The Music Corner for Piano Lovers

Muscle Memory, and How to Resist its Effect

24 Nov 2014 News

Muscle memory, in my opinion, is notoriously unreliable, and quite likely to fail you when you need it most — during a recital or an exam. So, in this post, I'd like to show you a few ways to avoid committing a piece to muscle memory. (Note that this is quite different from deliberately committing something to memory. Muscle memory sets in without any conscious effort on your part, by virtue of sheer repetition.)

First of all, how do you know you're relying on muscle memory? One indication you're playing from muscle memory is when you find you're staring at one spot in the sheet music, while your fingers have moved on a few bars ahead. If you can look down at the keys or anywhere else while you're playing, this, too, is a sure sign you're using muscle memory.

Why is this a problem, you ask? Well, typically, you'll only have committed a section of the piece to muscle memory. Usually, it's a difficult spot, one that requires a tricky crossing over of fingers to get to the next section. You'll also find that if you happen to get a single finger wrong, you're apt to mess the whole section up and play the wrong notes.

This is especially likely to happen when you're nervous and tense and when conditions are different — as they invariably are — from those in which you practiced the piece. Your heightened awareness of people staring at you and of the slightest noise they might make are the very factors that cause muscle memory to fail.

You don't want this to happen. So, you need to be very aware of when you've practiced a piece so much you're playing from muscle memory instead of thinking on your feet. You can walk away from the piece for a day or two. But there are some other things you can do as well:

a) Deliberately play around with dynamics. Play forte where you're asked to play piano and vice versa.

b) Play around with tempo. Play the piece faster or slower than indicated.

c) Change the articulation of the piece. Play legato when you see staccato notes. Ignore slurs or add them in.

d) Choose a couple of phrases, and play them backwards — from the last bar in the section you've chosen to the first bar. (This is also a good way to tackle trouble spots.)

e) You might also, if you like, mentally switch around clef signs. But this can be hard to do. It might be easier to move the section up or down an octave for either both hands or just one hand.

f) If you're feeling really ambitious, choose a section, and transpose it mentally to a different key!

Play around with the strategies above, and  in no time at all you'll be able to break your reliance on muscle memory.



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