100 Things You Should Know About People: #99 — Well Practiced Skills Don't Require Conscious Attention

Person playing the violin
Guthrie Weinschenk Playing Violin

I have two grown children. The entire time they were growing up they took Suzuki method music lessons. My son studied violin, and my daughter studied piano. After attending one of my daughter’s piano recitals, I asked her what she was thinking about while she was performing the piano sonata piece (from memory, no music in front of her). Was she thinking about the dynamics of the music? When to get louder or softer? About particular notes or passages that were coming up? Speed or tempo? She looked at me in confusion. “Thinking?”, she said, “I’m not thinking about anything. I’m just watching my fingers play the song.” It was my turn to be confused. I turned to my son and said, “Is that how you play the violin in a recital? Are you thinking?” “No, of course I’m not thinking, he answered. I’m watching my fingers play the violin too.”

Muscle memory — The Suzuki method of music instruction (and perhaps other methods too, it’s the only one I’m really familiar with) requires students to intensely practice particular skills on their instrument. In a Suzuki recital students usually do not have music in front of them. All the pieces (and quite complicated pieces) are memorized. This requires that particular passages and songs be practiced over and over. A term that is used in music instruction is “muscle memory”. The piece is practiced so often, that the muscles remember how to play it on its own, without thinking involved.

Automatic execution? — If a skill is practiced so well that it is automatic, then it can be performed with a minimum of conscious attention. If it is really automatic then it almost allows multi-tasking. I say almost because multi-tasking doesn’t really exist.

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