Using the power of muscle memory and forming mindful musical habits

My scooter (left) and my partner's (right) ride and feel very differently.

My scooter (left) and my partner's (right) ride and feel very differently.

The other day I picked up my little Vespa scooter from the shop in downtown LA. It had been there a few weeks; nothing was terribly wrong with it, but I dropped it off, they ordered a part, then I took a trip to Seattle for a week and they lost my number sometime in there.

Like riding a scooter or a bike, the muscle memory that enables us to play without consciously controlling each finger and hand movement can be developed and utilized early on in music practice.

During the week before my trip I was riding my partner's scooter: a grey Vespa that's a lot bigger and looks and feels completely different. It rides on the freeway and weighs a ton, and it's an automatic. My vintage green Vespa felt tiny and strange when I got back on it to ride back to my music studio: the hand brake and clutch have a different angle and tension, the throttle is a lot tighter, and I have a foot brake, too. For a brief while when I started riding his scooter, I tried holding the clutch in in my left hand to shift gears like I would on mine. Of course this was the brake, and I quickly stopped trying to stomp the foot brake that isn't there on his, either. By the end of my time using his scooter, Valentino, I was used to pulling its huge frame onto the stand to park it, too. I was so used to its weight that the first time I parked Vinnie (my scooter) again, I almost threw him back and knocked him over, he was so much lighter!

Muscle memory is powerful, and this was a rare case of using two similar objects back-to-back, something my students talk about when they first warmup at lessons. Their pianos and especially keyboards feel completely different; every piano is different, the keys feeling different in weight and velocity (the "action"). Muscle memory serves a tremendous purpose when playing on the instrument, however. 

I first experienced the power of muscle memory at the piano one day performing at a piano recital. I'd practiced extensively of course, and when adrenaline and a bit of stage fright kicked in, my mind kind of shut off in the middle of performing. What was fascinating was that I kept playing. I knew the music in and out and how I was going to interpret it and express it; I could literally play it in my sleep I assumed, because it was like watching someone else play it.

In the heat of the moment on stage, however, realizing my mind had wondered off mid-piece, I panicked thinking it was a terrible thing. It caused me to stop or stutter, when I could have simple kept going. Later at home, I learned to harness this and practiced letting my mind wonder while playing something I knew very well.

This worked like a meditation, and I've since read of artists entering this almost euphoric state while working and performing. You go on autopilot sometimes for an entire song or performance, and often don't remember playing it!

It took five years of extensive playing to first experience this, so don't expect to get there quickly if you're just starting to be a musician. But this story serves another purpose: like riding a scooter or a bike, the muscle memory that enables us to play without consciously controlling each finger and hand movement can be developed and utilized early on in music practice. You simply have to remind yourself that you're capable of it.

Start small, with a five-note or full eight-note scale and a single hand (your dominant). Play slowly at first, up and down, listening to the sound of your playing. Try closing your eyes to really hear each note, making sure each note is clear and confident. Then focus on the feel of each finger as it descends and ascends again. Is it comfortable? Are you using the right hand shape and finger placement, especially on any finger crossing? Do this enough and it becomes second nature, then you can begin applying these steps to practicing any music in time. Start small with just a melody in one hand then chords separately. I am happy to show you how this is done.

In a future post I'll share about another kind of meditation in music, which is mental practice. Stay tuned, and like Bobby Apperson Music Studio on Facebook to get the latest updates and articles like these in your feed. Happy playing!