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Muscle memory

Muscle memory for musiciansOur brain is strange. I wouldn’t be able to tell you what I had today for lunch, because I just can’t remember it. But if you give me a marimba, I can play pages and pages by heart.

And to do that, I have to follow rather complicated movements, like controlling two sticks with each hand, playing the right notes, interpreting the piece etc. This at least proves that, as a percussionist, I’m quite an evolved animal.

Ok, but this has nothing to do with today’s topic.

Time ago I read a couple of very interesting things regarding the so-called muscle memory or, simply, the autopilot. That’s basically what allows you to play “well” without fusing your brain every time.

That’s it, today I’d like to talk about this, from my point of view.


Given that I’m not able to talk scientifically about a topic involving biology, medicine and other sciences, I will just use funny comparisons:

  • Comparison n.1 : in this moment I’mm writing at my computer. To write the word “computer”, my fingers must type c-o-m-p-u-t-e-r on the keyboard. To do it correctly, it roughly takes a second, I’ve just measured it. I don’t have to think of each letter I type, because my fingers know where they should go. When I write at my computer, who’s working is my autopilot.
  • Comparison n.2 : can you remember how you’ve learnt how to speak? Maybe not, but this is roughly what happened: first, you’ve learnt how certain words sound like, then you’ve started connecting some of these words to form simple sentences having some sort of sense, and finally you could connect each sentence to make a conversation. When you speak, you don’t need to think of each single word you say. When you speak, your autopilot works for you.
  • Comparison n.3 : can you remember when you’ve learnt how to walk? Again, you likely don’t. First, you were surely very focused on trying and you failed; very likely you fell down and tried again. When you understood how it was working, you’ve kept on improving your walking style year after year. Now you don’t have to think anymore about every single step you do. When you walk, your autopilot is in action.

That’s it, you’ve got what I mean. When we play music, our autopilot works for us.



I’m not a doctor, nor a biologist; therefore, I’m about to tell you lots of rubbish, from the scientific point of view. However, what I got is that the autopilot works more or less like this:

  • our brain is like a forest. In this forest, there are paths very clearly mapped: these paths are those movements we make everyday. For example, when you write at your computer, talk, walk, play music. Basically, everything we’ve just talked about.
  • Every time we learn a new movement, it’s like having to map a new path in this forest. In the beginning, it will be tricky making our way through the trees, but by passing through the same pathway over and over again, we’ll create a new route in our forest, which will become, if we want, a highway. In spite of the deforestation problem. (I could maybe avoid this last one…)

So you see that when we were born, there was like an enormous forest with no mapped routes. Basically, we couldn’t do anything and we didn’t have almost any automatism. With the time, we’ve learnt lots of things.

So, when we’ve started playing percussion, something similar happened. Initially, we’ve learnt how to carry a couple of sticks, then we’ve learnt how to make the first hits on the snare drum, or on the pad; at some point, those more evolved among us freak percussionists, started playing with 4 mallets or doing complicated things with the drum set.

Still taking the risk of saying other medical or scientific nonsenses, I’ll report what I’ve read somewhere. I beg your pardon for being so inaccurate when I cite my sources but these are things I’ve read browsing some more or less focussed magazines. The muscle memory develops in 3 steps :

  1. The first step is cognitive: this is when you put all your efforts to make those movements that are new for you. Usually, this is challenging and you do it very slowly.
  2. The second step is associative, because you try and connect each basic movement to obtain a unique flawless movement.
  3. The last step is automatic, and it takes place when you are so good that you can make all the movements without having to think about them. At this point you can just polish your movements by repeating them and making exercises.

The two magic words are Repetition and Exercise.



When I was studying at the conservatory, I got this enlightenment: the more I was training myself on the actual pieces, the better I could play them. I’m a genius and I know it well.

The point is: to become a great player, you have to study and making exercises. And this is the secret to get a big in any field. There is no trick or shortcut, and talent is mainly a fairy tale or a trap (even if I will talk shortly about what I think of the genetic factor).

Certain disciplines like the Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), when applied to playing music, teach you that often our mind can make a difference regarding what we can or we cannot do during a performance. This is rather misleading. Unfortunately, reality is simpler: if we didn’t train ourselves enough, we’ll NEVER play correctly. This goes beyond all the thoughts or the neuro-psycho-linguistic approaches we have when we play.

Knowing how to play means training your mind and your body at the same time. However, our mind goes often beyond the limits of our body, and this doesn’t help in the practice. For example: knowing how to read music allows you to understand in theory which movements you have to do on your instrument to transform in music what you’ve just read on the score. But if you are not able to make these movements, it means you didn’t train your body enough.

Coordination, force and endurance are necessary elements for all us musicians, and especially for percussionists and drummers. These elements can only be achieved with daily practice. Only by practicing you’ll be able to improve yourself as a performer.


Kid playing drums


Life is strange: I can play the mallet percussion using 4 sticks, two each hand, but I’ve never been able to eat using the chopsticks in an Asian restaurant. Yes ok, this is not very interesting taken by itself but it makes me think that certain people can make certain movements better than others.

Genes count? I don’t know, but I think they do only in part anyway. However it’s clear that I can’t explain those videos on youtube showing 2 years old children playing drum with good coordination, without considering genetics. But what can music, art, the all world do with 2 years old children playing drums? What will they do themselves with it, once they grow up? Talent, if talent exists, has to be cultivated. And if you don’t have it, never give up.

Let’s even say this bloomy genetic predisposition exists. Ok, and what about those who don’t have it? They’ll never become musicians? And those who were born without being able to make a calculation will never become engineers? Or those who can’t write great tales when they’re 8, they’ll never become writers?

Of course this is not true. It all depends on focussing your efforts and your concentration to go beyond your limits. And your ability to focus is proportional to your own will (see my first lesson on Youtube). Once again, where there’s a will, there is a way.

Therefore, next time I’ll have a sushi in a Japanese restaurant, I’ll know how to use those bloody sticks. Because in the meantime, I’ll study and train myself. At the end of the day, I have lot’s of time to lose.



Some years ago I had a pupil who had learnt how to play drums only using his arms. He didn’t have a clue how to use correctly his wrists and fingers. He had learnt the basics in the wrong way, and this unfortunately often happens.

The problem is that when you face this “cases”, teaching the correct technique is much more difficult. Why? Because what we’ve just discussed has happened. The muscle memory learnt a movement that became automatic with time. A movement that is automatic…. and wrong.

You can understand that it’s much more difficult replacing this movement with a “correct version” of it. By the way: I could finally give this guy the right posture, even if it took much longer, compared to the other pupils.

This story shows two things:

  1. The technical approach and the playing basics we’ve learnt can be reconsidered at any point of our training. HOWEVER…
  2. HOWEVER, the earlier we learn the correct approach, the better. Forgetting an automatic movement engraved in our muscle memory to learn a correct one is more difficult than learning the correct movement from scratch. If you learn immediately a technique in the correct way, you won’t make mistakes later. You won’t simply be able to do so, because you’ll recognize the correct movement.



To summarize, today I’ve told you that:

  • in order to play, we need automatic movements that we develop with time;
  • the automatism develop following three subsequent steps, which follow each other through repetition and daily training;
  • talent and genetic factors are not really important;
  • it is better learning the correct movements from scratch, rather than correcting yourself later on;
  • eating with chopsticks in Asian restaurants is bloody difficult.

And to try and overcome this last such important side of every human being’s life, I’ll book immediately a table at the closest Japanese restaurant.

To you, I only suggest to study and make exercises. Bye!


Question: what do you think about muscle memory and what do you do to train it? Leave a comment.