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#2039489 - 02/26/13 09:11 AM Failing muscle memory
StefaanBelgium Offline
Full Member

Registered: 10/14/12
Posts: 53
Loc: Belgium
Lately I sometimes encounter 'black outs' when I play certain pieces I have been playing since a couple of months.
I'm a bad sight reader, but memorize quite fast. So after a while I can play the pieces by memory. After some more time, I don't need to think about it anymore, it's in my muscle memory.But then I seem to run into these black-outs.
Any suggestions or similar experiences ?
It's depressing that pieces that I could play almost without errors suddenly disintegrate! cry
( to get an idea of my beginner-status: I started 5 months ago and can play Bach menuetts 114-115, Musette, Burgmullers Arabesque and Tarantelle, Scarlatti K32 L423 and working on Moonlight sonata and Marche funèbre )
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#2039508 - 02/26/13 09:52 AM Re: Failing muscle memory [Re: StefaanBelgium]
Andy Platt Offline
2000 Post Club Member

Registered: 04/28/10
Posts: 2375
Loc: Virginia, USA
Quite simple: You cannot rely on so-called muscle memory. You have to put the hard work in to understand, analyze and deeply memorize the piece. For instance, you should be able to play each hand separately. You should be able to start / stop from multiple points during the piece (ideally anywhere.)

Much easier said than done. I don't believe I've fully memorized a piece I've learnt yet, but I have got further than just muscle memory.
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#2039534 - 02/26/13 10:28 AM Re: Failing muscle memory [Re: StefaanBelgium]
zrtf90 Offline
2000 Post Club Member

Registered: 02/29/12
Posts: 2309
Loc: Ireland (ex England)
Finger or procedural memory is cue based and a reflexive action like riding a bike. You don't control the recall. Cognitive memory is knowledge based and recall is deliberate, like knowing your name.

When you get a blank your cue has changed; you looked out the window instead of at the keyboard or heard a strange noise perhaps. Don't revert to the score immediately but try to recover by recalling the notes deliberately. Practising deliberate recall moves it from procedural memory to cognitive memory. Cognitive memory is fairly bullet-proof except under severe stress.

If you haven't played the piece in a while just play what you can a couple of times and try again tomorrow. If you played it from memory before then you still have it in memory. You have to relearn the cues, rather than the notes, and then move it into cognitive memory.

Once it's deep in cognitive memory you don't need to practise it more than two or three times a year to keep it there for life. I restored over sixty pieces after a fifteen year hiatus without reverting to the scores. Most pieces were playable in a few weeks others took over six months but they were all there.
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#2039605 - 02/26/13 12:37 PM Re: Failing muscle memory [Re: zrtf90]
outo Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 08/02/12
Posts: 528
Loc: Finland
This has always been my problem as well, it starts when the piece is "kind of" learned. I was certain I could never actually learn to play a piece properly. Still not sure, but I now feel it might be possible grin

I read some stuff on neuroscience lately and what I learned was that "muscle memory" which of course is procedural memory in the brain is probably the only way to really manage complex tasks like piano playing. At least for an average person with an average size working memory. While playing one needs to include dynamics, voicing and other stuff while reproducing the notes. There's simply not time to consciously recall things.

Before I have tried several ways to consciously memorize better while learning the piece, but it didn't help at all with the blackouts. I have lately noticed that simply practicing the pieces in small chunks more even after I already feel I know them and so getting the "muscle memory" more secure and starting on as many different places as possible to get more "cues" to the piece is the only way to go for me. But it takes a long time and long practice sessions do not help, I need to do it often, but only in small doses so that I can keep my concentration up. The pieces also get more secure every time I "relearn" them after taking a small break.

The blackouts happen usually either when concentration fails as zrtf90 explained above or when one suddenly questions the procedural memory and gets "over conscious". It's partly psychological and now I am trying to learn not to stress about the blackouts, because I was getting so worried about getting the blackouts that it caused me to completely focus on the wrong thing (worrying about forgetting). So now I just try to pick up where I can and not think back on what happened (which is really hard).

Some people seem to suffer from these a lot probably due to worse concentration skills and the tendency to worry about mistakes.

So my advice in a nutshell is to not think so much and play more smile

BUT of course nothing is black and white...when playing long demanding works on high level I have no doubt that one needs to analyze them more to even be able to handle the structure...but this is something that comes much laater than learning basic playing skills. When the basic skills are secure after years of playing one can free up the resources in a completely different way.


