My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Solving a frustrating memory mystery - eyes and brain required

"Mommy, I can't find my book!"

"Mommy, my shoes are gone!"

I hear phrases like this practically every day and  more often than not, whatever it is my daughter is looking for ends up being right in front of her eyes.  If only she would use her beautiful eyes.  If only she would learn to truly look, observe, and to process information instead of just panicking and going through the motions.

But I know she's not alone in this phenomenon - of looking without seeing.  It happens to all of us and to just about every young musician with whom I work.  Consequently, one of the skills I teach most is the skill of observation and connecting what we see with information that can help us learn and perform our music more easily and securely.  I touched on this concept in one of my most recent posts, "Berry picking in the practice room" and today I wanted to apply it to music using a scenario that came up recently at a music camp where I was teaching.

A few weeks into the camp I was working with a young tenor who was trying to memorize Edward Rubbra's setting of Shakespeare's, "It was a Lover and his Lass."   First, here's the text:

It was a Lover and his Lass 
It was a lover and his lass,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
That o'er the green corn-field did pass,
In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring. 
Between the acres of the rye,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
These pretty country folks would lie,
In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring. 
This carol they began that hour,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
How that life was but a flower
In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring. 
And, therefore, take the present time
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino.
For love is crown'd with the prime
In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring.
The singer had learned all the notes and rhythms so he was well on his way to being ready to perform it but he said that he just couldn't memorize the words for some reason.  He was extraordinarily frustrated, that was very clear to me.  It's situations like this that are like invitations outlined in flashing neon lights - "Help me! Help me?" so I instantly began asking him questions.  This is just an approximation of the conversation but I think it will give you an idea of the strategy the unfolded.

Me:  What's the song about?

Him: I don't know.  A guy?

Me:  Um, yes...there is a guy involved.  Who else?

Him:  There's a girl too.

Me:  Right.  That's always nice.  What about them?

Him: I don't know.  I'm kind of confused by the song and don't really know that it's about anything.

Me: Hmmm...interesting comment.  I think I know why you feel that way - it's not your fault.  I think Shakespeare isn't helping you out much.  Let's take a different approach for a second and trust me, we'll get to the memory issue eventually.  Do you have a separate copy of just the words, without any music?

Him: Yep.  Here it is.

Me:  OK.  First I want you to tell me if there are any lines of text that are repeated in the song?

Him:  Yes, there are.  The "hey nonino" lines.  They are in every verse.

Me:  Right, good.  Any others?

Him:  Also the last three lines of every stanza.

Me:  Yes!  So right now I want you to read all the lines that are unique, all the other ones that aren't repeated anywhere else.

Him:  OK.
It was a lover and his lass,
That o'er the green corn-field did pass. 
Between the acres of the rye
These pretty country folks would lie. 
This carol they began that hour,
How that life was but a flower. 
And, therefore, take the present time
For love is crown'd with the prime.
Me:  Ah.  You said earlier that you didn't think the song was really about anything.  Read those 8 unique lines again and tell me if you are getting any more of a sense of a story or a message.

Him: Well, I guess it kind of makes more sense now.

Me:  Tell me about it.

Him: In the first stanza it introduces this lover and his girlfriend.

Me:  Right.  And where are they?

Him:  Walking through a green corn-field.

Me:  Right.  That's it for the first stanza.  Now close your eyes and picture that in your head.  (After 30 seconds or so...) Second stanza, now what happens?

Him:  Well, they both lie down together in fields of rye.

Me:  That's all?

Him:  Yeah, that's all.

Me:  Great.  Now picture the lover and his lass, walking over the green cornfields, coming to a field of rye and lying down together.  Third stanza?

Him: They sing a song or something...about life being like a flower.

Me: Interesting.  What's that all about?

Him: I don't know, but maybe that's what the fourth stanza is doing...answering that question.  Maybe that last stanza is saying that since life is like a flower and is going to only last so long we should really live for the moment, especially when we're talking about love.

Me: Cool!  So now let me ask you, is there a point to this song or is it just a story about a guy and a girl?

Him:  No, there's a point!  It's like there's a moral in the end.

After this little conversation I had him sing through the song, only singing the lines that truly tell the story, not the lines that are repeated every verse.  We did this acapella, giving him plenty of time to think ahead.  I also asked him to keep trying to picture the scene in his head while he was singing so that he was also building a visual cue to which he could refer.  As soon as he felt comfortable doing this I asked him to tell me the lines that are repeated every stanza.  It turns out he already knew these by heart.  Next we put the song back together with him focusing on following the storyline and visual storyboard he had created in his head so that when he came to the repeated lines he could go on automatic while thinking ahead to what came next.  He nailed the memory on the first try.  It took us about 20 minutes total to go from frustration to comfort and security!  And at his performance?  Because he had decided there was a moral at the end of the song, he craftily performed the song to lead up to the punchline and he did so with the biggest look of knowing on his face...perfect for delivering such an important message, don't you think?

See why I love my job?

So what was so tricky about this song?  I had figured out that all the repeated lines kept getting in the way of him getting a clear idea of what he was singing about - it's definitely not helpful in memory work to feel like you're just memorizing random words.  And all those repeated words made him feel as though this song was terribly long when in reality the song was made up of only 85 different words, not 184 words; 12 different lines of text, not 24.  It was like my daughter "looking" for her shoes without really looking - getting more wrapped up in being overwhelmed by the process of looking instead of using her eyes and her brain at the same time.

So next time you find yourself banging your head against a wall, take a deep breath, put on some glasses, grab a microscope or a telescope, open your eyes and your mind, and really, truly look!  Look at what's troubling you from every angle possible, look until you make sense of what you see and hear.  You'll be surprised what you can find and where it will lead you!


  1. So, so wise... as usual. *smile* I truly enjoy learning from you. Thank you!

    1. So great to hear from you again, Melanie! Glad you liked the post :-)

      All the best,

  2. I suppose it isn't such a mystery that the repetition kept getting in the way: that's why pop songs get stuck in your head. They live on constant repetition of a short pattern. (We can use this tendency for good when we practice, of course). Good for you getting rid of that ubiquitous phrase as it not only obliterated his ability to concentrate on anything else, it is also the least important part of the song! Maybe it needs to be sung with less emphasis as well? I hope he wasn't belting it out like Ethel Merman! And kudos for being so patient! It takes time and strategy to get to the bottom of things, doesn't it?

    1. Michael,
      Thanks for reading! It does take some energy and time to solve issues like this but I eat this stuff up. It's like a big, fun game to me! :-) Thankfully! And nope, thankfully he wasn't doing it a-la Ethel Merman. Oh my, that would have been entertaining (or not.)