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#AskRCMScience: Developing muscle memory for a second instrument

#AskRCMScience: Developing muscle memory for a second instrument

In this post, #AskRCMScience tackles the question of learning a new instrument and developing muscle memory. Ask us your question in the comments, on Twitter with #AskRCMScience, or post to our Facebook page. 

#AskRCMScience: I have a question for the neuroscientist. Many of the scales, and indeed pieces that I worked on for my grade 8 RCM exams in about 1962 are still in muscle memory even though I hardly touch the piano. But I am trying to play the clarinet now, and am dismayed that little seems to make it into that "muscle memory" that would allow me to play patterns on auto pilot. My technique frustrates me. At the age of 68, do I simply need to keep practising, or are there tricks to use?

Answer: That’s a great question, and it raises an important issue for many people who learn multiple instruments.

It seems to me that there are two forces working against you here. The first is age- despite our best efforts, it’s never as easy to learn something at 68 as it is at 8. It’s probably why the piano scales are so ingrained in your memory.

However, this piano ability is also part of what’s working against you here. One of the major factors that can block memory formation is “proactive interference”. This occurs when old knowledge or memories impedes the formation of new ones, especially ones that are similar in form. For example, if you’re trying to remember the name of a person you’re meeting for the first time, it will be more difficult if you have heard a few other names beforehand than if it is the only one. The other names you’ve learned interfere with your formation of a new memory. To give a more personal example, I moved offices a few months ago, and still find myself wandering back to my old office every once in a while: The memory of my old path interferes with my ability to follow the new path.

I suspect a similar thing is going on here. Playing the clarinet uses a similar type of finger coordination as the piano, and the old knowledge may be interfering with the formation of new motor patterns, especially if you’re playing similar types of pieces or patterns (such as scales).

Given this, I would suggest two practical tips for helping to remember your new clarinet patterns. First, you should try to mentally separate the piano and clarinet. This means starting with clarinet pieces that are quite different from your piano pieces -- if you learned a classical style of piano, try something more modern on the clarinet -- jazz perhaps, or 20th century (I hear klezmer is fun to play). What’s more, try to differentiate your physical practice environment for the two instruments. Even if you’re not playing piano anymore, having a similar environment can bring back some of those deeply encoded memories. So try to make your clarinet experience unique.

Second, you’ll want a way to more effectively consolidate the clarinet-related muscle memories you do form. The best ways of doing this are to space out your practicing, and make sure you’re getting a good night’s sleep. This allows your brain to solidify the synaptic connections that encode your newly formed memories, consolidating your memories into long-term storage. This process is thought to happen particularly strongly during sleep.

Good luck in your practicing, and I hope it leads to the formation and consolidation of many happy memories!

Dr. Sean

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Our reader asks, why does it seem harder to learn a new instrument at an older age? The answer might be 'proactive interference.'