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Learning new pieces, muscle memory, and productive practice
#1323936 12/12/09 11:36 AM
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The earliest stages of learning to play fluently a new and challenging piece entail learning the notes and the motions needed to play them (i.e., getting the notes into the fingers, building muscle memory). What's the most efficient way to do that? Can any strategies be predicted reliably to get the fastest and most secure results?

Different people obviously approach the differing technical issues of diverse pieces in various ways. Nevertheless, the goals are the always the same: acquiring the notes (such that the necessary movements become executed comfortably and mostly accurately most of the time), and laying a stable foundation for an eventual musical interpretation at the correct tempo.

I'm not looking for short-cuts, but I wonder if there are any methodical elements that may be basic, fundamental and universal to the process of the initial acquisition of the notes themselves, at least in these matters: (1) number of repetitions per practice session, (2) speed of the repetitions, (3) length of the repeated material, and (4) whether the repetitions are HS or HT. Other aspects of practice may be significant, too, like articulation, rhythm and things I haven't even thought of.

I think most of us—even those who savor the journey rather than focus on the destination—share a concern for economical expenditure of our time and effort. With that criterion in mind, what routines do you believe work for most people learning most pieces most of the time? In any case, what can you identify that works for you?

Steven

Re: Learning new pieces, muscle memory, and productive practice
sotto voce #1323940 12/12/09 11:43 AM
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Originally Posted by sotto voce
In any case, what can you identify that works for you?
Playing music that's not too difficult!

Re: Learning new pieces, muscle memory, and productive practice
sotto voce #1323948 12/12/09 11:53 AM
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Originally Posted by sotto voce
What's the most efficient way to do that? Can any strategies be predicted reliably to get the fastest and most secure results?


Chang's book claims on p166 that his method is 1000 times faster than intuitive methods at mastering a new piece. He even provides a mathematical proof, something not found in your average music book. If you made it through differential calculus, it's interesting to see his argument. The book is not an easy read, he's a physicist by training so it's very methodical.


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Re: Learning new pieces, muscle memory, and productive pract
MarkL #1323952 12/12/09 12:03 PM
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Originally Posted by MarkL
Chang's book claims on p166 that his method is 1000 times faster than intuitive methods at mastering a new piece...he's a physicist by training...
So also, ipso facto, a concert pianist?

Re: Learning new pieces, muscle memory, and productive practice
MarkL #1323957 12/12/09 12:07 PM
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Originally Posted by MarkL

Chang's book claims on p166 that his method is 1000 times faster than intuitive methods at mastering a new piece. He even provides a mathematical proof, something not found in your average music book. If you made it through differential calculus, it's interesting to see his argument. The book is not an easy read, he's a physicist by training so it's very methodical.


I'm not really interested in his argument even though I made it through differential calculus. But I'm interested in his method. Do you have to read the whole book or can you summarized it in a few sentences?

Last edited by pianoloverus; 12/12/09 12:08 PM.
Re: Learning new pieces, muscle memory, and productive practice
MarkL #1323966 12/12/09 12:19 PM
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Steven,

My first concern is usually with rhythm. I can fix an errant note pretty quickly provided I mark it in the score and the same with fingering, but correcting an incorrect rhythm takes forever.

Rich


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Re: Learning new pieces, muscle memory, and productive practice
pianoloverus #1324059 12/12/09 02:30 PM
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Originally Posted by pianoloverus

I'm not really interested in his argument even though I made it through differential calculus. But I'm interested in his method. Do you have to read the whole book or can you summarized it in a few sentences?


With apologies in advance to reducing Chang's thoughtful and rigorous analysis to a few sentences that capture my understanding of his approach:

Never play slower than full speed when learning a piece. Break it down into the smallest phrases or series of notes (hands separate if necessary) that allow you to play slightly greater than full speed. Continue gobbling up the piece like pacman always playing at least at full speed. Minimize practice immediately on a section once you know it, focus on the parts you haven't mastered. Memorize the piece as you learn it, not after you know it.

