Memory Problems for Musical Performers

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A fear of memory loss is extremely common among performers. Many are loath to admit to it, as if to do so would cause it to happen. Whether acknowledged or not, the anxiety is evident in dreams, jokes, and off-hand comments which express the sense of horror over the prospect of a severe memory loss while on the concert stage. For some this can become a problem which seriously handicaps professional development. Adequate pedagogy often hinges on an understanding not only of memorization, but also on the fears and problems which can become associated with it.

Our discussions with over 100 performers, varying from college music majors to artists of international reputation, confirm the universality of the fear as well as the wide spectrum of methods for dealing with it. At the most adaptive end of the scale such fears provide an added spur for adequate preparation, helping to overcome the inertia induced by the tedium and fatigue of long hours of practice. For most, the fear of memory loss is merely an accepted fact of professional life, handled by denial, rationalization, or the host of other psychological defenses by which the individual characteristically handles the other anxieties and fears of everyday life.

For others it is a debilitating source of anxiety which makes each performance a tortured experience, and which, in the extreme, can limit an otherwise promising career.


Magic Rituals

Especially common is the use of "magic rituals" to combat the anxiety. These stereotyped and compulsive behaviors are also common among combat soldiers, athletes, and others who risk danger or humiliation under conditions of high stress and who therefore must exert great skill and effort in order to survive. Such rituals and behaviors calm anxiety by calling for "good luck," and are thinly disguised ways of beseeching the gods to smile favorably.

Two of the most common good luck wishes expressed before a musician goes on stage are: "Merde" (shit), and "Hals- und beinbruch" (break a throat and leg). The former derives from association with an historical moment of victory against overwhelming odds which established its use as a "magic" word. The French General Cambronne, surrounded by the British, was asked to surrender, as his defeat was inevitable. He replied "Merde!" and proceeded to win the battle. The expression "Hals- und beinbruch" conveys the idea that a negative wish will lead to a positive happening.

Other common phenomena include some fixed behavioral or dietary regimen on the day of the concert; a good luck charm, or a customary set of behaviors prior to going on stage. There are those who must eat special foods, and those who do not eat at all; some must nap, and others must stay active; some must practice in a special manner on the day of the concert, and others scrupulously avoid going near their instrument. One widely concertized artist always wears the same underwear to each concert, and another must leave the music in an unopened briefcase somewhere in the hall. It is said that Clara Schumann, whom Leschetitzsky says was the first pianist to play in public by memory,1 sat on her music when performing.

It would be meaningless to pronounce such behaviors bizarre or neurotic, for everyone has his own idiosyncratic manner of coping with stress. The issue is whether or not the behavior is adaptive and truly helps to minimize anxiety; or whether it becomes so rigid, compulsive, and driven that it becomes maladaptive and hinders. Such rituals can be organized around any form of fear, though we discovered that by far the most common was the fear of memory loss.


Fear of Memory Loss

This single fear covers a multitude of "sins" including its use, consciously or unconsciously, as an excuse for insufficient or inadequate preparation! Such persons mistakenly presume that their errors and inadequacies in performance are the result of memory problems. This incorrect diagnosis obscures the real etiology and therefore the solution to the problem.

Others have real problems with memory under the stress of performance. Sometimes this is because their fear is of such degree that it indeed does interfere with memory, and there are others whose defective practice techniques have failed to establish adequate memory. However, a significant number of individuals have condensed a wide variety of fears and feelings of inadequacy into this single "explanation" of their problem, taking refuge in the "sick role." In our society one is "excused" and to some degree held blameless when failure is on the basis of a "sickness," as opposed to explanations that imply much greater personal responsibility. Common examples are students with high aspirations but limited talent, a fact which they are loath to admit.

