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Muscle Memory in Violin Playing

By Kevin Goddard, Violin Instructor

Today’s violin lesson will discuss muscle memory in violin playing. If you haven’t read it already, my previous lesson on notable violinists is available on the Lesson Studio Blog

My beginner students tend to ask me how I am able to play my violin without tapes or a guide for where to place my fingers on the fingerboard. What those students don’t know is that I do have a guide which is called muscle memory.

What is Muscle Memory?

Muscle memory is a term that describes how our brains remember what something feels like through repetition. The specific movement is then easier to execute with less brain power than if you were doing it for the first few times. This also describes how athletes can perform perfect throws during a game or how I am able to type the words in this blog without thinking too much about where the keys are.

Muscle memory plays in to many different parts of violin playing that students will develop and refine over time.

Holding the Instrument

The first thing my students work on is holding the violin up on their shoulder. The violin will rest on their clavicle and be help in place with the side of their jaw. The spots where the violin touches your body can be memorized with repetitive practice.

My beginner students have the task of setting up this posture multiple times within a session so that they don’t have to think much about it when learning other tasks. The type of shoulder rest that is used will also affect this process of holding the violin with proper posture.

Another factor that will change how students hold the violin is the change in young students’ bodies as they grow. Both of the latter topics could be a whole other discussion.

Finger Placement

When it comes to knowing where to put fingers on the fingerboard, more advanced musicians know exactly what it feels like and can perform the action with little thought. The first step is to have a good left hand position.

With repetitive practice, often through scales to train the left hand, a musician can remember exactly where to put their fingers. This is also better developed through knowing what the desired notes are supposed to sound like within a scale or song.

If a note sounds off or a little out of tune while practicing, the best thing to do is go back and play it correctly. Then, repeat the action multiple times so that your muscles and brain remember how to play it correctly next time. This process done over and over helps to mold a professional musician.

Holding the Bow

Violinists and other string musicians also have the placement of their fingers on their bow memorized. This is developed much like violin playing posture by repeatedly setting up the bow hold until it becomes second nature.

I often show my students where their fingers should touch the bow by placing dots on their hands. That way they can visually see where their fingers touch and practice setting up their correct bow hold. A common phenomenon with having the bow hold in your muscle memory is picking something up with your right hand, such as a toothbrush or a bagel, and noticing that you are holding the object with your bow hold (both have actually happened to me).

Muscle memory helps us perform learned tasks that we have practiced without having to use too much brain power. For a violinist that is getting ready to play, that means that their playing position and posture are set up with ease as well as knowing where to place their fingers on the fingerboard. This is developed through repetitive practice in order to memorize what the action feels like and replicate it in the future.