Performance Anxiety, Part 5: Creating Durable Memorization

Part 5: Reducing the Likelihood of Anxiety

Part 5: Creating Durable Memorization

A series of articles beginning with Part 1.

Veteran performer, owner, and guitar teacher for 15 years at the Interlochen Center for the Arts, John Wunsch presents a series of articles on alleviating performance anxiety.

Controlling Performance Anxiety
Part 5: Creating Durable Memorization
by John Wunsch
(Originally published in Mel Bay’s Guitar Sessions and edited by Stephen Rekas)

Memory failures are the scariest and most common problem for performers, so no series on reducing performance anxiety would be complete without addressing the issue. Memory works on different levels. It can be a delicate structure built on the surface, or it can be a far more durable structure with the depth of a good foundation. In this article we’ll examine some learning approaches that build deeper foundations and encourage that durability.

There are a variety of ways to memorize music, the most common being muscle memory. Under ideal conditions, muscle memory is almost always in effect during performance. We know the piece on an automatic neuromuscular level, and can play it without even thinking. This form of memorization can be established by simple repetition and other standard problem-solving practice techniques.

Muscle memory is a wonderful thing and certainly an undisturbed performance can clip right along on this basis with no problems, allowing muscle memory to carry the day. Unfortunately, it is an easily disrupted form of memory, and there are bound to be those times when some distraction or slip of the hand can upset the muscle memory process and jeopardize a performance. The distraction can range from noise in the hall, to pesky self-conscious thoughts about how the performance is going or will go. Or, rather than a specific distraction, it might be the general tension caused by adrenaline coursing through the body that strains success and thereby makes muscle memory inadequate to the task of completing the performance and enjoying the experience.

In these cases, other forms of knowledge and memory are called for. I categorize them in two groupings: depth knowledge, and what I call out-of-context or de-contextualized knowledge. Both types of knowledge can lead to memory paths other than muscle memory, and even strengthen muscle memory. Either way, they give us (or our students) new confidence in a fresh context to ensure success in performance.

I’ll focus the rest of this article on three de-contextualized knowledge techniques. These techniques may seem almost like gimmicks in comparison to the procedures we will look at next month under depth knowledge, but they are highly effective nonetheless. The three techniques I’ll describe have specific purposes and can be assigned on that basis or tested by trial and error. It may require the application of just one, or the combination of a few techniques to find the key to a student’s greater success.

Each of these three techniques is specific to solving a key weakness in standard memorization, and to some degree, the main shortcomings of muscle memory. Muscle memory’s key weakness is that, in its purest sense, it exists only as a sequence of motions rather than individual bits of information we can recall independently. It is a string of actions which if interrupted usually leaves the performer unable to easily pickup the thread without starting over at the beginning, or at some structurally distinctive and perhaps earlier point.

Of course, the need to return to the beginning or another earlier point to restart a piece leads to significant esthetic problems due to repetitive presentation. In terms of our performance anxiety issue, a performer will arrive at the problem spot a second time with even more trepidation as they wonder how things will turn out this time. That is an almost certain recipe for another problem, possibly even the inability to complete the performance.

Alternatively, if a piece has been learned as many discrete elements of independent information, one can restart from almost any point. In this case should a problem arise, there may be a momentary hesitation as other memory paths are tapped, but the show can go on from that point or another spot just ahead of it, with a minimum of flaws and much less anxiety.

Our first de-contextualized knowledge technique addresses this issue most directly by establishing the knowledge and ability necessary for starting from various points within a piece.

I. Drop-In Practice: “Never get lost on the trail.”

This concept is really pretty simple. I recommend a mix of two approaches which can also be used independently.

  1. Systematically working toward having the ability to start anywhere in a piece.
  2. Testing and building this ability by a purposefully random effort to reach the same goal.

In the first approach, the student is asked to learn to start from each occurrence of a key location type, for example the beginning of any bar in the piece. The peak note of each phrase would be a more challenging starting point. Another example would be to start from, say, the second beat of any measure.