I forced myself to use this approach on a few pieces because I was curious. I did learn much faster, particularly if I include the time it normally takes me to memorize something. However I discovered when I went back to play the pieces with the music a few weeks later just to check myself for mistakes, that I was almost unable to play the piece while reading it. I could still play from memory, but not while reading. This must say something about how the human brain works, or at least how my human brain works. I would conclude that this approach capitalizes on physical memory at the expense of some cerebral part of learning. I have pretty much given up on the approach because of my own lack of discipline to apply it, and because I didn't find it as much fun as learning by starting out slow, playing the whole piece over and over, etc. I do still use it to master small sections of pieces that are particularly difficult for me.


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Re: Learning new pieces, muscle memory, and productive practice
MarkL #1324099 12/12/09 03:48 PM
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This is a very interesting thread and I hope to learn from it.
Here's my strategy for taking on a challenging piece:
1. Break the piece down into phrases. Work through them one at a time, very slowly. I find this method to be very relaxing and I can focus really well. Number of repetitions: at least 3 times hands together first, then hands separately, then HT again. Then choose another phrase elsewhere in the piece. I like to go into the middle section and take on a phrase there.
2 goals are in mind as I work through each phrase: 1. rhythm and 2. fingering. Then I'll choose a phrase near the end of the piece and work through that one the same way. Painstaking work as I do this very slowly. Is this a fast and efficient method? Compared to what other people are doing, I suppose not, but it does work for me.
A week or so before performing other music, I start a new, challenging piece for the relaxation and focusing benefits it brings me.


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Re: Learning new pieces, muscle memory, and productive practice
Barb860 #1324113 12/12/09 04:21 PM
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Barb,

I really like the idea of working by phrases. That seems to be a good way to keep track of the structure of the piece, as I often will just look at isolated challenges and thus lose some of the direction in the piece.


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Re: Learning new pieces, muscle memory, and productive practice
sotto voce #1324124 12/12/09 04:42 PM
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Originally Posted by sotto voce
I'm not looking for short-cuts, but I wonder if there are any methodical elements that may be basic, fundamental and universal to the process of the initial acquisition of the notes themselves, at least in these matters: (1) number of repetitions per practice session, (2) speed of the repetitions, (3) length of the repeated material, and (4) whether the repetitions are HS or HT. Other aspects of practice may be significant, too, like articulation, rhythm and things I haven't even thought of.


I wonder if you are asking for more than "this is what works for me" response? If I get some time after exams are done, I may search some music journals for someone who has done studies on what works best. Sometimes I've thought it might be useful to have students to try different methods on to see what works best, although that may be somewhat unethical.


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Re: Learning new pieces, muscle memory, and productive practice
sotto voce #1324146 12/12/09 05:25 PM
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Originally Posted by sotto voce
What's the most efficient way to do that? Can any strategies be predicted reliably to get the fastest and most secure results?


Probably the most effective strategy has been described in Piano Technique by Gieseking/Leimer.
The problem is that this method works great for people with superior musical and intellectual abilities... frown

I would suggest a simple approach: always practice like if you have a public performance tomorrow.



All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling.
Oscar Wilde
Re: Learning new pieces, muscle memory, and productive practice
sotto voce #1324269 12/12/09 10:33 PM
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My teacher once said that the best way to build muscle memory, when learning a piece in a hurry, is to play slowly and firmly, hands together, using a downward wrist motion on every note. Getting the large muscles involved seems to burn the note locations into memory quicker than if only finger motions are used.
Of course it will sound very unmusical so you may want to use earplugs. And hope anyone who overhears will be forbearing.

Re: Learning new pieces, muscle memory, and productive practice
Vica #1324281 12/12/09 10:58 PM
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Originally Posted by Vica

Probably the most effective strategy has been described in Piano Technique by Gieseking/Leimer.
The problem is that this method works great for people with superior musical and intellectual abilities... frown

It's not as if Gieseking was 'normal' or anything. Anyone who would claim -as Gieseking did- that 'the hardest part about learning all the Beethoven sonatas was memorizing them, and even that wasn't terribly difficult' (something to that effect, it's a translation), well obviously he was working with a fairly miraculous talent.

Yet Gieseking's Beethoven recordings have never particularly attracted me -only his incredible Debussy- and I never see them recommended in reviews. Additionally, I've never found much of use in his book co-written with his teacher, Leimer. As you say Vica, the book seems intended for someone else, not me.