Edited by outo (02/26/13 12:45 PM)

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#2039617 - 02/26/13 01:05 PM Re: Failing muscle memory [Re: StefaanBelgium]
4evrBeginR Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 06/27/09
Posts: 1607
Loc: California
Yes, muscle memory is very unreliable. These are the things that help me:

Playing the same piece at various tempos
Playing very slowly
Randomly start from different spots
Going backwards (measures 20-24, 19-24, 18-24, 17-24, 16-24, etc.)
Playing hands separately (if you have passages you cannot play hands separately it is clear sign of muscle memory.)
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#2039620 - 02/26/13 01:07 PM Re: Failing muscle memory [Re: StefaanBelgium]
StefaanBelgium Offline
Full Member

Registered: 10/14/12
Posts: 53
Loc: Belgium
Thanks for the info so far!
How do you proceed to get a piece in the 'cognitive memory' ? Any suggestions ? Apparently that doesn't work for everyone either if I go by the experience of Outo...
I have quickly read half of 'Fundamentals of Piano Practice' by Chang and he also says that muscle memory can't be trusted enough, especially under stress. He doesn't elaborate however how to get the piece in the cognitive memory.
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#2039630 - 02/26/13 01:22 PM Re: Failing muscle memory [Re: StefaanBelgium]
SwissMS Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 01/09/11
Posts: 694
Loc: Switzerland
One of the things that has helped me memorize well, is "mental practice". I play the piece in my mind away from the piano. If there are grey areas, then I know that is is not truly ingrained. Doing this lets me know where I need to focus more time. I also continue to play hands separately long after I put a piece together. If I cannot play one hand without the other, I know that I am relying too much on muscle memory. This process goes on long after a piece is learned and performance ready. Otherwise it slips away.
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#2039634 - 02/26/13 01:23 PM Re: Failing muscle memory [Re: StefaanBelgium]
UK Paul UK Offline
Full Member

Registered: 09/22/11
Posts: 396
Loc: Berkshire, England
Just my opinion of course.... however.. how well do you know your pieces? After five months you have a larger selection on known pieces than me.... however i suspect you could revisit each one of these pieces and explore much more.... for instance.... brgmullers arabesce.... itsa difficult piece that needs much attention on the steccato note at the end of each group..... i have learnt much about relaxation and paying attention to the dynamics and working on the piece i now am pretty good upto 130bpm.... i can play from memory, or with score can start from any measure... i still have more to get out of the piece and love it more and more..... these days i spend twice as long on half as many pieces, and learn twice as much.... better to learn a couple of pieces very thoroughly, than learn 5 pieces till it sounds similar and constantly move on.... your memory will just work better because you will have mental ques as you play.... dynamic hints, measures you find tricky then master..... breaking it all down helps so much!

Hope that sounds helpful, as intended!
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#2039637 - 02/26/13 01:26 PM Re: Failing muscle memory [Re: StefaanBelgium]
UK Paul UK Offline
Full Member

Registered: 09/22/11
Posts: 396
Loc: Berkshire, England
Ps when playing pieces from memory, lazyness breeds mistakes... focus on everything, every time or i have found mstakes creep in....
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#2039643 - 02/26/13 01:29 PM Re: Failing muscle memory [Re: SwissMS]
StefaanBelgium Offline
Full Member

Registered: 10/14/12
Posts: 53
Loc: Belgium
Originally Posted By: SwissMS
One of the things that has helped me memorize well, is "mental practice". I play the piece in my mind away from the piano. If there are grey areas, then I know that is is not truly ingrained. Doing this lets me know where I need to focus more time. I also continue to play hands separately long after I put a piece together. If I cannot play one hand without the other, I know that I am relying too much on muscle memory. This process goes on long after a piece is learned and performance ready. Otherwise it slips away.


That's something Chang mentions all the time as well, but what does it really mean ? Do you visualize in your mind the sequence of keys, do you visualize the sheetmusic or something else ?
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#2039655 - 02/26/13 02:03 PM Re: Failing muscle memory [Re: StefaanBelgium]
outo Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 08/02/12
Posts: 528
Loc: Finland
Originally Posted By: StefaanBelgium
Thanks for the info so far!
How do you proceed to get a piece in the 'cognitive memory' ? Any suggestions ? Apparently that doesn't work for everyone either if I go by the experience of Outo...
I have quickly read half of 'Fundamentals of Piano Practice' by Chang and he also says that muscle memory can't be trusted enough, especially under stress. He doesn't elaborate however how to get the piece in the cognitive memory.


I don't think we can even separate the procedural memory and the cognitive memory when we learn to play. I think that the many suggestions work because they make the automation more solid while letting the mind focus more on the piece in a way that makes the memorizing and recalling process more "conscious". I am not sure I can really explain it...

As an example I was just recently able to finally get a few simple measures that were giving me a really hard time to play without mistakes (I have been playing the piece for months already) solid by regrouping the notes and then playing the groups many times, also backwards. So all these things people suggest do work. BUT again, if you would do that with every part of every piece it would take ages and you would not advance much. So I would first simply play the piece alternating between HT and HS, repeating in phrases or smaller chunks and then if after some time doing this regularly still get blackouts/make mistakes in the same spots I would take it into more extreme manners as the one above.

