The Practice Notebook

flutist Zara Lawler shares tips on learning music

Separate Like from Like


[Note: This principle applies to regular practice as well as memorization, but for the purposes of today’s post, I will focus on memorization.]

record player

An old fashioned LP works like this:  it has a single groove that spirals around the record.  You place the needle in the groove, and as the record spins, it traces the entire length of the groove seamlessly from start to finish.

Your brain is a little bit like that when you have learned a piece of music really well.  You have created a neural pathway, or series of pathways, that are as smooth and inevitable as the groove in a record.  And though ultimately that pathway will carry you from start to finish of a piece, you create it by making only small sections, (the length of a phrase or less) at a time. Each phrase you learn is like a little groove in your brain.

Most pieces of music repeat themselves at some point: it’s compositionally sound to do so, for example, at the recapitulation of a sonata form piece. Similar phrases have similar grooves, and they need to be practiced with special care.

She Moved through the Fair from John Corigliano’s Three Irish Folksong Settings is a good example.  I was just practicing it for Asterisk’s performances at Old Songs Festival last week.  Here are two phrases from the piece:

corig 3-1
corig 3-2

As you can see, they are very similar, though they are not strict repetitions of each other.

You might think, on first glance, that you could be extra efficient with your memorizing by learning both phrases at once, maybe by alternating between the two over the course of your repetitions.  That method, however, turns out to be much less efficient than memorizing them one at a time.

You need to make a separate place in your brain for each of those phrases.  The grooves are similar, yes, but they have to be separate.  And try as you might in this age of multitasking, your brain can only learn one thing at a time.

So start by learning the first phrase, all by itself.  Use the Post-it trick, or do whatever you need to resist the temptation to learn both phrases at the same time.  When you work on the second phrase, it’s OK to use your knowledge of the first as the starting point in your process.

In the example of the Corigliano, that would mean saying to yourself something like: “This is just like the opening phrase, but the rhythm is reversed in the second beat, and it ends with a trill on the A-flat and accents.”  Then, the more you practice it, the more it will start to take on its own character and its own place in your brain.  You will find that learning this second version of the phrase takes way less time than the first.

Not only do you need to practice similar phrases each on their own, but this can be most effectively done by separating the practice sessions in which you practice them.  For example, if you’re working on the fist phrase of the Corigliano on a Monday, come back to the second phrase on Tuesday, or better yet, on Friday (practice something else on the days in between).  This gives the first phrase a nice long time to gel in your mind before you challenge your brain with something that is so similar to it.

If you come back to the second version too quickly, before the first has had that time to sink in, your brain will think you’re just adding new information to the first groove, not that you are creating a new one, and you’ll find yourself confused in performance over which is which.

Photo credit: jonathan.youngblood

New Category: Amateur Neuroscience


hands for amateur neuroscience

One of my favorite things about practicing and writing about practicing, is thinking about how the brain (ok, ok, MY brain) works.  There’s a fancy word for that which I just learned from an article in the New Yorker:  metacognition, or literally, thinking about thinking.

I like to think of myself as an amateur neuroscientist, and the practice room (and my own brain) as my lab.  (On a side note, it would be cool to have one of those yellow and black warning diamonds to hang up on the door that says, “Amateur Neuroscientist At Work.”) Over the years in my lab I’ve learned a lot about how my brain works, and what things I need to do to keep it working at its best. I’ve reflected on how my colleagues’ and students’ brains work, too.

I’ve recently had the gratifying experience of  discovering that actual neuroscience backs up some of my observations.  For example, in developing my memorization technique, I didn’t know about working memory as a scientific concept.  I merely observed that I could remember a phrase for the duration of a practice session and then it would be gone. It was only years later that I learned it has a name, and that people have studied it, and given it the names “working memory” and “channel capacity.”

Also, I’ve always had the sense that when you first learn something (like in the first stages of memorization), it just goes into the front of your brain.  To me, it literally feels like it’s right there, just tucked into my forehead.  Well, it turns out, that’s where working memory happens!  It’s mostly all in the frontal cortex, which is “the overhang of brain behind the eyes” (New Yorker, May 18 2009 p 31).  How cool is that?

