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Help with acquiring muscle memory?


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Hi- I've been playing my English concertina daily this winter in hopes of getting comfortable enough to play at the seniors home with my sister on the accordion. I was very dependent on sheet music from learning flute in a high school band class but have been making an effort with the concertina. I can almost accompany Sharon Shannon playing the Duke of Yorke's on headphones but if somebody enters the room my mind flits off somewhere - maybe that's another issue. Besides playing the same tune a thousand times is there something that can help with memorizing? Does playing scales help? Thanks for any suggestions.

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Sadly, I've never known any substitute for repetition for instilling muscle memory. However, a little research suggests that there are ways to do a better job, largely by careful structuring of those repetitions. A couple of interesting links that have me thinking about ways I can improve my own practice:

 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/02/12/how-to-learn-new-skills-twice-as-fast/

https://www.guitartricks.com/blog/Improve-Muscle-Memory-With-These-8-Easy-Tips

 

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Playing the same tune overandoverandoverandoverandover gets one stuck real quick.  Brain says:  I know that one!, Yep, there it is again. Uh huh............zzzzzzzzzzz.  Throw in another tune, same key, sort of similar.  Brain says;  Wait, what?!  That's different!  How'd that first one go again?  Repeat as needed.

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Sounds like it's not just an issue of remembering the tune, it's an issue of being able to play the tune in the presence of distractions.  Changes in the environment effect our behaviour, so while we might be able to play a tune easily sitting in the same spot in the same room where we always practice, if someone walks in or we move to a different room things can fall apart. I used to experience this when I would practice in one room but record myself in another one - when I started practicing and recording in the same location things went much smoother. 

 

To get used to playing around distractions it can help to make things easier for yourself by reverting to a slower playing speed or working on a simpler tune etc. Basically if you're going to change one variable then make another one easier to balance it out and then gradually work back up to playing faster in the presence of distractions or playing more complex tunes in the presence of distractions.

 

Busking is also a great way to get used to playing around distractions because most of the people who pass by aren't paying attention to you. 

 

For help memorising tunes it can help to listen to recordings of the tune enough so that you can hum it from beginning to end without problem. Backward chaining is another technique that can be used, where you learn the last few bars of a tune and then work your way backwards from there - when I was learning jazz drumming years ago my instructor used to have me do this when learning transcriptions of other drummer's playing. It means that as you move through the tune you keep moving towards familiarity.

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My experience is that it is pointless to practice a single tune more than a couple of repetitions in one session, as each next repetition is usually less smooth. But then on the next session, it is suddenly a lot better. So, when only learning one tune, practice 2-3 times a day in separate sessions.

 

Now about distractions and playing in other space than recording/target environment. Those are two separate problems. The latter is a problem of acoustics - your brain interprets the sound in a new room as entirely different tune (due to reverb, spectrum changes due to sound absorption etc), so it doesn't follow the muscle memory from the previous place. The remedy for that is to practice in as many different spaces as possible. Sometimes even playing with your doors closed vs your doors open makes the difference. Once your brain "calibrates" the tune for various environments this problem ends. As to distractions - what I found works best for me is a bit counterintuitive - once you learn how the tune goes... stop thinking about the tune when you play, let your mind wander, decouple your hands from conscious thoughts. This way there are no distractions anymore, because you are simply not overly focused on playing.

Another advice - learn in phrases. When you talk/write, you don't think with letters. You are not even thinking with words most of the time, you are thinking with universal constructs couple of words long. So practice phrases and once one phrase is smooth enough that you usually don't make mistakes, learn another, and another. Most folk tunes are following the repeated parts construction anyways. When you find a particularly difficult fingerings, focus on those for a bit, then practice transition in and out of such phrase.

And last but not least - the session structure should go like this: first you try to play as relaxed as you can what you already know how to play. Then practice a new difficult part/new tune, and then at the end of the session try to play relaxed again, possibly something entirely different or what you know best. This way, between the sessions, your brain will remember the joy of playing instead of hardships of learning new tunes.

 

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Muscle memory! It sounds quite painful; but really is an unnecessary term to use, I my opinion, it is all about practice at the end of the day.  And, more importantly about enjoying the process of learning in itself.

