so if the choice is between getting a full night’s sleep or taking a nap, definitely go for the full night’s sleep. If the choices between nap or no nap and you didn’t get a full night’s sleep, take the nap. Right? Cause it you, you will get a learning and memory benefit for that, but better to get a full night’s sleep.

Noa:
And the final question had to do with whether the so-called memory palace technique that memory champions often use in memory competitions could also be applied to music.

Molly:
Yes. Okay. So for people that don’t know what a memory palaces, sometimes this is called the method of loci. Basically this is a memory method that’s been known since, I don’t know, like the ancient Greeks basically where you take either a familiar walking route or driving route or like the floor plan of your house and you take each item in your list, they say your shopping list and you mentally place it at a different location and then you just sort of walk through that location and sort of pick up your items to help help you remember.

Molly:
And one thing I want to point out is that in music we have a built in memory palace, which is the structure of the piece, right? The formal structure is sort of our memory palace. There’s also a guy who used to be a professor at University of Connecticut. I’ve, he’s since retired. His name is Roger Chaffin, but he did a lot of research working with individual musicians, looking at how they prepare for memorized performance. And, um, the, the purpose of the memory palace idea is that you have some something like the locations in your house or the locations on your drive to work to sort of hang the information on and then you just go pick up that information as you sort of walk by in your brain. And he, through his research and his collaboration with these different musicians came up with um, sort of four different what he calls performance cues, which is sort of information from the music itself that you can sort of hang what you’re trying to remember.

Molly:
Like the specific notes and rhythms and his different four different performance cues. The first were “structural cues.” So like where are you in the structure of the piece exposition, you know, whatever. The second was “expressive cues.” So what are you trying to express to the audience? You know, this is the happy part. This is the sad part. Whatever. Third, were what he calls “interpretive cues,” which at first I was like expressive cues, interpretive cues, like that seems the same thing to me. But interpretive cues, he means things that composer writes in, like changes in tempo or expressive marks that the, that the composer puts in. So those are like composer dictated things. And then the fourth he calls “basic cues.” So those are matters of technique, bowing, rhythm fingering, whatever. And so he found that all the different like cues that, uh, performers use, they fall into these four categories.

Molly:
He also found that the most durable cues, the ones that were the most likely to cue recall of the actual music over time were structural cues and expressive cues. So where are you in the structure of the piece and what are you trying to express here? He found that the weakest type of cue, and he actually called this a negative cue because it promoted forgetting were basic cues. So fingerings bowings, which is surprising to me personally because you would think like, Oh yeah, you remember that’s a third finger right there that you’re shifting to that would help you remember what the note is better. But his research said not.

Noa:
That’s interesting because it sort of makes sense to me and that it might overlap, with the conscious monitoring theory of choking and that it could be detrimental in that sort of way.

Molly:
Right? Yeah. With the, with the basic cues. Yeah. That’s a really good point.

Rob:
Where else can we, I mean would you just point people to your website? Is that the main place that we can learn more about this from you?

Molly:
Yeah. My website is just my name, it’s mollygebrian.com. Right now my website is a little bit of a mess. There’s sort of two places on the website you can access my writing. One is under “writing” and the other one is under “music and brain” and that’s the music brain is sort of, you can find everything a little more cleanly. That’s where you can access the, the writing I’ve done on these topics and most of my papers take like topics like memorization and the neuroscience research that’s been done and kind of translate it out of the neuroscientific jargon and also give like practical ways if this is how you can use this information in the practice room.

Molly:
So that’s on my website. And then I give a presentation called what musicians can learn about practicing from current brain research like all the time all over the place. And just last week I finally after years and years and years made it into a series of YouTube videos. Um, it’s five videos. I’ve linked to the playlist of that on my website under music and brain, but it’s also on my personal YouTube page. It’s just also just my name Molly Gebrian, my presentation on memorization, which is a lot of the stuff we talked about today and a few things we didn’t quite get to. I’m going to be making that into probably a series of, of YouTube videos. It’s probably not going to be one big, big long one. That will also be up on my YouTube and my, my website. Ha ha. As soon as I get to it within the next couple of weeks.

