Fumble-Fingered

I’ve memorized a fair amount of piano music. I can sit down at the piano and play for an hour, going through ten or fifteen pieces, without opening any of the books of sheet music that are stacked next to the piano.

What I’ve found as I get older is that the process of playing a memorized piece is becoming less secure. As I slide down the slope from 70 toward 80, the mistakes I make at the keyboard are becoming more frequent. They’re also a great deal more annoying, but that’s a separate topic.

In observing what goes wrong, I’ve learned a few things about how music is memorized.

On the page, a piece of music appears to have a straightforward linear form — or, if you want to be technical, a two-dimensional form. Time moves from left to right, and the pitches are arranged vertically, perpendicular to the time axis. However, that two-dimensional structure has very little to do with how a piece of piano music is stored and retrieved in the brain.

Several brain systems are intimately involved in the storage and retrieval process. Yes, there’s a linear component, which we might call “the music” if we’re not being too analytical, but it’s stored as audio — as a panorama of the expected sounds — not as patterns of dots on the page. The visual memory may also be involved in storing and retrieving the patterns of dots, but I find that that’s one of the least important facets of memorization.

The expected patterns of muscle movement by the fingers (and of course the forearms, because the hands don’t remain stationary) are stored in a different part of the brain from the auditory memories. The fingering memory involves and probably relies to some extent on tactile feedback — the sensations that the fingers transmit back to the brain as the keys are struck. If I hit the edge of a key rather than the center, the fingering memory can get confused.

There seem also to be short snippets — individual musical phrases — that are stored in a slightly different manner. It’s not precisely auditory memory, it’s pattern memory.

Let’s not neglect the music theory memory. If you know how chords and harmony work, and how classical pieces are constructed by the composer out of motifs and larger structures that recur and are altered in certain systematic ways, your brain will be retrieving some or all of that information as you play the piece.

Event memory is yet another system: If I have trouble with a particular spot (such as, let’s say, an awkward trill followed by a leap of the hand in a Haydn sonata movement), as that spot in the music approaches I’ll be aware that it’s approaching, and I’ll be reminding myself, perhaps even sub-verbally, to devote special attention to it.

Above all this is what I would call the manager. The manager — perhaps we should call it the conductor — has neural connections to all of those other memory systems, and calls them up in an appropriate order, so that the piece is executed.

As I get older, I’m finding that all sorts of bad things can happen during this process, any of which will result in a mistake in performance. I become aware of the various systems by observing how they go wrong.

Any of the brain regions described above can decide to take a little nap. Often it will be the fingering memory that falters: For a second or two the neurons that store the finger movements will become unavailable. What happens at that point can vary. The auditory memory may still be perfectly aware of what’s supposed to be happening, in which case the manager will try to improvise a fingering. This effort may even succeed, but it will more likely fail.

Sometimes the fingering memory will just do the wrong thing, in which case the music may be fine for half a second or so, after which the mistake will cause a train wreck. Wiring things up correctly (shift to the fourth finger here, not to the third) enlists the event memory to help the fingering memory.

When the fingering fails, the manager can get lost. If this happens, the whole production grinds to a halt. The manager is not simply sending out commands to the various subsystems — it’s also getting moment-to-moment feedback from the other systems. If the feedback from another system fails, the manager loses track of how to spool the various oncoming events. The only solution is to stop and go back to a known starting point, which may be the beginning of the piece or a distinctive spot within the piece, and start the manager again.

Sometimes the short-phrase pattern memory gets things a little jumbled. My fingers will occasionally skip a note in a phrase. This can happen because the pattern memory thinks one of the notes has already been played, or perhaps several of the notes.

On rare occasions the auditory memory or the manager will take a two-second snooze but the fingering memory will continue flawlessly, in which case the piece is not interrupted. “My fingers knew what to do!” I cry triumphantly (though usually not out loud).

I’m starting to see mistakes in the fingering system that seem to be due to declining precision in proprioception. Proprioception is such a new field of study that the spell-checker in the online editing software I’m using to write this doesn’t even know the word! It’s one of our senses, just like taste and hearing, but it was unknown until just a few years ago, because it’s so obvious. Proprioception is your sense of where your body parts (arms, legs, etc.) are in space. In rare cases due to a brain lesion, the proprioception can fail. If this happens, the sufferer can’t even sit up in bed, because they literally don’t know where their arms and legs are, even though the sensory nerves in their skin are still working just fine.

If I need to reach, let’s say, an octave down with the fifth finger of my left hand, but my sense of proprioception isn’t focusing well, I may reach too far or not far enough. The fingering memory was operating correctly, but it wasn’t getting enough input, so the muscles didn’t take the finger to the right spot.

It’s likely that proprioception can dim as we get older. That’s why old people trip and fall down, run into doors, and spill things. Not that young people never do that stuff; maybe it’s just that old people don’t recover when they stumble because their reflexes are slower. That would apply to piano playing too, I suppose. But because my eyes and ears are not what they used to be, I’m a bit suspicious that my proprioception may be dimming too.

Sometimes the fingers and the auditory memory both falter, and the music theory steps in to try to fill the gap. Instead of the root of the chord, my left hand might land on the fifth of the chord.

Often in classical music, two passages will be very similar in auditory terms, but they’re in different keys. Because of the layout of the keyboard, this may require a different fingering.If the manager consults the auditory memory but not the music theory memory before sending instructions to the fingers, the fingers may try to play the wrong pattern.

There are also moments, fortunately not frequent, when my improvisation module decides to get in on the act. I may find that my eye is looking at a wrong note and then the finger plays the wrong note, or starts in that direction, just because the improviser thought it might be an interesting note.

And then we get to the distractions. A noise outside in the street can throw the manager completely off the trail. Or I might be thinking about something I read on Facebook (and got pissed off about). Again, the playback system grinds to a halt.

The music theory monitor will sometimes distract the manager/conductor. This can happen when I play one of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, for instance, because the Goldbergs have a complex theoretical basis. The pattern memory is producing a melodic snippet, and the theory module says, “Hey, is that the main theme coming back in an inversion?” Trying to work out whether it is or isn’t involves musical analysis, and musical analysis forces the manager to do something different from conducting.

I don’t know whether all this detail is covered in the scientific literature on piano playing. I don’t even know if there is any scientific literature on piano playing. (Surely there must be!) I just think it’s worth documenting, because I happen to be paying attention. Sometimes I shout at myself, or stamp my feet and swear, because it gets pretty damn frustrating. I know the piece, I’ve played it a hundred times, but today I can’t get through the first eight bars without something going haywire.

Maybe getting old would be easier if I wasn’t paying attention.

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