All this thinking about thinking about thinking has led me to think (whew!) that a new category of post is in order:  Amateur Neuroscience.  You can click on it from the “Categories” sidebar at right and see all the posts organized under this topic.

three beakers

Let me clarify what I mean by “amateur.”  The vast majority of the writing that I have done about how the brain works is based on close self-observation, not on scientific study!  When I can back up a concept that I use with some actual science, I will note it, as I have with the New Yorker article citation above.

If you are looking for more actual neuroscience, let me point you to a few resources. In the interest of full disclosure,  my research on this topic has not been exhaustive, but I do have a few recommendations for reading. Should you have some books or sites that you’d like to recommend on the topic, please let me and the readers know via the comments section below.

Below are a few books and articles that I have found interesting, though none of them directly address the relationship of neurological ideas to the study of music:

And below, a list of sites and books that I have only dipped my foot in but look like they’ve got LOTS of cool information:

Three books worth checking out, about the study of music:

See you in the lab.

Photo Credits: Hands by Q U E E F, Beakers by skycaptaintwo

Memorization & Working Memory





WARNING:  This post includes a good quantity of amateur neruoscience.  Proceed with caution.


I’d like to explain a bit about how my memorization technique works.


When I was first doing a lot of memorization (before I had developed the technique), I noticed that I could often play a passage from memory after only a few repetitions attempting to memorize it.  The thing was, I could usually only successfully play it from memory once or maybe twice that way, and when I came back to it the next day, I had to start completely over again.  It seemed like there was some sort of shallow or short-term memory at work.


Years later, I learned that particular kind of short-term memory has a name: working memory.  It’s kind of like the clipboard function on your computer—your brain is capable of remembering a certain amount of information right at the front of your brain for the period of time with which you are actively working on it.  But, like the clipboard function when you turn off your computer (i.e. end your practice session), you lose that slate of information.


I developed my memorization method as a means of converting shallow working memory into something deeper, longer-term, and more dependable.  I wanted to be sure the information had passed from my working memory (which is only good for a day or two) into the long-term memory banks of my brain where I could call it up whenever I needed it (i.e. on stage in a month). 


I think the two key processes that effect the conversion from working memory to long-term memory are the close observation of detail (making your memory more specific and full, as opposed to general and shallow) and the isolation of mental practice from physical practice.


So, put on your amateur neuroscientist lab coat, and let’s look at the method from that point of view:

1.   Play your chosen passage through twice, reading the music and observing as much about it as you can (close observation of detail).

2.   Think it through once:  this is working memory in action.  While you are thinking it through, be aware of any information your working memory has missed (Is the last note a B or B-flat?  Is there a dynamic change somewhere?  What about the articulations?)

3.   Play it through once, reading the music.  This is where you fill in the blanks left by your working memory (remember it’s shallow and misses things).

4.   Think it through twice:  by the second time, you will be relying more on a deeper kind of memory than shallow working memory.


The second stage adds in the physical part. By its very nature, physical practice (actually playing the music) will generate muscle memory:  your fingers start to know what notes to play all by themselves. Muscle memory is a great thing, and can be a big help if you get distracted when in performance:  your muscles take over while you are thinking of something else, and, hopefully, the audience is none the wiser.


However, during the process of memorization, muscle memory can be a real problem:  it can create the illusion that you know a passage when, really, only your fingers know it.


I do the mental work first because when performing from memory, it is most effective for information to flow from your brain to your fingers, not vice versa.  Separating mental practice from physical practice bypasses muscle memory and allows you to get the information deep into your brain’s hard drive, where you can call it back when you need it.  Then, in stage two, you take what you learned mentally in stage one, and manifest it physically.  You practice converting knowledge (memory) into action (playing), which further cements your memorization of the piece.  This allows muscle memory to serve as your “backup” in case of emergency.


Photo credit:  Arwen Abendstern