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Muscle Memory?

randulo

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Can't live with it, can't live without it?

Muscle memory is when your fingers do the walking. I guess it's basically cruise control in music you know well. On the one hand, you're freed up by the comfort that your fingers give, knowing to play almost automatically. This is especially true of blues-based music (tonic, dom, sub-dom, regardless of genre, country, blues, fink, jazz, folk...). One way MM can mess you up, is when your fingers grab the memories in music with chord changes you're not used to, causing wrong notes, notes that would have been fine in the music you usually play.

I'm wondering what anyone thinks about it, if anything.
 

GCinCT

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I would agree that muscle memory has its ups and downs. When playing charts for my Big Band, the parts are so ingrained that my fingers (together with my ears) are ahead of my eyes. That is a nice advantage.

Where I find it sometimes detrimental is in sight reading. I work on it daily. I've improved. I went from lousy to mediocre, but it is a problem from time to time when my fingers follow a familiar pattern which is not what is on the page.
 

jbtsax

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I can't say that I have had that particular experience. Sometimes when playing a tune I know I have unconsciously gone to the bridge of another song that is similar. When I would do that on a gig, the piano and bass player would switch to the new tune as well so no one was the wiser. :)

My "muscle memory" for the most part involves scales that I have gotten "under my fingers" through repetition. An example would be when I see a chromatic scale or a portion of a chromatic scale in the music I don't read each note, I just see where it starts and ends and my fingers do the rest. What can really hang me up reading a part is when I recognize the pattern of a scale, but there are one or two intervals that are different. This is where "memory" works against you.
 

MikeMorrell

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Great question, @randulo! It made me really think about how I could respond. I play sax in 2 community Big Bands mostly from sheet music with a few 'free solos'.

For the most part, I agree with you. I would add that the more the basic physical aspects of playing (breath support, airflow, voicing, tonguing, embouchure, ...) are developed in 'muscle memory, the better your sound/tone will be (on whatever notes you play and however you play them).

Another form of basic muscle memory - for me - is being able to immediately react (physically) to playing dynamics, accentuated notes, etc. that I read on sheet music. So when I see something like a forzando coming up, I'm already (physically) preparing how to play it.

On the keys, 'muscle memory' is - as you say - a double-edged sword. On the one hand, in the keys that you're used to playing in, your playing becomes fluent (on automatic pilot). In other keys, you suddenly lose this fluency and you sometimes play notes that you didn't intend to play. I can only imagine that you might get around this by becoming familiar in playing in the different keys that you might reasonably expect. Michael Brecker was known for his - as he himself describes it - idiosyncratic way of practicing any new 'riffs' in all keys so that they would be available to him.

On a last point (from my years of playing guitar), I think that 'muscle memory' can become a limiting factor to expressiveness and creativity. Other than on sax the basic 'chord shapes' on guitar stay the same. Non-classical guitarists may play riffs/patterns up or down on the fretboard but anything he/she plays in a 'fretted chord' he/she can play in any other. So - highly generalizing - non-classical guitarists can develop riffs/patterns and play them up and down the keyboard in any chord. The same applies (to a lesser extent) to playing sax. We can develop fluency in playing riffs, runs, embellishments in the keys in which we're comfortable (fluent) playing in. However, this comfort and fluency can also limit our openness and willingness to experiment.

Via a (helpful) link on TTS, I recently came across Improvise for Real. I can't support the site in any way. But the from the couple of videos I've watched, their emphasis seems to be more on discovering the relationship between notes rather than 'learning scales'

My apologies to Improvise for Real. if I've misrepresented their website/Youtube channel in any way.

Mike
 
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Hipparion

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I have exactly the same experienced as GCinCT about that.
And in a band where you don't have to improvise, that's actually mainly an advantage: usually I take the time to learn/memorize the difficult passages (many repetition at slow tempos + listening to existing versions on the web) so that I don't have to read anymore. Then, the dots are just for 'safety'. One unexpected advantage is that you can show off impress the others by playing the music out of context without reading anything, even if we didn't play that piece for months... (yes, the people in my band are mostly 'readers', so I pass quite regularly for a UMO)

...
My "muscle memory" for the most part involves scales that I have gotten "under my fingers" through repetition. An example would be when I see a chromatic scale or a portion of a chromatic scale in the music I don't read each note, I just see where it starts and ends and my fingers do the rest.
I was under the impression that this is actually part of the reading tricks : not reading one note at a time but identifying larger patterns ? (I am always so satisfied when I manage to do that)
 

Halfers

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When it comes to subconscious activities, driving is often used as an example of an every day mechanical undertaking that doesn't involve conscious thought. Yet, there are still plenty of idiotic, dangerous drivers on the road. Which goes to show you still need to focus on the road!
 
