Brian's Blog

…one man's contribution to the Weeeeerly Wild World

Memory Magic

My regular readers may recall that since last year I’ve been learning German, and learning some keyboard/piano. Or rather, I’ve been exercising two aspects of my memory.

With learning a language I find it such a challenge to remember the words and phrases, and then the whole sentence order and the rules. Initially I’m using the Memrise website which apparently uses clever techniques to teach you – really I think it just cycles though a few different methods in order of difficulty, from telling you the word or sentence, presenting it to you in a form of multiple choice, speaking it to you and requesting that you pick it from a list, asking you to write the sentence, first by giving you all the words (and sometimes a few others) that you have to place in order, and finally to reproducing the whole sentence, letter-perfect, from memory.

Sometimes the lack of instruction regarding the rules at play mean I struggle to progress – it just keeps showing you particular sentences, rather than telling you why a particular structure is used. My mind seems to like to understand the rules.

There is a fascinating sensation though with the learning process. As I start to learn a word or sentence I find it is available to my subconscious first. By this I mean if I relax I seem to instinctively answer a question, like I feel like I’m guessing but realise I get it right, while still feeling like I don’t know the answer – if I just go with my instinct then I think I do better, but if I take a moment to fish around in my mind because I’m not sure if what first came to mind is correct then I seem to get more wrong at this stage. This is a little frustrating though because I know at this stage I need to keep learning to make that word or phrase available to my conscious mind where I have the ability to call upon it at will, which once perfected will become more accurate. The website’s programming seems to focus on giving you this positive sensation by giving you some things that you know quite well among things that are new or you are still struggling with; the “yay I got it right” feeling puts the mind in a good state, rather than being a nagging teacher giving you a hard time.

I’m trying to figure out what methods for learning work best for me. This seems like something I never perfected at school. During those years it seems we were just given things to learn, usually through repetition (I can remember being instructed to learn to spell words and my times-tables like this). Surely this approach was used because it suited the majority of students, whereas I seemed to be in a minority and while others were making progress I was not. For this reason I have always felt lazy-minded. This seemed to pass largely unnoticed because I came across as a bright student because I was always polite and well-spoken and dressed smartly. Since reaching adult-hood I realise I have been trying to make up for this perceived lazy-mindedness, largely through reading non-fiction books that interest me, and reading a Children’s Encyclopedia I have had in my possession since I was a child, but failed to make any progress with.

Being harsh on myself about all those school and college years is not helpful I realise, and I wish I could have had someone pay attention to me early on and know which learning techniques would suit me. Maybe I was just too focused on girls and the dens I could build after school – that latter interest perhaps shining a little light on where my schooling was lacking and the approach my mind craved.

With playing music I simply have this desire to play particular songs I hear. For a number of years this was rock music and the electric guitar parts. Then I started to crave piano pieces and keyboard tracks. In fact during my school years I had keyboard lessons but found more enjoyment in showing off and playing things “by ear”. However, this only ever got me so far and where the actual lessons were concerned I began to feel lazy-minded again; I couldn’t persist with the learning process required – I just wanted to play.

However, just like with learning a language, with a little persistence I feel the wonderful sensation of a piece coming together.

With piano playing it is very much a two-handed instrument and playing by ear would really only ever get one hand involved – I would just play the tune I could hear, with my right hand. To learn a piece properly two hands are needed, but you can’t just bring them both in at once at the start of the learning process, well I certainly can’t.

Some piano pieces or sequences sound so beautifully simple, but when I attempt the tune I hear I realise it’s a little more complex, or the tempo is just way too quick. Sometimes, when using only my ear, I can’t really figure out all what is being played so I need the sheet music, but thanks to all what is available to us through the internet there is an array of assistance, from sheet music, to videos of guitar-hero-style sequences played out for you to follow (some at half the speed), to just watching other people play and seeing what notes they play. For the guitar I use the UltimateGuitar website for the tabs, and sometimes I use a WinAmp plugin or Audacity to slow a track down, or remove vocals. I’ve just been watching a guy play a piano sequence on his iPad and I watched where his fingers moved for each of the chords and I paused the clip in between each and noted them all down like this: FAD, FAC, EGC, D#GC#, F#CD#, F#A#D… now I just need to teach my fingers to move smoothly between each!

This is how I learned a recent piece and the sensation of learning felt very amazing – I can remember starting out and struggling with the ‘right-hand’ sequence, then addressing the left hand on its own, then trying to bring the two together, noting at what points the hands should move, and then upping my tempo until I could keep up with the original. Now I can just play it out without hardly thinking, and at what feels like an insane pace if I’m trying to amuse myself! It’s amazing what a little perseverance can achieve.

I’m still trying to understand my mind better and figure out what techniques work best for me. I’m reading Francis Yates’ book The Art of Memory which reveals some clever techniques memory magicians use for remembering the order of a shuffled pack of cards (not that I want to do that) and I’m moving on to another keyboard piece – it uses the chords above, can you guess what it is?!


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This entry was posted on 16 February, 2016 by in Music, Psychology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , .
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