Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Performance and memorization

McLaughlin, Carrol. “When You Think You Know It…” in Dr. Carrol’s Power Performance, 73-91. Tucson: IntegrityInk.US, 2008.

This chapter is from a book written by Dr. Carrol McLaughlin. She is a well known performing harpist and professor of a large harp department at the University of Arizona. She also works as a life coach and gives presentations based on her techniques. The book is intended for the use of musicians and business people, essentially anyone who must perform in front of others. She suggests that her techniques of ‘Power Performance’ can be used to reprogram the brain. She uses examples from her own experiences as a performing harpist to illustrate her points. This particular chapter deals with memorization and some methods of proper practise to learn music/information so that you can perform at a higher level than before and with less stress. In this particular chapter she covers several things like the ‘ten times rule’ and the importance of dividing material into small chunks rather than trying to learn a whole page at once. She also explains the necessity of actually practising performing without stopping and the benefits of well marked repair points.

I very much enjoyed reading this chapter, and not only because it was written by a harpist. It is definitely written with a broad audience in mind, the language used is accessible and any terms are well defined. The chapter (indeed the entire book) is written in small subsections and has a full table of contents for easy reference. There are checklists placed at the end of each chapter. A few of the concepts are ideas that most musicians at a high level would have previously encountered, but she does introduce some new concepts and explains well some of the others. She doesn’t go into depth on some of the topics that I might have wished to read more about, but I think that was done with the target audience in mind. This chapter would be of great use to young musicians or those starting out and attempting to train excellent practise techniques from the beginning.

The ‘ten times rule’ (the idea that you can’t truly know something until you’ve played it – or spoken it – ten times through with no errors) is a concept that several of my instrumental teachers have considered very important. It is a fact that the more often you repeat something and especially the shorter the time between repetitions, the more strongly something will be memorized. My current teacher has her students go a level deeper from that rule of ten. To memorize properly she instructs that one must take tiny sections (4 bars or even less) and play them once looking at the music, once without, once again with the music, then without – all in large groups of 10. It is a somewhat frustrating technique of memorization (especially for those around while you are practising), but I can attest to the fact that it is extremely successful. As McLaughlin mentions, the technique requires much patience. Patience in accomplishing the original practise, then also patience in the realization that the next day you take out the material it may seem as if you had done nothing. Eventually the repetitions become faster and the material becomes much more secure.

It is true that often we get stuck in our old routines of practise to the point where we aren’t using our time efficiently. Using techniques like those discussed in this chapter are all ways of ensuring our level of performance is constantly improving.


Brian Graiser said...

There are a few notable percussionists who also subscribe to the "Ten Times" theory; they swear by its success, and demand that all of their students do the same. While I certainly don't want to criticize anyone for practising, I did want to mention that I think there's room for a caveat or two. For example, if one were to learn an entire piano sonata, would they have to play the WHOLE sonata perfectly ten times, or just certain "problem sections?" Furthermore, you can play something accurately, but what about dynamics, phrasing, and expressivity? Do you need to map all of those things out to the finest detail and execute them ten times as well, or (as I believe) can you successfully "wing it" to a certain degree? Granted, the merits of reptition are obvious, but at this point are we treating ourselves like learned musicians, or dogs learning tricks?

Linnea said...

I am always interested in reading and learning about ways of practising or memorizing more efficiently. As musicians, the tasks we require of our minds and bodies are pretty remarkable. Most of our instruments demand of us tremendous accuracy, requiring tiny movements and complex combinations of unrelated motions. Any way to learn these tasks more efficiently is much appreciated!
I can relate to the ‘Ten Times Rule.’ Our bodies indeed learn by repetition, whether of the desired outcome or of an undesired one. I remember as a young piano student becoming so determined to NOT make the same mistake again, that I was actually focusing all my attention on the mistake and not on the simple, correct alternative. My teacher was quick to point out that we can easily fall into the trap of overworking by trying hard to avoid something, rather than simply starting afresh with a new pattern. Of course this idea applies more easily to some situations than others, but I suspect the idea of dwelling on a frequent mistake is very rarely beneficial.