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Emily Grossman

Muscle Memory

November 8, 2011 at 4:20 AM

Young Katie has been playing piano for six weeks now, and usually practices under the knowledgeable supervision of her musical mother. This week however, mom was out of town, and Katie tackled her songs by herself. I could see right away that she'd practiced one of her pieces all week with a couple of wrong notes. After having her circle the note where she'd taken a wrong turn, I asked her to play it again, and when she saw the circle, stop and pick the correct finger. Back to the beginning. She slowly made her way back to the circled note, and when she got there, I saw her fingers stiffen as she mentally wrestled with the incorrect finger, stopping it before it pressed the key. After a suspenseful pause, the correct finger finally landed, and she finished the line.

"You did it!"
"That was really hard!"
"Did you feel your finger pulling against your brain's commands? You had to tell it not to go, and then tell the other finger to play; isn't that interesting? Almost like it had a mind of its own, huh?" She nodded. "Well, guess what?" I continued, "It kinda does. It's called 'muscle memory.' Yeah, I bet you never knew your muscles have brains! And they learn to do what you train them to do, sometimes even when you don't want them to.

"Remember when you first learned to walk? Probably not. See, when you first made your legs go, you told them, one at a time, to pick up and go forward. But now when you walk, do you say, 'Left leg, lift and land! Right leg, lift and land!' Do you?"

She giggled, "No!"

"They remember that stuff for you, so you don't have to figure it out each time you get out of bed. Here in the music, you taught the wrong finger all week long to play, and then when you wanted to play the right note, you had an argument with that finger to get it to do what you want, because it didn't want to listen to you anymore; it was just running along, doing what you'd taught it to do all week. But don't worry; you will always win an argument with your finger if you try, because your big brain is stronger than your little finger-muscle brain--if you give it time to focus its powers. And then, if you do it a certain number of times the same way, your finger-muscle's memory will remember what you told them and do it without you having to tell it anymore."

Cool, huh? That's all there is to it, simple as training a dog. Yeah, there's a real double-edged sword concerning muscle memory: old habits die hard. It's amazing how, when I pick up an old piece I haven't played in years, I find ingrained in the notes a lot of the same old bad habits I thought I'd cured: shoulder clenching, tight shifts, flat or sharp pitches--all of Pavlov's dogs, right there, just waiting for the dinner bell. If I can manage to hit the override button and use my current level of technical skill, old pieces can be fun to dominate. A lot of times I'll purposefully change the bowings and fingerings to help it along. But what I really, truly love is the fresh slate that I get from sight reading a new piece. You never get a second chance to start out with the right habits.

...Which is another reason why, if at all able, a person starting out on the violin or piano--or any instrument they may like to take a half-decent stab at learning--should try his hardest to start fresh with the right habits, under the advice of a seasoned teacher.


From di allen
Posted on November 9, 2011 at 1:09 AM
i think that neuroscientists will tell you that muscles do not have memory. only the brain has memory. of course, it's true if you practice something wrong, the brain connections will process it that way. but it is the brain connectors that must be revised. this may seem a fine point, but i think it is important.
From Emily Grossman
Posted on November 9, 2011 at 2:44 AM
Maybe a degree in neuroscience would help her out! ;)
From Courtland Bates
Posted on November 9, 2011 at 3:06 AM
Excellent blog.

I empathize with di Allen though. I mean "Animal Farm" -- such a silly book. Animals can't talk.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on November 11, 2011 at 10:29 PM
I'm not sure the distinction is that important. There's a connection from the brain to the muscles. Neurons in motor cortex in the brain make synapses onto motor neurons in the spinal cord, which in turn make synapses directly onto muscles. All these synapses are strengthened (or weakened) with practice. If you have to strengthen new synapses because you're relearning something, you'll feel what the student feels.

What doesn't work for me is telling one of my kids that the incorrect note they learned by mistake was "wrong." I often get pushback that it sounds better, or at least more interesting, that wrong way.

I've had that happen to me on occasion too, where I make a mistake and learn a wrong note, especially on viola where my alto clef reading is not so great. There can be something really unpleasant, almost like hearing fingernails on a blackboard, about that relearning process after you've sat with and learned and played the wrong note for a whole week, or even longer. You can get attached to it.

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