Most importantly, once a student begins working on this ability, they should test themselves and continue to refine their ability by “randomly dropping-in” at various points in their pieces during practice. At first, do this by intentionally working on these structural points out of order. For example don’t work on playing from the beginning of the first bar, then the second, then the third, etc. Instead, start from the beginning of the 3rd bar then the 9th bar, then from beginning of the 5th bar, etc. Similarly, don’t work from the peak of the first phrase, then the peak of the second etc. Instead, work from the peak of the 3rd phrase, and then try from the peak of last, then the peak of first, etc.

Pushing further into the realm of true randomness is the most valuable approach, and to achieve it you can instruct students to simply close their eyes during a practice session and have them touch some point on the page and try playing from there. They of course need to do this many times on their own.

[Editor’s Note: Another memorization technique recommended by Yepes protégé, 10-string guitarist Janet Marlow is to photocopy a piece of music and then cut the copy into strips bearing a single line. Place the strips in an envelope and memorize them individually in random order as drawn from the envelope. The same approach could be used to establish random drop-in practice points.]

The next technique also builds very strong memory paths for both conscious memory and muscle memory. It changes the frame of reference and encourages the establishment of more conscious and mentally-based memory, as opposed to automatic neuromuscular memory.

II. Awkwardly Slow Practice: “Know every step of the trail.”

This technique is even simpler than the first one. Play through the piece at a very slow tempo, memorizing as you go. It is very difficult to play a piece significantly below performance tempo. That is because it calls for actual independent knowledge of the moves and music, which we can easily ignore when we are playing the piece at the normal tempo where muscle memory is established.

A student should be warned to be patient when working on slow-practice technique; working in small segments is useful and allows time to build the skill. A metronome may be necessary to keep the student at an awkwardly unusual tempo for the piece, but they will likely be challenged to play the piece from memory in this setting and should not be too concerned with metronomic precision. The metronome can serve well as a loose reference to be “played around” and even turned on and off during the process.

The last technique rebalances the student’s knowledge of the piece and avoids the problem of starting strong and having memory problems become more frequent near the end of the performance. Even when a student has taken care to learn a piece while being careful to strengthen weaker problem areas, the knowledge of the piece is often out of balance. Most often the problem is that they know the beginning of the piece well, but as they get to the end, problems are more likely to come up. This is no surprise, since the standard way of learning a piece is from beginning to end.

If you start from the beginning each time you practice, however, working forward to the point where memorization or problem solving are required, it’s inevitable that you’ll know the beginning far better than the latter sections. The problem can be exacerbated if you also make a habit of frequently playing the parts you already know for fun, when much or most of the piece is not ready and still needs more organized and task-oriented practice.

While it’s great to experience the pleasure and reassuring fulfillment of having fun rather than “working” during the practice period, that fun should be avoided beyond the minimum necessary for the student to remain enjoyable engaged -until the entire piece is learned and knowledge of it can progress as a unified and balanced whole. But front-loaded knowledge is still inevitable and natural, so here is a technique for correcting the problem and rebalancing the piece.

III. Backward Practice: “Don’t start the trip front-loaded.”

Here is an excellent and easy approach to solve this problem. In simplest terms, it is backward practice. Practice the piece starting from the last bar, adding each previous bar one at a time and then continuing to the end each time. This approach can be used whether the particular task at hand is solving basic technical issues, improving phrasing or rhythmic integrity, or memorizing the piece.

By the time a student has been through a piece this way a number of times, he or she can know the ending as well as or even better than the beginning. This has added importance in the context of performance anxiety. For those with less performance experience, or an imbalance of bad performing experiences, there is a natural tendency to get excited or nervous as they get close to the end of a piece. The line of thought might be very positive, for example, “Oh man, I’m going to make it!” or fear might set in, as in “Oh no, I hope I don’t mess up when I’m so close.”

