Musicians' Health Collective

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

Filtering by Tag: practice

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! 

A Bit on the Science of Mindfulness

Love these images from, showing the difference between meditators and non-meditators.

Love these images from, showing the difference between meditators and non-meditators.

In my last two posts, I've talked a little about what mindfulness is, and how it affects our daily life, from practicing, to stress, to focus, and creativity.  Now, let's take a look at the science of mindfulness and meditation and its benefits for the brain.  First of all, for research purposes, scientists are often comparing the brains of people who practice mindfulness meditation practices regularly vs. people who don't.  Meditation doesn't have to be Buddhist, involve sitting on the floor, or incense.  Teachers like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Sharon Salzberg, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Jack Kornfield have taken the benefits of Buddhist meditation to people of all faiths, occupations, and "ability" levels (i.e., never meditated before).  There are other mindfulness practices that don't include meditation, including yoga, martial arts, chi gong, etc.   Here are some of the major benefits to integrating mindfulness practices into your life:

Think of mindfulness practices as training your brain to be more versatile!  

Think of mindfulness practices as training your brain to be more versatile!  

1.Your Brain Changes: Your brain actually can change the way it works thanks to a process known as neuroplasticity, which means that the way you regulate emotions, thoughts, reactions, etc., is changeable ( lots of other brain things like motor control and movement are changeable too).  Scientists have found that meditation changes cortical thickness (i.e., the size of your cortex), "particularly true for brain areas associated with attention, interoception and sensory processing."  Amazing!  There has also been noticed changes in the size of the brain stem, grey matter density, and white matter density.  

2.  STRESS: Mindfulness practices can transform chronic stress (sympathetic part of the autonomic nervous system) to the rest and digest (parasympathetic nervous system).  When you stay in a constant place of stress (fight or flight), your body's fundamental functions of sleep, digestion, and libido.  I've found mindfulness practices to be extremely helpful in preparing for auditions, concerts, recitals, and dealing with stressful colleagues.  Study here!

3.  ANXIETY:  Similar to the above changes with stress, your relation with anxiety can change by implementing mindfulness practices into your life.  (This could be in conjunction with other therapies or treatments).   Chronic anxiety and depression can be positively affected by contemplative practices (including meditation, mindful movement, yoga, etc.).  See the study here!

4. FOCUS: We all know that focus and attention is hard to come by these days, between phones, TV, computers, and all manner of digital media.  Mindfulness practices can help to hone our ability to focus on tasks, resist distraction, control impulses, and sustain attention.  I've seen this first hand in my own life and practices, unquestionably!  Think about practicing with keen attention to focus and detail, even for short periods of time.  See the study here!

Image from, but I love this idea of constantly being overloading with information and not being able to turn OFF.

Image from, but I love this idea of constantly being overloading with information and not being able to turn OFF.

5. CREATIVITY: We know there is a focus between attention, problem solving, and creative inspiration, but a 2012 study concluded that mindfulness and creative problem solving go hand in hand.  One of the things this and other studies looked at was "cognitive rigidity," as opposed to a freer approach to solving problems, creative endeavors, and thinking outside of the box.  One of the conclusions was, “that mindfulness meditation reduces cognitive rigidity via the tendency to be ‘blinded’ by experience”. You know this in your own practice and performance life- there will be times when you are calm, focused, and profoundly inspired to practice, write, teach, or perform, and when you have creative musical ideas, new ways of teaching, or new solutions.    See the study here!

So do you believe me now?  Meditation practices can profoundly affect all people, but I think they are particularly relevant to the physical and emotional stresses of musicians, administrators, and music educators.  Two great places to start are Headspace, which is an online secular guided meditation program that can be downloaded to an iphone, ipad, computer,etc, or the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, which is a meditation practice implemented in medical communities, clinics, and private practices throughout the world.  

Mindfulness and Music: On Practicing

Last week, I talked a little bit about the general principles behind mindfulness, which Thich Nhat Hanh defines as "keeping one's consciousness alive to the present reality." Let's apply those general ideas more specifically towards practicing music.  If you've taught children, you know that practicing can be really tough for them.  They are spending time alone, specifically practicing towards an abstract goal, and often would rather do anything else.  Most teachers just wish their students practiced at all, because they are able to acquire skills in a lesson but not reiterate them throughout the week.  This happens for adults and young adults too, who are unable to focus on the specific task of practicing without distraction. 

Start by thinking of places where you practice efficiently-often in retreat settings, places other than your home, school practice rooms, etc.  When you choose a place away from your home to practice, you can often reduce your distractions and tell your brain that it's time to do work.  This is no different than a meditator or yoga student who finds that going elsewhere and being part of a community is more valuable than going it alone.  A community of people with a similar goal can help you stay on task.  You can also do the same thing in your home or apartment by creating a practice space or nook, even if it's a corner of your bedroom specifically for practicing.  This can tell your brain- this is the space for this task, let's do this!

Why am I practicing and what do I hope to accomplish today, right now, or in the next 20-30 minutes?

