Don’t Just Learn the Notes – Practice Correctly from the Beginning

We live in a world of instant gratification. Instant gratification is why the average US household has over $15k in credit card debt. We want that new toy now. We’ll make money enough to buy it eventually right? Let’s just get it now.

Although some may argue this instant gratification epidemic is pervasive mostly in the younger generation it’s definitely going strong in the older generation as well. We have been conditioned over and over again that good things come now. In music this just isn’t the case. Good things take time. They take practice, and a lot of it.

How Long Did it Take You to Learn That?

If you go to practice rooms in universities across the country you’ll hear the question, “How long did it take you to learn that?” over and over again. The follow up to that question should be, “Why does it matter?”

If you’re a pianist and you learned a Chopin Etude in a couple of weeks, you’re amazing. If it took 6 months, you’re horrible. The length of time it takes to learn a piece of music establishes your worth as a musician. When you’re performing, though, nobody cares how long it took you to learn. The audience just cares about how it sounds.

The need for instant gratification, by learning a piece of music as fast as possible, is becoming a detriment to musicality as a whole. Delaying gratification is the only way to really succeed.

How Teachers Can Help

If you’re a student, does your teacher expect you to “learn 3 pages” by next week? If you’re a teacher, have you ever given this instruction for practice? At first glance it makes sense. Teachers need to have expectations for their students, and they need to give them goals to work to from week to week. Teachers should be very careful when requiring a set amount of music to be learned by a certain date. If too much is given, students work hard to make that happen. What ends up happening is the student learns the music required, but they take shortcuts and ignore the real music behind the notes. This leads to poor playing, and is very difficult to correct.

Is the solution for teachers to not give students goals to work towards from week to week? No, that’s not the best solution. These goals given to students just need to be realistic. Often it means asking for less to be learned. Sometimes it could mean just being open to the fact that the goal wasn’t met. Teachers just need to be understanding that learning music correctly takes longer than just learning the notes.

Learning and Implicit Memory

Implicit memory, also called procedural memory, is a type of memory that does not require conscious thought. Explicit, also called declarative memory, does require thought. Walking, swimming, riding a bike, and yes playing an instrument all require implicit memory.

In music and sports we often refer to implicit memory as muscle memory. Regardless of how you practice, if you work on a piece of music long enough, you will gain muscle memory. That’s a good thing. Your implicit memory has to take over, so you don’t have to worry about what movements to make. With muscle memory you don’t need to worry about what notes to hit, so your brain can be free to express yourself. Without muscle memory, musical expression would be very difficult.

Explicit memory is perhaps even more important for a musician because it is not guaranteed that you’ll acquire it while practicing. It’s also necessary for a piece to be memorized competently. Acquiring explicit memory is out of the scope of this article, but I’ve written extensively on it here and here if you’re interested.

Muscle Memory and Habit

You can practice in any way you want, but eventually you’ll develop muscle memory for a piece you’re learning and most of the music will be on autopilot. A habit is muscle memory by a different name. Yes, the part of your brain that you use to learn to walk and even habitually brush your teeth every morning is the same part of your brain that teaches you how to play piano. Habits are types of implicit memory. You don’t consciously control a lot of the music, what you put on autopilot needs to be correct from the beginning.

Habits are Unbreakable

Have you ever had a bad habit that was hard to break? Did you know that we can’t actually break habits? Learned habits are there for good. We can replace them though.

In a 2005 study rats were given audible cues which corresponded with which way they needed to run in a maze in order to get a piece of chocolate. When researches began this experiment each rat’s brain was very active.

The rat’s active brain was needed in order to find the reward. After being conditioned for a while, their brain activity quieted. Running the maze had become muscle memory, a habit. They ran the maze on autopilot. A habit was formed.

Then the researches took the reward away. At first the audible cues to find the chocolate worked the same way. The rats followed like they had been taught and little activity was happening while their habit was on autopilot. Eventually though, the reward was gone and their habit broke down.

The cues were now meaningless, and the activity in the rat’s brains started chattering again as if they had never learned the habit. So they broke the habit right? Good for those tiny guys. Here’s where it gets good though.

