When I speak to groups of music students about music practice tips, how to learn music, and achieving goals, muscle memory is always one of the main parts of the discussion.  When your muscles can correctly and automatically play all the notes in your music, your performances are easier and more fun.

But, one aspect of muscle memory always seems to make music students uncomfortable.  It’s the idea of playing very slowly so the muscles don’t learn mistakes.  Many students think it’s unrealistic to practice this way because they simply don’t have enough time to practice everything slowly.  They feel they’ll never get through all the material they need to play.

I try to reassure them with two ideas:  First, very slow practicing is most important for the really difficult sections of their music.  You don’t have to play everything slowly, and for most practice sessions you should skip the easy stuff anyway (which will save you time).  Second, even though you may feel you are spending too much time when you practice slowly, this is actually the fastest way for your brain and muscles to learn.

Let’s look at a typical practice session for many musicians:

You’re working on a four bar section that is really tough.  You play through this section a little under performance tempo and make two or three little errors.  So, you go back through the section, maybe a bit slower.  Some errors still happen, not necessarily anything consistent.  You stop and restart a lot.  You feel a little more in control each time.  On the sixth try, you get it!  You figure that’s enough for today and you will come back to it again tomorrow.

From the point of view of your brain and your muscle memory, what exactly did this practicing accomplish? 

1.  Your brain learned that there is no single, correct way to play this passage and may have put all the errors into your memory.

2.  The signals sent to your muscles were inconsistent so they didn’t learn one correct sequence of actions.

What if you tried the “Slower is Faster” approach? 

In this case, you would play the same four bars very, very slowly–so slowly that you play absolutely perfectly the first time.  The second time you play correctly again.  Then, you go just a bit faster (but still well under performance tempo) and play it accurately a couple more times.

Again, from the point of view of your brain and your muscles, here’s what happened:

1.  Your brain received memory impressions that were consistent and repeated.  Basically, a single chunk of information for playing this music was successfully put into your memory.

2.  The neural messages from your brain to your muscles have been consistent, and your muscles have learned the correct pattern of motions to play this section correctly.

No matter which practice method you use, you’ll still have to come back to this material tomorrow.  That hasn’t changed.  But, the Slower is Faster method makes you better prepared for tomorrow’s practicing.  You’ll be able to start this section already knowing how to play it and will be able to get the section to performance tempo sooner.

Unfortunately, most music students have no idea how their memories actually function.  And, neither do their music teachers.  So, practicing to maximize the efficient use of your memory isn’t emphasized in most music lessons.

The key to the Slower if Faster method of practicing is placing a correct, single chunk of information into your memory for each small section of your music. 

According to neuroscientist and musician Daniel Levitin, the human brain creates the strongest memories with repetition.  In his book This Is Your Brain on Music he writes, “The strength of a memory is related to how many times the original stimulus has been experienced.”

This means the “stimulus” you send to your brain (the correct playing of a section of music) must be experienced over and over.  The signal must be consistent and repeated. 

If you want your musical memory to be strong–which you know you’ll need to have a stress-free performance–your brain and muscles need repetition. 

You can’t send different information to your brain each time you play and expect to learn your music accurately.  If your practicing is full of errors, your brain will have no way of knowing which version should be kept in memory!

Playing correctly from the beginning, which is the essence of the Slower is Faster practice method, builds muscle memory and really is the fastest way to learn your music.

10 Responses to “Learn Faster by Playing Slower: Muscle Memory Techniques that Work”  

  1. 1 monet silvestre

    This is great. Thank you for sharing. I’m a piano player who has to budget one’s time for daily chores but must still be able to practice. This article is very enlightening.

  2. 2 Heidi Kohne

    I am writing to ask the name of the author for the article “Learn Faster by Playing Slower: Muscle Memory Techniques that Work.
    Thank you!

  3. 3 David Motto

    Heidi – I’m David Motto, the owner of Molto Music, and I write all the blog entries on this site, send out a Practice Tip of the Week newsletter, and am the author of many books for musicians. You can reach me directly at info@moltomusic.com.

  4. 4 Matthew the music man

    This is actually a huge myth, one that unfortunately still occurs even today. I think it is born of a misunderstanding behind how muscle memory is formed.

    Playing slowly is the best way to learn the notes, once you know the notes that you need to play, you should bring the practice up to speed. Continuing to play slowly to build muscle memory is counter-productive, unless you are making a repeat mistake which you are trying to overcome. Allow me to explain.

    For muscle memory to occur, repetition is necessary. If I play 10 notes and get 1 wrong, then repeat the playthrough and get a different note wrong, then a 3rd time I make yet another mistake etc, and for example say this occured 10 times. What you find is that for each of the 10 notes, I hit the correct note right 9 times and only wrong once. The one single mistake is not going to become a muscle memory, but the 9 repeated correct actions will.

    If someone is playing slowly, whilst they are indeed hitting only correct notes, someone playing at speed with the above method will have also played the right notes perhaps 5 times more in number, in the same time frame, and thus shall learn much faster. This is how the brain works. The more times I play this segment, the more exacerbated this becomes. Will the person who played the correct notes 20 times, learn faster than someone who has hit 10 wrong notes, yet hit all the right ones 90 times? The answer is no. What about 200 right notes in a slow playthrough, versus 900 correct notes hit by someone playing fast? The single mistakes simply do not form muscle memory, unless they too are repeated. The 900 right notes however, will.

    If you are making a repeat mistake, then you are absolutely right in stating that you need to slow the process right down. I can’t stress this enough. The last thing you want to do is to train yourself in to making mistakes so it’s crucial that you slow down. Once you know the notes though and are just making the odd varied mistake, it’s far better to play at the speed you should normally play. You will learn much faster.

  5. 5 online piano lessons

    I believed that theory slower, surely and accurate is faster. This is a simple theory comes from basic piano lessons.Very important thanks for sharing.

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