Musicians' Health Collective

Musicians' Health Collective: Supporting the health of musicians (and normal people)

Filtering by Tag: brain

Looking At Effective Practice and Muscle Memory

In the last year, you may have seen a new Ted-ed video being shared about Effective Practice, written by Annie Bosler and Don Greene (of performance success/audition success).  It's a good video, especially for students who may not be recreationally reading books about myelin, practice habits, or things like the "Talent Code" or "Mindset."  


The video does a great job of addressing some major points about practice, but let's tackle a few things.  What is muscle memory?  It's not so much the actual muscles remembering the task, but the brain's memory of movement or actions.  We have mechanoreceptors (sense receptors) and proprioceptors (location receptors) in our muscles, fascia, tendons, and joints that are responding to movement input and body placement, and then sending information to the brain.  The Perkinje cells of the cerebellum encode information and data, while repetition allows the brain to store less task specific data over time, i.e., it becomes more masterful.  We can also, unfortunately, log inaccurate and wrong data about movement, as in if someone learns something incorrectly, it can be very difficult to unlearn it after practicing it. Frequent and quality repetition helps the brain put the movements to memory, allowing the movements to become procedural over time.  We've all seen this in a music context, especially with younger/beginning students who may repeat a mistake over and over again, and have difficulty unlearning it.

For example, I took beginning tap dance classes this spring, and I'm not particularly great.  My brain has to work really hard to coordinate the steps. Over time, things have gotten better, but it's still a fun challenge.  However, running, walking, and warmups on my instrument are very much intuitive acts in my procedural memory, and I'm not actively thinking and coordinating those actions much.

Image courtesy of  Neuroscience and Psi.

Image courtesy of Neuroscience and Psi.

Oh and what's the big deal about myelin? "Myelin is a fatty white substance that prevents energy loss from electrical signals traveling from the brain to the body." (via Ted-ED) There is little myelin around neurons at birth, but throughout childhood, myelination begins to occur. Myelinated neurons allow for faster electrical signals to travel between neurons via saltatory conduction (thanks, anatomy textbook).  But more importantly, the research that's been done so far, both on musicians, athletes, and other performers, is that increased practice yields increased myelin.  For more on that, read The Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle.

Side note, demyelination is the gradual loss of the myelin sheath surrounding the nerves, often correlated with multiple sclerosis,  Guillain–Barré syndrome, and Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease.  If myelin assists in neuron signal transport, then the subsequent loss of myelin can be catastrophic.

Great video though- definitely worth sharing and watching!

What's Muscle Memory?

Usually,  Family Circus  is one of my least favorite comics, but for today, I find it rather applicable. 

Usually, Family Circus is one of my least favorite comics, but for today, I find it rather applicable. 

As you can probably imagine, to become a musician, you develop very specific muscle memory, which in fact has very little to do with memory being stored within muscles themselves.  Instead, it's a feedback loop between the brain, the many neurons of the body (mechanoreceptors, proprioceptors, and more!), and muscles, in a class of memory called Procedural Memory (or motor learning).  P.M. is the sort of memory that allows us to perform actions without thinking about them consciously. 

ex.  You had to think a lot about tying your shoe twenty years ago, but you probably never think about it now.   You revamped your bow hold/setup/embouchure in college, and thought a lot about maintaining those changes as you play.  Now, it's second nature. 

To get to Procedural Memory, one works on Procedural learning, which is repeating an activity until the brain and body automatically creates the action.  Hopefully, this is what you do every day when you practice!  Ideally, we are isolating difficult actions and skills and training our body to make them second nature.  Think of how many string players practice the first page of Don Juan- the goal is to make execution automatic, often.  I think it was Malcolm Gladwell that came up with the idea that one has to log 10,000 hours to become an expert at something, although I imagine that number is dependent on quality over quantity.  It also explains why true beginners need lots of hours of repetition to master a basic task, like holding a violin bow, or understanding quarter note rhythmic durations.

Now whatever you repeat in your procedural learning becomes ingrained in your body, so if you choose to repeat poor habits, those will become second nature too.  You can see this with your students, who often speed through scales and technique, and don't realize that there is direct crossover with the rest of our repertoire and performance.  We want to integrate mindfulness with instrumental practice in order to reinforce good habits and awareness of what we're trying to learn and perfect.

ex. Many of us practiced scales and etudes in front of the TV when we were younger.  If you're an auditory learner, maybe the extra stimulus helped you focus, but for most of us, it was just an excuse to log practice time and let our body execute scales automatically, without us thinking about quality.

Lastly, this feedback loop between the Central Nervous System and muscle proprioceptors (which tell you where your body is in space) is what allows you to take time off from practicing, and then get back to it without starting at the very beginning of your learning. 

ex. You take two weeks off from practicing, and then when you return, it's challenging to start, but you get back in shape in about a week, instead of starting as an absolute beginner.

