Have you wondered how professional musicians can play intricate passages and really fast music in a way that looks effortless and sounds smooth? How do they get their fingers to know where to go faster than they can consciously think? Or even to play slower pieces confidently?

Think “learned movement that becomes habitual”. With consistent and focused practice, the point at which you can feel the effort decrease, the flow of the music improve, the ability to play expressively increase, and you get the feeling that you’re playing on “autopilot”  –  that’s the goal. And it’s usually attainable for those who are willing to work for it.

In all fairness, there are those who for one reason or another cannot develop habits of movement and must therefore learn other ways to play, and for whom it may never feel easy. I applaud the effort and the willpower shown by those who are willing to play even though faced with this challenge. I don’t think it’s impossible or wrong to play an instrument by intense concentration of every movement. No one should think they cannot play just because something that works for most doesn’t work for them. So don’t let anyone stop you.

But if you can do certain things kinesthetically such as tie your shoes, write longhand, and other such habitual-movement activities, then it’s likely you can learn to play music kinesthetically as well.  If you’ve never developed a kinesthetic (habitual movement) sense for music-playing, perhaps you’ve never been taught how! (And it’s not just a matter of how long you practice. If you already practice for reasonable lengths of time, you may not need to practice more, just differently.)

I was recently gratified to read in Malcolm Gladwell’s well-known book What the Dog Saw* a lengthy and detailed treatise on the subject of learned movement and the difference between what he calls explicit learning and implicit learning. Explicit learning is when you are beginning to practice a new physical skill, and it still feels a bit stiff and contrived due to its unfamiliarity. But as time and practice go on, it becomes more automatic and more fluid, even intuitive; it becomes implicit. One can then rely on the proper motions to happen masterfully without having to concentrate so hard on them, which frees up the mind to focus on other important aspects of the activity. Gladwell states that implicit physical learning happens in many kinds of physical activities (I would venture to say most).

Gladwell also cites what happens, using actual occurrences, when someone who has developed implicit knowledge (habitual, kinesthetic, intuitive movement) stops trusting it and reverts back to explicit knowledge. That usually happens under pressure. In sports, it’s disastrous. In my personal experience, in music it is equally so.  Therefore when I practice for a gig I always purposely practice explicitly and implicitly (with attention to details of movement and patterns, and also on “autopilot”). I never know until I’m on stage which state of mind I will be in; if I’m nervous it’s always the explicit one, which is far more difficult. Better to practice for that state of mind than to assume I will always be in implicit mode just because I so easily achieve that at home!  (That’s the same situation as when a student comes to a lesson and says “I played it better at home”. I’ve never known a student who didn’t experience that.)

As I said in a previous post, while you’re learning new music or skills, the neurologic system continually “files” the information in your subconscious, which allows later accessing of those skills or movements merely by “hearing” the music in your head. If you’ve practiced the piece well, the fingers can just play what you “hear” without your consciously telling them where to go. Your hands will know what to do because a direct connection develops between the muscles and the subsconscious mind, bypassing the conscious mind. At this point, thinking too much about the logistics of playing it (“Now I put this finger here…” or “next is a G note”) can actually sabotage the process. I’ll compare this again to tying your shoes: when you were a little kid you had to concentrate really hard on learning that skill, but soon you could do it on autopilot. Now if you tried to think about how you tie your shoes (“This end goes over that end and through this loop…”) you can’t do it as quickly as you can when you just turn your fingers loose to do it. Relying on muscle (implicit) memory is far more efficient than trying to think it through when you already know it.

For musicians who read music well, there is an implicit habit that develops in response to reading each specific note or group of notes: upon seeing them the brain tells the fingers where to go. You don’t have to think, “That’s a G note and therefore I have to put my third finger here.” Needless to say, this ability comes with a lot of practice!

Likewise, those who memorize or play by ear can have the ability to “hear” the note or phrase in your head and the fingers will automatically play it.

We’ve all heard that one must play a piece or passage or exercise every day for twenty-one days to set it in memory. I would say also to set it implicitly. That number probably came from someone’s research, and from experience I believe it’s true for most. Some with a great deal of experience get it much more quickly, but most mortals have to work at it.

Playing music is never effortless in the beginning. But it can get to feel that way (at least physically) when your skills are in place and you have practiced sufficiently. I see many people not trusting their hands even after they have developed a reliable kinesthetic sense, especially in regard to technique. If your technique is good, you don’t have to think about it except to fix the occasional straying away that can occur.  As one teacher used to say, “Once you’ve got the information, hang up the phone.” Trust your brain and your fingers. They are there to serve you.

*Gladwell’s book covers many subjects; the section I’ve referenced is only a small part it’s about how what we assume or what we consider common sense or common knowledge isn’t always accurate, and how we can benefit from looking at things from other and sometimes opposite viewpoints. His writing is always well researched and responsible, which is why he’s a respected best-selling author. I highly recommend the book.