Hello 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’m going to ask a question of all of you right now. 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”? 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 keep going. You wonder how that could possibly happen. Indeed, there is a high degree of tactile memory playing the piano.
If you’ve ever watched a toddler getting up for the first time trying to walk, you’ll see them discovering the whole process. They are concentrating and you can see in their faces that they are focusing on how to stand and put one foot in front of the other. For the next few weeks and months, you’ll see how they get more and more comfortable and acclimated to walking. When you or I go out, we can be thinking about anything when we are walking. We don’t have to think about walking at all. Indeed there is muscle memory at work here! Obviously playing the piano is much more complex than walking, depending upon what music you are playing. Yet, if you play a piece many times:
Your fingers will keep on going all by themselves without you even thinking about it!
Is this a good thing? Yes and no. While on one hand, it is not something you want to rely upon too heavily, without a degree of muscle memory, 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 free-wheel some of the time. Being able to allow the music to continue when performing even when there are inevitable distractions is essential. If your fingers wouldn’t keep going and there was silence, it would be a complete disaster!
It is good that we have muscle or tactile memory. However, you can’t depend upon muscle memory entirely. Think about this. Most music you play goes from section to section with repeats of different sections. You must know where you are in the form. You 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 to accomplish this is by practicing away from the piano where you don’t have the benefit of tactile memory. If you can play your music by just thinking it through in your head, you really know the score well.
Your muscle memory in conjunction with your cognition of the score in depth is invaluable for securing your performance.
Yes, there is muscle memory at work when playing the piano. Thank goodness there is! But remember, you can’t depend upon it all the time. Practice away from the piano. You can practice with your score, going as far as you can, and when you find a hazy part, refer back to the score. You might have to move your fingers when playing away from the keyboard just to be able to do this at first. It is an extremely valuable skill so that you don’t fall into the trap of taking a wrong turn in a sonata (for example) and finding yourself either leaving out 2/3s of the work or going all the way back to the beginning and having no idea how to handle the situation. This is where muscle memory can play tricks on you. You can depend upon it to a certain extent while reinforcing intentional understanding of the music.
Thanks for the great questions! Again, I’m Robert Estrin here at LivingPianos.com, Your Online Piano Store.