Deep piano

Roberto Chignoli

I started playing piano again recently, after a 20 year hiatus. Our 6 year old Brooke started learning, and we suddenly had a keyboard in the house again, so I joined her. It’s been great! I’m playing scales and exercises, diving into Rachmaninoff and Debussy, and working up to tackling Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. (Not easy.)

Practicing is a grind though. I definitely remember it that way, no rose colored glasses here, but now I appreciate what practice actually does: build muscle memory. Entrench a series of notes and fingerings in my brain with the end goal of playing them automatically, no conscious thought needed. At that point, I can devote my attention to musicality and actually interpreting the piece.

I know a bit more about neuroscience now – that it exists, if nothing else – so the relentless tedium and rote repetition grates on me a bit. It feels like such a crude, anachronistic way to learn anything. What’s the state of the art here? Have neuroscientists found any new techniques or deeper understanding of fine motor muscle memory?

One key phrase seems to be deep practice, popularized by Daniel Coyle in The Talent Code as an expansion of Anders Ericsson‘s research on deliberate practice. It’s a bit underwhelming, both the underlying science and the practical techniques. The main physiological mechanism that shows up is building myelin, the insulating sheaths around axons. That makes sense broadly, but is mylenation really so fine grained and specialized that I grow a Clair de lune myelin pattern when I practice that piece? Or is it like exercise or eating right, growing evenly and aiding overall cognitive function?

Similarly, the science-inspired practice techniques are believable, but leave me wanting. Chunking and repetition were table stakes when I played piano in high school. Same with playing slowly and forcefully. The two new ideas I came across were interval training and distraction, eg turning the TV on (with volume low or off) while you practice.

Nice ideas, and I’ll try them, but I guess I was hoping for something more. Hey Dan Chao, am I missing anything? Should I pick up a Halo? Where’s my “I know Kung Fu” device?

Maybe we’re just not there quite yet. Back to the grind, I guess!


The Cistercian monks, whose abbey stood there in the thirteenth century, wore no clothes but rough tunics and cowls, and ate no flesh, nor fish, nor eggs. They lay upon straw, and they rose at midnight to mass. They spent the day in labour, reading, and prayer; and over all their lives there fell a silence as of death, for no one spoke.

A grim fraternity, passing grim lives in that sweet spot, that God had made so bright! Strange that Nature’s voices all around them — the soft singing of the waters, the whisperings of the river grass, the music of the rushing wind — should not have taught them a truer meaning of life than this. They listened there, through the long days, in silence, waiting for a voice from heaven; and all day long and through the solemn night it spoke to them in myriad tones, and they heard it not.