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

Part of this ties into the idea of the practice/mastery matrix, which has a few different variants.  One is this idea of moving from unconscious incompetence (I don't know what I don't know) to conscious incompetence (I know I don't know this) to various levels of conscious and unconscious competence.  With any piece of music, we are going through these levels, whether it's in a quick period of time of listening to a recording, understanding the challenges, and then targeting them, or whether part of a larger process.  

This brain image is sort of hilarious- performing an overhead press is not just a muscle building activity, but a building of neural pathways that connect brain to muscles and back.  Cool, huh?

This brain image is sort of hilarious- performing an overhead press is not just a muscle building activity, but a building of neural pathways that connect brain to muscles and back.  Cool, huh?

What I find especially neat as a musician is that multiple aspects of your brain are being engaged simultaneously- you know what something should sound like, what it feels like in your hands (or with your breathing or tonguing), you hear how it sounds and respond accordingly, and maybe you see yourself in the mirror and adjust accordingly.  There's so much going on to make music!  (More on this later-)

I've been thinking about all of this a lot lately, as a I embarked on a beginning Crossfit trial a while ago, which involved a lot of motions and actions which I'm not used to performing as a yoga teacher/musician.  Many of the actions are performed for time, which I could care less about.  I'm so much more interested in lifting a weight with good form then finishing a certain number of reps, because my body will remember my poor form in the future more than I realize. Conversely, I've been doing pilates teacher training in the last year and have focused most of my efforts on good quality movement and ingraining good habits.  The movement method isn't the problem-it's how you learn (I need to do things slowly and practice by myself!) and how to learn, coordinate, and ingrain things over time. In the end, all of our movements are not just training muscles to be stronger or weaker, but instead are training our brain, which is pretty amazing stuff.

*Thanks to Jonathan FitzGordon's initial blog post on muscle memory and being a beginner for inspiring this! 

Greet Life With Your Non-Dominant Hand!

This is really how my slight ambidexterity plays out.  I have the handwriting of a 9 year old with my right hand, for whatever reason.

This is really how my slight ambidexterity plays out.  I have the handwriting of a 9 year old with my right hand, for whatever reason.

Throughout our lives, we develop patterns of dominance, strength, weakness, tightness, etc.  We always eat with our right hands, or write, or cut, or whatever daily activities we engage in.  The result of this is one side that is not only more skilled and the other side is lacking those skills and messages from the brain.  In addition, most musicians' instruments put more strain on one side rather than the other, depending on the instrument and the setup, and constant use of the same side in dominance, music, writing, typing, texting, and mouse-use can be taxing on your soft tissues.  I have the good fortune of being left hand dominant and slightly ambidextrous-I don't always notice what side I'm doing something on until someone points it out to me ("You eat with your right?" "You kick with your right?"  "You put mascara on with both hands depending on the eye?").  In addition, most of the world caters to the right-handed folks, so I've learned to do everything with my right side, except write quickly and neatly. 

-There has been some research that musicians who use both hands for their instrument have more connection between the right and left hemispheres of the brain than "normal" people (whoever those folks are).

- Every time you do a new movement pattern, whether in music, exercise, life, etc., you have the opportunity to create a new neural pathway.  (Read about neural pathways!)

-Neuroplasticity refers to the idea that the brain changes itself, whether from trauma or training, and creates new neural pathways throughout life, but also loses certain pathways.

And here's an interesting passage from Dr. Gene Van Tassel:

"Neurons which are not stimulated in these pathways tend to wither away and become unusable. These neuron cells either die or change in ways which render them ineffective. If pathways are never developed, they never become usable in the sense that they can handle significant traffic in terms of electrochemical communication within the brain. If neuron cells are not used, they can be lost. "

I am by no means a brain whisperer, but I do love a good movement challenge, especially if it challenges the fine motor skills.  So here's your activity challenge: Use your non-dominant side for daily activities!

Sleep on your opposite side (if you're a side sleeper)

Brush teeth with other hand

Eat with other hand (and open fridge with other hand)

Hold cup with less used hand

Use doorknobs with less used hand

I've been trying the left handed mouse for my writing lately, and it's fun and slightly discomfiting.

I've been trying the left handed mouse for my writing lately, and it's fun and slightly discomfiting.

Put your mouse on the other side of your computer and use your left hand (tough but worth it!)  Or use your left hand for track pad usage on a laptop.

If you play a string instrument, try playing your instrument on the opposite side.  Yes, this is crazy and will sound dubious, but try it and see!  The same could be true for many other instruments as well (sorry piano and voice).

If you're a wearer of makeup (male or female, no questions asked), try applying makeup with the opposite hand, provided you have time to remove it.  This is often very curious.

Gaining a new awareness of your habits and proclivities will not only give you the opportunity to strengthen new parts of the body, but also to change your motor skills and brain, which is always a good thing, and is something often needed when injury strikes.  In addition, challenging your fine motor skills in such a detailed way can expand your proprioception and awareness of your body, which is always helpful.  Try these things for fun and notice your experience!

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