Learning and memory: two sides of the same coin

When I was in grad school (the first time), a friend showed up at lunch one day looking far more stressed than usual.   When I asked her what was going on, she said she had a dream the previous night, and she was convinced it was a premonition of disaster for an impending degree recital.  In her dream, she walked out on stage, acknowledged the very large audience of faculty, friends and family, sat down at a beautiful 9’ Steinway on which she had practiced, and then drew a complete blank.  Not only could she not remember how to begin the first piece, she couldn’t even remember what repertoire was on the recital.  Sound familiar?

klimperIt may, because many of us have had similar dreams or nightmares. This was a first-time occurrence for my friend, and she was totally distraught. I don’t think it was any comfort to her when I told her that it was a standard performance anxiety dream and that lots of musicians (as well as actors and public speakers) experienced such dreams.  (In a couple of my dreams, the piano has even begun to disintegrate.)

Many of us have indeed experienced concert disaster in our sleep, and the dreams are tremendously upsetting because they seem so real.   We notice what we are wearing, we see the hall and the audience, we feel the adrenaline rush, and as we struggle in the dream trying to remember what we are supposed to play or trying valiantly to get out of a memory slip – it’s always to no avail. There is never anything we can do.  The situation continues to get worse, and we become increasingly panicked until we eventually wake up in a sweat with our hearts pounding.

Although we experience performance anxiety for a number of reasons including fear of what the audience will think of our performance or fear that our technique will fail us, the fear that looms the largest is that of having a memory slip – or worse – having the music totally fall apart because we can’t find our way out of the slip back to comfortable terrain.

Somehow, no matter how much time we have spent on memory, it never feels secure enough. In fact, memory occupies such a large space in musicians’ lives that Caroline Wright, pianist, composer, and scientist, has devoted a blog,  Memorising Music, to how musicians memorize.   (And no, I didn’t spell it wrong.  Caroline is British.)

A lot of performers – and even some critics – are beginning to weigh in on whether or not pianists should continue to memorize (pianists and violinists seem to be the only performers expected to memorize).   Personally, I don’t think that playing from memory proves anything at all about musicianship or interpretation of the music – as some teachers and audiences seem to think. Excellent chamber musicians play with the score all the time.  And sometime during the late 90s when I was in London, I heard Leon Fleisher play the Ravel Left Hand Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra. At that point, Fleisher had probably played that concerto dozens, if not hundreds of times. But he played with the score – and it was a mesmerizing performance.

I have also heard wonderful pianists struggle with memory, and both audience and performer alike would have benefitted from a score magically appearing on the music rack.

Several pianists have been quite vocal about the tyranny of memory expectations, among them Gilbert Kalish in the US and Stephen Hough in the UK. And New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini has written more than once about the rigid protocol that requires pianists to play from memory, a protocol that he says is thankfully loosening its hold. Noa Kageyama, in his excellent blog The Bulletproof Musician, has addressed memory and performance anxiety several times.

But since playing from memory is probably still with us for the foreseeable future, and since this is a blog about neuroscience and music, what do neuroscientists have to say about memory?  Is there anything we can learn from neuroscience research that will help us feel more secure when we walk out onstage?

Many neuroscientists say that learning and memory are two sides of the same coin – that learning is the process by which new information is encoded in the nervous system and memory is the encoding itself of the information.   So how secure our memory is at the time of performance depends totally on how we have encoded the information during the learning process.

It really shouldn’t come as a surprise that how we’ve learned a piece determines how well we will be able to recall it from memory, but how often do our students (and sometimes we as well) “learn” a piece and then start working on memory – as though memory is an add-on process?  Memory isn’t an add-on; it is inextricably entwined with the learning process.

Many people tend to think that a piece of Man plugging a memory stick in his headmusic is sitting somewhere in the brain like an mp3 file, just waiting for us to call it up in its entirety, but memory isn’t found in one place in the brain. As I learn a piece of music, my brain deconstructs it for relationships and patterns (everything in the brain is about patterns), and it is now found in various networks throughout my brain.

Recalling the piece from memory requires reconstruction or recreation of the various networks and relationships that make up the piece. And the more one consciously knows about the piece – about the patterns, about how it is put together, key relationships, structure etc., the easier that reconstruction or recall will be.

So over the next few posts, we’re going to talk about what happens in the brain as we learn:  how we encode music; what the relationship is between learning and memory; what we need to know for successful memory retrieval; and some practicing tips that will help solidify that learning/memory relationship  – allowing us to feel more secure as we perform. Maybe we can even get rid of some of those nocturnal performance nightmares!


4 responses to “Learning and memory: two sides of the same coin”

  1. Kathleen Merwin Avatar
    Kathleen Merwin

    Very timely, as students are in the midst of preparing for upcoming adjudicated events. My transfer students always fight me (at least in their minds – I can tell!) when I require various approaches to memorization … hands separately with ‘ghosting’, analysis of key relationships, form, structure, etc. When they have a small slip in performance, however, and are able to recover, they always thank me (at least in their minds – I can tell!) Love your words of wisdom, really looking forward to exploring more on this topic with you. Thank you!

    1. Lois Avatar

      Thanks for your comments, Kathleen. I’m sure your students are thanking you in their minds, if not verbally, when they recover from a slip. Sounds like you do a great job of preparing them for performance. Sometimes, when they know a bit about when is going on in the brain as they learn, they are more amenable to learning in various ways. So more to follow.

  2. May Lauren Avatar
    May Lauren

    I am very excited to read these upcoming blog posts! My capstone project in grad school was teaching students to memorize music. I’m glad to hear you refer to learning and memorization as “two sides of the same coin.” That makes sense based on all the reading I did for the project, but most teachers (and consequently students) don’t understand that. I’ve been teaching my students to approach initial learning of new pieces using the same strategies that we use to memorize music. It’s amazing how much faster they master new music!

    1. Lois Avatar

      Thanks for your comments. Learning and memory really can’t be separated, so it’s great that you are teaching your students to think about memory in connection with learning. And yes, it’s definitely faster.