Music Educators Association of New Jersey

Serving teachers and students since 1927

February 2020


Treating muscle memory as a friend and a foe is the best route to solid memory. The most effective techniques in strengthening memory, according to concert pianist Spencer Myer, are those that change your routine physical sensation, essentially removing the “autopilot” variable.

When you are on stage performing, about 80 percent of what you do is muscle memory — with the remaining 20 percent “other.” This is the area that can solidify a performance. While muscle memory is a large part of how we prepare, we don’t want to rely completely on this. We need to engage the brain so we are thinking while we are playing.

Sometimes thinking of a distraction can bring muscle memory back; it is impossible to think of removing muscle memory. How can you make a passage feel different or foreign to your body so your brain can engage? The goal is to change how you practice and to think while you’re playing from memory. Here are some practical, successful techniques geared toward strengthening non-muscle memory, based on Spencer Myer’s own practice techniques.

  1. SLOW PRACTICE. This technique, most essential, is useful for drilling and refining minor muscle motions. It actually engages the brain because you have to think about the next note or phrase. The object here is to change how you practice and remove the autopilot function.
  2. INCONSISTENT TEMPI. A consistent tempo is not important in slow practice. You want to experiment with different tempi while you’re playing. It’s a playful way of practicing, forcing exploration of phrases and musical intent.
  3. ALTERNATING RHYTHMS. Changing the rhythms changes the physicality and causes the brain to think differently. It stops your muscles and makes them feel different. Use triplets, dotted rhythms, swing 1/8’s, etc., to alter rhythms. The goal is always to think.
  4. SKIPPING AROUND. How confident are you? Can you start anywhere in the piece? Try to do this and seek random sections, playing them not in the order composed. Also, practice juxtaposed material that appears in two different keys, for example. Playing hands alone is also effective: ghost playing, i.e., one hand ghosts (touches the keys silently) while the other hand plays the sound.
  5. DIFFERENT DYNAMICS/ARTICULATION. Change the effect: from forte to piano; scherzo to nocturne; legato to staccato. Making these types of changes can make slow practice more interesting as well. You always want to change the physicality.
  6. CHANGE THE VOICING. This is particularly effective in Bach fugues, for example. Make one voice louder than another — or play staccato when it indicates legato. Any tempo here is beneficial. More exploration of phrasing and musical intent can constantly stimulate the brain and that is the goal.
  7. THE ULTIMATE UNNERVING PRACTICE TECHNIQUE. Here you actually lift your hands off the keys and mentally play, then return to a particular place in the piece on the keys. This is removing muscle memory completely and is totally unnerving!



  • Know the chords and how chordal shifts occur.
  • What are the common notes between the chords?
  • Know what and where the key changes are, major/minor, etc.
  • Think ahead. It is very important to know where you’re going. What chords are you approaching?
  • Practice juxtaposed material in two different keys.


      Visual: The score is your best friend. Come back to it and reinforce in your mind how it looks. You can never un-memorize a piece by looking at it; so don’t be afraid to refer to it after you have memorized it. Check the fingerings and symbols for directions, etc. The fingering is the most important to memorize. Take your time and absorb all the details.
      Aural: Know the melodies and harmonies deeply. Can you play the RH melody with your LH? Sing the melody; you will know the piece better. Sing while you practice and when away from the piano.
      Physical: Dancers have an easier time remembering choreography because their whole bodies are engaged. For pianists, the more choreographed motions you incorporate, the better will be your performance. Even minor involvements, such as making small circles in phrases, e.g., which engage the wrist, whole arm and upper body reinforce memory. This is really important and ultimately helpful in performance.


Performing on stage will always feel different from playing or practicing at home or studio. Muscle memory is not always reliable. During a performance someone in the audience who coughs could cause a distraction and a memory blip. Introducing “nerves” during practice is the best way to expose spots where our brain in not fully engaged. It is very important to practice for “nerves” — when the performance anxiety sets in. How do you do this and prepare for a performance?

  • Perform for friends and/or family; they are your audience.
  • Perform for yourself, committing to not stopping.
  • Record yourself without stopping. This actually changes the physicality and mentality.


This varies with the performer. Some people don’t like to practice at all before a performance. For those who do practice:

  • Practice SLOWLY so you feel safe. Practice with the score. Leon Fleisher said if you play slowly enough, you might crave to play the piece a tempo.
  • Rest. As a memory technique take a break for a day, then see what you remember the next day.
  • Try “Air Piano” practicing on your lap, the kitchen table or your desk.

This was such an engaging, helpful presentation that the MEA members who attended had plenty of questions and suggestions of their own for memorizing and practicing for performance! When working with students:

  • Learn how to focus; play with your eyes closed.
  • Memorize a piece backwards — “Freeze and Thaw”: the student stops playing when someone says “Freeze”; “Thaw” and the student must continue.
  • Play in a room completely silent; then play in a noisy room.
  • Intentionally try to distract students while they’re playing; it tends to “toughen them up.”

In a review of Spencer Myer’s performance of Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, the reviewer said, ”Myer’s hands were a show of their own... for almost 40 minutes his fingertips seemed to have an almost electric relationship with the keyboard, while the rest of his face and body remained stoic. The effect of this deep investment in the music was hypnotizing.” We were equally hypnotized by the cameo performance Spencer gave at the end of his MEA presentation. Three pieces, from memory, In the Mist by Janáček, Chopin’s Ballade No. 3, and Poisson d’Or from Debussy’s lmages brought us to our feet in applause, admiration and appreciation of all he imparted to us that day.

Charlene Step, Writer and Page Designer
Nancy Modell, Photographer

For more information on Spencer Myer, please visit