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randulo

randulo

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The driving example is a good one. If I was playing in an R&B or blues cover band, I'd probably need to feel like I can cruise through the tunes, which are usually in a small set of keys. The question came to me today, when I was messing with a shuffle in G on Alto. I realized that the "literature" of this music is easily entered into muscle memory. I'm not saying it's easy to play! Dynamics and articulation are an important part and I'm seriously in need of work in those areas. But I do see the danger of falling into patterns.
 

Halfers

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I'm not saying it's easy to play!
Carrying on the analogy, I sometimes feel I'm still at the 'feeling the biting point of the clutch' stage and I question whether I should just pack it in and find the musical equivalent of an automatic ;)
 
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randulo

randulo

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What about "instant muscle memory"?

Again, in the blues-based idioms, the chords are the same 12 or 16-bar setup, often without a bridge. Repetition of the phrases often creates the only real musical structure (form). What I find in practicing is you invent a phrase from the infinite vocabulary of the blues, then repeat it thanks to this instant memory. After the repeat, you have to think on your feet to modify it for the IV chord. Studies have been done about how the brain does this, but I've never read those articles, because I don't care, as long as it works >:)
 
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randulo

randulo

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their emphasis seems to be more on discovering the relationship between notes rather than 'learning scales'
I wrote something like that here in a previous post. I believe it's part of playing what you hear. I also agree with what you said about guitarists. A saxophonist once told me "all you guys have to do to change keys is move your hand up the wires." The biggest difference I've found between guitar and sax, other than the obvious, is that on the guitar I was looking at my left hand, and that was crippling creativity. I cant see my fingers on the sax, so it's a bigger challenge but it's also more creative in my own case.

IFR looks very worthwhile for someone who's wondering about where to go with this stuff. I scanned through a bunch of their videos and many touched on the kinds of things I am currently doing.
 
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MikeMorrell

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This response is to (future) beginners who may wonder what 'muscle memory' means. FWIW, there's an old, simple but still useful competency model (for whatever competence) that I think is useful for sax players

Playing sax at any level requires that players learn specific 'competences'. The wide range of specific competences - from being able to play a first few notes to playing from music to becoming recognized as a 'master sax player'' is vast! My point is only that each specific competence - according this competency model - goes through a predictable cycle:
  • Initially, you are completely unaware of a competence that you lack
  • At a second stage, you become aware that you lack some competence
  • At a third stage, you - through study and practice- develop the competence - and become able to consciously apply it.
  • At the fourth stage, applying your competence, becomes second nature (automatic)
It seems to me that when we talk about "muscle memory", we're talking (in terms of this model) about making the transition between the 3rd and 4th stages. Practicing things that we could (perhaps) do consciously become second nature (automatic).

Mike
 

saxyjt

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For now I'm glad muscle memory comes into play for me once in a while.

It helps me play stuff without thinking of reading and I can try to apply more nuances.

The only trouble is that of course it takes some repetitions to get there and my wife killed me last night when I went for my long awaited sax time and she said: "Are you going to play the same tunes again? I'm getting tired of them and they are sad."

I thought I was trying to alternate to avoid that, but 'sad', well I guess blues can sound sad... And I'm afraid I don't have that many 'joyful' tubes in stock!

At least today I found myself working from home, due to really bad traffic this morning as a consequence of the continued strikes in France. Mostly Paris area.

I tried to go, but hit so much traffic simply trying to leave my small town that I turned back.

So I found more time to play. My horns are just a couple of meters away from my desk!! I can't resist a whole day. It's like my fag's breaks used to be, only just healthier... ;)
 

Wade Cornell

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Mind if I jump in? Too late...I'm here! I've got a slightly different take when it comes to the term "muscle memory". We're generally not talking about your actual muscles remembering anything, it's your brain that has done something repeatedly, so can do it subconsciously (as though your muscles do it instead of your brain). Driving is a good example as Halfres mentions. When learning sax many players are encouraged practice riffs and arpeggios that they like and have copied off of players they admire. Our brains are wonderful at recognizing patterns, so these can be conveniently dropped in without our conscious brains having to "think" about what to otherwise play. If you're well practiced you can do these in any key. They can be visually triggered by following a chart and "playing the changes". The downside to this is that you sound the same much of the time so don't develop other than possibly adding more patterns. It's also possible that you don't actually hear what you're playing until it comes out of the instrument.

