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How Violinists Replace Bad Muscle Memory with Good

December 12, 2021, 2:32 PM · Your practice room is like a science lab, only filled with music. It should have good lighting and a good, solid stand. Its importance cannot be exaggerated - it’s the place where discoveries are made and music builds bit by bit. Whether it’s about changing a very small detail or the birth of a sudden self-discovery, moments of clarity never come without some kind of experimentation. Something as simple as picking out a wrong note may not be simple at all. Your playing is the sum of its parts, and upsetting the apple cart will make the parts slightly shaky. How do you manage the balancing act of keeping your overall playing intact while taking apart one thing at a time?

If you work productively, little details get solved one at a time and you gently work them into the big picture. A good place to start is using your ear to tell you what to work on. As we listen we pick up a note that’s out of tune or rhythms that aren’t evenly spaced. The ear learns to not only notice small imperfections that can be corrected, but also accept and appreciate the passages that are going well.

Mistakes have a way of avoiding correction. If you prepare yourself for it, however, you can avoid the chaos of repeating and compounding the problem. It’s not so easy to fix old habits because they’re encased in muscle memory. In a split-second an old habit will come rushing back. The will power you summon up to isolate imperfections is an integral part of the practice mindset.

The simplicity of the process is in direct contradiction to the tendency to stop listening and keep barreling ahead. The antidote to that is thinking and hearing before the bow touches the string.

Thoughtful Preparation

When several wrong notes pop up in one measure, playing smaller sections and thinking of every note would correct the problem in a relatively short period. Unfortunately, nothing moves faster than a finger with no thought behind it. Lacking a plan, it comes up with one of its own. Let’s say you’re playing a fast run and you incorrectly land on third finger instead of open string. Whatever the reason you landed on the third finger, it repeats itself over and over because of the miracle of muscle memory, which remembers everything, both the good and the bad. So, you have to dig yourself out of it.

Music and Science – The Art of Observing Change

When you’re getting ready to rid yourself of a wrong note or dynamic that you’ve repeated many times, you have to prepare for it just as you would for a science experiment. That is, keep everything the same but change one variable. Remind yourself to be patient, be ready for a slower pace of thinking, and follow these steps:

1. Narrow your focus on the mistake only. As you repeat the passage, remind yourself about the mistake over and over in order to keep the thought from drifting. The mind is so active with conscious and unconscious thoughts that it resists a change in its routine.

2. The skill of preparing yourself to make a change in your performance needs a slower, more methodical state of mind. Managing how you think and change focus helps you switch back and forth between technical and musical details. There are three different speeds that co-exist: the left hand, the bow arm, and the actual speed of the piece. Even the skill of anticipating what’s coming up brings in an additional tempo. To quiet the mind, observe and appreciate how all these speeds interact. This puts your playing on more solid ground, so when a change is introduced, it’s a smoother transition.

Practicing with Change in Mind

I can’t think of a musical adage that describes the importance of thinking before playing. Or one for realizing that nothing is set in stone; a phrase will unfold in its own way and you need to have a good radar system in your mind to predict which directions the phrase is taking. There may not be a saying to describe these concepts, but you’ll probably miss something important if you lose your concentration even for a moment. In fact, a good rule to live by is to never look at one measure the same way twice.

Your practice session should never be dull, but should resemble a three-ring circus. Juggling two or three things at a time will keep you from being bored, as long as you find closure with each of the details. Even something as robotic as repeating a measure several times with the right rhythm and dynamics will strengthen the muscle memory.

Don’t worry if, after working on a small detail, you forget it when playing through the piece. The fact that you worked on it and polished it means that its only waiting for you to remind yourself to play it correctly again. The moment you polish the detail in the practice room is one of the most rewarding experiences you can have. It may not be anything earth shattering, but a personal discovery shows that you are deeply aware of a piece of the musical puzzle. In a world in which the musical plan is decided by the conductor or a teacher, there’s still room for what you can do on your own.

Sometimes a song can be just the thing to motivate you. If you’re a fan of Stephen Sondheim and Barbra Streisand, here’s a little something from Sunday In the Park with George to remind you that Putting It Together brings boundless joy.

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