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So I've been learning to play piano for a few months now. And there's this one, very easy piece, which I have absolutely no difficulties playing, except for. one. freaking. transition. which I somehow struggle with, even though it's extremely simple.

What do I mean with "struggle"? I can play the whole piece on a steady 76 bpm (as it's meant to be played,) without thinking about fingering or anything. Except in one spot, where either I play the left hand wrong, or I need to think about it and drop out of the rhythm. The problem is only with the left hand.

Here's the malevolent bit:

enter image description here

Seriously. And the thing is, I even know what goes wrong, I just don't know how to fix it. Somehow my brain ALWAYS mixes it up with this measure:

enter image description here

As you can see it's similar; in m7 your l.h. goes from Bb to the dyad F-D, and in m11 it goes from Ab to Eb-C. For some reason my brain got wired to go to Eb-C in m7 too and I always trip over it. Every time.

So, how can I unlearn this? How can I reset my idiotic brain in not doing that anymore? I've tried repeating just that transition for dozens of times, hoping to burn it into my synapses, but nope. During the repetition no problem at all. The moment I start playing the full song, my brain trips again.

Please help a desperate man out! :)

The full score can be found here: https://musescore.com/user/24361621/scores/5833365

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  • 4
    From a personal experience with guitar, I'd recommend playing it correctly at a slower bpm. It takes only a few days to get back into tempo after that. Also I'd recommend to read a bit about spaced repetition, because it's very applicable to development of any fine motor skills. Sep 10 at 14:00
  • 7
    I wonder if a visual cue might help. I notice that the score doesn't use courtesy accidentals. Try pencilling in a flat sign before the bass note in bar 7. Sep 10 at 23:57
  • @AlexanderHanysz yes, good idea, thanks!
    – Creynders
    Sep 11 at 10:30
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Very down-to-earth and an answer from experience, play the piece really slowly and correctly. It might be really irritating and boring. But do it at least twenty times correctly. Then slowly increase the tempo little by little. Your muscles will automatically overwrite its memory

A common misconception is that practicing a piece at a high tempo will make you learn faster. That is false. Once you learn to play a piece fast, you will find it tough to play it slowly, but vice versa is not true. If you practice the piece really slowly, you will never learn the wrong things, and playing fast soon becomes really really easy.

As I said, practicing slowly is really irritating and you might even, sometimes lose your marbles and hate the piece itself. (Experience: Like how I hated Moonlight Sonata while practicing it but even if you ask me to play it with my eyes closed, I can:D)

“I hated every minute of training, but I said, 'Don't quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion."- Muhammed Ali

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  • Thank you, all other answers are very helpful too. Seriously. But this was the one which helped me the most concrete. I went back to 50% playback speed (and some concentration exercices before practice, necessary to prep my ADHD scatter brain) and worked my way up and don't stumble anymore.
    – Creynders
    Sep 17 at 7:37
  • @Creynders Great to know brother!!! All the other answers are great too.
    – Hrishi
    Sep 18 at 14:51
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You may be interested in checking out some of the pedagogy of Arnold Jacobs, the long-time tuba player of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I know this seems unrelated to your question, but he discussed at length the role of muscle memory in musical performance and how to overcome issues related to it.

One of his big concepts was that you can't really unlearn something; rather, you just have to learn something new such that it replaces the old habit.

Herein lays one of the great paradoxes of the Jacobs philosophy. It is incredibly simple, but not easy to change long-held habits that hold a player back. Playing a musical instrument, to use Jacobs’s lexicon, is a series of conditioned responses developed through a trial-and-error process in response to various stimuli. Most players came to Jacobs with conditioned responses that were getting in their way. They substituted tension and pressure for wind (air in motion). They played by pushing valves vs. conceiving of a clear pitch and sending that into the brass instrument. They substituted moving their body for taking a full, seamless breath. Some people could play despite these bad habits, but none reached their potential until new habits were developed over time — new conditioned responses developed to a new set of stimuli. Jacobs’s concept of teaching not by breaking old habits but replacing them with new, better habits was an early musical application of what we know today as neuroplasticity. ... Through careful practice and repetition, the new way would eventually replace the old habit and create a new, conditioned response and a new pattern of neuronal activity. One of Jacobs’ frequent comments was, “Don’t correct what’s wrong; go for what’s right,” and this was reinforced by urging students to rehearse success and not failure in practice. Dr. Frank Diaz, a music educator who has written numerous scholarly articles on the psychology of music, said, “Jacobs’ notions on creating new habits rather than erasing old ones, and on using top-down approaches (mind controls meat) as a way of creating these new neural maps were insightful.”

