Practice, learning and memory, part IV

And continuing our practice strategies to ensure effective learning and memory:

Sitting on an outdoor bench in a scenic spot may not be your idea of practicing, but it depends on what you’re thinking about while you sit there.

7) Reflection.  Psychologists speak about reflection as a learning strategy – thinking about what you have learned and asking yourself questions to solidify Silhouette of an anonymous male alone on a bench at sunsetwhat you know. Find a quiet place to sit away from your instrument and quiz yourself on what you know about the piece or about the segment you just learned.  What are the key relationships, what’s the structure, where are the sections, patterns, motifs? The more you have to struggle to remember or perhaps check the score to verify, the more your brain fills in the missing information, consolidates, and makes the neural networks stronger.

And those facts about structure, keys, patterns, etc. that you are thinking about are also your retrieval cues, your conceptual or declarative memory. How fast can you think of them in order throughout the piece? Or how fast can you think of them in reverse order? This isn’t easy, and you really have to push yourself to do it.  But if something derails you onstage during a performance, you want to be able to think of retrieval cues as fast as you are playing,  so reflection is excellent practice strategy.

8) Motor imagery serves somewhat the same function as reflection. Settle down somewhere away from your instrument and play through the piece in your mind – imagining the movements necessary to play it as you imagine hearing the piece. Imagine what your muscles have to do to achieve the crescendo or to play the octave leaps or to keep the arpeggiated figures even.

Neuroscientists have known for quite some time that when you imagine the movements necessary to play a piece, all of the same brain areas are activated as when you physically play the instrument – with the single exception of the motor cortex, which is the part of the brain that sends the neural impulses to the muscles to create movement.

So when you are practicing motor imagery, it is nearly as effective as physical practice.  Memory traces, or neural pathways, are being consolidated. But the huge added benefit is that you really can’t cheat. When we sit and endlessly repeat a passage on our instrument, it’s easy for the mind to wander and suddenly we’re thinking about something else.  But if the mind isn’t engaged, neither is the brain, and all of that repetition is wasted.

However, if you are trying to hear the piece in your mind and, at the same time, imagining the movements necessary to play it, your mind is forced to concentrate, and you find out very quickly if you actually know every single note or if your fingers have been glossing over some chords or fast passages.  I have discovered that if I can really imagine every note and movement necessary to play a difficult passage, it is suddenly much easier to play when I return to the piano.  Surprisingly, I have even discovered better fingerings when I am playing the piece using motor imagery.  Somehow, an awkward fingering just won’t work for me during imagery.

And when a student tells you, “I couldn’t practice this week because I was at my Grandmother’s and she doesn’t have a piano,” or “I injured my finger playing volleyball and couldn’t practice,” you can just smile and say “not a good excuse.”    Motor imagery is an excellent substitute when you don’t have access to an instrument.

Motor imagery takes a lot of concentration.  If you haven’t done it before, don’t expect to sit down and use motor imagery for two hours.  You won’t be able to do it.   But you can start with ten minutes and gradually add time.  Motor imagery encodes and consolidates information, but it is also a kind of testing strategy for finding out what you know and don’t know.

Motor imagery is a fascinating topic, and we’ll explore it in greater depth in a later post.

9) Sleep.  And finally, don’t forget the role of sleep in learning. We all tell our students how important sleep is, especially around the time of a performance.  Researchers have known for some time that sleep is important for memory consolidation. More recently, researchers have looked at the role of sleep in motor skill learning – specifically motor skills in playing the piano.

In a post from September 2, 2013, I wrote about the research of Sarah Allen, who conducted a study with musicians to see what happened after learning a new piece and then having a nightTired of sleep. She discovered that motor skills do improve – in certain conditions.  Her discoveries are fascinating, so check out the information at the link above.

With the exception of sleep, which is pretty easy to do, meaningful practice strategies require effort. But researchers continually tell us that learning is deeper when it requires more effort.  By now, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you may be tired of reading that point since I have made it several times in the last 3 posts.  Consider the repetition of this mantra an example of random practice.

If we structure our practice sessions in ways that force us to work harder by using some of the strategies in this and the previous posts – spacing out our practicing, mixing up the kinds of practice that we are doing, constantly testing ourselves on memory, practicing in different places, using motor imagery, etc., etc., we will have to expend more effort, but will be happy we did so when it comes to performance.   Our brain will have been forced to make distinctions, add neural circuitry, make the synapses stronger and faster –  and the consolidation of memory this achieves will ensure that we have much more reliable recall.

So if you practice some or all of these suggestions, will it mean that you never have a memory slip? No, absolutely not. Brains are marvelous, but complex. Lots of things can trigger a momentary lapse. We all have memory lapses in normal, everyday situations.  On one occasion, I was about to introduce to each other two people I know well, and all of a sudden, one of their names just escaped me. Or maybe you’ve had the experience of not being able to think of a word that you obviously know. How many times have you heard – or said: “it’s on the tip of my tongue; I just can’t think of it right now.”

So memory slips happen.  But the more ways you have practiced to make encoding and consolidation of motor, auditory, and conceptual information as strong as possible in your brain, and the faster your access is to your conceptual memory, the more resources you will have available when you have that momentary lapse during performance, and you probably won’t have as much performance anxiety as a result.

In Learning and memory:  two sides of the same coin, when I first began writing about memory – which led to writing about practice, I wrote that we experience performance anxiety for a variety of reasons.  Fear of memory loss is only one of the causes for performance anxiety, but it is a fear that we can address, in part, by how we choose to practice.

I’ve heard pianists experience a memory slip and be able to move on as though nothing had happened. Had I not known the piece, I wouldn’t have been aware of the lapse. I’ve also heard pianists experiencing far more serious memory problems onstage.  Wouldn’t you like to be able to totally immerse yourself in the music without anxiety (or at least, debilitating anxiety) because you have confidence that, if something happens, you have the resources you need to help you restart the motor program and continue as though nothing has happened?

I’ve written a lot about the effort and hard work of practicing in the last three posts. It may sound as though that takes all the joy out of making music.  On the contrary.  Yes, the kind of practice that leads to secure memory requires effort, but the freedom that one then feels during performance is incalculable.

Happy practicing – learning and memorizing – and performing!!


4 thoughts on “Practice, learning and memory, part IV

  1. Loren Amacher

    I quite often used such a technique when reviewing the requisites for performing an operation, especially one that I might do once per week, even less. Visualizing the procedure, ensuring that all necessary steps were present and in order, reminding myself of the danger points – especially for something like a cerebral aneurysm – this was a great help, and effective in avoiding missteps. I could also review what to do in case a step went awry, necessitating rapid, alternate action. This was a matter of experience, and perhaps the hardest thing to teach the residents.

    1. Lois Post author

      Thanks, Loren. I think visualization is good practice for any number of skills, but I think athletes are more likely to visualize than musicians. We tend to think that audiation (hearing the music in the mind) is sufficient. But all extra information, like visualization, helps make the memory more secure.

  2. srinivasan

    The article regarding practice is excellent.Kindly send more article regarding practice.–Dr.R.K.Srinivasan,Indian Flutist. and Fulbright Scholar.

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