Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Memorization - Inspiration and How-To's

For many, just hearing the words "memorize" makes the brain grow fuzzy,  and all the past failures come into mind.  You immediately remind yourself that you can't.  You are too old.  Your memory is too bad.  You tried it before and you failed.  Before you go into the mode where everything "goes in one ear and out the other," let me tell you about a former student of mine.  I will preface his story with this...

I don't believe that everyone with certain types of dementia or Alzheimer's can overcome memory issues, but this particular student of mine was an Alzheimer's patient that started to play banjo because of his diagnosis.  He told me in the very beginning.  He also told me how he had failed at clarinet and piano as a child.  His music teacher told him he would never play any musical instrument.  At the time, he was my oldest student at 76 years old.  He told me he did not believe he could memorize anything because of his diagnosis.  I asked him to try anyway.  He memorized 18 songs over the course of two years.  He could play all of his songs with accompaniment.  What that did for him no doctor could ever do for him.  It didn't cure him, but it gave him such confidence that he could do something despite the overwhelming odds against him.  And on one of the hardest instruments he could ever have chosen.

So how was he able to do this?  How does anyone that has trouble with memorization overcome this problem?  To start with, you really need to quiet those inner voices telling you that you can't.  Just keep telling yourself you will try.  Every day.  Every time you practice.

As a teacher, when I get a student that comes in week after week with their tab or music on the stand, I start by helping them memorize the song during their lesson with me.  I don't allow them to use the tab or music.  They hate this and resist!  But I have them do it anyway.  I start by having them play as much as they can without the music.  If they can't even get started, I help them get started.  If they still can't play any of the song, I will teach them note for note whatever they have been working on.  We might do four notes, eight notes, or even the first line.  It really depends on the student and what they are able to remember.  What I am doing is showing them HOW to do this at home.

Start with just a few notes, one measure, or one line.  Remembering the first note is a start!  Can you remember the first four notes?  Great!  Can you remember the first four notes 10 minutes from now?  If not, look at them again.  Can you remember the first four notes tomorrow?  If not, look at them again.

Break old habits.  What I mean by this is if you have been using tabs or music for a while to play all your songs, it will be difficult for you to give this up because you might be able to play 10 or 20 songs as long as you have music.  And memorizing 10-20 songs is overwhelming if you think you can't memorize even one!  Plus, you CAN play with the music.  So what habit is there to break?  The habit of using the tab or music for a crutch.  You have two option at this point.  The first is to immediately stop learning new songs until you can memorize all the ones you are currently working on.  The second option is to only learn new songs with a new method.  This new method is...

Learn only as much of the song as you can memorize.  If you can only memorize the first four notes, stop there!  Don't throw the piece of tab or music up on your stand and read all the way through it over and over.  That has already proven unsuccessful for you!  Why would you keep doing that?

Keep coming back to whatever it is that you are memorizing.  If you are working on part of a song, whether it is the beginning or some spot in the middle or end that you can't seem to get in your head, keep going back to it during your practice session.  Let's say you have four songs you are working on.  Start on the one you are working towards memorizing.  After you get part of it memorized, even if it's just four notes, go on to something else.  Work on that for 5-10 minutes or whatever time you deem necessary, then to back to the first song and see if you can remember those four notes without looking.  If you can't, look at them again.  Memorize them again.  Now go on to your second song.  Work on it for a while and return to those four notes you previously memorized.  Can you remember them?  If not, look at them again and memorize them again.  Do this over and over.  Every practice session.

Keep your practice sessions short, but frequent.  Many people don't have an hour or two at a stretch to devote to practice.  You have laundry to do, car repairs, children to attend to, phone calls to make, emails to answer, dinner, a spouse or friend that needs attention, etc.  That's okay.  In fact, that's best when you are memorizing!  Maybe you only have five minutes at a time to devote, but you can do that three times during the day.  Each time, try for those four notes without looking!  Eventually, you will get them down.

