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Discussion Starter #1
At the Jazz Club last month, this great musician explained to me that it just takes enough practice till your fingers learn. Can that be true? I've noticed that the stuff I've practiced the most works better when I'm not thinking about it.
 

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I think he was refering to muscle memory. So bascially if I praticed a piece for a few hours starting slow then slowly speeding up, I would have it down. Becuase os muscle memory.
 

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Most definitely, as a guitarist as well, finger memory is a huge factor. On the guitar the changes and speed can be so fast, that you rely on the hand remembering sequences.

It is the same on the sax, this why you practice scales, its about "burning in" those patterns, so you forget about the mechanics of playing, and just think about the sound.

I use a book by Klose called 25 daily exercises, and these are really good for improving finger memory

Good luck
 

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A couple of thoughts on muscle memory. Believe it or not, there has been some scientific study of the phenomenon... I will try to find the article and post a link if I can, but the upshot is this.... muscle memory is gained most effectively by practice followed by a "rest" interval, followed by more practice, etc. In other words, it's better to practice something for 1/2 hour for six days a week than to practice it for 3 hours one day a week. Of course, if you're Bird, you practice it for 3 hours six days a week :D All of this is very relevant to improvisation since, as Crazy says, things are moving much too fast to actively think about what your muscles are doing. Imagine trying to talk while you're thinking about manipulating your larynx to produce sound............ impossible.

The second part of this relates to what is stimulating the muscle memory.... from Crazy's other posts, I suspect it's primarily his ear, which is why he sounds so good as an improvisor. In my case, my eye has been what's stimulated the muscle memory, which is great for sight reading, but not for improvisation. So I spend time every day simply trying to copy the sounds that I hear, be it a solo, a tune, or even nursery rhymes. I've still got a long way to go, but the improvement has been dramatic. I'm trying to strengthen the ear-hand side of the muscle memory equation.

Finally, a more general thought. There has been a huge amount of research done on all sorts of topics which are relevant to improvising. When you think about it, "grooving" a golf swing and having your fingers respond to what you're hearing in your head are not that far apart. Lifting weights to strengthen your chest is not that different from developing a strong embouchure. And no, if you lift weights and play golf, you will not automatically become a better improvisor :D
 

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Consider the following: there is no such thing as muscle or finger memory. I know from studying the motor cortex of the brain that the term "muscle memory" is a misnomer at best. Muscles are incapable of learning or remembering any pattern of movement. Instead, it is simply through conscious effort that the brain becomes more familiar with these patterns. Thus, the phenomenon that occurs when one practices a particular lick over and over again until it becomes "second nature" is, in reality, no different from memorizing a word definition or a line from a script using flashcards. Just like we don't call that "tongue memory" or "mouth memory", there is no such thing as "finger memory" or "muscle memory". Now, when we condition muscles to be able to do something, that's different, but it still doesn't involve any memory on the part of the muscle.
 

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Yes, muscle memory is real and it is probably one of the important pieces when mastering any instrument.

While those who posted above are literally correct that muscle themselves don't learn, the actual process involves new connections in the brain being made due to motor repetition. The resulting effect is that the hands appear to be able to perform complex task independent of the conscious mind. We do this all the time when walking, talking and performing other repetitive tasks.

The most amazing part, at least for me, is that the muscles and ears don't forget what they have learned while the conscious mind is far less dependable. While I can't actually "remember" consciously how to play many of the songs I know. My ears can still hear them and my figures still know how to play them. It's almost like someone else is playing and not me. Also, my fingers can pretty well figure out how to play just about anything I hear. I could not possibly do that if I actually had to think about playing something I had never played before or seen written.
 

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Enviroguy, many of your facts need revision. No new connections are made in the brain between itself and a particular limb or muscle group. It's just a matter of using - indeed, learning how to use - what's already there. And walking is not an effort of "muscle memory", despite the fact that it is a task that's usually managed on the subconscious level.

Also, the time-related phenomenon you describe is not "muscle memory". It's called long-term memory (LTM). For example, imagine that you learn to ride a bike at the age of 6 and ride for a year, and then you don't see another bike again until you are 30. However, once on that bike, you begin to ride immediately without having to relearn. Is that "muscle memory"? No. It's procedural LTM, one of three general types (semantic, episodic, and procedural). Procedural LTM governs use of the body and of objects so that such tasks may be performed without cluttering conscious (short-term) memory. Again, this takes place in the brain, not the muscle. In short, muscles don't remember squat.
 

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RM,

The new connections I spoke of are made in the brain. There is also an increase in "synaptic jumping". This occurs in the major nerve bundles and can be an adaptation to repetitive motion. This is one of the differences in learning and training. And is also one of the ways that reaction time is increased. It has been over twenty years since college so the names may have changed. Here's what I believe to be an article on some of this.

http://stke.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/sigtrans;2004/226/tw117

Repetitive training goes far beyond the terms you listed above. And the term "muscle memory" is very descriptive of the effect, if not the cause. I see nothing wrong with using this term in non-medical circles.

But I'll concede the point because we are really just auguring about semantics here anyway. And my muscles are telling me it's time to leave work, go home and play the soprano for a little while. At least until my eye get tired and tell me it's time to go to bed.
 

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I agree that there is no gain to be had from continuing the argument any further. For what it's worth, however, do know that I have received my knowledge on the subject from a number of well-published psychologists who specialize in the brain and its various disorders. That was not an erred attempt to attribute more credibility to my argument than what it already had, but was simply to show that I'm not making this stuff up. Anyone can claim to be an expert on something without really having the knowledge. Fortunately, I'm not that guy. Have a good one.
 

