Memory and Vision

Memory work, and how the Bates principles can help us understand how the mind works.

Memory and Vision

Age: 43 - Condition: Memory and Vision

I'm a classical and Jazz pianist, and a composer. I also happen to be a Bates teacher, but music is my most primal knowledge - 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 had never imagined.

The following story involves memory, and how the Bates principles and experience with working with my vision was brought across to this area of musical facility; 'memorising', whilst deepening my understanding of 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 The Cure of Imperfect Sight Without Glasses (1920) - as well as mentioning it often throughout the rest of the text, and throughout the Better Eyesight Magazines (1919 - 1930). 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 was training to become a concert pianist. My teacher - Rae de Lisle - 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 - one movement each day. This can be as much as 40 pages of music or more, and although the complexity of the music will have an influence, it should take “basically around three days to have every note down as a basis. One page in half an hour”, she said. I looked at her with mixed emotions; some wonderment and amazement for sure, but also some trepidation... and a fair amount of horror!

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 need to look at the music - both hands seem miraculously to know what they're doing already (patching the eyes, then putting them together is little bit 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” is just a distraction, preventing the brain from getting on with the job of letting the note in - because when you move, and think, 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 in learning what needs to be done, and remembering it. It feels like your hand suddenly knows stuff that you didn't know it knew (in Bates terms, this is a bit like central fixation for the memory - “Think of one thing best”).

So far so good. Then one day she really put me to the test, giving 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, and had at one point managed to memorise a whole movement in one day, but... I was puzzled, and rather more anxious 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 - separating out the movement and the memory was one good step, but in every single momentI was still trying to bite into too much at a time. I would see the goal w-a-a-a-y ahead of me, of finishing the piece, and I'd try harder and harder to grab large chunks of the music in one go... It was a bit like eating your entire evening meal in three mouthfuls. That would hurt your stomach and many other organs horribly. What I had done with my memorisation feat was like that, and I had hurt my brain.

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, “unstrained” experience.

  • I refused to hurt myself. Pretty simple. Memory should be effortless, I reasoned, so I figured that any time I was practising memorising and trying to take in too much at once - I'd be hurting myself. I made an agreement with myself that 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 final 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. I was gently aware of the notes before, and after, but was now thinking of each note in turn as a point of effortless engagement, a sensation of specific focus without a hint of effort. It meant becoming very direct and clear with the present moment - just like allowing the central point of vision to be received in the present by one's visual mind.

I indeed 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, and no longer any decision on my part to “continue practicing”. In short, I felt fantastic. 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 were polished off 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. The passage was quickly up to speed, and 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 learned, here is one of my favourite pianists playing the Scherzo. The part I memorised in half an hour starts at 5'50" and continues to the final notes:

Ivo Pogorelich - Chopin - Scherzo No. 3 in C# Minor

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 course crucial for 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, nor 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 much better results. You have to be patient at first...

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 most important thing at the start is to allow the memory to truly rediscover its most natural effortless condition - years of pushing and pulling at it has often turned the memory into a spasm - it is trained and entrenched, embedded with anxiety and urgency throughout all those lessons, tests and exams at school, and then dealing with the increasing years and complexities of life in general. To let it unfold again, you've got to go so gently, and give yourself plenty of time to unlearn the unhelpful habits and for the memory to feel safe to stretch its gossamer wings once more. This can require dedication but the sudden experience of mental effortlessness, when it comes, is nothing short of a revelation.

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/urgency in the tone of voice is usually of note - it indicates the person has grasped at the word)

As she stood at the door she said to me “I have never been so relaxed in my entire life. I'm going to practise this.” She went away in deep reflection - amazed.

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 also vanished - no trouble focusing near-to whatsoever. A mind at rest.

Kevin Wooding

Case History © Kevin Wooding

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.

Kevin Wooding

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