Memorization is Making You Worse

Do you struggle to remember tunes?

A Dojo student was recently lamenting that they must have mentally accumulated so much stuff in their seven decades on the planet that they just couldn’t fit any more in, because they’d been piping for a few years now and hadn’t been able to memorize more than a few band tunes.

Now, obviously they were being a bit tongue-in-cheek venting about this, but I actually thought this would be a great topic to think through for a minute.

Imagine if you were learning to play basketball. For three years. And by the end of that time, with that much practice and effort put in to learn, you could only dribble the ball three times before you lost it.

Three years.

You’d get pretty bored, wouldn’t you? Would it feel hard and hopeless? Do you think you might want to give up?

Can you see how that might, just a little bit, relate to how so many pipers feel about trying to learn new tunes?

Even if you’re not a septuagenarian, you might have had thoughts like these yourself.

This isn’t uncommon, if that’s reassuring. But it should be – because we can all do so much better.

Learning a tune should be the simplest thing in the world. I can personally memorize any tune I’ve never seen before in between 30-60 minutes. Pro-level players do it all the time – that's how they can have 12 competition-standard piobaireachds ready for the Glenfiddich, or huge lists of MSRs and medleys ready to play near-perfectly at a judges whim on competition day.

So how do they attain these god-like levels of memorization?

I can tell you from experience – the best way is to not EVER focus on memorization.

Sounds counterintuitive, right? But this kind of recall is completely attainable for every piper.

The reason is simple – if you forget about memorization and simply focus on what you should be doing to improve at bagpiping in general, memorization will be a natural byproduct.

Because you'll be a better musician on the whole.

How many hours of bagpipe music have you listened to in the last week? Almost all bagpipe music follows simple patterns, combined in similar ways over and over again. If you’re listening to a few hours of good quality piping every day, you’re going to easily start to internalize some of those patterns, and more easily recognize them when you come across them in a tune you're trying to learn.

Have you played your pipes every single day for the last week? Or have you only pulled them out for a couple of big practice sessions once or twice, maybe even only at band practice? If you’d been consistently working on playing every day, just a little bit, you’d be internalising that tune you’re trying to learn more regularly, allowing it to have more of a cumulative impact in your subconscious. Marginal gains have maximal impact.

Are you constantly trying to read and play different tunes? Or are you just ramming your head against a wall trying to learn the same tune over and over, and ingraining a lot of bad habits along the way? Constant variance is one of the keys to rapid improvement at piping, because the more tunes you work on, the faster you’ll develop all the skills that help to contribute to memorization, like sight reading, picking up rhythms, noticing patterns in the music, mastering different combinations of fingerwork and technique. You’ll be exposing yourself to a much wider repertoire, with more diverse rhythms, idioms, note combinations, and musical ideas, and ultimately, learning how to learn a wider variety of tunes much faster, without ever having tried to memorize a single note.

Now sure, if you’re older, you could argue that you don’t have the same brain capacity as, say, a kid, but I actually don’t buy that. As adults we have more distractions, sure – kids don’t have to work full time, or cook dinner, or fill the car with gas, or file tax returns – but we also have more accumulated presumptions and limiting mindsets, about our own abilities, about how we’ll ‘never get it down’, about how we can’t memorize tunes… it may seem like young kids learn fast but it’s because they both have the time to obsess about a hobby they love without as many distractions or obligations, and they’re also more likely to just believe they can do something, and actually apply themselves to do it.

Overall, if you can focus less on trying to memorize a tune and focus more on just being a better piper – working on all the good habits that will set you up for success (which I cover in detail in my 11 Commandments of Mastery course, if you’re interested in learning more), you’ll find that within far less time, by not even thinking about memorization, you can do it exponentially faster than before, without even trying.

Memorization is a waste of your time, because it should be the byproduct of becoming a better piper and being able to express yourself freely through your bagpipes.

Ultimately, wouldn’t that be more satisfying than trying to remember a band tune anyway?

Take Action

If you're a Dojo student, make sure you've worked your way through our 11 Commandments of Mastery course, and then start looking at our Tune of the Week each week as part of the Bagpipe Freedom program.

If you're not yet a Dojo Student, we'd love to welcome you! You can take the 11 Commandments course, which covers the 11 essential mindset tweaks - including rejecting multitasking and having a singular focus - you'll need to prepare yourself for mastery, or explore our monthly membership options and join us as a student, where you can work towards bagpipe freedom in a guided way with hundreds of other pipers around the world cheering you on!

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  1. Andrew:
    I appreciate all the time you (and other Dojo Instructors) take to ensure that Dojo University is a Master Class. Your insights, encouragement, candor and experience are invaluable. Now, to put them into objective-daily practice. Thank you greatly! In the joy of piping: Shaunna Goldberry

  2. I recently read a book on memorization: Strategies for Learning and Memorising New Tunes. The gist of it is to memorize by creating visual memory (staring at sheet music). I haven't quite figured out how to implement this in a way that works for me. Any ideas on this subject?

    - Ted

    1. I'm not sure we can help here, this seems to go against most of what Andrew and I and others are doing when we 'memorize' music. That's not to say it doesn't or couldn't work but I don't think we can offer any insights there. Most of the learners I've worked with don't have a visual memory of the sheet music but rather an auditory memory of how the tune goes. Personally, I'd double down on my immersion and just practice the tune in a effective way (like tune building). Hope this helps a bit!