Some thoughts on muscle memory, and the importance of accuracy in practice.
When you practice a physical motion with your body, the body tends to "remember" how to do that motion. For those of us who can walk and ride a bicycle, you realize pretty quickly when you think about it that you don't think much about these things when we do them. Your body just does those things pretty much without thought.
As a matter of fact, if you hop on a bicycle after having not been on one for years, you realize how quickly you can get on it and not have to rethink how to keep that sucker upright. It just stays up. This is a phenomenon that occurs due to the brain-body connections that form through repeated cycles of activities Part of it is something called “muscle memory.”
According to all things Wikipedia, muscle memory is…
a form of “procedural memory” that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition, which has been used synonymously with “motor learning.” When a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort. This process decreases the need for attention and creates maximum efficiency within the motor and memory systems. Examples of muscle memory are found in many everyday activities that become automatic and improve with practice, such as riding a bicycle, typing on a keyboard,… playing a musical instrument…
And for reference, and to round out the picture, the wikipedia article references a concept called “motor learning.”
Motor learning is a change, resulting from practice or a novel experience, in the capability for responding. It often involves improving the smoothness and accuracy of movements and is obviously necessary for complicated movements such as speaking, playing the piano and climbing trees.
So practicing your wind instrument will cause changes in the brain - those changes develop in relation to the muscle movements that are involved with playing the instrument. (It seems that is the “motor learning” part. And then, as you do it more repeatedly, it starts to become more “second-nature.”)
So, the good news is that our bodies develop a "memory" for the way we play our instruments.
Anything you learn is a bit of a challenge at first, and then as you go about it over time, things get easier.
With riding a bike, it is a conscious effort at first. And if you remember doing it, at first, you were probably over-correcting and consciously compensating or over-compensating for what you felt was wrong. But as you practiced, eventually you were able to do it, and then to the point where you learn bits and pieces that you don't have to think about every time you pick up your instrument. After a while, you don't have to think about how to finger the individual notes. Your body/brain pathway has "remembered" how to do it.
Take a quick look at this video to see the "magic" (for better or worse) of muscle memory.
The bad news is that if we practice with bad habits, our bodies develop a "bad memory" for playing badly.
And THIS is what you might not realize, though, at least not at first; but the practicing you do, over time, will set “patterns” for how you do things. And if you learn to play your saxophone the wrong way, your body will eventually develop “bad muscle memory habits.”
This is the reason it is important to not try to do everything simply on your own without some input - either with a qualified instructor, or (like here, hopefully) with input from others who have both the ability to play at least reasonably well and the ability to communicate well how YOU need to practice to develop good performance habits.
While you’re first learning to play the sax, you’re worrying about what fingers to put down to make which notes. What you might not be thinking about as you do that are things like proper hand position and how to hold the instrument for the best relaxation and accuracy as you progress to higher levels of difficulty.
And if you’ve practiced wrong all along, then those habits can hinder your progress.
The good news is that we can replace old muscle-memory habits with new ones.
If I can brag for a minute, I will say I happen to have a personal trainer in the family. My 3rd son, Josh, is a fitness coach. Now, there are a lot of them out there. But Josh is pretty good. If you look at his web site, you’ll discover that there are 16 world records among his clients. That is saying something.
I could go on and on about Josh. But I bring up the world records simply to draw attention to the fact that, in all likelihood, he must know his stuff to pull that off - that many times, with so many of his clients. He's a "high end" strength training coach.
And Josh knows a thing or two about this concept of muscle memory.
Anyway, Josh and I had a long talk about muscle memory. I was grilling him one day and picking his brain for about an hour and a half (and I didn’t even have to pay for the advice, by the way - because it's free for dad, you know) about this issue of muscle memory. I was specifically interested in learning what his thoughts were about both muscle memory and muscle recovery (which will be in another article).
Josh told me something very interesting about how he works with his clients. This idea of muscle memory is so important in his style of training that if he is dealing with a client, and the client starts to get tired, and he sees their form is taking a slide, he will give them a chance to correct - once. After that, it is done. DONE.
In other words, if they’re bench pressing 10 reps, and they get to rep number 4, and the form is off on that fourth rep, he will correct them and coach them back to where the form should be. If - IF - they can correct the form on the fifth rep, he lets them continue. If they get two wrong in a row, he makes them rest and try it again. (Another point to note here - fatigue kills form. Know your limits. More about that in the other article to come on muscle recovery.)
