The Practice Strategy That Could “Bulletproof” Your Memory Under Pressure


I took piano lessons for several years as a child. But I didn’t get very far because I had a rather peculiar approach to learning.

Due to my principled objection to the existence of other clefs, I never bothered to learn bass clef. Anytime I got a new piece, I just memorized the left hand part first. And then I played off the music while looking only at the treble clef.

Kind of ridiculous in hindsight, but then again, I was a stubborn kid. 😅

And apparently, the apple does not fall far from the tree. Because when my daughter was taking piano lessons, she had her own unique approach to learning.

Unlike me, she was open to learning both clefs. But in an interesting twist, she refused to look at the music. So she simply poked around on the keyboard for the right combination of notes until it sounded right.

If you can imagine giving a beginner typist a blank keyboard with no letters printed on it (isn’t that the awesomest thing ever?), you’ll have a pretty good idea what we experienced in our home every day.

Needless to say, it drove my wife (a pianist) crazy. Whom I’d often hear yelling “LOOK AT THE MUSIC!!!” from various corners of our apartment.

But then I came across a memorization study which made me wonder if our little one was actually onto something.

Could some version of this practice-without-the-score strategy actually have benefits when it comes to performing more securely from memory? And under pressure in particular?

Stress and memory

There’s a pretty robust literature which shows that stress and anxiety disrupts memory. Whether it’s taking a stressful math test, speaking in front of an audience, or giving a performance, we are prone to memory slips when the pressure kicks in.

But are memory issues under pressure inevitable? Or could there be a way to strengthen memory, and make it more stress-resistant?

A team of researchers (Smith et al., 2016) noticed that most of the research in this area hasn’t been all that concerned with what specific memorization strategies their participants used, so they put together a study to dig a little deeper.

Two memorization strategies

The researchers recruited 120 participants, and randomly assigned them to one of two groups – a study group and a retrieval practice group.

30 nouns

Everyone was first presented with a list of 30 nouns to memorize.

The study group then re-studied the 30 nouns.

Meanwhile, the retrieval practice group skipped right to practice tests. With no further study or review, they tried to recall as many items as they could remember from the initial presentation.

30 photos

Next up was a collection of 30 photos to memorize.

Once again, the study group had time to re-study the 30 photos.

The retrieval group again skipped right to a practice test where they were asked to recall as many photos as they could.

Nouns and photos combined

Then, the study group was given a chance to review the original 30 nouns and 30 photos combined.

Meanwhile, the retrieval group attempted to recall as many of the 30 nouns and 30 photos as they could from the original presentation, with no opportunity for review.

A short distraction, and one last study/practice test session

Finally, after a short distractor task, the study group reviewed all 60 items one last time, while the retrieval grouptried once again to recall as many items as they could.

And did these two approaches to studying lead to any differences in memory performance?

Adding it all up

Before we take a look at the results, let’s do a quick recap.

All in all, the study group had three opportunities to study or review the material.

The retrieval group on the other hand, had zero traditional study sessions. They received one single presentation of nouns and photos, and with no further opportunity to review the material, were tested on their memory of the original presentation of words and photos from the very start.

On paper, that’s an awfully lopsided advantage of study time for the study group. But how much would this matter when tested 24 hours later?

Memory tests under stress

When participants returned to the lab for testing, half of the participants – 30 from the study group, and 30 from the retrieval group – were asked to give a speech and solve math problems in front of 2 judges and 3 peers, so as to make them a little anxious and increase their stress levels.

Five minutes into this stressful task, they were asked to recall either the nouns or photos that they learned the previous day.

And twenty minutes later – which is about when the stress hormone cortisol reached its peak – they were asked to recall the other set of items that they learned the previous day (i.e. if they were tested on nouns on the first test, they were asked to recall photos on this test, or vice versa).

Memory tests with no stress

The other 60 participants were also asked to recall the nouns and photos they learned the previous day, but they did so at 5 and 25 minutes into completing a totally non-stressful task.

Results

As you can imagine, stress did have a negative effect on memory – but only for those who studied in the traditional way.

When stressed, the study group did worse on the memory test. Despite all of their study time, they were only able to recall 7 items when stressed, compared to 8.7 items when not stressed.

But the participants who did retrieval practice, seemed to be unaffected by stress. When they were tested during the stressful task, they were able to remember an average of 11.1 items. Which was essentially indistinguishable from their fellow retrieval practicers’ recall performance when not stressed (10.3 items recalled).

Even cooler…

Being able to strengthen memory under pressure is cool, but did you notice how the retrieval practice group’s memory score when stressed (11.1) was better than the study group’s score when not stressed (8.7)?

It’s like retrieval practice enabled participants to perform better in the worst-case scenario than regular studying enabled participants to do in the best-case scenario.

Why wasn’t studying more helpful?

The authors cite a convergence of research, from neuroscience to cognitive theory, noting that retrieval practice seems to strengthen memory more effectively than traditional studying, as it creates multiple pathways to retrieval.

Sort of like if Hansel and Gretel had left not just a trail of breadcrumbs, but also a trail of pebbles (of either the Fruity or Cocoa variety, but maybe Fruity better for visibility, Cocoa for taste?). And left a string tied to a tree at the entry of the forest. And used a map and GPS too.

The idea being, more retrieval attempts results in a greater number of distinct ways to access the same information.

What does retrieval practice look like for musicians?

When I was a kid, I never thought about memorizing a piece until it was totally learned. I saw memorization as a task that you engaged in during the “polishing” stage of learning a piece, when you were getting it ready for performance.

But how might things change if we saw memorization as an integral part of learning a piece from Day 1? Not as some add-on at the end of the learning process?

