The human mind is designed to forget. Memories and experiences become more distant and more difficult to recall over time. All our memories may become weaker over time and our musical memory is no exception to this rule. As a music student you need to constantly build on your current level of ability. You can’t do this if you regularly forget what you have already learned.
Forgetting What You Have Learned – An Extreme Example To Get Us Started
If you played the piano for a few years as a child and then stopped playing only to start up again 20 years later as an adult there is a good chance that you will have forgotten most of what you learned. When you start up again with lessons, after this period of time, it could feel like starting again from scratch. It would not be a surprise to you that you had forgotten much of what you learned as a child and that much of the material you studied all those years ago would need to covered again.
Forgetting What You Have Learned – More Common Examples
But the question is how much we will forget over shorter periods of time? – say for example a week, a month or even 10 weeks. The answer to this is like many other things in music education – “it depends”. Some students will forget more than others but what are the main reasons that some students forget large areas of the work they have studied and others only forget a little?
If Your Child Forgets Something It Does Not Mean They Are "Weak"
As a piano teacher with over twenty five years’ experience working closely with students and parents it is surprising to me that so many parents do not consider their children will ever “forget” anything they have studied in music. It is almost like parents expect the study of music to be exempt from the rules that govern how our memory works in every other area of our lives. Parents often expect that once something has been studied by the student it should somehow be indelibly imprinted in their child’s brain for ever more. Parents often take great offense at being told their child has forgotten important aspects of the material that have been covered so far in their lessons and their child will therefore need to spend more time strengthening these particular areas before they are properly prepared to move on to the next level. Parents often refuse to accept that their child may have forgotten material that has been previously studied when they are told this by the teacher. Parents may refuse to accept that it is a good idea to strengthen the students current level of ability by going back over material again that has been forgotten and they mistakenly perceive this type of feedback by the teacher negatively. No matter how carefully the teacher explains the reasons for needing to cover previously studied material again the natural tendency is for parents to believe the teacher is telling them that their child is somehow “weak” or in some way “not as good” as other students.
This is not the case
In these cases the student has simply forgotten so much of the material they have previously studied that the sensible course of action is to reinforce this material before moving on to more complex areas of study. The kindest thing the teacher can do is to be honest and help the student become more confident at their current level before moving on to more complex material. One of the great strengths of individual music lessons is that lessons can be perfectly tailored in this way to each individual student. Teachers that ignore this important element of lessons and continue to move on to the next level of study (to help keep the parents happy) even though the student has forgotten much of what they have learned so far and is not ready for more complex material, are doing their students a great injustice because they are unwittingly setting their students up for failure at some point in the near future.
In order to help prevent students forgetting the material they have previously studied it is important for parents to understand that there are certain circumstances in which their child will forget material that has previously been covered so that they can help to make sure this happens as little as possible with their own child. If the wrong approach is taken when studying piano it is easy for the student to become locked into a long-term cycle of “study a little”, “forget a lot”. If this pattern of behavior is allowed to continue it is easy for parents and students to believe that their lack of progress is down to the students “lack of talent” or is somehow the “teachers fault”. In some cases a lack of progress by the student may very well be the teachers fault but if your child routinely spends less time practicing than is recommended by the teacher this lack of progress is quite clearly not the fault of the teacher. Let’s look at the reasons why. Musical progress is obviously a very complex area and many different variables must be taken into account when assessing the musical progress of any particular student and this article does not attempt to thoroughly document every influence on the human memory, but a basic understanding of how we learn piano can help us understand why we might forget what we have previously learned. This may help us to realize that our lack of musical progress may not be because of “lack of talent” but may simply be down to the approach we take to learning.
How Does Musical Memory Work?
A basic understanding of how memory works regarding the building of a musical skill may help encourage us to take a more sensible approach to our studies. To understand why we forget and “how much” we might forget in a given time period we need to remind ourselves of the two basic types of memory.
Short Term Memory And Long Term Memory
The concept of short term memory and long term memory has been previously discussed in another of my blog posts. It may be useful to read this before continuing through this article but just as a quick reminder.
