I got asked a question the other day, in a rather anonymous way. Somebody Googled something and that brought them to my site, and I suspect they didn't find entirely what they were looking for so I'd like to elaborate on what they did find.
The question was about memory. "how come my six year old can memorize her recital pieces and then forgets them later?" is a pretty good paraphrase of the question.
I'm a little worried about writing about memorization right now because I know lots of people are panicking about that very thing right now. This will probably make this a popular blog post for the next week or two, but I hate scolding people who are desperate and that is really about the only thing I can do. Trying to memorize something at the last minute doesn't work particularly well, as many of my colleagues at the conservatory found out. Not to mention spending the week of your recital in sheer panic all the time. This being the season for recitals it is also the season for trying to memorize music.
All I can really say to those of you trying to cram is that I hope you still have a few more days left and that you spend as much time as possible as far ahead of time as possible with the music, and then give your head as much time as possible to rest and get plenty of sleep closer to the concert. Sheer panic is not productive.
The most important ingredient in being able to memorize is time. Even time spent away from the piano, and not thinking at all about it counts if you start well in advance of the date on which the piece needs to be memorized. It is a long process.
Now, for that six year old it probably only took a day to memorize the piece. And then, after the recital, she probably didn't even think about the music again for a couple of weeks and now grandma wants to hear it and she can't remember it anymore.
Here's my thought on that: the time you spend during the memorization process is the same length as the time you will be able to keep it in memory. So if you spend one day memorizing something, one day is about as long as that piece will remain in your mind, unless you continue to try to play the piece from memory every day. If you continue playing the piece from memory for several days, weeks, even months, then your memory will be stronger and you will be able to go several days without thinking about the music and still be able to reproduce it when the time comes. It's just like learning something for the upcoming quiz and then forgetting it as soon as the test is over. You crammed, you got the job done, and now it is gone out of your mind.
If you really want to keep something in your head for a longer period of time you need to move that memory from short term to long term memory. That is what takes time, and results in a more permanent storage. If you are playing a long recital you will need to rely on this. Start memorizing parts of your piece as soon as you can play them, months in advance. Don't consider memorization something you do after you do everything else.
The mind is really an amazing thing, and can store lots and lots of information for later recall. Think of it in terms of compound interest. The more you try to make it memorize, the better able it will be to do this. The more information you feed it, and the more often your reinforce that information--in other words, the more you use this ability, the more it will grow. The more you put it off, loathe it, think you are bad at it and therefore don't make the effort to be otherwise, the less it will grow.
Now all of that is a bit much for a six year old. But the brain still operates pretty much the same way. Play your pieces from memory every day for a while and see if they don't stay there. And if you are in an awful pickle right now and wish you had your pieces memorized for today's recital, resolve to do better next time. I'll talk more about this in the coming weeks.