Why am I practicing and what do I hope to accomplish today, right now, or in the next 20-30 minutes?

Let's go back to the act of practicing, though.  When you were younger, you probably remember that no one taught you how to practice, and you ended up repeating things over and over, or running through the piece multiple times, or practicing while reading or watching TV.  Most teachers don't teach students how to practice, and how to look at an issue (technical, intonation, bow, breathing), diagnose it, and address it, because it's a difficult thing.  When you teach people to practice their instrument, you're essentially showing them how to teach themselves, and how to learn, which is a large undertaking.  We all know people who just mindlessly repeat things over and over to memorize and perfect pieces, and we also know people who practice minimally, but accomplish great things because of their attention, focus, and specificity.   

How does one bow hold LOOK different than the other?  How does it FEEL different, and how does it SOUND different?

How does one bow hold LOOK different than the other?  How does it FEEL different, and how does it SOUND different?

Here are some things to ask yourself in the practice process: Why am I doing this- what is my desired goal in practicing this?  Is what I'm doing right now bringing me closer to my desired technical/musical/physical goal?  What are 3 issues that I need to address in this piece/excerpt?  And when you're practicing, also ask the questions: how does it sound, how does it look (i.e. if I look in a mirror, is my bow straight, am I moving oddly, lifting shoulders up.,etc) , and how does it feel?  Most of us focus exclusively on how it sounds, which is obviously a necessity, but addressing the feeling in your physical body is essential, especially for injury prevention, performance anxiety management, changing technical habits, and building a stronger understanding of musicianship.   These are all excellent questions to ask students, especially if they are apathetic or slow to change ingrained habits.  If you make a technical adjustment to a student's setup, asking them how it feels can be profoundly helpful, especially if they are not the most embodied of people.  Also asking them to describe the new sensations can also be extremely helpful.  Recording video or audio of yourself can also be a great way to ask those questions after the fact, after a run through of a piece or passage of music.  You can then ask how it sounded in relation to how it felt or how it looks on video.

If I find yourself distracted by my to-do list, emails, cleaning, homework, errands, etc., I find it helpful to write down all of those things before I practice, and then trust that I will deal with those things later.  Rather than worrying about what future you needs to do, focus on what needs to be done now, like warming up, practicing orchestra music, etc.  Lastly, I always recommend using a timer to stay on task, especially if you're easily distracted (like I've been lately).  It might also be useful to turn your phone onto airplane mode!  Timers can be an excellent way to focus wholeheartedly on the task in front of you, and practice mindful attention with your instrument. 

Give Up Your All or Nothing Attitude!

Our modern society praises quantity over quality, most of the time.  Don't believe me?  Extreme fitness is actually a trend- pushing the body to get through a series of reps (no matter what), to run a certain distance, to get through a bikini boot camp, achieve a certain yoga pose, or eliminate large groups of food to lose weight, cleanse, etc.   (Multiple week Juice Fast, I'm looking at you!)  There's a sense that if we want to accomplish something in fitness-land, it has to be extreme, hard, or we shouldn't bother at all.  This does transfer into music, believe it or not. 

Some people have an all or nothing attitude in music- I have to accomplish tasks x,y, and z, and practice for K hours, no matter what, or I won't bother practicing at all.  (In yoga and fitness, that logic might be, "I need to do a full practice/workout, or I shouldn't do anything at all.")  Or something along the lines of, if I don't get through a whole list of excerpts, or whole piece, then I haven't accomplished anything at all.  Or if I don't win an audition/competition, then I failed.  We have this attitude that there is failure and perfection, and no in between space, both in the practice room, the gym, and the competitive circuit.

The truth is that small actions, small steps, or small amounts of practicing do add up, even if it doesn't look like a 1.5 hour full body workout, or long practice session.  Walking a few miles a day might not appear to be a workout to some, but it is an essential whole body movement which can yield great payoff.  Practicing in small increments when you're really focused and aware can have the same reward.  Taking auditions and competitions can be beneficial even if you don't win.*

In a masterclass a few years ago, violist Roberto Diaz said that he never practiced for large amounts of time anymore.  This wasn't because he didn't want to, but because his schedule was too busy and he had a young child, who demanded his constant attention.  He instead set a timer for 10-15 minutes when he had time, set a goal, and did his best to accomplish that task.  While you may not be strapped for time in the same way, how can you get quality movement and quality practice in your day?  How can you have a more forgiving approach towards your work, music-making, and exercise?  Maybe it means getting off the subway one stop earlier and walking for 10 minutes, or practicing technique for 10 minutes before a rehearsal.  Maybe it means taking an audition that has terrible odds, but is your dream job.  Maybe it's doing 10 minutes of yoga or meditation or lunges or squats (or whatever your thing is!) when you can.  Where is this all or nothing attitude permeating your music-making and your approach to practice and success?

Success doesn't have to be running a marathon or winning a big audition* and changes don't have to be extreme to have huge benefits in your life.

*And if you want more on this idea of redefining success, I highly recommend Carol Dweck's book, Mindset. It definitely gives a larger context to auditions, competition, and perceived failure.

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