Short Term Memory
Information is relatively quick to get into the short term memory but it is also quickly forgotten.
Long Term Memory
Information takes longer to become absorbed more deeply into the long term memory but once it is there is will be retained for a much longer period of time.
Students That Practice Infrequently Or For Only Short Amounts Of Time Forget More
When students practice for only short periods of time most of the information they have studied will only have chance to be absorbed into the “short term memory”. They simply have not spent enough time with the material to allow the information to be absorbed into the long term memory. This means that it is easy to forget. These students will regularly forget much of what they have learned on a daily or weekly basis. When making progress on the piano you need to constantly “build on what you know”. If you forget what you have already learned you cannot “build on it”. The student who does not practice for as much time as their teacher recommends is in a constant cycle of forgetting and needs to be constantly reminded of things that have previously been studied. This does not mean the student “lacks talent” but it does significantly increase the amount of time it takes to make the same amount of progress as a student who practices every day.
Students That Practice Regularly For Longer Periods Of Time Forget Less
By practicing their music regularly for longer periods of time students are allowing their musical skills and knowledge to be absorbed more deeply into their long term memory. Not only does this help prevent memory loss during short breaks from piano but it is essential for continued musical growth as the musician is required to build on what they already know. For every day the student practices they not only learn something new but they also strengthen what they have previously studied. More importantly students that practice regularly for longer periods of time help prevent the loss of important musical information required to make further progress. This is important for studying a skill like playing the piano because all future work depends very much on previously studied material and skills remaining strongly in place. If the student forgets what they have previously studied they cannot build on it.
A Message To Students
For every day you do not practice not only are you “not making any progress” but you are also increasing your capacity for forgetfulness. You are making life very difficult for yourself because you are preventing the stuff you are learning going into your long term memory. You are making sure that everything you learn is only going to go into your short term memory. When this happens you will forget more during a three day break from piano than a student who practices regularly and has this information in their long term memory.
Why Can’t I Take A Break From Piano Lessons Over Summer?
If you practice in the way your teacher suggests throughout the year you could take a break for a couple of weeks and retain most of what you have learned. Longer breaks of more than two weeks will almost certainly mean that even a committed student will forget too much and severely hinder their long term chances of success. I don’t know of any successful musicians that regularly took the entire summer off from taking lessons as a child. Even students that practice regularly for long periods of time will forget substantial chunks of musical information if they are subjected to extended periods of time without proper practice guided by their teacher. Musicians that achieve high levels of performance are almost always the ones that continued to practice and take lessons over summer. If you don’t practice very much throughout the year you can expect to be more badly affected by taking even short breaks from practice. Students who don’t practice very much in general are fighting a constant battle against the human minds natural tendency to forget. Even a two week break from lessons can have an extremely large negative effect of the ability of a student who only does minimal amounts of practice. If this student takes the entire summer off from lessons they can expect to forget much of what they have learned and (due to their lack of regular practice) they can expect to take much of the next year relearning what they forgot over the summer vacation. Under these circumstances meaningful progress is almost impossible for all but the brightest and most gifted students.
Beginner students who go for periods of several weeks without getting much chance to practice may find it necessary to go back in their studies. Sometimes it may even be necessary to start all over again as so much has been forgotten. If beginner students regularly go for extended periods of time without practicing the necessity to go back and cover old ground again may need to be repeated “many times over” making meaningful progress next to impossible. The amount of information that the student “forgets” during their course of lessons is one of the main reasons some students take much longer to progress than others. A beginner piano student may take 12 months to finish their first piano tutor book whereas another student may finish the book in 3 months. The reason for this difference is more likely to be related to “how much the students forget” than “how talented” the student is. Don’t expect to make the progress you want to make on your instrument if you allow yourself to constantly forget what you have been taught.
How Do I Make Sure I Forget As Little As Possible?
The best way to overcome all of these difficulties and ensure you make the most progress possible is to follow your teachers’ advice regarding practice times and the necessity to continue lessons throughout the year.