Jason
Re: Learning new pieces, muscle memory, and productive practice
Ferdinand #1324296 12/12/09 11:50 PM
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Originally Posted by Ferdinand
My teacher once said that the best way to build muscle memory, when learning a piece in a hurry, is to play slowly and firmly, hands together, using a downward wrist motion on every note. Getting the large muscles involved seems to burn the note locations into memory quicker than if only finger motions are used.
Of course it will sound very unmusical so you may want to use earplugs. And hope anyone who overhears will be forbearing.


Do you learn pieces this way yourself?


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Re: Learning new pieces, muscle memory, and productive practice
argerichfan #1324297 12/12/09 11:51 PM
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I find that I learn the fastest when I consciously work out the choreography of the hand from the very beginning: I try to find out a way that will have the fingers close to the notes they will be playing. I find that the more detailed the plan, the easiest it is to remember. It might take a bit to figure out how to move, but in the end it seems to make the learning process faster.

It is paradoxical: for me, it is easier to remember a lot of specific details, instead of just the notes.

ocd


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Re: Learning new pieces, muscle memory, and productive practice
Ferdinand #1324322 12/13/09 01:23 AM
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Originally Posted by Ferdinand
My teacher once said that the best way to build muscle memory, when learning a piece in a hurry, is to play slowly and firmly, hands together, using a downward wrist motion on every note. Getting the large muscles involved seems to burn the note locations into memory quicker than if only finger motions are used.
Of course it will sound very unmusical so you may want to use earplugs. And hope anyone who overhears will be forbearing.
I had that one too, I never really tested it out.

Re: Learning new pieces, muscle memory, and productive practice
argerichfan #1324562 12/13/09 03:03 PM
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Originally Posted by argerichfan

Additionally, I've never found much of use in his book co-written with his teacher, Leimer. As you say Vica, the book seems intended for someone else, not me.


The Leimer/Gieseking method is not completely new... It's logical continuation of what other great composers/performers used to promote, i.e. "don't press the key unless the whole picture is clear in your mind".
Mechanical exercises are useful, but I don't believe "muscular memorization" is an efficient way to learn. Actually I've seen plenty of "on-stage disasters" due to heavy reliance on mechanical memorization.
In this respect Leimer's book is right on target.


All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling.
Oscar Wilde
Re: Learning new pieces, muscle memory, and productive practice
Barb860 #1324887 12/13/09 11:01 PM
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Originally Posted by Barb860
Originally Posted by Ferdinand
My teacher once said that the best way to build muscle memory, when learning a piece in a hurry, is to play slowly and firmly, hands together, using a downward wrist motion on every note. Getting the large muscles involved seems to burn the note locations into memory quicker than if only finger motions are used.
Of course it will sound very unmusical so you may want to use earplugs. And hope anyone who overhears will be forbearing.


Do you learn pieces this way yourself?

Not entire pieces, but I use it for recalcitrant passages.

Re: Learning new pieces, muscle memory, and productive practice
Vica #1324905 12/13/09 11:41 PM
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Originally Posted by Vica

In this respect Leimer's book is right on target.

In a sense I suppose, but the analysis of the Lebert exercise is utterly too fussy. It makes a big deal of the 'trees', but little regard for the 'forest'. How much space is given to that silly exercise, and yet how much space would then be given to the first few measures of -say- Beethoven's Op. 109?

All the more idiotic in that Gieseking wouldn't have needed a book like that in the first place to learn the Op. 109. Sorry, matey, the book is better in my fireplace... or at least recycled.

Some years ago I read some silly book all about 'posture' at the piano. It went into laborious detail about how one cannot play the piano without proper posture... I tried reading it, but then I saw a picture of Erroll Garner at the piano: his posture was in every sense opposed to what this book was trying to tell us.

Erroll Garner, whatever one can say, was an immensely talented pianist. So I smelled bullsh*t, and that book went into the rubbish.


Jason
Re: Learning new pieces, muscle memory, and productive practice
argerichfan #1325029 12/14/09 08:45 AM
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Originally Posted by argerichfan
It makes a big deal of the 'trees', but little regard for the 'forest'.

The topic of this thread is: "Learning new pieces, muscle memory, and productive practice"...
I assumed it's about "trees" (how to memorize efficiently) and not the "forest" (how to perform Beethoven's Op. 109).
The main point I was tying to make is that "muscle memory" shouldn't be a leading factor in memorization.


All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling.
Oscar Wilde
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