March 2015

To Look or Not To Look

March 28, 2015 17:44

To Look or Not to Look?

A lot of teacher’s believe that the practice of looking at your fingers while learning new techniques has no or little effect on your performance. They may advice you to look at your fingers or use visual aids (tape or fingerboards, mirrors etc….) first when learning something new, and over time, somehow ‘muscle memory’ will learn this and you will be able to do magical things without thought or without looking, or even listening. This myth of “looking first so muscle memory will learn” has been around for a while and it is very far from the truth on how we actually learn new motor skills ‘efficiently’.

------How is muscle movement controlled?--------

We only have two ways or senses that are able to control muscle movement:
-Our Proprioception Sense (PS) – the mind’s eye, to control muscle movements without the aid of vision.
-Our Visual Sense- eyes

Our proprioception sense (PS) is a very, very effective and efficient tool for muscle control. It requires less processing time, fuel and memory than our visual sense. It also senses pressure and resistance, whereas our visual sense, when used alone, is incapable of. People often think vision is a better choice than not looking, and this is because our visual sense for muscle control is used more often in our daily actions and this dominant use of vision weakens our PS.

----Pro and Cons of Proprioception Vs Visual-------

Proprioception Sense

- An efficient way to learn.
- Able to perform complex finger movements at a fast speed.
-fast processing speed, thus making multi-tasking easier e.g. Thinking of technique and adding emotion to your playing can become fluent.
- Better sense of intonation when used.
- Once strengthened, it is far more accurate and consistent than visual.
- Senses finger pressure and bow resistance.
- When we strengthen our proprioception sense, our eye hand coordination’s also improve.


-People with a weak proprioception will struggle at first with finger placements and movements. Cure: practice without looking at fingers and don’t use visual aids. General rule of thumb- look once, then repeat 3-6 times without looking.

Visual Sense

-May make learning new muscle movements and placements easier.


-Interferes and can weaken our sense of intonation.
-Interferes or slows down the speed of complex finger movements.
-If overused it will weaken our proprioception sense.
- Can quickly become a crutch or bad habit if over used.
- Can interfere with the sense of pressure and resistance (feel).
- Takes more time and practice to learn new skills.

------Why tape on the fingerboard is an extremely poor aid in teaching intonation.------

There are many problems that arise when tape is used to assist in learning to play in tune: dependence (becomes a crutch), slows learning curve to play in tune, suppresses the use of the audio cortex (you don’t use ‘your ear’), creates phantom intonation (playing in tune, but not using the audio cortex to achieve it), unable to pitch match or play in tune without tape, slows sight reading, ear training techniques e.g. pitch matching, images etc…. become void when tape is removed, and finally, they suppress the PS, thus weakening the proprioception sense.

------The Story of the Three Little Violinists------

There were three violinists: Bee, Cee, Dee.

One day the Teacher asks them to play a scale.

Bee has ONLY been playing for 3 weeks, but Teacher corrects her intonation when she plays out of tune, she doesn’t have tape on the fingerboard, and Teacher gets her to pitch match a note against a piano’s note as an aid for learning to play in tune. When Bee plays the scale she gets the first note on the A string wrong (B), Teacher stops her and asks her to correct it, but Bee is unable to do this on her own, so the teacher plays the note on the piano. Once Bee hears the note on the piano, she repeats the note correctly and moves on to the next note of the scale. Teacher is very happy.

Cee is a new student with Teacher. Cee has been playing for a year with another teacher. Cee’s other teacher didn’t use tapes or used pitch matching techniques or any ear training techniques and never corrected her poor intonation. When Cee plays the scale, she gets the C note wrong on the A string. When Teacher asks her to correct it, Cee is unable. So the teacher plays the note on the piano. After hearing the note Cee is still unable to play the note. Teacher sees that Cee can’t pitch match. Over the next few weeks Teacher works with Cee so she eventually learns to pitch match.

Dee is a new student with Teacher. Dee has been playing for a year with another teacher. Dee’s other teacher used tape on the finger board and also used the piano for pitch matching and practiced ear training techniques. When Dee played the scale, with the tape on, she played it in tune. So Teacher removes tape and asks Dee to play the scale again. This time Dee plays the D note on the A string incorrectly. Teacher stops her and asks her to correct it. Dee is unable to correct it on her own, so Teacher plays the note on the piano and asks Dee to pitch match it. Dee is still unable to match the pitch. Teacher realizes Dee has phantom pitch issues and is unable to play in tune without the use of tapes, and for the next few MONTHS they work on relearning to play in tune.

Moral of the story is: if you are going to teach or learn something new, teach or learn it correctly at the beginning without the short cuts and gimmicks, because all you are really doing is postponing the inevitable.

2 replies

Force Learning and Strong Memories

March 15, 2015 02:59

The goal to practice is to create strong memories. When we have strong memories, recall of the memories (technique or notation etc..) becomes easier. When we do a number of repetitions of something, our mind takes this new information and processes it(stores or formats it)
How to develop strong memories recipe:
Repetition + processing time = easier recall

The challenge is how many repeats are required to get the mind to process the new information, and the how much processing time is required between practice sessions. Surprisingly the number is very low for repetition: 3-6 times. Processing time can be 4-8 hrs for new memories, and 20min. for well learned memories, or you can think of it as: easy things to do require 20 min. of processing time, and hard things to do require 4-8 hrs of processing time. Some memories require 8 hrs. of sleep to be processed.

Teacher is going away for a month, while she is away she wants Lisa and Chista to learn the B flat 3 octave scale with the arpeggio.

Lisa spends 45 min. practicing the scale on the first day, then 3 days later she practices the scale for another 30-45 min.. She continues this way for the month: 30-45 min. practice session 2-3 times a week; total practice time for week, 2 hrs. max.

Christa has a different practice method. She spends 5-10 min. in the morning playing the scale, then 5-10 min. in the afternoon, then 5-10min in the evening. She does this for the month: 5-10 min. short practices 2-3 times a day 4 days a week; total practice time for week, 2 hrs. max.

At the end of the month Lisa and Christa played the scale to the teacher. Christa play with good intonation and timing and was able to play the scale at different speeds and got an A :). Lisa rushed through the scale and arpeggios, and when ask to play them again at a slower speed, because of too many mistakes, she wasn't able to slow down. Lisa got an F:(

So why did this happen?
They practice for the same length of time, 2hrs a week, but if you were able to analyze the minds processing time, it would total approx. 16-24 hrs. a week for Lisa, and approx. 48 hrs. for Christa. That's more than double for Christa.

What also happen to Lisa, is what I call "Force Learning". Force learning is when you over repeat something in an attempt to learn it, but the practice is counterproductive. What ends up happening is the mind becomes over stimulated and hyper active. Once its in this hyper mode it becomes difficult to do something well, and mistakes are made, and if a mistake is made to often(more than 3 times) the mind will process this mistake. The mind should be able to learn this 'hyper mode' also, and if you are practicing this way too often, then this mode could automatically be applied at any unwanted time.

Symptoms of force learning:
-inability to slow down and focus
-practice without improvements
-constantly making mistakes
-frustration and anxiety

- shorter practice sessions throughout the day, or 2-3, 1/2-45min. sessions in the evening compared to 1, 2hr. session
- limit the amount of repetitions of bars, phrases, scales etc...
- repeating something more than 10-12 times can become counterproductive, 3-6 times is better.
-meditate when you notice you are in hyper mode, frustrated or unable to play cleanly
-diet and exercise
-creative practice: variations, composition, create one's own exercises etc...
-stop practicing and play something that has already been learnt.

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