Some musicians already approach learning in much this way. Where they spend the first week or two semi-memorizing new pieces in a basic sort of way. So that they can play it from memory, however imperfectly and haltingly, from a very early stage.

A 2007 study (Chaffin) for instance, tracked a concert pianist’s practice as she learned Debussy’s Clair de Lune, and found that she made a deliberate effort to emphasize memory from the very beginning, even if it meant “muddling” along in a start-and-stop-and-pause-and-think-and-start-again kind of way at the outset.

Whether it’s semi-memorizing an entire piece or simply making teeny tiny daily attempts at recalling even a single phrase or two, integrating some memory component into daily practice does make a lot of sense…

After all, despite how disorienting my daughter’s practicing was to listen to, now that I think of it, she never did seem to have any issues with memory on stage! 😅

Originally posted on 12.18.2016; revised and updated 10.23.2022

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References

Chaffin, R. (2007, April 1). Learning Clair de Lune: Retrieval Practice and Expert Memorization. Music Perception, 24(4), 377–393. https://doi.org/10.1525/mp.2007.24.4.377

Smith, A. M., Floerke, V. A., & Thomas, A. K. (2016, November 25). Retrieval practice protects memory against acute stress. Science, 354(6315), 1046–1048. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aah5067

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Comments

10 Responses

  1. Awesome insights (and an awesome site, by the way). From some time now I’ve experienced how hardship when learning makes every new thing you learn more meaningful to you, and when you reflect upon it later you can see more clearly how this thing relates to everything you’ve learnt in life.

    Thanks for the info!

  2. i think there are a few advantages in starting to memorize a piece of music before it is completely mastered technically.

    1. the sooner you start the memorization process then then the sooner you will have memorized it. not a bad deal!

    2. starting the memorization process early lets you do a form of “interleaved” practice WITHIN the same piece, i.e. practice for technical learning/practice for memorizing. and because it’s all on the same piece, you get a double dose of practice in while at the same time working in an interleaved fashion.

    3. you will have double the amount of “yeast left in the oven” to make it easier to get started in the next practice session.

    i’ve been doing this a little bit, thinking it just kind of felt right. but now, thinking about, it seems to be a very reasonable thing to do.

  3. Great article! I see this with my students as well. But I always warn them, that they have to check in with their music, because I also don’t want them guessing too much too early and learning the piece incorrectly… plus, I also want them to be good readers. This is a really interesting study though, and I think it’s totally true! I recently had to memorize 16 pieces of music… granted, several pieces I’ve been playing for a while (it was for a concert with my electric string trio), but the new ones, I started memorizing them right away – so I actually implemented what this study is talking about! I listened to the original music (we do covers of popular music in string version) and played along over and over again, only occasionally checking in with my music… and it worked! When it came to our performance, I didn’t have memory lapses and I felt that I actually played more musically because I wasn’t reading the music. I think it would actually mess me up to read the music at this point… (I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing though!)

  4. Your article reminded me of a gospel pianist who filled in it at our church many years ago. While we were going over the music for the service he asked me to sing one of the hymns for him since he didn’t know it and couldn’t read music. I sang it. And then he asked me what key I wanted it. So, I told him. He played it perfectly with all the requisite flourishes. The rest of the songs were already in the hymnal he carried in his head.

  5. For me, memorizing the music of the score always came with the practice of it. Sometimes, I would even pretend I was reading the score but I wasn’t. It is a question of energy also I think.
    Other times, I didn’t have to learn the piece or to perform it so it was cool. I could keep the score. That being said, I was able to have the score on stage and to rush or to hesitate so I wasn’t regular with learning pieces by heart. Memorizing is a process that requires energy as much as working on the piece in fact so depending on which energy I had put in playing, I memorized faster. In general, if I put energy in playing and if I focused correctly, I memorized faster.
    But I also sung the piece instead of practicing it. It didn’t necessarily work. When I knew how to do that and knew how to use my energy to do something like that, I wasn’t learning the piece’s fingering by heart but was memorizing the melody. i was able to be a rebel, to do different fingerings, it worked. I played the piece. But you have to be rapid, and you have to really concentrate to do that. I was able to concentrate on my fingerings.
    #focus #energy #sport psychology

  6. Im reading a lot of stuff about how to improve memory. As if recalling memorized facts and figures would have some value in itself. For me it has not. Memory has its value, but only as as a secondary function. Once something is learned in the way that it is fully understood there is no need at all to use any memorization techniques. And this goes for all subjects. A physics formula is understood when the learner understands the principles it reflects. Once that is achieved there is no need at all to memorize it. If forgotten it can easily be recreated . The same is true for music, once it is understood how a certain piece reflects the ideas that form the basis of the piece there is no need to memorize it, one can recreate it on the fly if forgotten.

    Actually this focus on memorization techniques impairs learning since it attempts to short cut the brains ability to recognize patterns and deduct underlying ideas.

  7. In the last three years I’ve learned 50 pieces and I always begin A new piece with memorization. My routine now makes it easy to memorize.

    One of the things I like about this approach is as I continue to master and refine the pieces, I don’t have to worry about remembering it. Yes occasionally I refer to the score, it’s always out for me check if I need to, but having a piece already memorized makes refining technique and/or musicality some much easier and gratifying as well. Also, I like to focus on one thing at a time. So, for instance if I’m focusing on melodic contour, I’m not distracted by memory lapses.

  8. The Suzuki method uses memorization “from Day 1” especially in young children. I believe he speaks directly about memorization in his book Nurtured by Love. It is a fascinating process to watch and, I think, not needing to read music makes performance possible at a younger age or to students who may have other visual/reading issues.

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