Memory, A Double Edged Sword
Recently I visited with a 98-year-old woman who was simply delightful. Her appearance and her bright disposition make it difficult to believe she is 98. One of Esther’s interesting qualities is her brief repertoire of accessible memories. This consists of a mere five or six things. The rest of her communication is an ongoing loop of forgotten reintroductions and repeated descriptions of her immediate world.
As a musician and particularly a music educator, my experience with Esther was lesson filled and fascinating. At the time of our visit, she was wholeheartedly in the moment. She appeared undistracted by her “interior”: thoughts, memories, internal dialog. Immersing herself in the scene we shared, she commented only on that which was in front of her.
While watching this unfold and experiencing her pure and simple joy, I began to think about music; specifically piano. Many of the people, young and old who become students of mine struggle with the flow of music. Like a stream of water, music flows. The composer may place rocks, boulders and sandbars in the flow to capture a certain nuance, but even still, it flows. The flow only becomes stilted and sometimes stops, when the student struggles with rocks, boulders and sandbars of their own. The student’s obstacles often deal with memory.
Some people are particularly gifted with the ability to remember patterns. When learning a multifunction task like piano, these people rely on their memory to be able to quickly omit one of the functions: reading the music off the page, or counting. Often their ability to memorize is better developed than their ability to read the music. If they switch off the reading prior to accurately memorizing, rocks, boulders and sandbars impede the flow of music.
I am working with several people who have a great deal of musical ability and knowledge; however, they struggle with what I call “stalling out”. In other words, a musical phrase flows beautifully as they play. I sense their immersion in the moment as their eyes see the notes on the page, their brain interprets the notes and they expect certain combinations of sounds and dynamics to come through their hands to the instrument, and the expectation is fulfilled! This cycle is a beautiful thing to experience both from the musician’s point of view and from the listener’s. It is another description of “the flow”. However, when things stall out, just as momentum begins, I actually see a break in the stream of consciousness; something changes. At that instant, a rock or boulder is thrown into the stream. The flow stops, it ceases.
My first question for the student when this happens is:” What did you feel at that moment?” They usually describe a disconnection with their hands. Then I ask them, “what did you feel right before the disconnect?” Over the course of time and awareness, these students begin to say, “a thought came in” …
A previous experience?
The anticipation of the mistake they have ingrained into that portion of the music?
The menu for dinner that evening?
Regardless of what blocks the flow, usually a memory is involved. It might even be the recollection that something is coming in the future, or that there is a “to-do” list waiting for them. Something outside of the flow is triggered.
Interesting that our memory, the very thing that holds the threads of life together and enables us to navigate easily from point A to point B, becomes the rock, the boulder, the sandbar that blocks the creative flow. The memory is a double-edged sword. Our ability to remember also enables us to accomplish skills like playing an instrument, or holding a conversation. The sophistication of the human memory separates us from other animal species while it creates the reality in which we live. The part of the memory used to memorize long, intricate pieces of music is an amazing and necessary part of our day-to-day functioning. The other side of that is when our memory launches a boulder in the middle of our stream of consciousness; it takes us out of the flow and onto the sandbar of frustration, robbing us of the present moment.
So what did I learn from Esther? Simplify. Feel the flow when you are in it, even if it only consists of a short repertoire of important things.