Performance Anxiety, Part 6: More on Creating Durable Memorization

Part 6 More on Creating Durable Memorization

Part 6: More on 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 6: More on Creating Durable Memorization
by John Wunsch
(Originally published in Mel Bay’s Guitar Sessions and edited by Stephen Rekas)

As we recognized in the last article, memory failures are the scariest and most common problem for performers, so no series on reducing performance anxiety would be complete without addressing this issue. Recognizing that memory works on different levels we need to go beyond the delicate structure built on the surface, and develop a far more durable structure with the depth of a good foundation. In this second memory skills article we’ll examine three more ways to build deeper foundations and encourage that durability. These are three more approaches among the wide variety of ways to memorize music used in this series to carry ourselves beyond the most common one, muscle memory. Last article we gratefully recognized muscle memory as almost always in effect during performance. But we also recognized that by its very nature, reliance on muscle memory alone can lead to failure.

In these cases, other forms of knowledge and memory are called for. I categorize them in two groupings: Last month we focused on what I called out-of-context or de-contextualized knowledge, and this month we will look at what I call depth knowledge. Both can lead to developing memory paths other than muscle memory, as well as strengthening muscle memory. Either way, these forms of knowledge give us new confidence in a fresh context to ensure success in performance.

In my experience any one of these approaches can be all it takes to move a given student to the level of total confidence and more than one approach may be too time intensive for their level of patience, so I begin with the approach that seems easiest for the student and save the more intimidating skills for later.

This article’s three depth knowledge approaches are:

  • Knowledge of the Role of Each Hand Separately
  • Knowledge of the Music as a Visual Experience
  • Knowledge of the Music as an Audio Experience

I. Knowledge of the Role of Each Hand Separately

Knowledge of the role of each hand separately is recognized widely for solving technical problems, but applied far less as a memory enhancement technique. Most guitarists seem to learn pieces from the perspective of the left or fretting hand. As the hand which represents the note choices we can easily look to it and know where we are and think about where we are going at any point in the piece.

But what happens if we try to make all the left-hand motions of a piece in correct rhythm without the related cue of the right hand moving along, even silently? Try this and you will most likely find it more difficult than you might imagine. But the value of your attempt is also higher than you would imagine. Playing (primarily going through the motions without sound) in this fashion provides an independent knowledge of the motions of the left hand, which if interrupted in performance will provide both added technical stability and the depth of knowledge needed to insure the recovery ability required for a successful performance.

Next, we need to move this challenge to a much higher level by playing the part of the right hand alone. This motion is so isolated from our normal path to memorization that it usually needs to be taken on in the smallest bits, and then put together in phrases and sections. And one must do this in the correct rhythm with the correct fingers while striking the correct strings. It would be a significant mistake to practice this motion without great care, and if right-hand fingerings have not been clearly established, then it cannot be done as an effective preparation for performance. Therefore, we must prepare ourselves by marking the proper right-hand fingerings before beginning the separate hands practice I am advocating.

II. Knowledge of the Music as a Visual Experience

While the next memory technique does not sound very hard to do, closing you eyes and visualizing the motions of each hand in your mind’s eye is a tremendous memory-building skill. I always have my students start with the easier left hand (fretting hand) visualization, and then move on to the right hand which is much more challenging. Finally we work in a kind of combination, which is much like seeing a split screen of both hands. That approach does fall fully in the category of easier said than done, but what a reward it offers. You can end up knowing a piece so well that you can be sitting under a tree, or enjoying a good meal and literally practice the piece with your eyes closed.

Visually, the image of the page also fills out our knowledge base in a concrete and useful way. Can we visualize the notes on the page without having the page in front of us? If the answer is yes, we are tapping and preparing ourselves for the visual experience which lies 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.

Start with visualizing the notes; then build on seeing the hands play those notes and before you know it, the piece can be mentally played without an instrument at all. When combined with the last depth knowledge skill below, this is the deepest knowledge base I know of. I once proved it to myself as a music student when I did not have enough time with a guitar in my hands to learn a piece I was to perform within the month. By taking every moment to visualize the playing and the notes on the page I literally was able to walk into rehearsals and play the piece well enough to be an effective performer, leading to a very successful series of concerts.

III. Knowledge of the Music as an Audio Experience

And now we come to the easiest of the depth knowledge skills, the one that most magically connects the music to the practice and brings all of these skills together. I’m speaking of the actual sound of the piece, the complete and correct sound of each line, chord, and rhythm in the piece. There is some value in just hearing the piece in one’s inner ear but that is not enough. It’s more about hearing the music while simultaneously visualizing ones hands or the notes on page rolling by. This is about recreating the performance experience away from the instrument in the most profound way possible, and again about establishing a separate depth knowledge experience that will insure performances that are secure and fulfilling for all concerned.

In the next article we will close this series with a practical exploration of how to prepare our students for the day of the performance, and putting their skills to good use in the community.

Until then, best wishes,

John Wunsch

6 thoughts on “Performance Anxiety, Part 6: More on Creating Durable Memorization

  1. Great article John!
    I find my most challenging task is to remain focused. If I rely too much on my muscle memory I always make a mistake. It is almost like my mind has to keep 2 measures ahead for me to play well.
    Thank you also for the thank you notes when I buy my strings, very thoughtful and makes me want to support stringsbymail any way I can.
    Kindest regards,
    Michael Clark

    1. Michael, you’re right focus is absolutely the name of the game. And the better we can focus while practicing, the better we can focus when performing. It’s awfully hard to change our habits suddenly while performing, so of course best to get them rolling in the practice room. And you’re most welcome to the notes and thank you for allowing us to be your string supplier.

  2. John, thanks so much for the insights revealed here. It’s heartening to know you still have such passion for the guitar.

    1. Hey Thom, glad to know you find them helpful, yes I’m lucky to still be deeply involved in the world of guitar and music.

  3. Great insight, isolating the right hand is quite a challenge, especially when hearing all the empty strings play out, it creates a song of its own and it is hard to stay within the original, usually I have to “learn” the “empty string song” in order to do it correctly.

    1. Hello Jernej, that’s a unique new thought learning the song of the open strings. Whatever it takes you to get there learning to isolate the hands is an amazing boost to performance security. Good luck!

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