You may have heard the term ‘muscle memory’ and wondered what it means when learning to play the piano, and how important it is. To say that muscle memory, and the correct application of it, is important would be an understatement. But what is muscle memory and how does it apply to playing the piano?
When a movement or action is repeated over and over for a certain period of time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that specific movement, which eventually allows your body to perform this task with little or no conscious effort. And to be able to apply this when playing the piano is a key part of becoming an accomplished pianist.
However, there is a very careful approach that needs to be applied in order to ensure the muscle memory is effective. The correct way to apply this is to practice at a tempo which ensures you make no mistakes. This can sometimes seem very time consuming and slow at first, but you will reap the rewards later when you begin to pick up the tempo.
The reason why it’s essential that you practice everything at a tempo that ensures you make no mistakes is so as not to confuse your muscle memory. If you practice something and constantly make errors, then you are confusing your muscle memory into thinking this is the correct way to play it. If after a certain amount of time you are able to eradicate these errors and play it correctly, your memory will be even more confused because it’s being fed numerous different ways. And when you revisit this the next day, you may find that you are not able to play it correctly again.
For all you pianists out there that have been practicing a difficult piece and there’s a bar or two that you just can’t quite get right, and you constantly make mistakes; then try to realise why this is happening. You are most likely trying to play these difficult passages at the same tempo as the rest of the piece, which is the main problem. You can now of course go back to these bars and play them slower without mistakes, and try and undo the incorrect muscle memory you’ve created, but it may take a long time to get out of playing these mistakes. If you’d have taken the time to play these parts much slower to begin with, and without mistakes, you would now be able to play it perfectly.
So the absolute correct way of learning to play the piano is to play everything slowly at first to ensure you don’t make any mistakes. Force your hands into playing it correctly and try to make sure there are no mistakes whatsoever. A lot of patience is required, but you will be thankful for it in the end when you can play it without thinking!