Preventing memory lapses

Memory lapses happen. You’ve practiced a piece dozens of times without looking at the music, yet you still sometimes lose your place. And then you have to go back half a page to get back into it!

If you’ve been paying close attention, you might have noticed a direct connection between your practice habits and memory lapses. When people practice in well-defined sections, always starting in one particular bar and ending in another bar, they’re likely to have a lapse (1) somewhere in the middle, or (2) right after the end of that section. The beginning and final bars of the section are usually safe.

Why? In case (1), it’s because we’re not ever really memorizing that measure in the middle. We’re not practicing using an explicit memory of what the music says. Instead, we’re memorizing how to start the section, and letting our muscle memory carry us the rest of the way. Our greatest focus and the most powerful learning comes at the beginning, for obvious reasons, and at the end, since as soon as we stop we bring our attention back to the music and reflect on what we just played.

In case (2), it’s simply because we weren’t practicing the transition between sections at all!

Even worse, when this happens, we often don’t know how to get back on track. We have to start over at the beginning of the previous section, and hope that this time our subconscious can make the transition.

So how do we fight this? We have a number of techniques available:

  • Memorize and practice in sections as small as is reasonable
  • Memorize starting with the last measure in a section
  • Put extra effort into practicing the transitions in between sections
  • Practice starting at random measures, even in the middle of sections
  • Look only at the music, not your hands
  • But, sometimes, look only at your hands, not the music
  • And, sometimes, just close your eyes and see what happens!
  • Practice more slowly, so that muscle memory can’t take over
  • Along the same lines, practice with exaggerated articulation or dynamics

When I adopted these techniques, along with spaced repetition, interleaved practice, and deliberate practice, I found my memory much more secure. With the old way, I would just memorize things automatically as I played a piece over and over, and it gave me a false sense of security. (I’ve seen this happen a lot especially to young bright students who never had to work to memorize things.) But this way, I know if I have a momentary lapse of focus or lose my flow, I still know exactly where I am. I don’t stumble, or if I do, then at least I don’t have to backtrack.