Friday, January 24, 2014

Learning Chords: Use the Correct Fingering

Muscle Memory: The Password to Learning

I have four children, and at some point each day one of them asks to use the computer for something.  Since I'm usually elbow-deep in some other task, I answer, "okay- today's password to unlock the computer is PIANO."  And of course I change my password every day!

The other day, as I was leaving the computer to go jogging on my treadmill, I chose JOGGING as my password.  Hours later when someone wanted to use the computer, the password didn't work!  My teenage sons were diligent about trying every misspelling of JOGGING that I could have typed, switching letters, putting fingers in different positions- nothing worked.  Whatever misspelling I had used had been typed in TWICE by me to change the password, without my notice.  How could that be!?

Eventually even I was frustrated and wanting to use the computer again.  I sat down and typed JOGGING as fast I could, without thinking about it.  It worked!  What!?  I slowly replayed what my fingers had just done...J-O-G....G-I-N....A!  My name is GINA, so when my fingers felt me type "GIN" they finished with an A automatically and I didn't even notice it had happened. THREE TIMES!  My fingers are so used to typing the word GINA that it's hard for me NOT to type it once they've started the pattern.

What is Muscle Memory?

When our muscles learn a pattern of movement through repetition, our brains "chunk" that pattern into memory.  It becomes ingrained in our MUSCLE MEMORY and takes no effort to recall, so we can perform the physical tasks without conscious effort.  Our very efficient brains use muscle memory (or motor learning) to reduce the need for attention on activities that are repeated frequently.  Now that you've been driving your manual-transmission car for so many years, you can focus on things around you without having to think about shifting.  Now that you've been typing for so many years you can blog as fast as you can think up the words to share!

Muscle Memory at the Piano

Your second-year Let's Play Music student is hard at work learning the Red, Blue, and Yellow chords with right and left hands.  Your teacher (and booklet) demonstrate the fingering your child should use to play each chord.  It is crucial that you help your child learn these exact hand-shapes, even if your child finds something that initially seems easier (like using the stronger finger 3 instead of finger 2).  As your child progresses in music, these shapes will come up time and again- we want your child's fingers to automatically know exactly how far to move or reach to play these shapes!  It will make future piano pursuits SO much easier.  This is the same reason we insist that you use a keyboard with full-sized keys: your child's hand is memorizing exactly how far to stretch, and will forevermore remember the distance that "feels like" the intervals we've learned.

Once the brain has the "feel" for these chords and intervals memorized, that will free up the pianists attention to other things, like the progression of chords and the notes on the page!  Playing and sight-reading become easier when the pianist looks for common chord-shapes and melodic patterns, then lets her hands "do it" without having to think!

Practice Makes Permanent

You were hoping "practice makes perfect", right?  Sorry!  Only perfect practice will get you there.  Sloppy practice will lead to permanent sloppy results.  So, here's what your brain needs to help you wire in the best muscle memories:
1. Repetition:  Playing these chords and completing the Let's Play Music program should give your child enough repetition to have them stick for a lifetime!
2. Attention to Technique: Watch your child to look for bubble-hand, fingers touching keys, and correct fingering.  Remind your child it's better to have good technique and go slow at first.
3. Visualization: Muscle-memory is a brain activity! It's almost as powerful to THINK of doing this correctly as it is to actually do it.  When go on that spring break trip, bring along the keyboard image from your songbook and have your child "practice" on it.   
How To Help Your Child Learn the Chords

When first learning, movements will be slow.  Lots of mental focus will be required to engage just the exact fingers and to move them (or stop them from moving) just the exact amount.  Be aware that correct fingering is the most important thing at this point- NOT SPEED!  Lovingly remind your child to slow down and not go faster on chord transitions than she can go with correct fingering.

For the Right Hand Yellow Chord or the Left Hand Blue Chord, have your student practice sliding her thumb over one key, and then back home, without playing any notes.  Focus on keeping the other fingers in place, curved and gently touching their keys.  When fingers float up into the air, the child loses the muscle sense of how they must be positioned.  After warming up with finger-sliding, slowly transition back and forth between chords.

For the Right Hand Blue Chord or the Left Hand Yellow Chord, have your student practice extending the hand, all fingers sliding over into position, and then sliding back home.  This time the thumb is the anchor-it is critical the thumb remains gently touching the key or the pianist will have to look down at her hands to see where to set them.  Simply sliding back and forth helps the hand start to learn the exact distance to move!  After this warm-up, slowly transition back and forth between chords.

In this short video clip, I show a warm-up and some chord transitions, along with a simple game using dice to determine how many  times she plays each chord before transitioning.  At first I give extra beats during the transition, and when she gets better I'll expect her to transition and continue playing without missing any beats.

In this second video, I show a common error: playing the Yellow chord with finger 3 instead of 2.  I tell my daughter this finger is UNDER ARREST! or IN JAIL! and it's not allowed to leave the white key it is hand-cuffed (finger-cuffed) to.  In this video, I actually do restrain her finger from leaving the white key, but after this one time, I won't touch her hand again- I'll just say "put that finger 3 back in handcuffs!" and she will giggle and stick it back in place.

Teacher Kari Mickelson in Monroeville, PA, uses these soft hair-ties to label students fingers as a reminder for learning chords.  I like to paint the fingernails to help students with whichever chord we are working on. Give it a try!

What's Next?

As your child masters the chords, she'll be delighted to have fun sight-reading music with red, yellow, and blue chords! It will take very little effort for her hand to move into position and keep up with new music.  In the third year of Let's Play Music, she'll use these same hand-shapes to play chords in other keys AND to play chords with different inversions.  After graduating from Let's Play Music, she'll find these same chord shapes, intervals, and melodic patterns in written music everywhere and will have ease in playing them because her muscles have learned the patterns!  Okay, I think I'll set my computer password for as "muscle memory."  Good luck with your chords today!

-Gina Weibel, MS
Let's Play Music Teacher


  1. I read The Talent Code recommended by a fellow LPM teacher. It sheds new light on this idea of muscle memory as the root of all perceived talent!