Why We Remember Things

Try playing from memory with your duo partner....it is a rollercoaster experience!!

Try playing from memory with your duo partner....it is a rollercoaster experience!!

6 July 2016

We all tend to wind up believing in what we spend most of our lives doing…if we don’t, we are probably frustrated and unhappy. Instinctively, we set up intricate belief-systems that become the foundation of our confidence and self-esteem, irrespective of whether these beliefs are well founded or not…and the whole thing is largely driven by habit, fear…and LOVE.

Once we are able to identify various patterns of behaviour and reactions within ourselves, the process of empowerment and liberation can start and we can move forward with fulfilling our potential and shaping our destiny…yes, it is that simple.

For those of you who have a resistance or block concerning performance from memory, I would say that there are probably only a couple of overriding reasons for this:

  1. You are afraid of failing publicly.
  2. You don’t yet realise to what extent you already rely on your memory - not to pass exams or impress people with your flute playing…but simply to stay alive and learn.

Most learning is about observing and becoming aware about things that happen…that’s when life’s lessons become real and relevant.

Ask yourself a few questions:

Why do you remember to look left and right before you cross the street?

Although you probably have never been run over before, you have a very healthy fear of dying. If you have had a couple of dangerous near misses, that will have driven home the lesson more than anything anyone could tell you - your fear helps you remember…


If you are riding a bicycle, why do you slow down when the road is wet?

Perhaps you have slipped on wet surfaces before and hurt yourself…you remember the pain and this terrifying experience helps you to adjust your speed and your concentration to prevent a similar accident from happening again. No effort involved in remembering here…it is a purely reactive phenomenon; again, born out of the fear of pain.

And how do you avoid making the same mistakes again and again in life, say, in the relationships you develop?

By remembering what worked and what didn’t work, you present yourself with a choice of options the next time you reach a same juncture in your life. It becomes unavoidably clear that memory is one of the principle catalysts of learning; in fact, without remembering there is no learning.

When you pick up a rose, why do you stuff it in your nose and smell it without thinking?

We probably remember the explosion of ecstasy in our noses from the time we were babies. There is no effort involved in remembering pleasure.

This is how memory works; it is a powerful and deep-rooted phenomenon that is often triggered instinctively (involuntarily). We remember things in direct proportion to the intensity with which we experience them. That is why practicing in an emotionally dysfunctional way is unlikely to result in any lasting memories! We need to dig deep when we practice…we need to invite joy, pain, fear and exaltation into the room…and we need to learn the big lessons that only come as a direct consequence of taking big risks.

For every time we look at the music, we need to play the same passage several times without the music with full emotional intensity…we risk falling time and time again….and then we can finally taste the full intensity of victory after many defeats. If this is done consistently, you will have turned an important corner…you will have made a habit out of working with fear instead of running away from it (this is when you will finally have learned to play with authority and deep commitment). Fear will have been transformed from being the enemy that paralyses you, into the motor that drives you to blow away your self-imposed limitations.

There is another aspect to memorisation, which is also extremely important. Apart from driving us to take risks and confront our fears (huge life lessons, which inevitably help our flute playing), repetition breeds consistency and allows us to consolidate our playing…after all, if we were to take risks 100% of the time, we would definitely become nervous wrecks very quickly – so consolidating gains is as important as breaking boundaries, if we are to be stable and consistent, as well as thrilling and inspiring…we need to keep a healthy balance between the two.

Finally, if a passage continues to elude you after a long time, this is not because you have a bad memory, or that you are a bad flute player – it just means you have not yet fallen in love with that particular passage…you haven’t found its hidden essence. Practice it with more feeling….without the music, of course…over and over again…and from different perspectives. Yes, this can be a painfully slow process – but once your confidence arrives, it comes flooding in with great force. This is a thrilling moment when it finally arrives…and your audience will feel it with you.

There are so many more details relating to the phenomenon, discipline and benefits of memorisation and how it relates to so many aspects of flute playing, musicianship and communication…but unfortunately they dart in and out of my consciousness, too fast for me to capture them and write them down; anyway, I doubt that setting out endless tricks and details serves any significant purpose in itself – better just go into your practice room and start internalising the next phrase, the next gesture, the next fingering, the next sensuous breath…and one thing will lead to another. And remember the IMPORTANT things…the love and power of what you want to communicate…having a selective memory can be very advantageous because it allows you to focus on your priorities!

If you are waiting for the right time to take the plunge, the right time is NOW. The sooner you start, the sooner you will see the results of your leap of faith…and I can promise you one thing without a shred of doubt: whether your efforts lead to success or failure, I guarantee that you will grow.

Wissam Boustany