The above quote is from a celebration page from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which continues on at some length about Jacobs's approach to this. You may also be interested in this blog post, and I bet you could find multiple other sources by searching "arnold jacobs habit" or something along those lines.

In any event, consider taking some of "Jake"'s advice and simplify matters. Maybe just play the left hand, starting in m. 1 and stopping on beat 2 of m. 7. Then perhaps from m. 6 into m. 11, and then connect the two. Once your left hand has learned its new habit, add in the right hand and see how things go.

This isn't a foolproof answer, of course, but I thought it would be worthwhile to share a new way of thinking about problems like this.

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  • I was going to say something similar, but without a solid reference. Btw replacement of the wrong with the right is a good mental and physical strategy in many areas besides music. Sep 10 at 13:23
  • I like the concept. No wonder 'unlearning' something is 10x more difficult than 'learning' it (wrongly) initially. It's apparently not eradicated from memory, but has to imprint itself better than the original did! No better reason for not getting it right first, is there? +1.
    – Tim
    Sep 10 at 14:21
  • I feel a bit bad about not marking this as the correct answer, but I'll explain why: though the part about Jacob's approach is no doubt the most useful, to me it remains a bit abstract. And I tried the concrete approach Richard himself gave, but it didn't really help me further. The marked answer (basically, go slow again) however did.
    – Creynders
    Sep 17 at 7:35
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There's a practice technique called "building a bridge". I bet you can play m7 on its own just fine. The challenge is to bridge over that measure: to get from m6 to m8 without falling in a hole. What you need is secure foundations on either side. The problem isn't m7 itself, it's something in your state of mind as you approach it.

Try this:

  • Start playing from m8. When you can do this without a mistake, repeat it three more times to reinforce it.
  • Now start playing from m7. Get used to transitioning from m7 to m8. Once you've got it, repeat at least another three times.
  • Now start playing from m6. Once you've done this a few times, you've got your bridge. But you're not done yet: you need to get used to approaching the bridge and using it.
  • Finally, play from a few measures earlier (or from the very beginning if you like), and remember that you've got a new bridge.

At some point you'll probably trip up, and then it's worth repeating all the steps from the beginning, probably every day for a few days. You need to be patient with yourself when making this kind of change.

The most important step is actually the first one. You'll be surprised how much it helps to have a secure "landing pad", more than practicing the transition itself.

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    This. I refer to this as 'practising backwards' but it's the same thing. It's a very powerful technique. The most important thing is not to rush it. Make sure you can do each stage without fail before you move onto the next. If you make a mistake, back off a little to the point where you were not making a mistake. The key is never to move on faster than you can manage without making mistakes. By the time you have finished, you will have played it correctly many, many more times than you ever played it incorrectly.
    – Ian Goldby
    Sep 13 at 7:24
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Richard's answer is excellent; I just wanted to add a small note to expand on it. I encourage you to think about the physicality of the passage. To mistakenly jump to the Eb requires you move your left hand several notes down the keyboard, while the correct change from B to Bb is only a half step. Surely by now you know the passage from memory. For a bit, do what you're always told not to: look at your hands. Watch them move or not move. Feel the muscular realities of the two.

Keep in mind that the "dots on the page" are just an abstraction. For music to happen in actual time, the only realities are our bodies and the vibrations of sound waves. So often we read from the printed page and think in terms of "B" or "E," but the mechanical reality is the difference between moving an inch more than the previous measure or of moving your hand four inches. Since this problem is about so-called "muscle memory," bring your muscles into the conversation.

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  • “…the correct change […] is probably an extension” I can’t speak for OP, but as a pianist with small-to-medium hands, the left hand pattern in this excerpt needs at least a wide rocking motion to go between the bass note and the upper notes of the chord; so some hand movement is happening anyway, and it doesn’t feel like just an “extension”.
    – PLL
    Sep 10 at 23:04
  • Good point. That’s what happens when a violinist is too lazy to walk over to the piano actually try it. I’ll revise… Sep 11 at 0:44
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I can probably relate this to something more "native" to stackexchange. This sounds like it is not all that different from switching from Vi text editor to Emacs text editor, for a person who uses both. I can speak from some experience on that topic.

Both editors are effectively controlled exclusively by use of keyboard shortcuts, which often become learned muscle memory for common tasks.

