The palace of your memory

Science suggests that making connections and revisiting a subject often improves memory.1. In his post “How to Build a Memory Palace to Remember More of Everything,” founder and CEO of lifehack.org, Leon Ho, writes about creating a detailed map of where to place items of memory which has been used for improving memory since ancient Greece.2. It is an interesting idea for memorizing music. Your palace might have a foyer, living room, dining room, kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, play room, powder room. Where and how would you place the items of your music? Would the opening tutti of a concerto be placed in the foyer? The A theme of the exposition could be in the living room, the B theme in the dining room. I would put the development in the kitchen where a lot of thematic and harmonic ideas are cooked up. I think my palace would need a pretty significant den and game room to hold the recapitulation. The cadenza would go in the play room. I will leave the bathroom and powder room metaphors to your imagination. The transitions between musical structures can be pretty exciting.

In the section on memory in his book, Practice, Simon Fischer suggests breaking phrases into smaller components, singing as well as listening, reading from the score without the instrument, concentrating on the physical motions of playing music, “knowing” a piece intellectually, and he includes other memorization tips as well. The area where all of these ideas seem to intersect is with what Fischer calls ”criss-crossing associations between all the aspects of playing.” I like his idea of including the “tactile” aspect of memorization. For instance, my public school students, who depend mostly on note reading for learning music, get a lot out of silent fingering and air or shadow bowing. When stuck on a particularly challenging bowing passage, I have also encouraged my private students to mime their music. Muscle memory is definitely a real thing.

For a long time I have struggled to memorize music. I’ve experienced a lot of anxiety about it which can interfere with the best methods and effort put into memorizing a piece of music. It has always been curious to me that  once I memorized the Suzuki repertoire, I never questioned my memory of the music I teach. I have always had a sense of when I had not completely memorized a “Suzuki piece” and when it was time to go over a particular passage. I am trying to apply these same skills to my own memorization abilities of the standard, professional repertoire.

When teaching, I am laser focusing on very small increments of music which I play over and over again for my students. At the same time, I am helping them technically master the music, I’m using imagery to facilitate their emotional connection to the music, I’m teaching them about the harmonic and historical background of the music, and making sure they understand all of the notation in the score even though they mostly are learning repertoire by ear. The side benefit of all of this is that I am deeply memorizing the music as well. With the demands of adult life, it is challenging to find adequate time to fully carry out these same methods in my own practicing.

I included this card in my deck to remind both student and professional violinists to not neglect this part of their practice. Even if one reads from the score during a performance, having the music memorized signals that the piece is thoroughly memorized which opens the door to the spontaneous musical experience of flow. From when I first begin studying a new piece of music, it has become more and more important to me to sing, listen to recordings and play from memory. Lately, I have also included meditation and journaling as part of my practice. The pandemic has opened an unexpected and welcomed opportunity in my schedule.

The reptilian brain, composed of the basal ganglia (striatum) and brainstem, is involved with primitive drives related to thirst, hunger, sexuality, and territoriality, as well as habits and procedural memory (like putting your keys in the same place every day without thinking about it or riding a bike).”4

  1. Michael I. Miller, ‘Inside the Science of Memory.’ hopkinsmedicine.org. (Accessed March 28, 2021).
  2. Leon Ho, ‘How to Build a Memory Palace to Remember More of Everything’ (2020). lifehack.org. (Accessed March 28, 2021).
  3. Simon Fischer (2004), Practice , 250 step-by-step practice methods for the violin, London, Hinrichsen Edition, Peters Edition Limited, 292-296.
  4. Andrew E. Budson, M.D., ‘Don’t Listen to Your Lizard Brain’ (2017). psychologytoday.com. (Accessed March 28, 2021).

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