Practice more days.  This goes with the one above about keeping your practice sessions short.  You will get much more accomplished by practicing five days a week for 15 minutes than you will by practicing two hours in one day once a week.  Once again, it's not about a huge block of time devoted to practice.  It's about how often you practice.

Keep your instrument handy.  This is a BIG one.  If you have to go get your instrument, take it out of the gigbag or case, get your picks, your tuner, your strap, your bow, or whatever else you need, that takes time.  If you don't have much time, you won't do it.  If you don't have much motivation, you won't do it!  Keep your instrument out on a stand.  It can be in the living room, the kitchen, your bedroom, or where ever it is most handy.  If you can't keep it on a floor stand, get a wall hanger.  This allows you to play for a few minutes at a time on a moment's notice.  On hold on the telephone?  Put it on speaker mode and pick up your instrument!  Waiting for the biscuits to brown or water to boil?  Pick up your instrument and play a few notes!

What moments can you "cash in" on?  Besides being on hold or taking advantage of wait times while cooking, you can also use these moments:
* Mute the television during commercials and pick while you are waiting.
* Listen to the tunes you are working on while in the car or doing things that DON'T allow you to stop and pick a few minutes.
* Waiting for someone to finish getting ready?  Use those few minutes (or more) to pick a little.
* Have you been working on homework for a long time?  A report?  Just finished making lots of phone calls? Stop for five minutes and pick a tune.

Don't stop.  Once you get those first four notes or that first line memorized, don't stop there.  Add to it.  Add the next four notes, or the next line to what you already have memorized.

Got a good ear? Here's an interesting one.  Maybe your problem isn't that you can't memorize, but that you can't memorize once you have the music.  Record yourself playing the piece from music.  Those of you that have a good ear may now use that recording to learn the piece without looking at the music.

Practice with a recording.  This is a very important part of practice regardless of whether you have issues with memorization!  Playing with a good recording, especially one that includes accompaniment, will make and keep your rhythm accurate.  It will also remind you that you have forgotten something if you skip notes or make other mistakes in the music.  Part of memorizing is the inevitable changing something as you go along.  You think you have it memorized, but you change something without even knowing you did!  If you are playing with a recording, it will be obvious.  This will allow you to go back and fix whatever it is before too much time passes.  It also forces you to stay at one speed.  You won't be able to stop when your memory fails.  You will learn how to recover and keep going.

Listen.  Often.  I mentioned this above very briefly in the "cash in" moments, but this is so important, it deserves a paragraph of its own!  If you don't know what the song sounds like, how can you possibly memorize it?  How would you even know you had it memorized?  This is particularly true if you are playing your song very slowly.  It doesn't sound like the song.  Listen to a recording of the song played very slowly so you know what you are supposed to sound like when you play it very slowly.  Put the song on your phone or on a CD and listen to it in the car, while you are waiting in the doctor's office (with your earbuds, of course), while you are changing the oil in your car, while you are getting ready in the morning...or evening, etc.

Recognize repeating sections of repeating licks.  This is also a very important one.  You may look at a song and it seems overwhelming because it is LONG.  Look more closely at the song.  You will probably start to see parts of the song that are the same.  Or parts of the song that you already know from memorizing another song!  Maybe you recognize a certain lick or pattern of notes.  Great!  These are the parts that you won't have to memorize again!

Celebrate your victories and don't compare yourself to others.  Some people memorize quickly.  Some don't.  No matter how you start, it will get easier and you will get faster and better at it. You will also notice that you start to remember other things better, too.  It will improve every aspect of your life.  You won't lose your car keys as much.  You will remember what you had for dinner last night.  Maybe you will even remember your anniversary!  But seriously, don't compare your ability or lack of ability to memorize with someone else's.  You are an individual with your own set of struggles, life issues, health issues, job issues, and so forth.  To compare yourself to someone else is setting yourself up for failure or false hope.  It doesn't matter how long it takes you.  It matters that you are trying.

I know this has been long, but I think it is important.  I hope that you will be inspired to memorize.  I hope you won't give up.  I hope you will speak words of encouragement to yourself that you CAN do it.  I hope you remember that I believe in you!

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