How do we learn and what is Muscle Memory?
You might have heard the term ‘Muscle Memory’ before. It’s quite often used in the context of learning a new skill. It’s not that our muscles really have an active memory. What we do memorize is the kinesthetic coordination of our muscles.
The reason daily practice is so important (or at least most days) is because we learn by repetition. In addition you should not only practice songs but also do your vocal exercises in addition. That’s the quickest shortcut to improvement and to becoming a great musician.
#4 Stages of Learning
There are 4 stages of learning:
– unconscious incompetence
– conscious incompetence
– conscious competence
– unconscious competence
Think of this as being the overwriting mechanism for your singing technique. First you make yourself aware of the mistake (unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence). Once you are aware you can correct it (conscious competence). The more you stay in that stage by practice, the quicker you’re going to move to an unconscious competence. And all of a sudden your ‘default singing’ is a whole bunch of great habits, resulting in an unconscious skill.
This is what is meant by Muscle Memory.
When you learn something new, the information gets first processed in your brain. You think you understand it, but can’t actually produce the same result every time, not yet!
This is why repetition is so important.
The tiny muscles that surround the larynx, the pharynx, the tongue, the oral- and nasal cavity train to coordinate in such a way that they enable us to produce the sounds we want.
If you find the right placement for singing it doesn’t mean that it will automatically become your default singing. You have to keep practicing to overwrite your old habits and create new good habits.
I’ve worked with clients who can immediately change the way they were singing and often that’s because they don’t have many vocal habits. When someone has never sang in a band or choir, they might have never acquired any bad habits (such as pulling chest voice, raising the larynx, ‘reaching’ for high notes etc). Total beginners might struggle more with musicality, rhythm etc. but they often have an easier time learning new healthy vocal technique.
And some of us have acquired bad habits over time. Therefore it takes a little longer to overwrite these bad habits. Again, it takes practice and repetition.
Because we have more habits attached to singing songs, than we have to vocal scales it is a good idea to begin the application with scales. This is why we first work on vocalization = technical exercises for the voice. That way we can detach ourselves from any previous habits and make new good habits.
And since most of us probably haven’t sang nearly as many scales as songs, it’s like a blank page that you can easily fill with new information.
Once you are doing good with the scales, you can start applying the skill towards a song. In order to not fall back into old habits (which is more likely to happen when you are singing songs since you’ve done this more than scales) you can start by singing the melody of the song on a simple syllable such as a ‘Nay Nay Nay’ or ‘Mah Mah Mah’. The feeling of balance should start to develop within your body. When you put back the lyrics, make sure to retain the same feeling (just like when you practiced the melody with simple syllables).
When you’ve done this enough times, you will eventually become unaware of the process. Until then:
Repetition in combination with a focused mind and the right exercises is the recipe for your vocal success.
Have fun singing!