Memory and Vision
by Kevin Wooding
I'm a musician - a classical and Jazz pianist, and a composer. I also happen to be a Bates teacher, but music is primarily what I'm here for - I learned the Alexander Technique and the Bates Method because it helped my music, and particularly the Bates Method helped me to allow my natural musical creativity to resurface after many years buried in the subterranean world of my subconscious. Improvement of the vision was the initial impulse, of course, but when I perceived the root causes of my loss of vision it was easy to see how it would help me in so many ways that I hadn't expected.
The story I'm about to tell though involves memory work and how the Bates principles and experience with working with my vision could be brought across to this area of musical facility, and more generally understanding the way in which the mind works.
For those who don't know, Bates paid particular attention to the use of memory - assigning one whole chapter to the topic in his book - as well as mentioning it often throughout the rest of the text. I was fortunate to experience for myself the benefits of working with memory and seeing how it deepened my understanding of strain, relaxation and central fixation - the key concepts of the Bates Method. Here's how it happened:
When I was 15, I went to a very good classical piano teacher - Rae de Lisle - who one day taught me how a concert pianist memorises new music, and explained that when working well with the memory it was possible for a complete concerto to be memorised in just three days. This can be as much as 40 pages of music or more, although the complexity of the music will have an influence - "but basically around three days to have every note down as a basis. One page in half an hour", she said. I looked at her in amazement.
There were also several points she taught me about memorising that made it easier, which echo through to some of the principles of the Bates method, although I had never heard of Bates at this point:
You memorise the hands separately, and when putting the music together, you don't look at the music - both hands know what they're doing already (patching the eyes is like this).
When you memorise, you don't move a muscle - you simply imagine the movement that the hand has to make for each note. Any movement of the fingers in "trying it out" distracts the brain from getting on with the job of letting the note in - in that the brain is having to do two things at once - both memorise, *and* move the fingers in the right way. Take the movement out, and the brain is much quicker (Central fixation for the memory - "Think of one thing best").
So far so good. So, one day she really put me to the test - she gave me a huge piece (Chopin B minor Sonata - 45 pages, and *thousands* of notes). "Three days" I thought.
Well, I got it done, but it took two weeks - with a week off in the middle while I had a horrendous headache. I thought I'd damaged something. I was very pleased with memorising it that quickly, but a little puzzled as to why it should hurt so much. Rae thought I'd done very well, headache aside!
What I didn't understand at that point was the problem with trying to take in too much at once - I'd see the goal way ahead of me, finishing the piece, and I'd try and grab large chunks of the music in one go.... It's a bit like having your entire evening meal in three mouthfuls...
Fast forward several years, many Bates lessons behind me, and even some time after that - I was living in a new place with a grand piano, and all my enthusiasm for playing came out - I started learning new pieces. My experience with memorising the Chopin Sonata was still haunting me, but I figured I'd learned a few extra things on the path since then and wanted to try the technique again. So I started to memorise, but this time I refused to do several things, because I knew they would make me anxious and "try" harder.
- I refused to worry about getting anything finished - I didn't care much about the goal of memorising quickly ("Striving for perfection is to strive for tension"), but I wanted to have an easy time.
- I refused to hurt myself. Memory should be effortless, I reasoned, so I thought that any time I was practising memorising and trying to take in too much - I'd be hurting myself. I figured I didn't deserve that, no matter how slow I'd have to go.
- I refused to take in more than one note at a time - this was the result of 1. and 2. above. I thought to myself, that as one note is easy to remember, why not just do one note - I checked myself very carefully to make sure my mind wasn't trying to reach out for the next note, or drag it's feet with the previous one. This, again, is central fixation of the mind - not trying to think of more than one thing best, but engaging with the point of attention in context of everything. It meant becoming very direct and clear with what is being thought of at the very moment - just like allowing the central point of vision to reach one's visual mind.
I went slow, but each note went in like an indelible imprint - I was ready for the next. I worked at this for several days, on and off, just enjoying it when I wanted to, and not caring what the result should be. Finally, after about a week, the thought and memory was working pretty much together every moment, without me thinking about it. I had three pages of a big piece to finish (Chopin again - Scherzo no.3 in C# minor), and sat down to memorise it - and the three pages was done in just 30 minutes.
No pain, in fact I felt very alive and alert; in a way it was a very peculiar feeling as it had been so easy and yet so much had been done - I had managed to get out of the way of myself. Furthermore, the experience of memorising like this also helped my physical motion to be clearer - I was playing *this* note now, then *this* one. I was playing better, with more focus and direction, my mind was clearer and my vision was working better than ever before.
If you'd like to hear the section of music covered here is one of my favourite pianists playing the whole Scherzo. The part I memorised in half an hour starts at 5'50" in the clip and continues to final notes:
This experience has enabled me on a couple of other occasions to help some of my Bates students in a similar manner.
Once, an actress came to see me - she did one-woman shows, so she had a lot of performance pressure on her much of the time, and it was starting to take its toll - she was suffering from difficulty in close reading distances, (which conventionally are regarded as inevitable around the age of forty or so) and also she was having difficulty in memorising her lines. This second difficulty was distressing her greatly as being able to memorise was of great importance in her work.
I worked on standard Bates techniques with her (seeing movement was a big hit), but I also decided to help her directly with memorising effortlessly while she was palming.
She had a passage which she knew well, and as we worked over it, I got her to slow down, then slow down again, then again, and then go even slower - I wanted her to tap into the deep pool of memory that already knows everything is there, before you can even think about it - I suggested she wait for the next word to come up to the surface from that deep pool, and only say it when it was fully there - no grasping, or grabbing.
It's an extremely liberating and self-respecting process, as when memory works like this, it's complete, deeply relaxing, and, contrary to what we've always been told, it gets results.
I think I measured in the end - in that first lesson she got through ten words, taking 2 to 3 minutes over each on average. I emphasise here, that the important thing is to allow the memory to truly work in its most natural state - years of pushing and pulling at it (all those tests and exams at school.) has often turned the memory into a spasm, and to let it unfold again, you've got to go *so* gently and give yourself plenty of time to unlearn the unhelpful habits. This sometimes takes months.
When the word surfaced in her thoughts, she would say it - and if it was truly there without effort on her part, her voice sounded like a bell. (Strain in the voice is usually of note - it indicates the person has grasped at the word)
She went away in deep reflection - amazed. She said to me "I have never been so relaxed in my entire life. I'm going to practise this."
She'd certainly never used her memory like this before, and true to her word, she practised in this same way for the next four weeks. At the end of this period she was effortlessly memorising a page of text in half an hour, with the same degree of deep relaxation - faster than she ever had before. Furthermore, her problems with reading distance had vanished - no trouble focusing near-to whatsoever.
She returned two and a half years later with a recurrence of the difficulty with close focus - I gave her one lesson in which I again taught her about seeing movement - she looked at me and said:
"I don't believe it. I completely forgot about the movement. I won't forget this time - I won't need to come back."
That's the last I saw her - about 15 years ago.