Build Your Memory Palace

A few years ago I read “The Madonnas of Leningrad” and was deeply moved by the book.  An idea was planted that finally grew as my students were preparing their recent end of term exams. (January 2015)

This amazing book, written by Debra Dean, is about a woman who worked in the Hermitage museum in Saint Petersburg.  During the siege of the city (then called Leningrad) during World War II, all the art work was moved to protect it and the museum was an empty shell with faded marks where the paintings had hung.  The woman would move through the empty museum  recalling every painting in her mind as if it was truly there hanging on the wall.  She used a technique called “creating a memory palace”.

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You create a house, palace, or in her case a museum in your mind and you fill the rooms with the images, memories, or sounds of what you want to remember.  By walking through the house, from room to room, you can remember everything that you felt was important by a series of mental connections.  It is a very famous technique used by memory specialists.

Why did this book and recent events spark these reflections?  Well…..years ago I was watching a master class given by Frøydis Ree Werke.  She was working with a student to get them to visualise, or feel what their best performance/sound/articulation was.  Trying to bring forward a memory of when everything was going well. Through good practice we develop muscle memory.  After years of work you don’t think about what the muscles need to do to play a high C.  It becomes a reflex action.  When problems creep in we need to rediscover those memories or sensations which we have lost.  The same could be applied to performance anxiety.


Francis Orval used a similar technique to help to prepare for an audition or recital.  He would have me imagine a large cabinet, like the image below.  Each drawer, or door would have a name on it. (concerto, etude, excerpt, etc…)

antique-apothecary-cabinet

The concept is very simple, as you can imagine.  Mentally, put each item in it’s own drawer.  When that drawer is closed the piece does not exist.  You only concentrate on the open drawer.

So, for an audition.

1.  Open the drawer for Mozart 4

2.  Play Mozart 4

3.  Close the drawer for Mozart 4

4.  Open the drawer for Till Eulenspiegel

5.  Play Till Eulenspiegel

6.  etc…...

The most important part for me is that whatever happens during the performance of the current piece all other considerations are forgotten.  Missed notes and other errors are closed away when the piece is finished.  You can go back later and look through the drawer for the errors when the time to fix things comes around.  The same technique could be applied to an orchestra concert, or recital.

This cabinet is my memory palace.  It contains all the memories of the music I have worked on.  All the technical details, all the breathing locations, all the fingerings, all the intonation concerns/resolutions.  How does a high C feel, how does it sound, how is the air used, how is the tongue used/placed, etc…  Every detail is saved.  I try to get my students to avoid bad memories.  We clean out the drawers to remove the bad notes, or other errors on a regular basis.  All that is left is the positive part of each experience.  The drawer cleaning process is part of the self-analysis that we all have to go through.

We have all been there.  We are performing a piece and an accident happens.  For the next few measures, or even the rest of the piece, we think about that error and it impacts the rest of our performance.  We perform a piece with a difficult part which we have been worried about.  It goes well in the concert and we are so surprised/pleased that we miss the next few easier notes because our concentration lapses.

Build confidence, build a useful strategy to learn and remember what you need to correct, and what went well.  Build your own “memory palace”.

© Bruce Richards 2012-2015