Monday, July 6, 2009


I've mentioned this before, but it bears a full revisit, because Gremlins are in full force these days. My observation goes something like this. While working on something over the course of several days, I make minimal progress while I am actually sitting at the piano. Sure, during the course of a 30 minute practice stretch, maybe something gets smoother, or I can play it marginally faster. But from the beginning of one piano practice session to the end, I am basically the same piano player. Strangely, real progress occurs once I have turned the piano off, and gone on to new tasks and fun-filled activities. And this is especially true when I have a good, useful practice session immediately before going to bed. The next time I sit down at the piano, I find, miraculously, that I have indeed become a New and Improved Piano Player. Things that I could not have done before... I can do. Things I was able to do before... I can do them better. It's a very interesting phenomenon, and if I had any friends who were cognitive psychologists, I am sure they could explain it to me. Since I don't (not that I know of, anyway), I prefer a cleaner, more succinct explanation.


Gremlins have a bad rap. In some cases, this reputation is well deserved. Observe as Bugs Bunny tries to fend off a Gremlin who was trying to wreak wanton havoc on a US Army Airfield during WWII. (Mind you, I regard this as one of Bugs' weaker performances, but it's relevant.)

Years later, in puppet form*, Gremlins re-emerged in one of Steven Spielbergs worst movies. (Remember, don't feed them after midnight. I mean, how hard was THAT?)

* - This was before George Lucas and Al Gore invented CGI, obviously. I expect a remake any year now.

The Gremlins I speak of are not the nasty, mischievous kind. No, these are helpful Gremlins. These critters are hard at work while I sleep (and, to a lesser extent, while I do things like yardwork, eat, or, you know, my job) creating and extending synapses, making new connections that help me play the piano in ways I could not before. These days, for instance, I am in the final stages of getting the Mexican Hat Dance up to a recording-worthy level of polish. Concurrently, I am also learning I Giorni. Both pices have required extended sessions of slowly, repeatedly, playing short sections, even individual measures over, and over, and over again. In some instances, this practice has been dull and tedious, and I have turned the piano off out of sheer boredom or frustration over my lack of progression. Then later, or even the next day, I come back, and without having touched the piano, I have suddenly mastered what I could not do before. More than once over the last week, I have thought to myself, "Holy cow, is this me playing? It sounds good."

I'm not alone here, right? Does this happen to you?

- Aw2pp, who keeps his supraesophageal ganglion to himself


Monica K. said...

Does a social psychologist count?Yeah, there's extensive research showing that much consolidation of learning goes on during quiet moments, and especially during sleep--and especially for sensorimotor skills, which playing the piano definitely is. Something about neuroprotein activity getting established and communication across the hippocampus to the neocortex. Here's an excerpt from a recent journal article about the process:

"A neurophysiologic perspective may help explain the pattern of wake-state performance degradation and sleep-state recovery and stabilization demonstrated in the present study. One hypothesis for memory consolidation is trace reactivation (Buzsaki 1989), whereby memory traces are modified via coordinated “offline” replay of stimulus driven activity (Hoffman and McNaughton 2002). Replay has been observed during sleep in animals (Wilson and McNaughton 1994; Dave and Margoliash 2000; Poe et al. 2000), and performance-related sleep activation of specific regions is associated with task learning in humans (Huber et al. 2004; Peigneux et al. 2004)... Learning a simple skill may establish a pattern of coordinated recruitment across a specific set of cortical and subcortical structures (Doyon and Benali 2005; Walker et al. 2005), but learning complex behaviors that engage the coordination of various sensory and motor systems likely involves changes within the systems as well as in the functional connectivity of networks."

Hmmm... I kinda like the gremlins explanation better, though. ;-)

Always Wanted to Play Piano said...

You know, for some reason, I thought you were an English Professor, or Humanities perhaps.

One of the things I get from these excerpts is that I had better practice correctly, otherwise the subconscious, offline replays will simply ingrain patterns I don't want to keep.

ral said...

I've also had the experience of sitting down and suddenly finding something that was difficult before has gotten easy.

I've written this before, but let me say again: the thing that has most led to improvement for me is enjoying practicing. Now you can't force yourself to have fun, but you can observe when something isn't working. My advice when that happens to you is stop and try something else.