Thoughts from Unlimited Memory by Grandmaster Kevin Horsely
I have mixed feelings about this book. On one hand it is well written and Grandmaster Horsely has to goods to back up his talk. He lays out why, how, and when (it’s now) to improve our learning and memory and does so in a concise and mostly easy read. Objectively, the information and suggestions for implementing them into your life are practical and easy to understand. For me, the book reads too much like a self help guide. I went back and forth between thinking, “wow! What a great idea!” and “wow! I’m a loser”. Maybe that's just me!
In short, Horsely’s strategies for level 9000 memorization are built upon taking information such as lists, names, or numbers, and coding it into our brain through various associations. Those associations could be creating wacky narratives for your list, relating a distinguishable feature on someone’s face to their name, or applying certain syllable sounds to specific numbers to create words and consequently, a story. The more outlandish the better. Our brain has a better chance of remembering a bizarre and humorous story we create than an arbitrary list we try to jam into our brain. We all know what it feels like to cram the night before a test..some of us may know better than others. Personally, I would never do anything so academically irresponsible. *hearty chuckle*
Most of my narrative throughout reading Unlimited Memory was “how am I going to implement this into my own life?” Horsely endlessly repeats that these memorization and learning techniques must be practiced, just like an instrument or a sport. The problem is that I already have 10,000 other things to practice relating to music and the trumpet. At a certain point, if we try to do too much we end up accomplishing nothing at all. And gaving reached this point many times before, I am wary of taking on too many checklist practice items at once.
Hmm. So I’m not going to go for a hard learn where I sit down and practice only these techniques, but perhaps liberal manipulation of the general concepts could be applied in a musical setting. I will admit the process I came up with is a bit goofy and might seem overly complicated for the desired outcome. At the very least, I hope it gets you thinking about practicing and learning jazz tunes, improvisations, concert solos, etc, in a different way.
Before we dive in I should say a few words about memorization in music. In short, it’s different than strictly written information. It would be possible to create or discover systems for the strict memorization of sheet music with absolutely no aural component. But as musicians know, that is a spiritless approach and also provides a great disservice. ‘Ears’ are a musician's skeleton key - to ignore the aural aspect is to miss the boat entirely.
The premise behind my application of Horsely’s ideas is to apply vivid imagery, characters, scenes, feelings to the sonic characteristics of jazz standards. If the 3 components of music are melody, rhythm, and harmony, we will be focusing on melody and harmony for the exercise. Obviously rhythm is important, but as a horn player in a trio or some form of ‘tet’ my responsibilities are mostly melodic and harmonic. If one of my enlightened jazz friends disagrees, which one might, please post below and we can discuss.
I don’t think this would be a quick process. We would be training our brains to make associations that it probably has not done before, with the added complexity of jazz. If you want to memorize standards quickly there are probably better methods. This is process is more about remembering feelings, evoking emotions, and committing the music to long term memory rather than a strictly intellectual process. Think of your favorite movie scene. Mine is from the Return of the King when the Rohirrim charges upon the Pelenor fields to save Minis Tirith. When I remember that epic scene, the music is inseperable from the scene and I can remember the music almost, if not completely, with 100% accuracy. That’s what we are trying to create and practice.
My process might go as follows -
Play the harmony/chords of the desired tune on the piano. Ideally you would have transcribed the harmony/chords. Really take the time to hear those chords and the nuances of the progression. Does it conjure any images in your head? If the harmony is the setting that our melody will interact with, what are the defining features of that setting? Does it look, smell, taste, sound, or feel a certain way? Be as specific as possible. The only limit is how much detail you would be willing to add. The more detail, the more you will remember.
Play the melody with the harmony on the piano. How does the melody interact with the harmony? Do contours and contrasts lend itself to any particular emotions or flows of conversation between characters? Does the melody progress in a way that leads to a climax that could easily translate into a story?
Play the story/scene/images through your head as vividly as possible. Maybe even write it down. Have the standard be the soundtrack to your story..Try to make it as inseperable as King Theoden crashing upon the Orcish army, or whatever your favorite scene is.
Try to have each specific nuance of melody and harmony taking on a memorable aspect of the setting or mood. Remember, the goal is to ingrain the music into long term memory by applying imagery, plot, and feeling. The more detailed, vivid, and potentially outrageous the story, the more you will remember.
The eventual goal would be to create a product where one component is inseparable from the other. The standard cannot be played without a mental conjuring of the story and the story cannot be remembered without the soundtrack playing in the background. They are truly inseparable. The analogy continues even deeper when you bring into the fold improvisation and playing with other people. I think there is real potential for a small group to discuss and create these stories and then play with their imagery front of mind.
An added bonus of this method is that by the nature of the process, you are practicing the emotional component of music. Often times when I learn jazz standards, my only purpose is to commit them to memory and move on to the next one. My process is mostly robotic and intellectually inorganic. This method could get me out of that rut. The emotional context would be so ingrained into the music I don’t think I could help but play with scenes, moods, and characters running through my head. The above process might worth a shot if for nothing else but this added component.
Finally, I believe the aspect could extend beyond this area of jazz into concert solos, big band, or orchestra. Transitioning into intricately arranged music might require more detail and planning considering the grand scope of those pieces, but I see no reason why the above process couldn’t be equally, if not more, beneficial in these settings.
I realize this idea might be needlessly esoteric. I don’t know if I will try it anytime soon, but I think there is potential for my future practice. This article is less about me trying to change the way I memorize music, but more so me taking ideas from a book I read and creating a method that might have benefit for the things I enjoy. If you have any ideas, questions, suggestions, critiques, or money to give me, please post below or send it to my venmo account/beer fund. Thanks for reading!