With constant email notifications, text message alerts, and infinite scrolling, modern technology has slowly reprogrammed many of our minds to get used to frequent distractions. In the culture of smart phones, the ability to focus for prolonged periods of time has gradually diminished and got worse than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic as many had transferred to remote work. Coming out of the worldwide lock-downs, the culture of remote work continued to thrive, but unfortunately, not without overwhelm and anxieties that the tech culture brings. The amount of great content online has increased dramatically and it makes people want to take advantage and absorb as much of it as possible. But the human brain isn’t a computer. There is a limit to how much we can learn in a given period of time. So what does this have to do with memorizing music?
In order to memorize a challenging piece of music (like a Bach Fugue, for instance) there is a non-negotiable requirement of several prolonged periods of deep, uninterrupted work. When we stare at our screens for hours during “idle times” our minds get programmed to be more and more fragmented by the constant switching back and forth between activities or sources of attention. The popular short-form video content and e-mail notifications are two of the most notorious teachers of dividing attention. This constant mind juggling is a killer for developing the ability to stay focused and unfortunately, the solution is not as simple as setting up an app blocker and draining all our willpower. The brain is a muscle and it takes time to get used to getting back into a healthy flow of deep practice on a regular basis.
“If you are struggling to focus…just try monotasking for 10 minutes, and then allow yourself to be distracted for a minute, then monotatsk for another 10 minutes, and so on. ‘As you do it, it becomes more familiar, your brain gets better and better at it, because you’re strengthening the connections involved in that behavior. And pretty soon you can do it for 15 minutes, 20 minutes, half an hour…Start slow, but practice, and you’ll get there.’ ” – Johann Hari, Stolen Focus (p. 43)
Another thing it takes to memorize challenging music is taking time between practice sessions to just sit or walk around and think about the music…imagine it…sing it..or just stand there looking at the score and conducting. Whether you learn best through a visual or auditory manner, the ability to take several minutes of idleness and mentally go through a section of the music is a great aid to memorizing. It’s also ok to just let our minds wander around for a bit during this idle state. Going for a walk or looking out the window creates mental space, which can help with memorization. But we can’t do this if we’re distracted every other minute. There is no mental space watching YouTube shorts.
Finally, we need to spread those focused practice sessions across days, weeks, or even months to be able to memorize a piece. It will take longer to memorize a piece if we don’t get adequate rest. It is during the deep stages of sleep when our subconscious mind absorbs much of what we experienced during the waking hours. This is also where muscle memory gets ingrained after having repeated something many times with intention and great care during practice.
Unfortunately, many people are doom-scrolling Twitter and TikTok in bed. The artificial light from the screen and the content itself can make it difficult to get quality sleep. If you absolutely must use your phone or laptop within 2 hours of bedtime, I recommend to invest in a pair of blue light-blocking glasses.
We can’t completely deprive ourselves of our phones, but we can start to become a better manager to ourselves and try different systems, such as setting up designated times and/or daily time limits for certain apps. What strategies have worked for you? I hope we can share our experiences and learn how to navigate better and stay healthy in this high-tech culture.