The researchers put the chocolate back in the maze and gave the rats the same cues as they had before. As soon as the rats found the reward their habits came back. There was no need to learn anything this time. The cues had meaning and they followed them on autopilot. The habit returned to all of its former glory.

We’re not rats, but scientists have found this to be the case over and over again. We don’t break habits, we replace them. The old habit is still there ready to be used again. It’s good we work this way too. Even if you haven’t went swimming in years, you still can keep yourself afloat. It would not be fun to have to relearn how to ride a bike, or swim, or even walk if we stopped doing it for a while.

Why Does This Matter?

When you create a new habit, the old habit is still there, just less dominant. As you know, muscle memory and habits are the same thing. So if you create muscle memory for something incorrectly, the only way you can fix it is by relearning it. That’s a waste of time. But wait.. It’s worse than that. It’s possible that the old version of your muscle memory will return when you don’t want it to, like in a performance. If you learned it correctly the first time, you don’t have to worry about that.

The bottom line is, don’t learn mistakes.

What Exactly is a Mistake?

The most obvious mistakes are wrong notes and rhythms. These stand out to just about everyone. Are notes and rhythm the music though? They’re only one small part of the music. Articulation, phrasing, and dynamics are just as part of the music as the notes and the rhythms. Yet for some reason a lot of students only learn the notes and rhythms first.

It’s that pesky instant gratification peeking it’s ugly head again. Music sounds great. When you can make music it’s even better. When you start learning a piece, the notes and rhythms are the most obvious first things to tackle. Once you learn the notes you get that gratification you were looking for. Exciting! Then you keep on learning the piece to the end.

If you learn like this, you may learn the notes quickly, but you’ve ignored the parts that actually make the music sound good.

How Teachers Can Help

Teachers tend to perpetuate this problem. Some teachers ignore the musicality of the piece to work first on the notes and rhythms. The teacher may think they’ll come back to the rest of the music once the notes are learned.

A better way to deal with this kind of practice is to point out the missed dynamics and articulations as actual mistakes from the beginning. A lot of teachers will go this direction, but then they make one fatal mistake. The teacher may ask the student to learn more music by the next lesson. What does this communicate to the student? The teacher is basically saying, “Yeah you need to fix those parts eventually, but for now I want to hear those notes!” What’s being missed here is that the student didn’t learn what you asked them to learn. They learned notes and rhythms, not the music. Now they need to go back and relearn it because they put it into their autopilot muscle memory incorrectly.

It will take almost as much effort to replace the bad habit as it took to learn it originally.

Teachers must require the music to be learned correctly from the beginning. The student did two things wrong. They played the music wrong, and they practiced wrong. The most important thing to correct in this case is the practice. From now on the student needs to learn the piece correctly from the beginning. They need to establish correct habits first. If they don’t, they will have bad habits (unmusical habits) returning in their performance.

If a teacher required pages 1-3 of the music learned by the next lesson, and the student came back with nothing, would the teacher ask them to learn pages 4-6 the next week? Of course not. They need to go back and work on what they should have worked on the week before. Students that learn only the notes should be approached in the same way.

Many students that practice incorrectly never actually go back and correct their unmusical playing, and that’s a shame.

The Solution

If you’re the musician, or you’re the teacher, you should expect that it take longer than usual to learn the notes. That’s okay. In the long run the piece will be much better learned, and will actually be learned faster. You need to make sure you take smaller sections of music and concentrate on everything written, and not written. How should the finished product sound like? How loud should each note be. How long should notes be held? What articulation should be used? What kind of phrasing should be added? In order to mentally think about all of these things, you need to work on very small sections, and you need to work on them slowly.

Conclusion

In our would of instant gratification, the delayed gratification that is required for music practice is all too often ignored. If you’re not doing this already, do it now. You’ll be amazed by how much better you play. It will become immediately obvious that the music is extremely well though out.

Do you practice like this? Try it out and let us know what your experience is with practicing correctly from the beginning.