Muscle Memory

Every so often, mastering a new skill requires “muscle memory”.

According to Google, muscle memory is “the ability to reproduce a particular movement without conscious thought, acquired as a result of frequent repetition of that movement”. For example, playing a musical instrument, juggling, and learning to “touch type” on a computer keyboard are all skills that require muscle memory.

For the most part, building muscle memory just takes a lot of practice and repetition. But in my experience, there are a few things you can do to make practice sessions more effective. I’m currently learning a challenging song on piano, and I’m being reminded of these aspects of building muscle memory. I would like to share a few of the more important points in this post.

1. Don’t practice it wrong.

Whatever you’re learning, whether it’s a new song on piano or juggling 5 balls, it is important to practice doing it correctly. If you make frequent mistakes, the repetition will be less effective.

Of course, when learning a new skill, you’re going to make plenty of mistakes. But it would be better to, for example, play the new songĀ a little slower and try to hit all the right notes, rather than powering forward at full speed, hitting wrong notes every time. You can always gradually speed it up as you get better.

This can be especially difficult as you start to get better. In the piano example, you can start to hear the song sounding close to how it should sound, and it’s really tempting to try to play it up to speed and power through parts that you aren’t familiar with. This is ok once in a while, but be disciplined. If you hold back so that you practice doing it flawlessly, your performance will be a lot more solid.

2. Build slowly.

When I learned to juggle 5 balls, I would juggle a certain number of throws+catches 10 times in a row before moving on. I would do 5 throws, 5 catches, 10 times. Once I could do that without dropping, I would 7 throws, 7 catches, 10 times. Then 9 throws, 9 catches. And so on.

The principle can be applied to any skill requiring muscle memory. Build slowly. Don’t rush. Solidify the easy task, and then gradually make it a little bit harder.

3. Don’t end on a “drop”.

When learning a new juggling pattern, it’s tempting to stop practicing when you’re starting to get tired and start dropping the balls more. But it’s very important not to end on a drop, or a failure.

Make sure that the last thing you do is a success. Perform the juggling pattern with fewer throws, or do a slightly easier one. Play the song a little slower. Do whatever it takes to make sure that the final act of your practice session is an incontrovertible success.

Your subconscious is going to stew on the last act of your practice session. If the last act is a failure, that’s what your mind will process while you’re not practicing.

You want your mind to stew on success. What it felt like, how it worked, how to do it again. So make sure that’s what you end with. Even if it means going back several steps to something really easy. Don’t get frustrated. Do a successful run, and let your subconscious work.

4. A little bit every day is better than a lot at once.

It would be better to practice for 30 minutes per day than to block off a single afternoon in a week. Muscle memory strengthens through consistent and regular repetition. Practicing often and regularly is better than practicing for long periods.

5. Be prepared for ups and downs.

While learning my new song on piano, I’ve had practice sessions where I could play significantly better than the day before. I’ve had other sessions where I seemed to have gotten worse since the previous day. Still others are half and half; I’ll play the song flawlessly, and then on the next try I’ll mess it all up.

Don’t get frustrated when this happens! It is normal. Give yourself patience and compassion. You’re learning a new skill, and it’s not a linear process. Listen to your body and mind. Work on the level that you are at. Even if that level is different from yesterday.

It’s ok to go back and work on something that you could do flawlessly yesterday. Working on it again today will still help to further solidify the muscle memory. It’s not counter-productive to take a step back, especially if the alternative is to push too far and build bad habits.

6. Have fun!

Building muscle memory takes a lot of time and commitment. It’s not easy or quick. You’re going to need to stick with it to make it work.

So make sure that it’s fun! Play around during your practice sessions. Try new things once in a while. Challenge yourself. Show others your progress (note: you will get worse as soon as you try to show someone!) Tackle the new skill with a friend, and compare notes. If it’s boring, then you’re not going to master the skill. Make it fun.

I hope that helps next time you want to build some muscle memory! It’s fun to learn new skills, and really rewarding to learn to do something difficult. Good luck!

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