Memory and The Suzuki Way

Memory and learning are horribly unfair beasts.  Very little is understood about the way humans store information, but what we do know is that most learning is associative – that is, we attach bits of information, or associate them, with other bits of information we already know.  A corollary to that idea is the fact that the more we know the more we have the potential to learn.  The background knowledge we bring into processing information has a huge impact on our ability to work with and recall that information – that’s why educators have developed such a focus on early childhood education in this country.  When kids get to school and it’s math and reading time, if they have grown up in a household that has not provided a broad framework of knowledge they are likely to struggle compared to peers who grew up with, for example, households full of pre-literacy activities such as parents reading to them.  The “education gaps” we read about are due to what kids enter the classroom with, and that’s really the long and short of it.

Books have been written about the topic, and it’s really not my goal to add to that work today (I’m no expert anyway) but I bring it up as background on the topic of memory, which I want to talk about as being capricious, at least as it pertains to my memorizing music for the violin.  I should point out that I was given all the goodness any kid could hope for as far as an early childhood learning environment in the 1970s and early 80s, and since then I’ve had a lot of great formal education layered on in a variety of ways over the course of my life.

But until a little over two years ago I didn’t have much musical information running around in my brain onto which other bits of musical information could start to perch.  Admittedly, I cannot say I had none – I was very active singing in choirs throughout my childhood, and I did play the violin for three years culminating in the sixth grade; I did learn to read music.  In the realm of formal music appreciation, I suppose there’s a decent chance that I knew more than the average bear even before returning to play a couple of years ago.  But listening to music is something I have done far, far less of than most of my peers over the past 20 years, there’s no doubt about that.

I’m not sure what part of musical knowledge allows music to find purchase in the brain, but when we speak of things being “catchy” we mean we can easily remember them, in fact, we have trouble forgetting them!  But how does that translate to an ability to precisely play them?  Take Danny Boy, for example.  I have an arrangement I’ve been working with for almost two years now.  The arrangement was created for beginner violinists, and I know the tune very well.  I’ve played it hundreds of times, but I still need to look at the music to get it right.

Contrast that with my Suzuki tunes, most of which I had never heard before beginning to play the violin.  As I work with them, I memorize them quite readily, mostly without trying much.  For the most part these tunes lodge in my brain and I can play them from memory after a couple of months.  And I can still play them if I let them go for a month or so.  So why not Danny Boy?  Well, I haven’t been listening to others play it, is the only answer I can come up with.

The Suzuki method is rooted in aural learning – listen, listen, listen.  Practice, practice, practice too, of course, but I’ve definitely done that with Danny Boy and nearly two years later I’m still looking at the music.  So I’m pretty sure the CDs are key to the Suzuki Way.  Score one for the Suzuki method if memorization is something to which a musician should aspire!  I remember my wonderfully musical sister even commented on memory the first time we played together – she was impressed with my memorization of the pieces.  She herself has been a non-Suzuki teacher of piano lessons for about 20 years so she knows a thing or two on the subject.

In yesterday’s lesson Teacher complimented my memorization of the Wohlfahrt etude, which she says is quite unusual.  Now, I’ve been working on this piece for a long time.  Not as long as Danny Boy, but close to a year now.  It doesn’t seem unusual to me that I’ve memorized it, but apparently her adult students in the past have not done so.  The Wohlfahrt etude provides a counterpoint to my aural appreciation theory about the Suzuki tunes versus Danny Boy – I have not listened to Wohlfahrt, in fact that’s been part of the point , Teacher uses this book for technique, yes, but also to help students learn to sight read music (versus playing by ear or from memory).  Motivation also plays a huge role in learning, and it’s definitely true that I want to show Teacher that I’m doing my homework, so that point can’t be ignored in this discussion either.

And I do have Suzuki memory exceptions.  Well, really only one – the first Gavotte in Book Three, by Martini.  I have written about struggling with that one.  But despite the exception, overall I think it’s clear that the listening really adds to my ability to memorize a piece.  I’m likely to start the next Suzuki song soon, so I should get back on the headphones.

Thanks for reading.


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