Muscle Memory and Marking Your Music

Mike Lawson • String Section • December 4, 2018

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As many of my students know, I am quite fond of the phrase: “Your muscles don’t know wrong from right. They just remember what they do.”

This addresses the role of muscle memory in learning. Practicing incorrectly can be just as harmful as accurate practice can allow progress. The obligation of teaching is an obligation to help them with the phenomenon almost everyone has experienced: the inability to execute any practiced thing with the consistency deserved of the effort and practice invested.

There is no worse experience than to spend countless hours preparing a piece to have it go wrong when under pressure. The inability to reproduce something practiced is a problem that can be severely discouraging and a cause of despair to both student and professional.

I acknowledge that not all musicians need to mark their part in order to play it well, but I disagree with the notion that for the player who can get it right, an un-marked part is acceptable. Wrong notes are only the first tier. I find one’s use of “pencil on the page“ to be a tool of assessment and measure.

Let us forget accuracy for a moment. What else could the quantity and quality of markings address? What does the musician pay attention to? How much is he/she noticing about the whole experience? How does one apply a thing earned to subsequent appropriate situations?

How to Get Started

As a general rule, after two inaccurate executions, get out that pencil! Many times, in a lesson I (or the student) will make a correction or notation in the music, and still things will go awry. That is ok. It just means something visually different is required — a different character or shape — or in a different place — do something different.

Often using colors can catch the eye effectively. I like to keep a “clean copy” (usually the unmarked original). I make my “practice” and “performance” parts on photocopies able to handle the abuses of indecision.

Making Your Technique Unique

Some people find it useful to designate their own system in which colors have specific implications. Others just need something deviating from the monotone of the original music in one or two places. As you progress, your markings can function as a secondary language or set of musical indications of associations.

As you gain experience and grow into your skills, the amount written into your part is proportionate to the amount of time and repetitions needed. It makes sense that the more times you need to go through something, or the greater the pressure for a successful performance, the more times you will have reason to stop and indicate various musical intentions you wish to keep.

The Orchestral Exception

In the orchestral setting, it can be unacceptable to use anything but graphite pencil. Using pencil is generally advisable when the music is an original part (or not yours to make a mess of). I should note that there are exceptions to all this and as such: not all music will be free from judgement. As a general rule: when sharing music, respect each other and keep the part clean; be conservative with the pencil. It is not always the case, but the more experienced an orchestral player, there is less needing to arrive with heavily marked parts. It is for this reason that a stigma can arise and discourage students or professionals from marking in a way that maximizes their potential. It is imperative that we all remember: it is through conscientious marking of our parts that we familiarized ourselves with our own process. Those who prepare diligently and successfully need not feel embarrassed.

Something to mention about reliance upon a marked part – there is substance to the argument that it is a crutch and puts one at a disadvantage when you are forced to play from a clean part. Often it feels as if you have never seen the music before. In reality, you haven’t in some time; you have been seeing the page as you have created it.

For this reason, I suggest that just as it is useful to memorize your music for many reasons, it may similarly be beneficial at intervals to read from alternate editions, Urtext, and/or your original clean part etc. See how you fare with them.

It is About You

The important thing to remember and keep in mind is that in most cases, very few people will care or see your music. If you perform well, what matters are the quality, abilities, appreciation and sensitivity for style and phrase, and the enthusiasm of authenticity. I would like to share some of the ways in which I have found marking to be effective in maximizing efficiency. Marking your part well develops habits in the practice environment which are aimed at catching the needs for improvement and avoiding their causes.

Suggested Markings:


• hooked

• changes vs. reference


• shifting

• intervals

• direction to roll a chord

• note of chord to land on or emphasize

Timing and Beats

• (often a /(slash) through the note where subdivisions land)

• meter changes or cut time; using a triangle above the “three beat” patterns

• Tempi. Transitions & how to make them work

Key changes and accidentals

Bow: distribution (SB for “Save Bow” or “Slow Bow”)

• notes to one’s self regarding bow requirements, etc.

Ensemble issues

• what to listen for

• where danger of separation is most likely.

• cues after rests to assist correct entrances

Understanding the big picture, shape, musical needs and nuance.

• balance concerns and dynamic decisions.


• indicate intentional direction of the phrase, et cetera


To play through the music regardless might be the hardest thing we do. To handle a performance effectively when unexpected variables interfere, to make it work when it is going wrong, to be okay with yourself for those things which don’t go well.

We are more likely to avoid negative performing experiences if there are markings accessible and prepared for guidance through those perilous sections most prone to falling apart. We learn to identify those. We learn to appreciate the assistance good markings provide. Consistent players are prepared and confident in their understanding of the music and therefore are flexible when unexpected situations arise.

I try to remind myself as well as my students that in most situations, the ability to recover well from an error is just as respected as if you were to play accurately in the first place. It is a skill. A difficult skill. Help yourself; do yourself a favor: get out those pencils. Mess up the page!

Practicing Well is a Skill

Preparing our students to learn independently and to teach themselves within the discipline of their current abilities is an important thing all instructors are tasked with. It is important to relay to the student that, yes, there must be a part of their musical lives in which they are allowed to completely indulge themselves with the sound of their instrument and do what feels good. That is, in my eyes, the reward for all the hours of restraint required to gain skills which make those personal indulgent musical moments ever and increasingly more satisfying and fun and worthy of pride in one’s self for what they can do and are.

So many students don’t know how to control themselves when they are alone with their tasks. We are all aware of the natural practice room tendencies and exactly how ineffective they are. The biggie: repeatedly playing a song from start to finish- often with multiple starts (usually with mistakes that, in this manner, are so hard to reverse). Until they know better, until we help them do otherwise, they naturally feel proud of their work; that work is still hard. It doesn’t take very long for those students to hit a learning curve that has no curve. They know it. Others know it. WE, as teachers and professionals and performers, are likely the only ones who can help them.

That is what good instruction and growth is about. Our ultimate goal is to provide them assistance, guidance, tools, specifics, encouragement, and support. To know the degree of strictness or leniency that is called for. We don’t want to break their spirit. But we don’t want to allow them to needlessly struggle.

Successful practice employs a set of mannerisms, behaviors and actions that are routine, then habit, then inherently useful for reliability. The best habits are those that only need to be discovered once to become as you wish them. The best way to ensure that they do is to make note of those things you wish to be part of your experience sharing the music.

When goals include “effective progress,” comfort levels with your ability rise. You gain confidence. You are sure of your abilities and therefore not so affected by stressors and nervousness in your body and playing. Eventually it will occur to you that you haven’t had a damaging performance in some time. It feels good. It perpetuates itself. You can consider yourself consistent.

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