Music Teacher's Helper Blog

“Muscularizing” Completes the Learning Process

Now after my previous 2 posts, we come to the third of three crucial steps in learning a musical passage on an instrument:  “muscularizing” it!

In my last two posts, I made up words to describe what the ears do when they help you learn a passage of music (see “mapify and tonalize” and the followup).  Why?  Because it seems students focus mostly on what they can verbalize — reading music, learning notes, following instructions, mentally controlling fingers.

Now we look at muscularizing music — giving the hands or other key parts of the body sufficient time and experience to really get the feel of how to play the music.

Too often students take this for granted, just as they take the ears for granted.  The other day I taught a phrase of music to a student and he placed the correct finger on the wrong string.  All I had to say was, “did you consult your ears on that one?” and he got it right.  He had focused on the number of the finger to be used, but his mind didn’t really know where to put it.  It wasn’t until he consulted his ears that he knew exactly what to do.  It was not verbal thinking that solved the problem.handradiant

Another student was trying to get a phrase of music down but his mind kept getting in the way, telling him he was making mistakes or that it wasn’t perfect.  I managed to distract him by refocusing him onto his bowhand, and giving him permission to screw up the rest, but lo and behold, when he wasn’t trying to control it all or judge it all as he played it, he got it down smoothly for the first time.  Then he looked at me as if to say, “I got it, now what?”

I said, “Now you have to muscularize it!  You got it once, and your heard it right, and in your head you know what you did — but none of that allows your hand to understand it, to feel it, to internalize it.  You have to give your hand time to feel comfortable playing that phrase of music.”

So I presented several checkpoints for him:  One is to try the sequence of notes in order; a close second is to make sure it’s played in time (however short the sequence and however fast or slow the timing), so that the ears learn how the passage sounds.  If it’s not in time, the ears just won’t get it.  Slow vs fast is irrelevant here.

The crucial third step in the process is to make sure the hands are comfortable playing the phrase, with the muscle memory feeling it consistently enough to retain the feel of the passage.  You have to have empathy for those muscles!  I like students to stop thinking that they control their hands but to think of the hands/fingers as friends they’re trying to help out, with patience and empathy, until they physically feel what you want them to feel.

It is never enough just to understand, memorize, read, control.  If the ears are not actively participating, and if you don’t take time to “muscularize” the phrase of music, the mind will be overloaded with responsibility.  A student may think he or she just has to try harder to remember and control everything, but that’s a recipe for frustration.  There’s always too much that can and will go wrong, when there’s too much on the plate.

So now we have a new word:  “muscularize” — the third step in allowing the body to learn and retain the music of a phrase.  I hope you’ll try using this new word — or make up your own — anything to give the student a verbal handle on allowing the muscles their own time to get comfortable with the music and reinforce the muscle memory.

I’d love to hear from you (no spammers please!!!) on your thoughts, your use of these new words and ideas, and perhaps you have your own words that take the learning process away from 100% brain control into 33% brain, 33% active listening, and 33% muscularizing.  The last 1% is a secret!  (What do you think it is?)


About the Author

Ed Pearlman
Ed Pearlman has focused on performing, teaching, and judging fiddle music for over 30 years, offering performances and workshops throughout the USA and in Canada and Scotland. His original training was with members of the Chicago and Boston Symphonies, and he played with orchestras and chamber groups at Yale and in Boston. He currently teaches privately in Maine and at workshops around the countr... [Read more]


  1. Nathan Sw.

    And of course, this goes for all instruments, not just stringed ones. I have one concern for this type of thinking. What do those pupils of yours do when instructed to begin playing in the middle of a phrase or musical idea? My concern is that the student would have a hard time playing from any point in the music given that they are muscularizing the piece as a whole start to finish.

  2. Ed Pearlman

    @Nathan – no, I never have students learn a tune whole — always phrase by phrase so they get a sense of the structure of the music. I think I said this in my posts, that we were talking about phrase-learning.

  3. Gluten Free Goddess

    +1 to Ed’s Post.

  4. Nathan Sw.

    I understand that they are practicing phrases at a time. I was thinking after that process. But no matter, I agree its a good idea. 😀

  5. Scott

    I remember the introduction to that new word Ed. That student scenario sounds like my case. It is a great tip and yet it is at first hard to muscularize when the brain wants to control all but once the ears are allowed to hear and muscules are allowed to work with the ears the results are much greater. Thanks for that great teaching advice Ed.

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