 

The best practice I had years ago in the realms of distraction's taking place around me, was sitting in the centre of York [UK] by a busy riverside front, with traffic, noise, and tourist boats going by, not to mention parading lines of large Geese, with Goslings in toe, as well!

 

I found once I started playing tunes on my concertina, all these distractions began to fade into the background, and I then noticed them less as time went on, but it was good practice in dealing with distractions, that was for sure.

I think there is too much theory and words like muscle memory is really not needed as a rigid term; its about confidence to play in front of people, and to enjoy even, making a few mistakes now and again if need be.  Generally speaking an audience, whoever they are, if they want to hear you play, will be encouraging and no doubt excited at hearing something different in musical terms to the standard repertoire, and a different sound too; being a concertina.  Enjoy it all; and don't bother about those technical terms like "Muscle memory" - as the best muscle to use is your own mind, and sole.

 

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On 3/6/2022 at 11:43 PM, SIMON GABRIELOW said:

Muscle memory! It sounds quite painful; but really is an unnecessary term to use, I my opinion, it is all about practice at the end of the day. 

 

On 3/6/2022 at 11:43 PM, SIMON GABRIELOW said:

... don't bother about those technical terms like "Muscle memory" - as the best muscle to use is your own mind, and sole.

On the contrary, I find the term "muscle memory" quite useful!

Memory is the key to being able to play a piece of music fluently on your instrument of choice. But memorisation has several aspects.

One is remembering the tune. If you can't whistle or hum the tune, you won't be able to play it without sheet music. Another aspect is memorising the chord structure. Sure, you can develop a sixth sense for chord changes, so improvisation can to a certain extent replace memorisation - but this can leave you in the lurch when the harmonisation becomes more sophisticated than I, IV, V7.

So, having memorised the tune and the harmonies, how do we know what buttons to press to get them? Muscle memory!

An Autoharping friend of mine - a button-presser like us concertinists - says that she memorises a piece of music as a series of finger movements among the buttons. It's a dance that the fingers perform to produce the musical sounds you want - and the choreography of this dance is stored in muscle memory.

And, of course, like with any memorisation, repetition is of the essence.

Also, using the term "muscle memory" reminds us that we don't need to consciously know the name, or position on the stave, of a given note, or the name of the interval between it and the next note. To our fingers, it's just a memorised sequence of movements, stored in our hand muscles.

 

Cheers,

John

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1 hour ago, Anglo-Irishman said:

 

An Autoharping friend of mine - a button-presser like us concertinists - says that she memorises a piece of music as a series of finger movements among the buttons. It's a dance that the fingers perform to produce the musical sounds you want - and the choreography of this dance is stored in muscle memory.

 

 

A very apt description of how playing on a Hayden feels like, especially in "wrapped keys", very different experience to playing on an Anglo, especially 20b.

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Spoiler alert: Skip this post if you’re tired of hearing me extoll the virtues of understanding a little music theory.

 

Music is not just a meaningless stream of notes. It tells a story. Much of the work of memorizing a tune can be made easier if you recognize how the tune is structured, where it is headed, how a later part of the tune relates to what came earlier. Patterns and expectations reveal themselves and are satisfied. Listen and it will all make sense.

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18 hours ago, David Barnert said:

Music is not just a meaningless stream of notes. It tells a story.

A friend of mine writes words to English country dance tunes--turns them into songs. She can then fiddle the tune because she can sing the tune.

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21 hours ago, David Barnert said:

Spoiler alert: Skip this post if you’re tired of hearing me extoll the virtues of understanding a little music theory.

 

Music is not just a meaningless stream of notes. It tells a story. Much of the work of memorizing a tune can be made easier if you recognize how the tune is structured, where it is headed, how a later part of the tune relates to what came earlier. Patterns and expectations reveal themselves and are satisfied. Listen and it will all make sense.

 

Any resources you recommend? When I tried to search for stuff, I invariably get content that either assumes I have no idea what a staff is, or that I already have 5 years of music theory knowledge and am ready to company a symphony. What's the middle ground content for someone who knows the basics of reading music and wants to learn some more theory?