Either way, even if fear and its sidekick adrenaline are not involved, such thinking can’t always be avoided and only serves as a distraction at an inopportune moment. Consequently, one finds oneself entering the least well-known territory of the performance while becoming more distracted. Backward practice can level the playing field and perhaps even make the end portion of the piece the most secure.

A constructive practice session would look like this:

  1. Play the last bar, solving any problems, accomplishing the task of the session for the bar first.
  2. Play the second to the last bar, solving any problems, accomplishing the task of the session for that bar, then playing and working through the end of the piece.
  3. Play the third to the last bar, solving any problems, accomplishing the task of the session for that bar, then playing and working through the end of the piece.
  4. Etc.
  5. Continue this process until you have reached the first bar of the piece and have now finally played and worked through the entire piece in this fashion.

Of course, with a longer piece or a piece which requires more work, the above process may easily take more than a single practice session.

Here is a final note on all of these techniques, which is also relevant to other practice scenarios:

Immediately after completing work on a piece using one of these practice techniques, a student should not be surprised if, on the next attempt to play through the piece, the rendition has not improved to the degree one would expect. The performance may not even be as smooth as it was previously. This may be the result of simply being tired from the effort the student has made, but it also can be due to the need to “reconstruct” or become comfortable with the new experience of playing the piece with a different knowledge base.

I always make students aware of this possibility to avoid unexpected frustration. Then I require them to follow these intense sessions with taking some time to run through the whole piece a few times to get reacquainted with it in a new context. For some students it is best to leave the run-throughs for the next day when the newly gained information has settled in and they are refreshed. Again, this approach is equally valuable after many forms of focused practice have been applied. We must give ourselves time and take time to resettle the experience of playing the piece through with our new abilities and understanding.

These suggestions are just a few of the approaches one might take towards effective practice and memorization. Next month we’ll cover several teachable practice and memory skills, some of which lie behind the seemingly mythical ability of some very famous artists to learn pieces from the page and perform them with virtually no “on-instrument” practice. We may not all get to that level of proficiency, but the skills behind that phenomenon are the basis of some very good “depth knowledge” techniques we can all use.

Until then, best wishes,

John Wunsch

7 thoughts on “Performance Anxiety, Part 5: Creating Durable Memorization

  1. Yes, can combine all the techniques. Muscle memory is required first to play and memorize the piece then start practicing from random places and change to slower tempo. The “Drop-In” technique is same as when training the finger agility for arpeggios or scales using different combination sequence ima, iam, mai, mia etc…

    1. Great point, different finger combinations on scales does have a kind of drop in impact, it is important training

  2. As a Flamenco guitarist the structure of any piece is effectively fluid and constructed from ‘falsetas’ that may constantly be modified or change place in a piece depending on the guitarists choice. So the Drop In approach is really a foundation for constructing any piece for me. I find it works really well. Also i find that after the very slow memorizing of a section that John talks about I tend to do mental rehearsal without the instrument by closing my eyes and playing it in my head. This is a great illumination of what is really hardwired in there and what isn’t. It also helps with occasions where muscle memory may desert you – the piece is still in there and you can engage the muscle memory again quickly. Great series of helpful tips by John BTW.

    1. HI Ashley, thank you for your observations. I especially like your reference to how mental rehearsals bring to light problem areas that need more attention. Certainly in the context of flamenco and the evolving ‘falsetas’ a deep knowledge of the material is critical.
      I am glad you appreciate the series,

      Best Regards,

      jw ~

      John A. Wunsch
      Strings By Mail – Where Your Dreams Come Tonally True

    1. Hello Phil,
      Yes, I do believe virtually all of them do apply, even the left hand versus rt hand learning. And the general ideas on building a deeper foundation of memory really should as well. I hope you give it a try, I would be interested to know how it goes. I don’t know if you started from eh beginning of the series, but I also think the earlier ideas, such as slowly building you audience tolerance, should apply too.

      Good luck!

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