Updated: Dec 9, 2018
‘Muscle Memory’. We’ve all heard the term I’m sure, usually in the context of learning a new skill, and I discuss it briefly in one of my earlier blogs that compares learning to sing with learning to drive.
But what exactly is it? Do your muscles have some way of recording a memory?
No, but your brain does. And so, when we talk about muscle memory, we’re actually talking about the changes that take place in your brain, that make it remember to tell your muscles to work in a certain way. Imperative to this is repetition; the more you do something, the easier it becomes to do it without thinking, because your brain remembers what it’s supposed to tell your muscles to do.
Key to this is understanding The Four Stages of Learning. I’m not a great fan of the word ‘incompetence’, but hey, I didn’t develop the theory!
1. Unconscious Incompetence
You don’t know how to do something, and don’t recognise that you’re doing it incorrectly.
Before moving on from this stage, you have to accept that you don’t know what you don’t know, and be willing to learn!
2. Conscious Incompetence
You still don’t know how to do something, but you now recognise that, and understand what it is that you need to learn.
This is the time when you notice mistakes, which are an important part of the process.
3. Conscious Competence
You now know how to do something, but have to apply constant focus and concentration to get it right consistently. This is when you create muscle memory through repetition.
4. Unconscious Competence
You’ve practiced the skill repeatedly, consistently and frequently, so that it’s become ‘second nature’ and can be performed easily without much thought. Because you don't need to think about it, the skill can be carried out while doing something else. This is when you utilize muscle memory.
Think of this 4-stage process in the context of learning singing technique: At first you don’t recognise that singing technique needs working on, then you become aware that you need to improve, but don’t know how. This is the movement between the Unconscious Incompetence and Conscious Incompetence stages.
Once you learn how to implement correct technique, you practice it, but it takes effort to remember to do it consistently. This is the Conscious Competence stage – you’re doing what needs to be done, but you have to think about it.
The more consistent practice you do at this stage, the sooner you’ll move to the final stage – Unconscious Competence; singing with good technique without thinking about it. This stage often happens without you realising. One day you notice that you haven’t thought about a particular technique for a while, but you’re still doing it consistently. Go you! You’ve created muscle memory and properly learned a technique. Well done!
Drilling down further, perhaps thinking about posture, the four stages look like this:
1. You stand with a slouch, but don’t realise that you are, or even that it’s important.
2. You still stand with a slouch, realise it’s not what you should do, but don’t know how you should be standing.
3. You know how you should stand, but have to remember to do it.
4. Your posture is always great, and you don’t need to think about it.
The same principles apply to other techniques, such as breathing or vowel shape. It also applies to the pitches, rhythms, lyrics or dynamics of specific pieces. In fact, it applies to everything!
As I mentioned earlier, repetition is imperative to developing muscle memory. Each time you do something correctly, your brain records it, and the more you do it correctly, the stronger that recording, or muscle memory, becomes. Essentially, you’re overwriting bad habits with good ones, and eventually, you’ll completely replace them. That’s when good habits become your default.
There will be mistakes made in the Conscious Incompetence stage, and this can be trying and demoralising for some very new singers, but it’s a good thing. If you don’t know that you’re making a mistake, how do you know to do something about it so you can move on to the next stage?
For me, experience has taught me that this next stage, Conscious Competence, is the most difficult to get through and move on from. There are pitfalls, and it can be frustrating for singers when they so desperately want to get to the final Unconscious Competence stage, and stop having to consciously remember so much!
Why this third stage is so difficult to get through can usually be broken down into two basic concepts:
Not enough repetition
Depending on who you ask, you need somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 repetitions to make something muscle memory. That sounds like a lot, but what if we think about it in terms of vowel sounds in a song?
Looking at a piece our chorus is currently working on, which is pretty average in terms of vowels, I can count the same vowel sound (oo) in that piece 65 times. So, by the time we’ve sung this piece 77 times, we’ve hit the minimum requirement for muscle memory to be formed.
Some nights we’ve sung this piece around 15 times, add that to the practice that singers do at home, and it doesn’t take long to get to the magic number. OK, so we do have to take in to account how we get to the vowel sound (i.e. from what consonant, which varies), which will make a difference, and the number of reps will need to increase to compensate, but my point is this: reaching 5,000 repetitions or even 10,000 sounds like a lot, but in the context of how many times we work on the same song, or the same vowel in different songs, it doesn’t take a lot to achieve.
So, I hear you ask, why have I still not cracked how to sing that oo?
What it says on the tin; you have to do it over and over and over again, correctly and consistently, to develop good muscle memory. Think back to what I said earlier about overwriting one habit for another. Now consider what happens if you have a pattern like this:
1. Incorrect oo – creates bad habit memory.
2. Correct oo – overwrites previous bad habit memory, and creates a good habit memory.
3. Incorrect oo – overwrites previous good habit memory, so you’re back where you started, singing with bad habits again.
OK, so that might be oversimplifying it a little, but I’m trying to make a point here, not be perfectly accurate! And that point is this: all the time you’re Consciously Competent – singing with consistently correct technique – you’re overwriting bad habits with good ones, and developing muscle memory.
But, sing with bad technique a few times, and you’ve overwritten some of your previous good habit memory, reinforced existing bad habits, and taken a little step backwards. If you sing with bad technique more often than good technique, regardless of when, where and what you sing, you'll always have a good habit deficit, and muscle memory won’t be strong.
This is why, when our chorus is learning a new song and practicing at home, we recommend singing it correctly 5-10 times in a row per practice, and if a mistake gets made, we really ought to go back and start again at 1. It’s not because we’re tyrants, it’s because that one mistake can undo a lot of what you’ve just accomplished, by overwriting good muscle memory that you’ve worked hard to create. When you finish a session, you should always aim to finish having just sung correctly more times in a row than you’ve sung incorrectly during the full practice session.
So, what’s the take home from all my rambling? First of all, find yourself a good teacher* who will help you to work out where your technique needs to be improved, and show you how to do exactly that. Then practice, repetition, repetition, repetition, be consciously aware of what you’re doing, and aim to make sure your good habits always outnumber your bad habit mistakes, so your brain can build strong muscle memories and overwrite what needs to be replaced.
It takes time to accomplish good habits across the board for all techniques, but now's as good a time as any to start!
* Good teachers can be found at North Coast Harmony on Tuesday nights!