A person using one editor exclusively for a prolonged period of time, when switching to the other one, inevitably presses the shortcuts common in the previous one. Initial period of switching requires a conscious effort for a period of a few days to a few weeks of exclusive use to re-adjust (relearn) the muscle memory.

Even in the medium term the mistakes occasionally continue to happen. They disappear virtually entirely after enough time has passed that enough of the more esoteric shortcuts, used in the old editor, become forgotten. Which is not to say the forgotten shortcuts do not get used. But rather, after the uncommon shortcuts are forgotten, the common ones stop creeping in as mistakes. This takes a period of a few months of exclusive use.

If the new use is not exclusive, then the effort may have to continue to be conscious. Occasional mistakes are inevitable. But they become less common over time simply because the conscious effort required to distinguish which editor is being used becomes part of the learned process.

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  • This is a nice analogy, but doesn't seem to point to a solution.
    – Aaron
    Sep 11 at 3:34
  • @Aaron I thought it would. It seems like practicing until it becomes natural is the solution. It may be frustrating at first, but knowing that, with time, practice does solve the problem justifies hoping that it does. Sep 11 at 4:07
  • "Practice and time" doesn't answer the question; how to practice is what the OP is looking for.
    – Aaron
    Sep 11 at 4:10
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    And while we're discussing EMACS, ... one of my all-time favorites: gnu.org/fun/jokes/ed-msg.en.html
    – Aaron
    Sep 11 at 4:41
  • @Aaron co-incidentally, I, too, use a 110 baud modem when I browse stackexchange.com. The parts are a little difficult to get nowadays, but replacing them is half the fun. Sep 11 at 5:26
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The ideas presented here are based on the same principle as presented in How to avoid stopping when I play a wrong note on the piano. I recommend reading that answer in addition to this one, possibly before reading this one.


The core of the problem

Problems like this one are often attributed to muscle memory, and physical solutions are the typical prescription. However, in the absence of a genuine physical limitation (for example, an injury that somehow prevents accurately playing certain notes), there is near always a deeper problem that, when solved, allows the muscle memory to take care of itself or at least be much easier to fix. That deeper problem lies in one's emotional understanding of the music. Emotions drive the movements we make to play the piano. (If not, then we're just robots mechanically following instructions.) Confusing two notes/measures/sections after having learned the mechanics of them means we associate or confuse them on a felt level.

To most efficiently fix the problem requires understanding the "meaning", "feel", "story", "picture", "color", or other emotional association(s) of the two measures. What makes the two measures feel different from each other?


CAVEAT: What follows is based on my interpretation of the piece. Yours may be different. The goal here is to demonstrate an approach, not to dictate an interpretation. The key is that you practice hearing/feeling the interpretation you find best fits for you; this is how you will fix the problem.


How do we find the difference between measures 7 and 11?

What is the larger context?

The whole piece

The title of the piece is "Lamentation for a Lost Life", and the feel of the music bears this this out: slow, sad, nostalgic, but also, in seeming contradiction, dance-like.

Within the piece, we can hear three main sections: a dance-like, nostalgic melody that feels somehow incomplete (measures 3–18); a section that feels similar, but very hollowed out (measures 19–34); and a return to the first section (measures 35–50). It's worth noting that while all three section share the identical left hand part, the middle section right hand is a stripped down ("hollowed out") variation of the melody of the first section.

The emotional progression of the piece is: bittersweet, hollow, bittersweet.

The first section

Since measures 7 and 11 are both part of the first, bittersweet section, we'll focus on that.

As with the piece as a whole, we can hear three sub-sections: a sad little dance that trails off (measures 3–6); a slightly happier repetition of the little dance which again trails off — perhaps an attempt to feel a greater presence of whomever was lost, but ending in just feeling the loss again (measures 7–10), and an attempt to revive the dance (feel the presence of the lost life) that keeps sinking lower and finally peters out (in a sense of loss) (measures 11–18).

The first section is sad, tries to be a bit happier by feeling the presence of the lost life, and then tries even harder to be happier (feel more presence), failing every time (experiencing loss).

What does this mean for measure 7?

Measure 7 is the beginning of a happier attempt at the little dance. Since it's trying for "happier", I would add some energy. I would do this by making measure 7 just a bit louder than measure 3 (note the shift from minor [measure 3] to major [measure 7]). I also might press the tempo very, very slightly in measure 7. Speeding up and playing louder both add energy — greater musical "presence" — and happiness (felt presence) is more energetic than sadness (loss).