One author of this article is a professor of music (piano) and the other a professor of psychiatry. The former reviewed her experiences with one hundred and ten students, all at the college level, a portion of whom had real or mislabeled problems of memory. The latter reviewed his findings with twenty-two musicians seen professionally of whom fourteen had included memory fears or problems as a significant reason for seeking consultation or treatment. It was our mutual conclusion that for the majority of these individuals the "problem of memory" was a mislabeling. Of those who actually experienced memory difficulties while performing, the vast majority actually had a problem of concentration, not of memory. This is an important distinction. Concentration is something quite different than memory and poses quite different issues as to both cause and remedy. It is our thesis that true memory loss is probably quite rare in the adequately prepared artist.


Types of Memory

The processes of memory are extraordinarily complex, but basically performance memory can be divided into at least four types of memory function: (1) motor or finger; (2) ear or auditory; (3) analytic or intellectual; and (4) visual or photographic. The first three are essential for concertizing, and the latter varies from a rudimentary ability to visualize small passages up to an ability to visualize an entire score in the mind's eye. Such photographic memory is neither rare nor universal among concert artists, and is at best a mixed blessing. It is a marvelous pacifier for memory anxiety because one can always fall back on "reading" the notes from the internally visualized page. On the other hand, it can also contribute to cold, mechanical, and noninterpretive playing. Reading from visual memory in performance has the same problems that exist with reading directly from music. Experience with the Suzuki method in recent years has confirmed the fact that visual memory is of lesser importance.

Motor or finger memory represents controlled, coordinated, and patterned neuromuscular responses to a variety of auditory, visual, proprioceptive, and intellectual stimuli. As one moves from practice to performance, motor memory becomes increasingly reflexive and automatic without the need for conscious thought. It cannot be accomplished without the practice necessary to "program" one's internal neuromuscular computer. It is for this reason that proper practice technique, as well as programming correct notes, is so important. It is far more efficient to learn once rather than to have to unlearn and relearn again. Common techniques, such as practicing at slow tempi and working out difficult fingering early, all have a sound basis in the physiology of learning. Once basic finger memory is established, it is then able to be modified and "fine tuned" on the basis of auditory and analytic input.

Analytic or intellectual memory is equally complex and involves an entire spectrum of capacities which include general musical knowledge and experience, as well as the "thoughtful" memory of what notes and passages follow next. The intellectual and analytic input begins from the moment one picks up the score and determines the form and harmonic structure. As the piece is gradually committed to memory, attention to the thoughtful remembrance of notes and passages diminishes, with a simultaneous increase in focus upon the broad elements of interpretation, phrasing, and tempi. However, in a crisis such as a memory slip, intellectual memory can be summoned up to add "thinking" to the host of emergency responses used to find one's way out of the difficulty. The general movement from detail to gestalt is of great significance for the obvious reason that good performance is far more than the accurate remembrance of notes. Furthermore, it is the establishment of good motor memory that is essential to free up the analytic functions in order that they may maximize the musicianship brought to the piece.

Of all the "memories," ear or auditory is the most crucial for the performer who is adequately prepared and has therefore established both motor memory and sufficient analytic input. It is the capacity to hear the music, in relationship to how your auditory memory knows it should sound, that allows the moment to moment adjustments as the piece is performed. It allows one to escape, adjust, and correct in response to a wrong note or momentary slip. With a more severe "memory loss" it serves to "sound the alarm" and call into service whatever elements of visual, analytic, or finger memory are necessary for recovery.


The Misnomer of "Memory Loss"

Auditory memory is extremely vulnerable to any lapse of concentration. The maintenance of a state of intense and concentrated listening is the Achilles' heel of performance. Most "memory losses" during performance are in actuality the result of a failure in auditory concentration. The problem is not a failure of memory, but a failure in adequate listening.

Recognition of this, specifically, is of great importance, for there is little one can do to better one's innate memory potential. However, there is a great deal that one can do to correct problems in concentration! To label the difficulty incorrectly as one of memory will create a sense of helplessness that does little to correct the problem. On the other hand, correctly defining the problem as one of concentration leads immediately to inquiry as to the origin and nature of the interferences and to appropriate corrective measures.