Noa:
For a complete transcript, links to Molly’s writing and her YouTube videos, as well as references to the studies she mentioned, please visit bulletproofmusician.com/molly

Notes

  • Molly recommends (54:31) that everyone read Berkeley neuroscientist Matthew Walker’s book Why We Sleep. While you wait for it to arrive, you can hear Walker talk about sleep in a 5-min video on the negative effects of getting insufficient sleep, a 19-min TED talk , a 1-hr TED chat on why sleep is particularly important during the current pandemic, and a 2-hr Joe Rogan interview for even more on this.
  • I mention (12:46) a video where Philadelphia concertmaster David Kim describes how he prepares for performances: David Kim - Practice Techniques
  • We get into a discussion (15:29) of choking, its causes, and solutions. There’s a great book on this by Sian Beilock, whose work has informed much of what we know about choking: Choke
  • And also her TED talk: Why we choke under pressure - and how to avoid it | Sian Leah Beilock
  • And then this 4-min TED-Ed video (though I might be a little favorably biased here…): How to stay calm under pressure - Noa Kageyama and Pen-Pen Chen
  • Molly mentions her grad school teacher Carol Rodland (22:03), whose podcast interview you may also enjoy: Carol Rodland: On Learning to Work with Your Body, Not Against It
  • We mentioned clarinetist and Memorial University professor Christine Carter’s guest post on interleaved practice (49:36): Why the Progress You Make in the Practice Room Seems to Disappear Overnight
  • Researcher Roger Chaffin comes up, in regards to his research on the four retrieval cues that are relevant to musicians (56:17). Here’s a post that explores one of his studies which looks at these four retrieval cues: Regular Memorization Works OK, but Here’s Why “Deliberate Memorization” Is Way Better
  • The memory palace strategy comes up too (56:22) – which you can learn more about in author Joshua Foer’s TED talk: Feats of memory anyone can do - Joshua Foer

How to connect with Molly (and learn more)

Here’s Molly’s website, where you can read more of her writing: mollygebrian.com

And here’s the YouTube video series on memory that she mentioned, where she shares more info on this subject: What Musicians Can Learn About Practicing from Current Brain Research


References

Roger Chaffin:

Imreh, R. C. G. (1997). “Pulling Teeth and Torture” : Musical Memory and Problem Solving. Thinking & Reasoning, 3(4), 315–336. https://doi.org/10.1080/135467897394310

Chaffin, R., & Logan, T. (2006). Practicing perfection: How concert soloists prepare for performance. Advances in Cognitive Psychology, 2(2), 113–130. https://doi.org/10.2478/v10053-008-0050-z

Chaffin, R., & Imreh, G. (2002). Practicing Perfection: Piano Performance as Expert Memory. Psychological Science, 13(4), 342–349. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0956-7976.2002.00462.x

Chaffin, R., Lisboa, T., Logan, T., & Begosh, K. T. (2009). Preparing for memorized cello performance: the role of performance cues. Psychology of Music, 38(1), 3–30. https://doi.org/10.1177/0305735608100377

When you should start playing from memory:

Ginsborg, J. (2002). Classical Singers Learning and Memorising a New Song: An Observational Study. Psychology of Music, 30(1), 58–101. https://doi.org/10.1177/0305735602301007

Papers on my Molly’s pet theory about auditory/motor cortex linkage:

Lotze, M., Scheler, G., Tan, H.-R. M., Braun, C., & Birbaumer, N. (2003). The musician’s brain: functional imaging of amateurs and professionals during performance and imagery. NeuroImage, 20(3), 1817–1829. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2003.07.018

Haueisen, J., & Knösche, T. R. (2001). Involuntary Motor Activity in Pianists Evoked by Music Perception. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 13(6), 786–792. https://doi.org/10.1162/08989290152541449

Choking:

Lewis, B. P., & Linder, D. E. (1997). Thinking about Choking? Attentional Processes and Paradoxical Performance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23(9), 937–944. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167297239003

Beilock, S. L., & Carr, T. H. (2001). On the fragility of skilled performance: What governs choking under pressure? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 130(4), 701–725. https://doi.org/10.1037/0096-3445.130.4.701

About Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.

Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.

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