Plasticity, Muscle Memory and Performance Five Ways to Develop Plasticity Over Rigidity

One of my favorite things about teaching is getting students ready for performances. Deep-down, every kid loves to perform. We just have to find it in them. And if we put a lot of work into practicing, why not share it with an audience and help them feel good?

Plasticity Muscle Memory

There are two things I always try and focus on and communicate to students when getting read for performances:

  • No matter who you are playing for, somewhere inside them they love music. If you reach them in their core that likes to dance and sing around the house when no one is watching, the critical side of them will ease up and they will be engaged with the aspects of your playing they enjoy.
  • I try and make the lessons more difficult than any performance will ever be. A student will come in after having worked really hard on something and I throw out every wrench I can think of so they can’t depend on muscle memory and rote playing.

This post will focus a few of the ways I make the lessons more difficult. I always did these things to some degree when I started teaching, but I do it even more now that I’ve spent years geeking out on neuroscience and plasticity research articles and books. Scientists are proving each day that repetition without variation does us no favors when mastering something. Things always have to be changing (even if it’s just slightly) for our brains to be growing new connections. The old “five times in a row the same way before we move on” is old, outdated methodology that I’m glad I don’t use anymore after seeing how much faster students master things using methods that are in line with the research (more posts on that in the future).

Here are some techniques that have helped many different students get ready to perform. They are fantastic for when a student has something ready to go but it’s not popping – it’s not “next-level” as the kids say. These methods can help things become next-level:

  • Practice Making “Mistakes”: Before they start, have them “forget” a section of the piece. For example, they are ready to play Beethoven’s Sonata No. 1. I tell them they have to improvise their own opening theme – literally make up whatever they want as long as it sets the tempo, mood and key of the piece. Then the snap right to the written music in measure 5 or measure 3 or measure 7… It depends on how mean you want to be. Once they do that, stop them and then ask them to play “as written” up to measure 12 where they are to make something up from measure 12 through 15 and then sync up to Beethoven’s notes at measure 16. I really don’t care what they play in the gaps as long as they come in strong when they are supposed to… I’ve had kids just play a groove with their fists and nail the re-entry. That’s the main thing. This is all done with no score in front of them. They should know the measures without looking at the page.
  • Freeze Tag: This is exactly the same as “Practice Making Mistakes” except they leave gaps of silence instead of making things up. So when they get to the designated section, they stop playing completely and imagine the song continuing. Then they jump back in (in tempo!) and continue. A really fun variation of this is to not tell them what the measures will be. Just say “stop” or “freeze” as they are performing when they have to stop. They keep the song going in their heads and when you say “start” or “go” they continue from wherever they would have been if they would have continued. Sometimes if I want to be really tough, I’ll just start talking about random things in the silence breaks to throw them off. We’ve all had coughing fits or babies crying in the middle of our performances – we should be ready for distractions!
  • Follow the Teacher or Recording: I love this one! It’s a simple concept but gets huge results. When they are ready to play, I sing one of the themes from random places in the piece and they jump in and start playing with me whenever they recognize the section. Sometimes it takes them several measures. The goal is to decrease the recognition time to where they hop in and are with me after a few notes. Then I’ll sing along as they play and change the tempo, articulations, dynamics – and they try and follow. Once they get tired of listening to me sing, we use recordings. I’ll pull up recordings of Brendel, Schnabel, Kempff, etc. playing the Sonata and I’ll start playing the recording from random places. The student is to quickly identify where they are in the piece and play along as soon as possible – matching every possible musical detail they are hearing in the recording.
  • Extreme Tempos: There is nothing more helpful (and humbling) than having a student who thinks they are so amazing on their piece play it at 10%-15% of the tempo they have been practicing it. This has saved so many auditions and recitals for my students. It helps them see the piece in a fresh light and perform with new life… Once they figure out how to play it that slowly. Then you can have them play it 20%-30% faster so that they have to keep plowing ahead and finish – even if it’s rough. The important thing with this one is not to make it about tempo, have them play with all the phrasing, dynamics and articulations at 20 bpm as they did at 200 bpm… They have to make music even though it’s at a way slower/faster tempo.
  • Transpose: It can be tough, but a couple of weeks before the performance I often have kids learn the Sonata (or whatever we’re doing) in a different key (or keys) and we spend the whole lesson before the performance in the “wrong key” until the very end – again, working hard on phrasing, dynamics, etc. Then the last pass I let them go back to the original. Then they walk out amazed at how they sound like a different player than they were the week or two before on the original. It’s always a rewarding moment. And they are so loose and confident when they get on the stage, they usually nail it.

I hope these are interesting and helpful. Just a reminder, all of this is done with no music in front of them.