Saturday, March 08, 2014

Knapsack 3-13-14

Notes from my knapsack 3-13-14


Memories and remembering



Watching the Granville High School band and choir at the OMEA competitions last weekend, it occurred to me that instrumental and singing music is one of the few areas where straight-up memory is still important.


We use so many tools to keep our thoughts and schedules in order, our phones and tablets and virtual desktops; in learning, whether at school or later on in the workplace, we are called on to master theory and framework and process, but to remember stuff? I've got an app for that.


And more and more often, "rote memorization" is almost referred to in the same tones as "corporal punishment." It's not a technique, it's a torture. No value is assumed or imputed to the practice.


Neuroscience is probably going to prove me wrong some day, or it may be sooner than I think that there will be vivid, full color imagery of a brain scan to tell me I'm right: I think there's a place for memorization, in school and in personal discipline. Just as you can't only do push-ups and call it good exercise, the mental framework and problem solving approach feels to me like doing nothing but sit-ups, and neglecting a system and an element of the whole that needs stretching and pushing.


Obviously, the band and choir and theatre kids can and must do it. You don't go out on stage with a script in hand; bands don't want to take the field with a lyre and music clip if they can help it, and they know they'll sound better if they don't need it; skilled choral and solo singers don't hold a big folder up in front of their faces when it's time to project and blend. (Oh, and the GHS music dept. did us all proud and are mostly all going on to state competition!)


You may say, and would agree, the some folks don't memorize easily, and for others it's a gift. I do not have good memory for detail as much as for sequence and relationship, so my quotes from poetry, drama, or even scripture tend to shift pronouns and even adjectives from time to time, even though they sound convincingly accurate when declaimed. I wish I had a photographic memory, but I don't.


Yet most of us have perfectly serviceable memories, and the problem is just that we don't use them, much. In fact: do you know the words to the Star Spangled Banner? The Gilligan's Island theme song? The narration to the commercial that ends "don't have your dad get punched over a can of soup"? The five different passwords you regularly use? (Right, you have to double check, but how many do you have in your head right now? Six? Seven? Yeah.)


There's a remarkable amount of stuff in our memory, and when you work with your memory, you can be surprised by how capacious, and how flexible that skill can become. You memorize a poem a week, a psalm or text that has meaning to you from sacred literature, a song whose lyrics are important to someone you love . . . and you find that, like any muscle in your body, the more you use it, the stronger it becomes.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him what you know "by heart" at or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

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