Failures of auditory concentration can occur for a wide variety of reasons. The intense listening necessary for performance must be learned through hard practice. Few persons start out with an innate ability to concentrate so intensely for a long period of time. One of the most common problems involves "thinking" instead of listening. Instead of thinking about the music as a whole, the individual thinks about extraneous issues or the mechanics of performing. Examples are: "Here comes the difficult passage"; or, "I'm home free, only four more measures to the end." Another skill, which must also be learned, is that of concentration to the exclusion of extraneous sounds and distractions. It is absolutely amazing to discover how many musicians are unaware of the fact that their concentration is inadequately developed, as opposed to having inadequate memory, and that this is the major element in their performance problems.


Some Experimental Evidence

Of the fourteen musicians with "memory problems" seen in psychiatric consultation or treatment, in ten it was clearly demonstrable that the true problem was one of concentration. In each instance the psychological conflict expressed itself through an interference with concentration, though nearly all were initially quite unaware of this and thought of themselves as having defective memories.

John was a twenty-four-year-old graduate student in music who was a violinist of considerable skill and promise. He was about to leave school because of a series of "failures," including repeated difficulties in concert performance due to "memory problems." As the son of a wealthy industrialist, his musical career represented an escape from the domineering influence of his father who would have greatly preferred that he take over the family business interests. John's musical career was a conflicted victory, since he also longed for his father's acceptance and love. When his memory losses were scrutinized in great detail, it developed that they were almost always preceded by thoughts about his family and especially his father. Often they would be "victorious" thoughts after playing a particularly beautiful passage, or fleeting fantasies about how his family would feel if they were in the audience. After he resolved his ambivalent conflict with his family, his concentration improved and his "memory problems" disappeared.

Joe was an extremely musically gifted young man whose career was being demolished by a specific "memory problem." This consisted of a compulsive need to repeat and correct any missed notes or errors, instead of covering them up and going ahead with the music. This quite likely had been learned from an early instructor who would stop him and demand correct notes, even when playing by memory during a lesson. Later instructors, including the senior author (the musical author), tried in vain to stop this, to no avail. It had become virtually a reflex response, and no amount of effort could change it. Joe was convinced that the solution to the problem was in developing a better memory so that there would be no slips to repeat. He requested hypnosis in order to "improve" his memory function. On an experimental basis Joe was placed in a moderately deep hypnotic state while his teacher coached the hypnotist (the medical author) as to the nature and form of the problem. Memory was not even mentioned, but two suggestions were made. The first had to do with reducing the specific anxieties experienced during performance, anxieties which consequently interfered with listening. The second had to do with establishing intense auditory concentration while playing. This was done on two occasions, and on the second a post-hypnotic suggestion was made: when he practiced his concert program the next day, he would listen so intensely to the music that no attention would be paid to anything other than reproducing the music in his auditory memory. In other words, auditory concentration was to be used solely in the service of interpreting the passage at hand, as opposed to any obsessive preoccupation with a single note or notes. This indeed occurred, the problem of repeating disappeared, and within a short time there were highly successful concerts that resulted in obtaining a desired musical position.

George was a flutist who complained of frequent memory lapses which interfered with achieving his potential as a performer. His primary reason for seeking psychotherapy was not because of this, but because of severe conflicts about masculinity and sexual identity. In therapy it became apparent that he saw the flute as a "feminine" instrument. He was greatly conflicted about how it might contribute to what he feared was an inadequate masculine image. While playing he was only partially concentrated on the music. A part of him was preoccupied about his appearance, his manner, and whether or not the audience was viewing him as a man. He had not been consciously aware of how much attention he was paying to these fears. This awareness, coupled with the resolution of his sexual problems, led to the elimination of the "memory problem."

It should not be presumed that all performers with severe concentration problems need psychotherapy, nor is it suggested that hypnosis is a particularly useful adjunct to treatment. It is only rarely useful and can often be more harmful than helpful. It should certainly never be attempted except by a psychiatrist with considerable experience. The vast majority of students can unlearn habitual interferences with concentration, and relearn the art of careful and intense listening. To do this requires that the student and teacher come to recognize the nature of the problem and develop techniques for dealing with it.