There is another type of subconscious playing, but it's totally dependent on having a close connection to your instrument where IT IS YOUR VOICE. What this means is that you play what you hear in your head; exactly as you would sing. Randulo gets this difference as he's used to playing what he hears, but had the fallback of being able to see the guitar neck. With a sax you can't see the notes you're playing...it has to be an automatic connection. Making that connection from sound in your head to note on the instrument is where you want to be. It takes years of practice, and NOT being dependent on reading or translating visual information to fingers. It's hearing to fingers. Getting to that subconscious state where it flows without effort is (IMHO) worth striving for.
 

nigeld

I don't need another mouthpiece; but . . .
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Our brains are wonderful at recognizing patterns, so these can be conveniently dropped in without our conscious brains having to "think" about what to otherwise play
My teacher recommends that I have some “don’t need to think” patterns in my fingers in order to recover from potential awkward moments when I have temporarily lost the plot. Unfortunately this is based on an incorrect assumption that I have found the plot in the first case. :confused:
 

Wade Cornell

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My teacher recommends that I have some “don’t need to think” patterns in my fingers in order to recover from potential awkward moments when I have temporarily lost the plot. Unfortunately this is based on an incorrect assumption that I have found the plot in the first case. :confused:
We all develop musical "ummms". If you're fast/clever they are just your pauses between phrases. If you're as slow as me they can become a phrase where you plug in one of your "tried and true". In many cases they can become "signatures" of players who use these a lot of the time.
The thing to avoid is becoming a player who uses only those patterns and has no creative relationship to the music. Cut and paste (IMHO) does not = creativity. If one feels more comfortable with cut and paste thinking and has an ear for music I'd recommend becoming a DJ. Takes less time and effort and you may even make money at it?!
 
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randulo

randulo

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Practicing things that we could (perhaps) do consciously become second nature (automatic).
I think that's accurate. The brain controls everything we do, but when we talk about muscle memory, although the brain is driving, the hand and fingers are still playing sequences or rhythms of which they "know" the feel. It's worn in like grooves in a road, which is one reason I try to avoid scales and such. On the other hand, you have to practice something beside long tones! What I try to do (sorry if I say this in almost every post) is find things that I feel express something of me and go over them a few times. I avoid, for example, practicing an Fmaj7 arpeggio that I know can be played over G7 in a blues. When I get there in that spot, I may play some of the notes in some combo, but they usually will not be the kind of Bird bebop riff, even though that's brilliant and sounds professional. Tremolos and trills are effects that need little memorisation, but the muscles of adjacent or alternate fingers are doing it. There's another kind I'm fighting to get over, and that's "embouchure memory". I just invented that, I think, but what I mean is my habit of doing a bend on every C# in certain note combinations that go over the bend. I spent some time yesterday trying to attenuate the volume differences on that note as well.

@Wade Cornell hopefully I can also play stuff I can't sing, like all the wider intervals; I work on singing them in my mind.;)
 

Wade Cornell

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@Wade Cornell hopefully I can also play stuff I can't sing, like all the wider intervals; I work on singing them in my mind.;)
Got to have the music in the head (which you've got). Making the fingers hit those notes consistently is the big trick. There's so many aspects to playing a woodwind instrument that it probably makes sense to just concentrate on one or two at a time and build confidence in those before tackling everything else. Fingers to the notes you hear in your head and tone are the two biggies, everything else is gravy.
 
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randulo

randulo

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many aspects to playing a woodwind instrument
Yes, they're special. Not only coordination of the hands, but of the breathing as well. Mostly without the help of electronics, except in special cases, so compared to the guitar:
Control of volume (electric guitar, turn a knob)
Control of attacks (many nuances of picking a string, but any pluck will make a note)
Control of the very low and the very high notes (mostly no difference on guitar)
Control of harmonic altissimo notes (guitar harmonics are just a matter of placing the fingers in the exact position. Throat shape is much harder.)

Any instrument requires a lot of work to consistently express a musical feel, but some have more of a gift than others. It's good when parents expose their kids to music, without forcing it on them.

It's my view that learning artistic expression is not a frivolous experience, but a path to satisfaction and therefore creates a better, more friendly and healthy society. I believe we should all (musicians) be doing what we can to this end.
It's one of the reasons I support Playing for Change
Home - Playing for Change
 
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Pete Effamy

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Nice points boys, I seem to be tied up with all sorts of rubbish atm but my two cents is to add that whilst I agree with the use of the voice etc I’m personally lucky that my playing does not follow my voice capabilities at all. As an instrument my voice is somewhat less good as a 1980s La Fleur.
 
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