Robert Estrin - piano expert

Is there Muscle Memory in Piano?

How does memory work when playing the piano?

In this video, Robert talks about using memory while playing the piano. Can that be considered real "muscle memory?"

Released on October 9, 2019

    
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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hi, this is Robert Estrin at LivingPianos.com. The question today is, is there muscle memory when playing the piano? This is a great question, and I am going to ask a question of all of you right now and tell me if this rings true. Have you ever had a piece you've played a million times and you find yourself playing the piece, and instead of spacing out you find yourself spacing in and you realize that you weren't thinking about what you were playing at all. Maybe you were thinking about what you were going to do later, yet your fingers kept going. You wonder, "How the heck can that happen?"

Well, indeed, there is a tactile memory, a muscle memory, on the piano. And to understand what this is about, if you've ever watched a toddler getting up for the first time and trying to walk and they're discovering the whole process, and they're concentrating and you see it on their faces, and they're concentrating on being able to stand and one foot in front of the other, and they're figuring it out and for the next few weeks and months you see how they get more and more comfortable and acclimated. Now, you and I, we go out, we walk, you can be thinking about anything while you're walking, you don't have to think about it at all. Indeed, there is muscle memory.

Well, obviously, playing the piano is much more complex than walking. Well, depending upon what music you're playing. Yet, if you've played a number of times, your fingers will keep on going all by themselves without even thinking about it. Now, is this a good thing? Well, yes and no. While on one hand it is not something you want to rely upon too heavily, without a degree of muscle memory I would say it would be virtually impossible for a pianist to get through an hour and a half recital playing on a high level if they couldn't freewheel some of it, being able to let things happen as they do when they become distracted as a performer, with noises, with something in the piano, thinking about something else just for a moment. If your fingers wouldn't keep going it would be a disaster, wouldn't it? So, indeed, it's good to have that.

However, you can't depend upon muscle memory by itself. Think about this, most music you play goes from section to section with repeats of different sections, and you better darn well know where you are in the form, so you almost have to have that part of your brain looking down on the rest of you lovingly making sure you don't take a wrong turn. One of the best ways that you can accomplish this is by practicing away from the piano where you don't have the benefit of the muscle memory. If you can play your music through just thinking it through in your head, boy, you really know the score well, and then your muscle memory in conjunction with your cognition of the score in depth is invaluable for securing your performance.

So, yes, there is muscle memory, tactile memory, and thank goodness there is, but remember you can't depend upon it all the time, so practice away from the piano. You can practice with your score, go as far as you can, and then when you have a hazy part, refer to the score. You might have to move your fingers even away from the keyboard just to be able to do this at first, but it is extremely valuable skill so that you don't fall into the trap of taking a wrong turn in a Sonata and finding yourself either leaving out two-thirds of the work or maybe making it, going all the way back to the beginning and realize, "Now what am I going to do?"

This is where muscle memory can play tricks on you, so you can depend upon it to a certain extent and reinforce with that intelligence in your learning of music. Thanks for the great questions. Again, I'm Robert Estrin here at LivingPianos.com, your online piano store.
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