Also...if the blackouts happen in different random spots and not all the time but on certain days I would look into the concentration and psychological part more. I have a few pieces that I really do have thoroughly memorized and could play in my sleep but I still get blackouts when I have a bad day or I am stressed about playing...

As for visualizing (either the notes on paper or the act of playing the keys), not everyone is really able to do it...if you cannot, don't stress about it. Some people will tell you to just practice until you can, but those who find it easy just don't know how it is when you cannot...there are genetic differences on how our brain works and I would rather use my strengths than use enourmous amount of time to try to work with something I am really bad at. Because it is possible to learn to play with different methods and no method works for every individual. One just needs to find one's own way...


Edited by outo (02/26/13 02:09 PM)

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#2039658 - 02/26/13 02:11 PM Re: Failing muscle memory [Re: StefaanBelgium]
Sand Tiger Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 03/25/12
Posts: 990
Loc: Southern California
I prefer to have performance pieces memorized three additional ways:
1) eyes closed. I might peek for big jumps, but mostly eyes closed.
2) sound off on the digital, so no auditory feedback
3) away from the piano, using the piece as an earworm

If I have a piece memorized without seeing, without hearing, without touching, it is deep into memory.

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#2039671 - 02/26/13 02:34 PM Re: Failing muscle memory [Re: StefaanBelgium]
SwissMS Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 01/09/11
Posts: 694
Loc: Switzerland
Originally Posted By: StefaanBelgium
Originally Posted By: SwissMS
One of the things that has helped me memorize well, is "mental practice". I play the piece in my mind away from the piano. If there are grey areas, then I know that is is not truly ingrained. Doing this lets me know where I need to focus more time. I also continue to play hands separately long after I put a piece together. If I cannot play one hand without the other, I know that I am relying too much on muscle memory. This process goes on long after a piece is learned and performance ready. Otherwise it slips away.


That's something Chang mentions all the time as well, but what does it really mean ? Do you visualize in your mind the sequence of keys, do you visualize the sheetmusic or something else ?


I literally visualize where my fingers are going. I play it in my mind. I usually do this before I go to bed at night. I see and feel my hands playing. If something isn't clear, I know I need to work on that the next day. Pieces that I ingrain this way week to stay with me much better, and I do not have mental black out playing very often anymore.
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#2039681 - 02/26/13 02:59 PM Re: Failing muscle memory [Re: StefaanBelgium]
Bobpickle Offline

Gold Supporter until July 10  2014


Registered: 05/24/12
Posts: 1383
Loc: Cameron Park, California
Those over on the Pianist Corner have often said that the music isn't truly memorized proper until you could literally take blank staff paper and write the piece out from memory. Those that have done so all say this also really helps to further cement things into memory. Then, you'll just need to take a day out every week or two and review old repertoire (with the music there as needed for reference) to keep it memorized.

The first article listed here is great: http://grahamfitch.com/articles.htm

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#2039906 - 02/26/13 10:50 PM Re: Failing muscle memory [Re: Bobpickle]
outo Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 08/02/12
Posts: 528
Loc: Finland
Originally Posted By: Bobpickle
Those over on the Pianist Corner have often said that the music isn't truly memorized proper until you could literally take blank staff paper and write the piece out from memory. Those that have done so all say this also really helps to further cement things into memory.


I cannot argue with the above and I have done that too when really desperate on a piece, but memorizing and recalling from memory are also two different things and blackouts may as well be caused by a problem in the latter process.

My blackouts seldom come from not remembering the notes, but not remembering which finger to use or getting confused because of using the wrong finger. The notes are much easier to memorize. So for me it's probably about not having secure enough "muscle memory" rather than relying too much on it. OP has played such a short time that I would say he needs more experience and practice in general to even analyze what is the issue (if there really is one apart from being inexperienced).

EDIT:
I think a lot of us adult beginners are plagued with the need to learn really fast, play demanding repertoire after just a year or two. And technically we can learn it, but unlike the young ones, who normally use years just to get secure with the basics we move really fast. So what we may not acquire is confidence in our playing which is often resulting in mental issues and stress about playing. Playing a bit over your level makes learning faster, but sometimes when you go to much easier pieces you feel a different kind of easyness and confidence. Even the "easy" AMB menuets are not something that kids usually learn in their first year or two, they are harder than they seem.


Edited by outo (02/27/13 12:43 AM)

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#2039957 - 02/27/13 02:34 AM Re: Failing muscle memory [Re: outo]
casinitaly Offline


Gold Supporter until March 1 2014


Registered: 03/01/10
Posts: 4869
Loc: Italy
Originally Posted By: outo


I think a lot of us adult beginners are plagued with the need to learn really fast, play demanding repertoire after just a year or two. And technically we can learn it, but unlike the young ones, who normally use years just to get secure with the basics we move really fast. So what we may not acquire is confidence in our playing which is often resulting in mental issues and stress about playing. Playing a bit over your level makes learning faster, but sometimes when you go to much easier pieces you feel a different kind of easyness and confidence. Even the "easy" AMB menuets are not something that kids usually learn in their first year or two, they are harder than they seem.


