December 27, 2015

Music, Memorization and Dyslexia

I was reading a book with an article by a dyslexic musician the other day. He said he had always been terrible at memorizing music on cello but good at sight-reading. When he took up guitar, he discovered he was good at memorizing but bad a sight-reader on that instrument. After some thought, he concluded that the constant need to look at his hands on the guitar might close a loop between reading music, playing music and remembering music. His theory is that when you look at your hands, you connect the notes you are reading with the actions of your fingers and both with the musical sounds, which may assist in memorizing the music. The trade off was that he couldn’t look ahead in the music as much as is required to sight-read well.
“Sight-reading and memory” by Michael Lea from Music and Dyslexia; A Positive Approach edited by Tim Miles, John Westcombe and Diana Ditchfield 

Reading music can be similar to typing by touch. When you look at the words, you understand them but you are not processing them in a way that is about remembering them. You are just letting your fingers type the letters as you see them. In music, you play the notes as you see them, the information flowing from your eyes to your fingers. You may remember a fair amount, possibly even all, of the music after practicing it for a few weeks but that isn’t the same as memorizing it well enough to perform by memory. Anyone who has prepared for a contest where memorization is required can tell you all about that! And I often feel nervous about my memory unless I have spent intensive time playing without music in front of me. The time spent playing with the music is simply not helpful on that score (sorry about the pun).

I have observed that instrumentalists who are expected to memorize most of their music tend to be ones who can see what their hands are doing easily, without contortions. In fact, piano, guitar and harp players are expected to watch their hands. Meanwhile, wind players are actively discouraged from trying to look at their hands or fingers while playing for the very good reason that it twists you up and it is nearly impossible to play while doing so. They are also allowed to read music in performance more often. Strings tend to be somewhere in-between these two groups both in the memorization expectation and in how easy it is to see their hands while playing.
Now, mirrors are often used by wind players to check embouchure and hand position. It occurred to me that we flute players should try setting up our music stand right in front of a mirror so that we can look from the music to our fingers in the mirror with minimal movement. I have, unintentionally and unconsciously, used this trick to memorize music in the past but only after learning the music fairly well. Next time, I’ll try it when just starting to learn the piece and see how my twisted brain reacts.