There’s a musician’s joke that if you want your onstage performance to be as good as it was when practicing at home then you must practise 200% because you’re only half as good when you play in front of people. The truth is that statistically our performances are pretty similar either way, but there is also many a true word spoken in jest.
I’m reading a book called: Remember – The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting by Lisa Genova. It seems our memories are incredibly faulty. Pretty much everything we recall is wrong. Not only do we remember selectively but we are prone to creating false memories, since every time we go over a memory we add and subtract to it depending on the story we want to believe. And, as if that weren’t enough, time constantly erodes our memories too.
If you want to get a song locked in your brain you need to endow it with repetition and meaning. Lisa Genova’s tip for memorizing is to rehearse past mastery. What she means by that is to learn until you self-test at 100% – the point where most of us stop practicing – and then keep going.
I’ve known for a long time that my memory is a very fickle friend.
In the early noughties I was interviewed on a nationally broadcast CBC radio show in my capacity as the self-styled King of the Ukulele. Later that day I got a phone message saying, “This is Clive. I heard you on the radio today and I’m wondering if you’d be interested in talking to my class of college students about stage performance.”
I recognised the voice. A year or two before I’d been in a 1920’s variety show directed by Clive. I think he had a day job at an investment company, specializing in gold mines or something, so the fact he was now teaching a class of performing arts students seemed a huge departure, but not an impossibility.
Clive met me at the school and I was shocked by the change in his appearance. Since we last met, he had taken to covering his bald head with an obvious toupee. His neatly trimmed beard was gone and his face drooped slightly. Obviously, he had been through a traumatic mid-life crisis. I guessed he’d lost his job, his wife had left him and now here he was teaching stagecraft at a community college wearing a mop hairstyle that belonged on a teenager.
After my presentation Clive walked me to my car where he suggested we meet again to discuss future projects. He said he did magic tricks (another new thing) and that we could talk about setting up a music and magic act. He even had an idea for doing audio magic tricks on the radio (I still wonder what that was about). All the way home I thought about Clive and decided to talk to someone from the variety show to see what I could learn about his big life change. Looking through my address book I came across Clive’s name and number: it was a different number and, more importantly, a different last name.
It was a different Clive.
For a few seconds my head spun in the fashion of a twirling black and white spiral, similar to those used to such great effect in 1960’s TV shows such as The Twilight Zone. Once the twirling had stopped, I wondered how did I not realise it was a different Clive? How strange would things have had to get before I finally stopped believing the false reality I had created? The coincidence of two Clive’s with very similar voices had caused me to make assumptions, and not once did I pause to consider they could be different people, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. Other than both being Caucasian males of a similar age, they really did not look alike. How did I not see that?
Being forgetful has social implications for performers. I am terrible at remembering faces and have become used to people recognising me far more often than I recognise them. Frequently, when I meet a person in a different context to when we first met, they chatter away at me while I stare back, like a deer in the headlights, without a clue who they are.
There’s a neural disorder called prosopagnosia, also known as face-blindness. In its more severe form people are unable to recognise their children, family members and even themselves (there was a strange case of a sheep farmer who knew the faces of every one of his sheep but not his own reflection). I wouldn’t say I am quite in the “I only-recognize-sheep category” but there are milder versions of the condition. Actor/writer, Stephen Fry says he has it. So does Brad Pitt. It’s not quite the resemblance I wanted to have to Brad Pitt but it will have to do.
Not recognising people makes networking and schmoozing a nightmare. Something to be avoided. Theatre people are renowned for calling each other dahling. It’s so much easier than remembering all those names.
Despite such blind spots, most actors and musicians tend to be blessed with above average memory. But this can never be taken for granted. Age makes a difference. Actor Derek Jacobi started his career in repertory theatre where he learned and performed in a new play every week. For most of us such a feat is unimaginable. But now, in his eighties and one of the elders of British thespianism, his memory is not what it was. His confidence for stage work is gone so he sticks to TV and film instead.
