Although I've frequently railed against muscle memory, I have to concede it has its place in piano practice. Muscle memory is invaluable when it comes to acquiring piano technique. Why? Because when you encounter a trill or any other ornament, you don't want to have to think about how to perform it any more than you would think about playing legato or staccato.
Listening to classical music while you're driving tends to give you a different perspective of it. And I've come to realize that a lot of classical music is about building sound textures and exploring the potential of each instrument to create different sound effects. The music may or may not be melodic. But melody isn't important. What is important is the texture the composer creates, the different sounds layered together to form a rich and intriguing whole.
Classical piano music and its practice, then, is by and large about acquiring technique.
Rondo alla Turca, the popular Turkish March from Mozart's sonata in A Major was playing the other day. It's such a beautiful piece, and the pianist whose name I can't recall played it with such breathtaking clarity, fingers rolling over the appogiaturas, lightly sounding the grace notes, building such a beautiful texture of sound, that my fingers itched to get on the piano.
But the score I had was an arrangement, and not particularly satisfying. The original is in duple time, with the first few notes played as sixteenth notes. My arrangement was written in quadruple time with the first few notes written as eighth notes. The former has one main beat, and the latter two. That makes a difference in sound.
And although you can force your fingers to reduce the emphasis on the third eighth note, it takes a bit of effort to do so. And you would have to have heard the piece to begin with to know to do that.
But the arrangement still offers the pianist a challenge by including some of the ornaments from the original. Executing these well takes considerable practice—slow, hands separate to ensure the fingers learn how to execute the notes properly. And it was as I was practicing these that I had my epiphany about muscle memory.
An experienced pianist could execute a trill or any other ornament perfectly at sight. Years of practice makes this a no-brainer. Now, if I were playing a piece by sight, I'd have to avoid the trill altogether. It would take me months of practice to execute a musical, beautiful trill. It's one of the reasons I don't write trills into my pieces. I wouldn't be able to play them myself if I did!
Although thanks to Graham Fitch's excellent video on the subject, I think I'm getting the hang of these at last. Still, it will take regular practice before the trill becomes second nature to my hands and fingers.
So, how exactly do you help your brain and your fingers acquire technical skills at the piano? How exactly do you ensure piano technique is integrated into muscle memory?
One of my piano teachers, a concert pianist herself, always emphasized slow, deliberate practice, and advocated working on a couple of lines at a time. That's excellent advice for teaching your fingers a new technique. Going slow and heavy sears the act of doing into your brain.
It also ensures you teach your brain the correct movement whereas playing inaccurately at tempo would only teach you to play the wrong way. Constant and conscious slow repetition enables your fingers to get so used to the right movement, they can articulate them even when you go faster.
I find that constant repetition also eases your ability to play a little faster. That coupled with listening to a good recording of a piece facilitates your ability to play correctly at tempo. Your fingers soon begin to reproduce the tempo your ear has internalized. I prefer this method to using a metronome which always seems to leave one breathless.
But some people do find metronomes useful in helping them push up their tempo, and if you're one of them, you'll likely get a lot of good work done working with one.
And when it comes to the trill, a metronome can actually be quite useful, if only to help you play your trill evenly and in a coordinated manner with the left hand notes.
It's all a question of figuring out what works best for you.