The boldface is mine.

I think that is a really interesting comment and one that most of us never think of.

We generally and genuinely have a tendency to bemoan our lack of progress and how long everything takes.

It has been interesting for me to see the very young (6yr old) students who have their lessons before me, and see how long things take. Many of them are just starting to read words - and they're learning to read music too, the wheels move slowly. It takes them a long time to move out of a five finger c-g pattern.
(I'm talking about the average kid who signs on for lessons at 45 minutes a week and practices maybe 15-20 minutes a day).

As adults we tend to think that because we can manage so many different things, and because we have experience in many fields, we should be able to learn piano quickly- Yet we never really do realize that in many ways we truly DO learn quickly!

Food for thought.
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Everything's too hard until you make it easy. Follow your teacher's instructions and practice wisely/much, and you'll soon wonder how you ever found it hard ;)-BobPickle
Performance anxiety: make it part of your daily routine and deal with it...Cope! zrtf90

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#2040100 - 02/27/13 11:38 AM Re: Failing muscle memory [Re: StefaanBelgium]
krzyzowski Offline
Full Member

Registered: 11/01/10
Posts: 108
Instead of viewing it as a blackout, just look at it as it is-a poorly learned piece. Some complex music can have 10,000 notes. How are you going to remember all of that. Performers have a repertoire of a limited number of pieces that must be practiced daily-they must become one with the player.
"If I didn't practice today, I know it".
"If I don't practice tomorrow, the audience will know it".
"If I don't practice the next day, "Bob" will be taking my place"..

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#2040206 - 02/27/13 02:34 PM Re: Failing muscle memory [Re: Bobpickle]
zrtf90 Offline
2000 Post Club Member

Registered: 02/29/12
Posts: 2309
Loc: Ireland (ex England)
Being able to write out the score isn't necessarily important and isn't the point. Could someone who plays by ear write out a score? Those who play by ear usually remember the material exceptionally well. The point is knowing what note to hit with what finger and when and how hard etc.

The point is knowing. Mental practise demands knowing. We know from sports training that visualising a perfect performance, even in slow motion, grows the pathways in the brain just as surely as if you actually did it. And in visualising you avoid mistakes. Mental practise leads to less errors and less forgetting.

When you learn to ride a bike you learn to respond more finely to the reactions in the ear canals that affect balance. Once you learn this you don't have to practise riding faster, you just do.

When you learn to sing you have to learn how to respond more finely to the auditory signals that tell you whether a note is in tune. Once you can hear these things you can sing in pitch. You don't have to practise singing faster you just do.

When you learn to play the piano you need to respond more finely to auditory signals with precise use of your hands and fingers. If you're playing from sheet music you have the added problem of responding instantaneously and semi-consciously to a learned notation system. Anyone who has memorised a piano piece over a long period will testify that playing such a piece is a walk in the park once it is learnt unless it needs wide stretches, rapid movement or weak fingers, asymmetric hand motion (position changes) or prolonged velocity.

If you learn the correct muscle movements, at whatever speed, then they can be effected repeatedly. You don't have to practise playing faster, you just do.

The problem with piano playing is the precision required of the fingers and drilling required to be able to respond semi- or sub-consciously to the score.

They are two distinct systems; one of complex input and one of complex output. It is a slow and demanding process with or without 'natural ability'. The way to progress is the same as with any other similar activity. When you learn to read text aloud you don't speak at conversation speed and go back over errors, you start slow enough to avoid errors.

When you learn to drive you don't hurtle down the motorway at the legal limit and make corrections later (at least not until you've passed your test). You learn to drive slowly and once you can co-ordinate the controls speed comes automatically. And when you learn other precision skills you go slow enough to get them right and once learned speed comes naturally.

If you get it right first, no matter how slowly you have to go, you'll be able to do it at speed without having to practise that speed. You just do it.

And if you spend enough time on it that you get it right, you probably won't have a problem remembering it. You don't have a difficulty with family phone numbers, or the prices of goods in the supermarkets, do you?

The typical beginning pianist expects to get quickly to recital speed, or even just a reasonable speed, without passing the 'get it right' test first. This slows down progress because so much of our practise must be devoted to corrections. We know from the psychologists that this slows us down by a factor of 5 to 7.

Those who start out with the best teachers and make careers playing classical piano take around ten years to achieve "critical mass" in their technique. With poor practise methods it is reasonable to expect it to take fifty to seventy years.
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