Piano Technique: Muscle Memory

Did you know… that people who can do things that require fine motor skills do not have more skilled muscles?

The real reason they are successful is that the have more knowledgeable and experienced brains… and so can you!

Mental or Physical?

Your muscles do not have any place to store information. Every physical activity is learned by and controlled by your brain!

Such control does not typically occur without significant sensory feedback: sight, sound, balance, touch. By the way, your muscles have nerve cells called proprioceptors that are sensitive to any changes in position and tension of your muscles, giving you a sense of where your body is in time and space.

Is This Your Experience?

Do you ever have the uneasy feeling that your fingers (and hands and arms) have a mind of their own, that they are completely disconnected from your intentions, that they seem to be playing all by themselves as if YOU did not exist, and that they are constantly on the verge of becoming hopelessly lost?

If so, don’t despair. There is nothing wrong with you. Your body and brain are working just fine. In fact they are doing exactly what they were trained to do. And you are not alone. You are in the vast majority of eager, but poorly-taught piano students who do not understand how their brains work and who subsequently share a very common disease, a disease caused by two very bad habits that are inter-related: practicing before studying and practicing too fast.

  • “Practicing before studying” means practicing before you have any conception or intention or awareness about the music or what you want to accomplish, intellectually, artistically, or technically.
  • “Practicing too fast” means practicing faster than your conscious mind can pay attention to the sounds and timing and notes and articulations and fingering and dynamics and choreography and so on.

Let’s remedy the situation by making sure that we profoundly understand “muscle memory” and how it can be made either our friend or our enemy.

Muscle Memory Defined

Muscle Memory is developed by practicing. Practicing is the act of repeating a complex motor activity until it becomes automatic. When a certain movement is repeated over time, a long-term, sub-conscious memory is created for that task; eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort. This process, called automization, makes complex motor tasks easy and eliminates the need for conscious attention, thus freeing our brains to attend to other important things such as the artistic elements of our performance. It is through this mysterious process that we learned how to walk, speak, tie our shoes, and ride a bicycle… and how we can still do so without trying to remember how.

Danger Lurks

The automization process is completely unconscious and non-selective. It will try to create muscle memories for everything that we practice, even things that are incorrect or sloppy. In other words, if we practice motions that are wrong or inconsistent or unclear, we will develop muscles memories that are wrong and inconsistent and unclear. Thus, muscle memories will play against you if you practice the wrong way.

Implications for Expert Study-Practice

  • You need to create a muscle memory for each piece of music. In other words, a sequence of body motions must be associated with a particular sequence of sounds.
  • Preparation of a piece of music for performance is to store and connect two things in memory: 1) the sound of the music you intend to play and 2) the sensory-motor trace that executes that musical intent.
  • Both the sound and sensory-motor memories are stored as an associated pair during practice.
  • During performance, the music leads and the execution follows. As you “play” the music in your mind’s ear, it will trigger, instantaneously, the sensory-motor response that you so diligently practiced.
  • Your musical conception (notes, rhythm, articulation, phrasing) must be crisp and clear. Fuzzy conception will lead to fuzzy, unstable muscle memory.
  • Note: Sound need not be the only association and trigger. Others can also be very important. Your theoretical knowledge of rhythm, scales, chords, chord proressions can be very reinforcing and confidence-building. So can your sight reading skills. So are any emotional attachments. For example, as you play a Ragtime piece, imagine yourself as a piano player in a wild west saloon!
  • If you study-practice the right way, your muscle memories will be stable, reliable, and permanent.
  • Study first! A prerequisite to developing proper muscle memories is to profoundly understand the principles of sound piano technique and how they apply to the choreography of this particular piece.
  • Nothing in your playing should feel stiff or tense or awkward.
  • When learning a new piece, you absolutely must let go of the desire to play the piece at tempo.
  • You need to study-practice S-L-O-W-L-Y.
  • ”S-L-O-W-L-Y” means slowly enough to be conscious of the sounds in your mind’s ear and conscious of what your arms-hands-fingers need to do before the keys go down. You need to give yourself enough time to think, yes think, about what you are doing.
  • Be patient. Fine motor skills require complex coordination and timing of multiple muscles and joints. Such skill cannot typically be learned in one lesson.
  • Playing “at tempo” will happen automatically, and seemingly like magic, if you practice the right way — S-L-O-W-L-Y.
  • The higher the quality of your practice, the far less quantity of practice you need to achieve mastery.
  • If your golf swing is fundamentally flawed, hitting a billion golf balls will not turn you into a good golfer. Quality of practice first, quantity of practice second!
  • Garbage in, garbage out. Strive to play perfectly the first time and every time.
  • “Perfectly” means playing the correct notes, using an easy fingering, with good technique. This makes a crisp, clear, uambiguous impression on your muscle memory circuits.
  • Consistency! The more repeatable and crisp the motion during practice, the deeper the muscle memory.
  • Failure to be crisp and consistent will store a bunch of unstable, competing memories for each piece. This is a recipe for disaster.
  • Attend to every detail. No detail is too small. Example: Playing with the right fingering is not enough. You must also place each fingertip in the right place along the length of each key.
  • Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Break down large, complex movements into less complicated sequences and phases, one meaningful chunk of music at a time.
  • Don’t worry about filling up your brain. Your brain effectively has infinite capacity to remember both sounds and sensory-motor patterns.