Automaticity in Music and Math

August 31, 2014

From a recent post by @cheesemonkeysf:

As music, the technical patterns are boring — up and down, back and forth, crossing and uncrossing, stretching and shifting. But they’re necessary to develop a foundation of muscle memory and motor skills, as well as the habits of mind and of practice you will need as you gain proficiency and advance to building the finer and finer skills of musicianship.

I completely agree (although I come at it from a flute standpoint rather than a piano). There aren’t many things in life more boring than practicing scales and arpeggios, unless it’s sitting beside a tuner and practicing getting every note in tune. The payoff is when you see something like this:


and your fingers realize that it’s mainly arpeggios. (And the version by Jethro Tull sounds really cool!)

Muscle memory is a huge thing–at least for me. When I was taking the picture above, I got out my flute and attempted to play it for the first time in at least five years. This was an All-Region piece that I played over and over back in 1980-ish, and while my playing was really rough, I could tell that my fingers basically remembered the runs.

All of which gets me back to Elizabeth’s point about our students needing to learn the fundamentals. I totally agree with her that, like Bach, we need to create rich points of entry for our students that can give them a payoff for the skills that they have developed. I’m still working on that.

I do have a story about muscle memory and math, though. I spent 20-odd years as a programmer before I decided to get my teaching certification. Since I was applying to a certification program, I didn’t have to take the GRE, but I did have to take the Texas Academic Skills Program test because they considered my SAT scores to be out of date.

I was studying for the Algebra portion of the test when I hit binomial multiplication. Now this was around 17 years after I graduated from college with a B.A. in math, but I could not remember how to do the problems! Then, I noticed that my hand kept wanting to make tapping motions between the terms–the two first terms, then the two last terms, then the outer terms, then the middle terms. I finally realized what I was supposed to do! My Algebra I teacher, Ms. Prendergast, had drilled us so much on these problems (we didn’t have a cutesy name like FOIL, but it was the same idea — essentially the distributive property), that my hand remembered how to do the problems even when I couldn’t!

Last year, I started out the year trying to teach the skills by using problem-solving, and I don’t think I was successful at either teaching the skills or teaching problem-solving. My approach for this year is something like learning to play an instrument–practice our skills, then try to bring in some rich problems that make use of those skills. The funny part, is that I hadn’t really realized that’s what I was doing until I read Elizabeth’s post. So thank you for giving me a metaphor to hang my teaching on!

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