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Muscle Memory and Its Role in Daily Technical Study

Tomás Jerez (Spanish soloist and professor at the Higher Conservatory of Music of Castile-La Mancha) talks to us about making the most of our study time and, thus, progress faster on the saxophone.
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In my role as professor, I have the privilege of being able to travel very frequently and meet a multitude of young saxophonists from different countries and regions. Their ages and levels are varied, but they all share a common problem: generally, they do not know the benefits of studying at prolonged speeds and how the brain processes information, particularly memory function — in the learning process.

In this article, I will only delve into one of the types of memory used in this process of information assimilation: muscle memory.

In general, we forget that practically all movements our bodies perform at the motor level happen automatically and without the necessity of conscious intervention (walking or running, jumping, talking, writing, manipulating objects, getting up, etc.). These motor skills were learned very gradually and by repetition in the past to be executed automatically and naturally in the present and the future.

When we play the saxophone — or any other musical instrument — and, even if we are not aware of it, the same process happens. Without trying to delve into the more scientific aspects of this neurological process, we use fine motor skills to play because we use our fingers, small or not so small facial muscles, lips, or tongue (to give a few examples) in a particular way.

The secret, then, is to work on the musical text through repetition. That sounds very normal. But what is less known, or at least not applied as much, is consciously working by repetition and at prolonged speeds with every musical passage, regardless of its technical difficulty or final speed.

Conscious repetition is essential to make sure all the parameters are executed that we seek to make a correct phrase with each repetition (notes, articulation, dynamics, expression, etc.). Therefore, the speed at which we must play in each of the repetitions must be plodding so that our brain assimilates all the information effectively through muscle memory activation.

By practicing this way and trying not to make mistakes during the repetitions, all the information will reach the brain and the instrumental execution muscles more clearly, generating greater efficiency.

Let’s Work Slowly… but Increase the Expression.

The work of conscious repetition at very slow tempi should not be related to boredom or sloppy work. Quite the opposite: usually, we generate too much stress when we insist on playing technically complex passages at speeds close to the indicated metronome marking in the score. Thus, we waste an essential part of our study time by wrongly thinking that at higher speeds of execution or approaching the final tempo, we will have greater reliability and solidity to have these passages ‘under our fingers.’

One of the most effective — also more pleasant — ways to practice, when it comes to correctly fix and assimilating the information that emanates from the realization of the musical discourse in our memory, is to play at very slow tempi, but in a very expressive and eloquent way, almost theatrical in nature. It is all about exaggerating every aspect of the phrase that is likely to generate greater musicality or expression. It can be used in many cases, like legato playing, the different types of attacks,  the harmonic changes, the different colors on certain notes, or the subtlety of dynamics, to give a few examples.

From the beginning, this slow and expressive work generates a deep sense of control. Also, it allows us to be fully aware of all the expressive details of the phrase, a sensation that will be stored in our muscular and emotional memory, and that, subsequently, will be ‘released’ when we face the passages at tempo.

So, We Repeat. But How Many Times?

One of the most common doubts is related to the number of repetitions necessary for this type of assimilated work to be as effective as possible.

The number will vary depending on multiple factors, such as our own reading speed, the intrinsic difficulty of the passage, the ability to understand the phrase or the subjective sensations of difficulty or control. The legendary Russian violinist, Nathan Milstein, used to say, “I do not know what ‘difficult’ means. Either you can play or you can’t.”

Although the work of conscious and slow repetition does not have to be limited, from time to time, we can test it in tempo to see if the passage is correctly assimilated, and we’re able to play it with the safety, cleanliness, naturalness, and musicality that it requires. If this test result is negative, we must continue working very slowly so that the muscle memory continues to do its job of determining and assimilating the information. At this point, it is important to underline that our brain is completely unaware of the correct ‘musical version’ that it must store; it is completely incapable of deciding for itself what is right or wrong. Our brain only determines and stores the information (and with more repetition, the more it determines).

That is why when we study precipitously and superficially, allowing the errors no matter how small, it is also fixed in our memory, and it is more difficult to get rid of them. This is why it is important that, with each repetition, we precisely use the same fingerings and avoid the error: so that assimilation is strengthened and can be correctly internalized.

I hope this small analysis on the role of muscle memory and the processes of assimilation of technical work with your saxophone has helped you reflect on your study habits and perhaps made you more aware of the power of slow practice in our daily routine.

Courage and… play slowly!

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