The pedagogical issues which flow from these findings can be organized around two major necessities for adequate performance preparation. The first involves the establishment of the various memories required to concertize. The second involves the development of sufficient concentration to fully utilize these memory functions.

It is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss all of the various theories and methods for adequate preparation. However, all aim at establishing motor memory to the point that neuromuscular response is consistent, accurate, and automatic. Equally important is simultaneous establishment of auditory and analytic memories which will become critically important in making the performance more than simply a collection of correct notes. There are several simple "tests" which can help to assess whether or not this is occurring.

For example, do check to see if the same or different fingering is being used in difficult passages, or when moderately difficult passages are brought up to tempo. The pianist who is practicing properly will work out such fingerings early, and practice them up to tempo to see if they remain appropriate. Obviously this helps to "set" proper finger memory at an early phase, whereas constantly changing or chaotic patterns do not. Similarly, granted a reasonable period of time, the student should know the melodic line, by at least being able to hum it or pick it out in any key. A surprising number of students cannot do this because they are memorizing rotely. It is particularly worth checking this in students who have a photographic memory. Such students may be developing finger memory without simultaneously attending to analytic and ear memory. This particular failure to give proper attention to the development of auditory memory results in an incapacity to hear the music in the "mind's ear." Such pianists have subsequent difficulty in concentration because of their relative uncertainty about the notes they are playing, and they are "fragile" in the sense of easily becoming lost or unable to find their way out of a technical error.

Similarly, after a few days of working on a piece, if a student is stopped while playing a melodic phrase, he should be able to finish the melodic line by ear or at least know its direction, up or down. If auditory and analytic memories are being adequately developed, the student will also be able to put a simple chordal accompaniment to the melodic line and recognize major or minor mode. Similarly, if appropriate analytic or intellectual memory is being established, the student will know the key that he or she was in, as well as the section of the music (i.e. exposition, development, recapitulation, etc.). It is also important to ascertain if the student recognizes pedal-points, ostinatos, canons, fugue subjects, and other elements of a similar nature.

If adequate preparation and practice techniques are established, and therefore all memory functions are being adequately utilized, helping the student to develop adequate auditory concentration is less difficult than it would seem. Students who have problems with this are usually simply not aware that they are listening casually, as opposed to intently, while practicing. Calling this weakness to their attention immediately focuses on the important need to change, and often this simple change in listening leads to a resolution of the problem. Listening intently is a capacity that must be learned like other performance skills. It cannot be learned by attending to it only at the time of performance. Clear recognition of the fact that, with adequate preparation, most "memory" problems are really concentration problems, will focus attention on the real issue. Students must learn to recognize their span of concentration and to work at gradually expanding it. They should be advised to spend some of their time practicing as if they were performing with the imaginary presence of an audience, to overcome the natural tendency to listen only casually because one is "just practicing." It is best to correct carelessness when students are fresh and alert. The bad habit of inadequate concentration is particularly likely to occur when one is fatigued or upset.

Students must also recognize their own personal idiosyncrasies and vulnerabilities of concentration; they need to gradually decondition themselves away from these vulnerabilities. Would-be performers, whose concentration problems are highly involved with emotional conflicts and anxieties, should be encouraged to seek appropriate psychiatric consultation or treatment. The common myth that one needs his neurosis to fuel creativity is totally without substance. This was well stated by Ching whose work with Freud led to one of the few publications on the psychology of performance. Ching stated:

There is absolutely no foundation whatever in the prevalent belief (or I should say, rather, in the prevalent rationalization) that to undergo a psycho-analysis is to lose or risk losing one's artistic powers. Nothing is further from the truth. A psycho-analysis may, of course, be successful or unsuccessful. But the worst it can do to one's artistic powers is to get rid of any illusions that one may previously have had about them.2

1Schonberg, Harold C., The Great Pianists from Mozart to the Present (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1963), pp. 225-226.

2Ching, James, Piano Playing: A Practical Method (New York & London: Bosworth & Co. Ltd., 1963), pp. 340-341.

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Last modified on Monday, 12/11/2018

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