Frank Zappa and the various versions of his band The Mothers of Invention always performed his vast repertoire of complex music from memory. This is astounding. Zappa said of his musicians that they needed good pattern memory. And most were in their early twenties.
A key takeaway from the memory book is that forgetfulness is a vitally important facet of memory. We are designed to forget. Most of our day-to-day thoughts and activities disappear to make room on our brain’s hard drive to recall the more important and unusual items. I find this fact to be at the same time both cheering and depressing. It’s good to know that many so-called “senior moments”, such as forgetting where we parked the car, why we just walked into a room, or who is the lead singer of Duran Duran, can happen at any age and are most often due to a lack of attention rather than dementia. The depressing part is that I always imagined if I tried hard enough, I could resurrect any memory from my life in some detail. But science says that’s rarely the case.
It’s been an enlightening read. Many long-held assumptions about our memory I’ve discovered are not entirely correct. And so now, having read the book, I’m not going to immediately be able to help you remember faces – or the supposed errand that made you climb the stairs – but anything that helps us to memorize songs is always useful so here goes.:
General tips to help your memory
Pay Attention – You can’t remember what you didn’t notice in the first place: like where you put your glasses, your keys or your car. These are signs of poor observation and not a poor memory.
Minimize Stress – Stress can have both long- and short-term effects on memory. Try practicing mindfulness, yoga, gratitude and compassion.
Sleep – Sleep is more important than we ever knew. Humans function best with 7-9 hours a night. Work on getting your quota.
Be Positive – Older adults shown a list of words like feeble and decrepit perform worse in tests than those shown words like experienced and vibrant.
Eat a Healthy Diet – The Mediterranean diet is a good one: leafy greens, berries, nuts, olive oil, whole grains, beans, fish (the kinds rich in omega-3 fatty acids). Vitamin D also helps: taken as either supplements or as sunshine.
Aerobic Exercise – A rule of thumb is that anything which helps maintain a healthy heart will also strengthen your memory.
Externalize your memory with lists, sticky notes, calendars and your smart phone. Googling something that’s on the tip-of-your-tongue doesn’t make your brain lazy, it makes it possible for you to move on and learn more.
Rehearsing past mastery to remember a song
Make the song meaningful to yourself in every possible way. You’re not just learning a collection of words. Think about what the lyrics mean; how they connect or contradict and how one line leads on to the next.
Usually, melodies stick in our mind long before words do. Note how the lyric lines attach to the music in their unique way. Then see where the chord patterns repeat. Clump them so you’re learning chord groups as blocks instead of individually.
Make the song Visually Interesting. Write the song out in an unusual way. Use block caps. Use a coloured high-lighter and draw pictures.
Quiz yourself. This works better than just singing the song over and over. Know the song backwards and forwards and be able to dip into it at any point. Learn the song starting from the last line.
Create retrieval clues for any word or line that always trips you up. If you are singing, The rose which blooms when it should be The rose that blooms. Picture a cat next to the rose and think The rose cat blooms. Sillier mnemonics like this work the best.
Trick yourself. When you think you’ve mastered a song, trick yourself into forgetting. Play it at different times of day, in different situations and different rooms: standing up, sitting, lying down, eyes open, eyes closed, standing on one leg.
Make it Real. Get out and perform as much as you can. If you can’t get to regular open-mics then create imaginary performance situations for yourself: picture the scene backstage and the emcee announcing your name. If you start to feel jittery then use that feeling. Perform through it.
Imagine the crowd in front of you and sing to them. Imagine your thoughts and their reactions. Imagine the distractions, for these are the things that derail us when we sing in public.
Instead of learning two songs at 100% take the time to learn just one song at 200%.
And after your imaginary concert, when your imaginary audience come to shake your hand to tell you how great you were, you will be forgiven when you reply, “Hello, do I know you?”