Measure 7 is has a bit more energy/presence than measure 3.

What does this mean for measure 11?

Measure 11 not only kicks off another attempt at a happier memory, but it's a more earnest attempt: 8 measures instead of 4. And it tries to use only the dance part (presence) of the initial musical idea (measures 3-4 and 7-8), avoiding the "trailing off" (absence/loss) part (measure 5-6 and 9–10). The measure 11–18 section repeats the dance idea three times, but each time lower and lower in pitch. There's a tension between the effort of trying again and again, and the "defeat" of sinking lower and lower.

Measure 11 needs more energy than measure 7, because its the beginning of the most substantial emotional effort so far.

What is the musical difference between measures 7 and 11?

Measure 7 needs enough energy to support a four-measure idea that starts off a little bit happier or warmer than measure 3, but ends by fading away.

Measure 11 needs enough energy to sustain an eighth-measure idea that makes a substantial effort at happiness or warmth.

I would play measure 7 a slight bit louder than measure 3, and measure 11 would be louder than measure 7. I would also consider subtly pushing the tempo in measures 7 and 11 to add some momentum at the beginning of their respective phrases. Again, measure 11 needs a little more momentum than measure 7.

How to practice this?

  1. Play measure 7 with the emotion you want behind it. If this takes more than 3–5 tries, you likely need to look deeper for what else might be mission at the emotional/interpretive level.
  2. Play measure 11 with the emotion you want behind it. If this takes more than 3–5 tries, you likely need to look deeper for what else might be mission at the emotional/interpretive level.
  3. Play measure 7 and then measure 11 (back to back, but with a pause in between), making sure you can feel/hear the difference between them. If this takes more than 3–5 tries, ....
  4. Play the first phrase with the overall musical "shape" you want. If this....

A warning

Invariably, fixing problems in this way "creates" other problems. That is, deepening one's emotional understanding of a note, a chord, a measure, etc. will automatically reveal other notes/chords/measures/... that haven't yet achieved the same depth of understanding.

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  • What a great, in-depth answer. Thank you Aaron to take the time to delve into this. And I have no doubt you're right. But (you knew there was a "but" right?) I'm not really dealing with expression yet, since I always try to practice a piece until I know it blindly before even thinking about emotion yet. And this hiccup was preventing me from going further. But yeah maybe you're right and that's exactly what I should try for now.
    – Creynders
    Sep 13 at 18:25
  • @Creynders I'm gratified to know my post was helpful. I hear you loud and clear about learning the notes first, then adding expression. Perhaps this will be a transition for you, having encountered and understood an example of where the expression is required first in order to learn the notes.
    – Aaron
    Sep 13 at 18:49
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Muscle memory is forever but you can overwrite it. However, it is always there waiting to resurface especially when we are cold or nervous. That is why things can go haywire during a performance because we let the old hardwired movements take over and anarchy reigns. This is also where injury can occur because as you improve your technique, the old muscles that you don't need anymore atrophy and are no longer there to support improper movement. You may wake up the next morning with stiff arms or hand tendons. Something to be cognizant of is playing old repertoire. If you learned a work with improper movement, that movement will be hardwired into that song forever. Unless you take the time to relearn a piece, steer away from former repertoire works.

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    Sorry, this doesn't match my experience. Neither the injury risk nor the "muscle memory is forever" make sense to me. I can think of many occasions when I've returned to old repertoire and been able to play it better because my technique has improved in the intervening years, and this works without having to relearn the piece. Sep 11 at 13:12
  • @AlexanderHanysz - I guess your experience is different from Malcolm Kogut's, then. Kogut consistently says in his answers that "muscle memory is forever", then occasionally backs this up with an anecdote from his own experience. It's somewhat likely that some people's old muscle memory must indeed be continuously suppressed, and you're lucky you're not one of them.
    – Dekkadeci
    Sep 11 at 14:34
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    @Dekkadeci, there might be an element of self-fulfilling prophecy there. If you talk yourself into playing something badly, you will indeed play it badly. Certainly "muscle memory is forever" was received wisdom amongst piano teachers when I was a student. But since then, there's decades of research in sports psychology and brain plasticity, and nowadays we know that adults are capable of learning and adapting. Believing that you can actually do it is the first step. Sep 12 at 0:58
  • This doesn't address the question of how to go about fixing the problem OP has encountered.
    – Aaron
    Sep 13 at 6:27

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