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Enviroguy and Renaissance_man,,
I get the feeling that you are only arguing semantics.

'Muscle Memory' is perhaps just a convenient term to describe a phenomena
of human physiology.

When we begin to learn a scale or lick, we need to consciously think
about which notes we wish to play.

After practising for a while, that requirement is no longer necessary.
We can play the lick without thinking about the notes.

Hence the term 'Muscle Memory', which, depending on your point of view,
may or may not be an appropiate term to describe this process.
That is, the ability to perform particular physical operations without
the assistance of the conscious mind.

We see woman doing this all the time in assembly plants. Their hands
are doing intricate assembly operations and yet they are able to converse
with their fellow workers about their family etc.
We can be driving a car, while talking to the passenger.

However, now the phrase 'Muscle Memory' has become part of our lexicon,
and so we all know what a person means when they use that particular
terminology.
 

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Discussion Starter #11
From what you all are saying, and thanks for the great input, I must conclude that I need to change my ideas about learning. I learned the notes and how to read well enough, then started to practice scales. I spent many hours struggling to memorize licks thrugh the cycle of fifths, tried memorizing all the major triads along with the dominant 7ths and minor thirds, and really overwhelmed myself, not being able to think that fast or learn that much so quickly. So for the last several months, I eased off and just tried playing mostly by ear, listening to the intervals, and having some fun recording. I realize now the importance of repitition, and not think so hard. I need let those fingers do some chord work and scale work every day, but not go nuts. Thanks
 

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I've always found (in learning anything, actually) that a combination of thinking and not thinking, or concentrating and not concentrating, is best. That is, some days, focus tightly on what you're trying to improve. Other days, just let it happen. Go back and forth, and you can improve at just about anything.
 

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One other thought on all of this...... a very good teacher of mine once remarked that students often spend too much time on the initial learning (thinking about the notes) and not nearly enough time on the repetitive "non-thinking" practicing. Let's say you want run arpeggios through all the keys, chromatically, circle of fifths, whole steps, etc. At first you have to really think about it, and it's very slow going. After a while, you can do it with very little conscious thought other than where you want to start and stop in the progression. It's when you get to that point that you need to keep going, to really burn it into your system. And muscle memory can be incredibly powerful. As a teenager, I learned the chromatic scale top to bottom, practicing it ad nauseum........... I laid off the horn for 40 years........... when I took it back up again, my technique was horribly rusty, my embouchure was gone......... but by God I could still play the chromatic scale top to bottom without thinking about it :D
 

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I also find this phenomenon of "muscle memory" an interesting one. My observation has been that it starts to exist where a pattern of movement is practiced to the extent that it becomes possible with no conscious effort at all. So it's found in learned activities such as walking or eating. The activity is then performed without significant possibility of error. It seems to make sense to work from very simple movements. So on the sax this would mean very simple scale fragments and patterns. It seems to me that Coltrane, for example, may have employed this kind of technique quite a lot and in quite a simple and direct way, later in his career. Another interesting issue would be the way in which hearing and movement interact in this situation
 

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RootyTootoot said:
I also find this phenomenon of "muscle memory" an interesting one. My observation has been that it starts to exist where a pattern of movement is practiced to the extent that it becomes possible with no conscious effort at all. So it's found in learned activities such as walking or eating. The activity is then performed without significant possibility of error. It seems to make sense to work from very simple movements. So on the sax this would mean very simple scale fragments and patterns. It seems to me that Coltrane, for example, may have employed this kind of technique quite a lot and in quite a simple and direct way, later in his career. Another interesting issue would be the way in which hearing and movement interact in this situation
I agree. Isn't this what practicing your scales, chords, licks, tunes and patterns is all about anyway?
Your Klose, Thurston, Nelson, whatever. The learning method hasn't really changed that much over the years. I'm sitting here watching the footy and running patterns (slowly:) ) on clarinet.
 

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Dog Pants said:
I agree. Isn't this what practicing your scales, chords, licks, tunes and patterns is all about anyway?
Yes! And of course "it's all in the mind" (the brain). Like RootyTootoot, I find muscle memory to be a very interesting phenomenon. And I'll agree with renaissance man that there is no such thing, if you take it literally, but the brain somehow learns to send out certain signals to trigger the muscles and once this is ingrained, if can happen mostly on the subconscious level. Which is what I think Enviroguy is saying.

In any case something happens when you repeat (practice) a muscular activity enough, so that even relatively complex digitation (is that a word?) can happen without thinking about what each finger is doing. I know this is the case, because there are a lot of tunes, licks, riffs, I play that come effortlessly. But if I were asked exactly what notes I was playing, I'd have to stop and think about it, and probably have to play the phrase a couple of times to figure out what exactly I'm playing. However, and this is important I think, when I first learned the phrase, I did have to know the notes and think about them until "muscle (brain) memory" took over.

I suspect this whole concept explains the need for practice.
 

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As I am (slowly) developing as an improvisor, I'm finding that what I think about while I'm improvising is gradually changing, from just trying to avoid "wrong" notes and follow the changes, to a more generalized strategic way of thinking (direction of the line, length, shape, and so on). To do this, I'm finding that "muscle memory" has to take care of the rest, otherwise there's way too much to think about. Also, it's impossible to listen and play at the same time if you're also trying to think about the execution of the notes. And finally, no matter how creative you are, you need a certain number of "licks" so that the listener can identify the style...... I think it was Jerry Coker who studied the solos of many of the masters, and found that virtually all of them used the "Cry Me a River" lick at one time or another. Of course, using licks is a good example of utilizing muscle memory.
 
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