Tag Archives: memory

Learning things by heart

Memorising is a traditional bardic skill and it’s a wonderful thing to do. In learning something you form a much deeper relationship with it, and it becomes part of you. It is scary – performing from memory without a safety net is a really exposed thing to do and you can fall and fail – but you really feel it when you fly. And if you sauntered onto the bard path the odds are that you crave the applause, the audience response and the glory to some degree.

There are people, and my son is one of them, who seem able to absorb vast amounts of text with very little effort. For most of us, it is a slog taking time and repetition. To learn things by heart you also have to learn how much work that takes. It’s easy to be put off and to assume you can’t do it… but it can just be a case of needing to make more effort than you expected. The more you learn by heart, the better your memory becomes and the easier it gets.

Not everyone can commit things to memory. Not everyone who can memorise finds they can perform from memory. It’s worth investing time and effort in building familiarity with material even if you do then need the safety net. It’s vitally important that bardic spaces don’t require you to memorise – that’s abelist. Further, no one should have to explain what their issues are if they don’t perform from memory.

Here are some things I’ve found helpful when trying to learn something by heart…

Little and often is better than big sessions. Go over the material every day.

Start trying to do it – or bits of it – from memory as soon as you can. It doesn’t matter how bad you are. If you just work from the paper you get used to the paper. Trying to reconstruct the piece from memory will really help you, even if you spend most of the time going ‘tum te tum’ between key words.

Play with the material. Messing about helps with learning. But also be careful because you don’t want to learn the wrong words. Comedy versions can be great, but don’t set yourself up to remember the wrong words!

Don’t worry about getting it wrong. The chances many people – or for that matter any person in your audience knows the material better than you do, are small. If you present the piece with confidence and a smile, people will be persuaded that you know it. Mistakes delivered with certainty are seldom noticed. If you need to brazen it out, that was how Granny always said it, or ‘folk process’ are always options. As a bard, a good story can be more pertinent than a disappointing and useless truth. If you go off-text you can also always say that you were in the grip of the Awen and that’s simply what turned up!

Doing it from memory

We know that the ancient Druids had an oral tradition, and that the bards of old memorised vast amounts of material. However, when it comes to the modern bard path, I think it’s really important not to be dogmatic about doing things from memory.

Firstly, not everyone can. Not all brains are good at storing great swathes of text and music. Brain injuries, cognitive differences, and learning difficulties can all make memorising impossible, or excessively difficult. No one should be excluded from bardic performance for these reasons. If you’re holding a bardic space, it is important not to discriminate and not to demand that people perform from memory. Don’t challenge people who can’t and don’t ask why they can’t – it isn’t your business.

There can also be class, life stage and economic issues around performance from memory as well. Learning takes time. That time may not be available – work, illness, family, and other pressures may mean a person does not have the luxury of time to learn content by heart. It is kinder and more inclusive not to put people under pressure or to exclude them based on how overwhelming their lives are. And again, we do not need to know the details of why a person cannot commit to learning the words.

For someone who is anxious, or inexperienced, doing it without the words can simply be too daunting the first few times. People who could be great may never get started if the entry bar is set to high. None of us benefit from that.

The quality of a performance does not depend on whether you are holding a piece of paper. Certainly a piece of paper can be a barrier between performer and audience, but it doesn’t have to be. No one complains about classical musicians reading from the sheet music. Authors are allowed to read from their books at events, too. It is entirely possible to perform very badly from memory. The best thing to do is focus on quality of performance – in your own work and when you are making space for other people.

If you need the words, or notes, to make that possible, go with whatever allows you to do the best performance you can. Don’t penalise other people for needing to rely on paper or phones for content. You can encourage excellence without making specific demands on what people do. It takes time to develop as a performer and most people start out far less able than they will be with practice. Experience of performing is part of what takes a person towards being a really great performer – most of us don’t get up for the first time at anything like the level of performance we might be capable of.