So I asked Josh if we are stuck with bad muscle memories forever. And he says no. The fact is that you can replace bad habits with good habits. And it doesn’t take that many good “muscle memories” to form to replace the old ones. So you can correct where things went wrong or where you developed bad habits. And the best way to replace the bad habits is with conscious efforts to form new (good) ones.
The bad news is that sometimes, the closer we are to "correct," the harder it is to get there.
The best way for me to explain this is with an illustration. If you are drilling a 1/4 inch hole in a piece of steel with a hand drill, it is easy enough to pull the drill out if the hole is in the wrong place and move the drill to the right location and simply start again - unless the hole is about 1/16th of an inch out of location. In THAT case, what happens is that when you put the drill in the right location for the hole, the hole that is already started tends to pull the drill bit in the direction of the centre of the original hole. And that is a little harder to fix.
The good news is that with sufficient practice the right way, we can still get to the target.
With the illustration of the hole, there are machining tricks you can use to drill that hole in the correct location if you did start it just a little off. You could put the steel in a vice and drill the hole on a drill press. But the fact is, there is considerable effort involved in relocating the hole when the centre is close to where it was supposed to be; and ironically, that original hole being just a little off rather than a lot off is the very thing that fights you from getting it in exactly the right spot.
But it can be done. Part of it is attention to detail and focusing on the basics.
So what does this look like when practicing your saxophone?
Well, one of the best ways to work on getting good form and technique for developing speed and dexterity on the saxophone - particularly if your form is already fairly good - is to practice slowly. While it might sound counter-intuitive for some, those of us who have been playing for a while will tell you that if you want to develop speed on your saxophone, you have to develop precision and accuracy at slow speeds first.
You have to focus on “economy of effort.” In other words, you need to pay attention to hand position and how your hand moves between notes when you’re going for the side keys, the spatula keys (pinky keys) and the like.
Watch yourself in a mirror. Practice your runs slowly, two or three notes at a time. Notice how much your hand moves, and notice what hand positions will best help you to be able to move to all the different notes with a minimum of motion of the hands and the wrists as you go through those runs.
Watch, also, to see what root hand position (resting position) allows your hand to end up closest to where you started out. You want to find the hand position that is closest to home from every note you play with the palm keys and side keys.
You need to develop a habit of practicing consciously. Not for every note of your practice routine, perhaps. You can’t focus on everything all at once. But you can pay attention in your “spare time.”
What do I mean by paying attention in your spare time? Let me put it this way. If you’re practicing scales and noticing you have to slow them down because you’re getting sloppy, then you’re going too fast. And if you slow down to where you can hit all the notes cleanly without bobbling on the fingerings, you’re doing better than rushing and developing bad hand habits like when you drill the hole too close to where it should be - close but a little off.
But it is more than that - and here is where you can do "double duty" with the practicing. Let’s say you’re practicing a piece. You’re memorizing it. It’s a slow ballad, so there’s no rush or terrible demand for technical prowess. USE that time during those ballads. Notice your embouchure. Your breathing. Notice how relaxed you are (or are not). In a nice, "ballady" piece you have "spare time" between the notes - spots where you can focus on other stuff as you go.
Just because a piece is easy to play, it doesn’t mean you’re playing as well as you can. It might mean you’re doing well enough to get by but still doing it wrong. So notice during the practicing of the easier parts of your scales: how much are your fingers moving? How is your breathing? Are your shoulders relaxed? Do you have the right amount of mouthpiece, or have you slacked off. And also, are you tired? Is it time to take a break?
And don't forget to keep track of and allow for fatigue and how it affects your ability to practice well instead of badly.
Quite honestly, if you’re struggling with high or low notes, and you are so tired that you can’t do it well, and you know that you need more control than you can offer because your embouchure is spent, take a break. Because if you don’t, you’ll be reinforcing all the bad muscle-memory habits that you can conjure up to compensate for the lip fatigue in all kinds of unfortunate ways that will develop bad muscle memory habits.
It's the little things that make the difference. Practice with intention. Reinforce the good habits so that they replace the bad ones. You'll love the result.