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21 minutes ago, Owen Anderson said:

Any resources you recommend? When I tried to search for stuff, I invariably get content that either assumes I have no idea what a staff is, or that I already have 5 years of music theory knowledge and am ready to company a symphony. What's the middle ground content for someone who knows the basics of reading music and wants to learn some more theory?

Sorry, I can’t help you there. I learned all my music theory in college in the 1970s, long before the internet. I, also, have looked to see what’s out there and found much the same as you did.

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1 hour ago, Owen Anderson said:

 

Any resources you recommend? When I tried to search for stuff, I invariably get content that either assumes I have no idea what a staff is, or that I already have 5 years of music theory knowledge and am ready to company a symphony. What's the middle ground content for someone who knows the basics of reading music and wants to learn some more theory?

 

I had already learned some of this stuff from learning to play the guitar for Beatles songs, etc., but I read a good book called "Edly's Music Theory for Practical People". It's fairly comprehensive, but goes at quite a gentle pace and has lots of fun doodles and cartoons to make it feel more accessible.

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2 hours ago, Owen Anderson said:

Any resources you recommend? When I tried to search for stuff, I invariably get content that either assumes I have no idea what a staff is, or that I already have 5 years of music theory knowledge and am ready to company a symphony. What's the middle ground content for someone who knows the basics of reading music and wants to learn some more theory?

 

Someone asked me a similar question recently (as if I know anything - ha!), and one of the places I pointed them was https://youtube.com/c/SignalsMusicStudio

 

I've found that YouTube channel to be a good place to get an initial foothold on different theory concepts. One thing that I like about his approach is that he encourages you to get started before you know everything, but he also lets you know there's still more out there to learn.

 

If you're trying to figure out what topic to start with, this video might help: 

 

 

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16 hours ago, Owen Anderson said:

Any resources you recommend? 

 

I did the free Coursera course on Music Theory (https://www.coursera.org/learn/edinburgh-music-theory) from Edinburgh University, and found it useful. Like most music courses it does tend to assume that you play piano keyboard, but not excessively. 

 

I should declare that I did Music 'O'-level aged 16, so had a starting point.

 

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I second the Edinburgh University's music theory course as a self-paced course.

 

For learning and memorizing tunes I also recommend Brainjo -

Josh Turknett is a neurologist who also took up banjo while a medical student and became fascinated with how we learn music.

 

All the advice about playing in different environments is spot on - you have to get past the distraction of strange environments - other people, noises etc. Someone coming into the room while you are playing is the distraction.  Playing in a park will be a challenge due to being outside your home, and random people around etc, but over time it becomes a little easier and less distracting.

 

But you also need to encourage automacity to happen- (internet definition below)

"Automaticity is the ability to do things without occupying the mind with the low-level details required, allowing it to become an automatic response pattern or habit. It is usually the result of learning, repetition, and practice."

 

Using a metronome while learning a tune will tell you if you're reaching the stage of automacity or not. If you can focus on the sound of the metronome and successfully play the tune, you've hit automacity. If you have any hesitancy in your playing, you're not there yet. So don't wait to use a metronome until you've got it perfectly memorized and just want to increase speed - start using it earlier.

 

I recommend reading through his series called "The Immutable Laws of Banjo". The earlier chapters are especially helpful. Scroll down to bottom of the page for the table of contents for each chapter.

https://www.banjohangout.org/blog/35794

 

Also, freebie ebook here (tho I haven't read it, as I just read the online content):

https://clawhammerbanjo.net/smartpractice/

 

 

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One of my own books on music theory I have often read is one that dates from early 20th century; and belonged to a lovely old lady called Loui Buckle! ( A delightful and tiny little soul much like a mini Queen Victoria in her appearance; but more cheerful).. I was passed on her music book.. A real old style type printed music theory book; yet very nice to read and understand!

I needed only the basics, key signatures, intervals, some theory and mixed it with practice too.. so got going that way mainly!

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9 hours ago, Paul_Hardy said:

 

I did the free Coursera course on Music Theory (https://www.coursera.org/learn/edinburgh-music-theory) from Edinburgh University, and found it useful.

How are the course materials viewed: website, youtube, zoom, etc.? I couldn't find that information on the linked website. Thank you.

Edited by Jim2010
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