(And thank you to Clive Oseman for the prompt)

Bardic skills: Tricks for remembering

Longer pieces are inevitably harder to learn than short ones. On the whole, where there is a story I don’t find learning longer ballads especially difficult. What’s really tricky, is learning something that has no narrative logic. I’m going to talk about one specific song for this post but there is plenty of material out there with similar issues.

So, here’s Lay the Bent to the Bonny Broom – listening is not essential, but it’s an excellent song! This is Brian Peters, and it’s his arrangement.


The difficulty with this song is that you have a set of nine riddles followed by nine answers, and really the answers need to come in the same order as the riddles, and remembering all nine is easier if you get them in the same order each time. There’s no narrative order to the riddles, but there is a slight escalation, and the one on its own at the end is the one at the end – this kind of thinking is an aid to remembering.

However, the method that helps me most is to get the rest of my body involved. I run the riddles through my fingers, using the same finger for each riddle every time I sing it, and the same finger for the answer as I did for the question. It’s a small physical prompt, and it definitely helps. I’ve used the same technique on other songs where order matters but at the same time there’s nothing much to help hold that order together.

Remembering is not just a brain activity. We have muscle memory – essential for learning tunes and dances. We can remember all kinds of shapes and patterns. If a piece is difficult to learn, looking for other ways to remember it can really help. Using physical gestures, patterns of movement, or just this simple trick of counting on fingers can get other kinds of memory involved to make the process easier.

Learning by heart

I’ll start by saying that I detest rote learning, the kind of learning where you are just forcing facts into your brain, usually with a view to regurgitating them in an exam and then forgetting the lot. That kind of learning does not generate wisdom or feed inspiration very often.

However, dedicating a lot of material to memory was very much the work of the ancient Druids and Bards, as far as we know. They didn’t write anything down, it was all oral transmission and memory. Most of us don’t go in for that kind of learning at all, but it’s very different from being able to recite a multiplication table. Being a bard is about making the carefully learned words come alive, in the moment.

Yesterday I watched a group of children put on a show. There was about an hour and a quarter’s worth of material there – songs and dialogue The oldest children were 11, the youngest, I think 7. That’s a lot of material to have got to grips with, in a matter of a few months. A great deal of work, dedication and repetition went in to getting them there, and the result was stunning. It’s amazing what can be done when there’s a will to make it happen. But if you suggested that kids ought to have an hour’s worth of learned material in their heads, complete with actions, I don’t think many people would see that as a good use of the child’s time.

I recall being at a druid event some years ago, with no formal entertainment, and people, less than perfectly sober people, trying to amuse themselves with songs – frequently half remembered ones at that. I have enough performance level material in my head to run for a good four hours flat out – tunes, songs, poems and stories. In practice, my voice is not up to more than 2 hours of uninterrupted performance. Probably less these days as I haven’t done the epic busking stints in a while. It’s long been natural to me to have a reservoir of learned material I could draw on, and this event made it apparent to me that for many people, that pool of bardic lore isn’t there. Which is a shame.

There’s something magical about dedicating yourself to a piece of art – be that a dance, a tune, a song, poem or story. Giving yourself to it so that you can learn it, means that it in turn becomes a part of you. There’s time taken to understand the relationships between each note, each nuance of the words, how an arrangement might shift it and make something new of it. Learning the song, or the story is all about understanding it and having a real relationship with it. It tangles into your soul. The stories we tell, the songs we sing become a part of who we are. They enrich. And when the power goes off, we have some way of passing the time.

Community music, dancing with people, and all these kinds of sharing are really bonding activities. You can’t forge those kinds of bonds by sitting around and watching a television program together. You can’t do it on facebook, either. The immediacy of something shared is powerful. The offering of song or words is one of the best things I think anyone can bring to a ritual.

It does take discipline and effort, but that’s no bad thing. What it gives us in return, is far more than the cost. A gem inside your head is with you for life. Sharing it enables you to give something beautiful to others over and over again.

And the more you learn, the easier it gets to learn.