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

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