Muscle Memory Made Easy?

On December 4, 2012, in Advice, Lessons, by Magnolia Guitar

Music students looking for the opportunity to practice in their sleep may have reason to rejoice this holiday season. Maybe.

As reported by Discover Magazine, Georgia Tech computer scientist, Thad Starner is the coinventor of Mobile Music Touch (MMT). The MMT features a finger-less glove that connects to your computer or mobile device via wireless Bluetooth. As your computer plays a song, the application then translates the notes to electrical signals that stimulates the fingers to move and simulate striking the corresponding keys on a piano. The idea is that you don’t even need to be in front of a piano to learn a brief melody.

Illustration by Trevor Johnston

Starner’s approach takes advantage of the concept of muscle memory, which every music student is all too familiar with. Muscle memory is the concept that one can learn and remember patterned motions through mostly automated repetition.

“Students using MMT were able to learn the first 45 notes of ‘Amazing Grace’ in half an hour while studying for GRE exams. When answering reading comprehension questions, students scored similarly with or without MMT.”

My students are used to me saying that the first step to learning to play the guitar is mostly mechanical. The sooner you learn, become comfortable with, and automate the physical mechanics of the instrument, the sooner you’ll be playing at your desired expectations. And of course, that requires practice (not to sound like a broken record).

In and of itself, this seems easy. But its also easy to forget that the goal isn’t to play two chords smoothly for a few seconds. The goal is remembering and playing three to four different sections, in tempo, for four minutes straight (roughly the average length of a pop song). If you expect to play like your favorite artist or band, multiply that by 20 and you’ll see it’s not as easy as it seems.

In the beginning, when your fingers tire easily, I instruct my students to play “Air Guitar” such as I call it. This isn’t your parking lot tail-gating kind of air guitar, but a technique that allows you to mimic the muscle movement of scales or chords but without pressing down on the strings, thereby giving your finger-tips a bit of respite.

When I commuted to a day job, I often had a similar right hand (RH) technique I used for tempo. I would listen to a song I’d been practicing on headphones learning the words, but I’d also exercise my RH technique, pre-visualizing what I would do–and looking for efficiencies–without even holding my guitar. I’m sure it looked a little silly to my fellow commuters, if they even paid attention to me. (I doubt they did. I certainly didn’t care if they had.)

Similar to Starner’s MMT, by using techniques of visualization and mimesis (the act of mimicking), I was able repeat and plan certain aspects of my playing without having a guitar in front of me. And without the glove. This doesn’t replace practicing with a guitar, but I feel, if repeated consistently during one’s downtime, it can supplement your routine practice. Give it a try and let me know how it works for you.