Monday, February 16, 2009

A Coffee Mugging

I have an aunt who has lived in her beautiful farmhouse for over 50 years. About 15 years ago, she looked around her kitchen and decided it didn't make sense to keep her coffee mugs in the cabinet by the refrigerator any longer. Her children had given her a dishwasher, you see. It would be much more efficient to keep the mugs above the washer now, than to walk across the kitchen to put them away by the refrigerator. For 35 years, the mugs had been by the fridge, now for 15 years, they've been by the washer.

When I went to visit her at Christmas time, she offered me a cup of coffee and we moved to the kitchen to make it. When it was ready, which cupboard did she go to? To the original by the refrigerator of course. She giggled, "oh what a creature of habit I am". And then walked across the kitchen to get one from above the dishwasher. I am struck by how relevant this event is to me.

I think that as "creatures of habit" that we will remember what we learned first. Success by 6, they say. Many of the changes that we make will come with great continued thought to actually remember what we changed. For example, I am learning a Chopin Ballade and working really hard to get the fingering right the first time. But on my first run-through of the 'hard part', I missed a note in the Right Hand passage. Now guess what, I still miss it. I will need to play it correctly more to break my habit. I don't like to have to change it later.

Another example I talk about with some students is this. Imagine that you now have to learn to tie your shoes a different way. How many times from now on will you absentmindedly tie them the former way?

My students are the same way. They work on correcting the mistake much harder and longer than if they would have done it well, and correctly, the first time. How hard it is when they learned it wrong at home for 6 days and come to play it for me on day 7. Depending on the student, it's not ever going to get fixed, if you know what I mean.

Today I am taking a personal day to rearrange the studio. I'm not moving pianos, but I am moving a desk, a keyboard, updating a computer, changing out a printer. I am going through books and music, recycling what I can. It will look much different and feel better to me. As I work through the clutter, I am hoping that I won't be moving the coffee mugs of my teaching life. But, only time will tell. (Picture=Can't wait for you to join me for a cup!)


  1. That's such an important point-- muscle memory is a strong force whether the muscles are executing the correct movements or incorrect ones. My wife Eberle & I often advise students to start out playing at a speed where they can play a piece correctly-- it's easier to increase tempo from a point of correct, steady but slow playing than to re-learn mistakes that get ingrained at the "right" tempo.

  2. Slowing down is so hard for me and for them, isn't it? The tortoise wins again!

  3. What a great observation! I can think of those words that I mistype almost every time. I know they are hard for me because of how awkward the movement is on the keyboard, and even knowing that (or because I am conscious of it), the error persists. Perhaps it is also a function of belief -- I believe I will make a mistake, so I will it to happen. Isn't it too bad that we don't have an 'erase' button in our cranium so that those old mistake loops could just be reprogrammed.

  4. In most activities, it is easier to correctly execute at a slower speed, thereby gaining confidence and muscle memory. But, ladyiris has a point as well. If the same error occurs at the same place in the exercise, after a couple of attempts, often expectation or fear of making the error will cause it to occur as often as being too fast with the delivery.

    Are we having peanut brittle with the coffee? MMMM! I LOVE peanut brittle.


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