The amazing way your body learns new skills

“Knowledge is not skill.  Knowledge plus ten thousand times is skill.”

Shinichi Suzuki

Ten thousand times? How on earth do you cope with that, when helping your kids practice?  Read on.

Firstly, forget everything you have been told about creating “Muscle Memory.”  there’s no such thing.  Since they have no brains of their own, muscles can not learn.  All they can do is respond to nerve impulses by contracting or relaxing.  In fact we are not training muscles when we practice, we are doing something completely different.

We don’t have to have superior muscles to learn something complicated, just persistence – and a fatty substance called myelin.

When you are learning a new skill, the nervous system is totally in charge of your muscles.  It figures out how to perform a task, through sensory feedback.  Gradually, through trial and error, it makes the right neural connections for success.  Once the neural connection has been made (knowledge), you will want to fire that circuit again and again.  Every time the circuit is fired, special cells called Oligodendrocytes reach out and wrap the nerve with a microscopic layer of fat, called myelin.  With repeated firing, the myelin layer gradually increases in thickness until, after many repetitions, the nerve becomes thickly insulated, just like an electrical wire.  Bingo!  An insulated nerve carries more electricity, faster and with fewer leaks.  The muscles appear to have learned a new skill.

BUT…. Myelin should come with a health warning.  All nerves are in danger of being insulated if fired repeatedly.  That means ALL.  Oligodendrocytes can’t tell right from wrong, all they can do is deposit fat round a firing nerve.  Every time a task is performed inaccurately, the wrong neural circuits become more and more insulated.  Therefore it is important to ensure that the correct messages are sent to the muscles by their owner.

When an esteemed colleague, Helen Brunner was asked how it was that her students never made mistakes, she replied,  “But, we never let them practice it wrongly.”

Several wrong attempts, followed by one correct one will only succeed in myelinating the wrong nerves.  There is absolutely no way round this.  You just have to take the time to get it right more times than wrong.  To do that, you have to think what you are going to do, preparing and doing it slowly enough to get it right.  Experiment a bit.  This might be way slower than you think.

In fact, the best myelination (learning) takes place when the owner of the neural circuit becomes involved in the process (practices with awareness).  Patterning, verbal instructions and demonstrations help initially, but the only way to physically learn a pattern is to myelinate the nerves, by consciously firing them over and over again.  Patterning a child’s bow stroke is absolutely useless, unless the child is given lots of chances to copy the patterning.  When the mind has to be actively focussed on the task, greater learning takes place with each thoughtful repetition.

To myelinate nerves, we need to fire them regularly, not just a couple of times a week.  This means DAILY PRACTICE.  If your kids, like mine aren’t into spending hours doing this, it’s easy to make it fun.  Our 100 Day Practice Challenge now comes with extra pack of practice games.  Slip these into daily practice sessions and you will be surprised by the improvements in focus, skill, co-operation and willingness to practice.  The improvements me students make when they start to play practice games, never, never cease to amaze me.


Return to Music in Practice Home Page

Leave a Reply