Sensory Learning, Part 1

Do you remember when you learned to ride a bike without training wheels? Did you read about it or sit through a lecture? (no)  Did someone demonstrate what to do? (not really) Or did you get on the bike, get a push and figure it out for yourself? If this is what you did (and I would bet most people learned this way), you probably crashed. Maybe you crashed once or twice and then found the knack, or maybe it took dozens of tries, but eventually you were riding! I bet that whoever was helping you was shouting helpful suggestions, and I also bet that you were not listening!

Why do we learn to ride a bike this way? Because it is a complex mixture of movement and balance that (by necessity) we do not learn with our conscious mind. We need to feel it and experience the feedback from our senses and our movements. Once we are experienced riders, the task of pedaling and balancing is handled by our motor cortex*, and we don't think much about it at all. But it is such a clearly memorable skill that it becomes a metaphor for similar experiences. We say "it is like riding a bicycle" when we want to capture that feeling, that knack, of doing a learned activity that sticks with us, no matter how many years have passed since the last time we did it.

Now, notice what we did not do to learn the skill. We did not analyze, introspect, critique our technique, receive (much) instruction. In short, we did not think! The skill of riding a bicycle is held in a kind of memory called procedural memory (if you get amnesia, you won't forget it!) which is different from our memory for facts or personal experiences. The process for forming strong procedural memories is based on repetition, and of course, every skill we do without thinking uses it. But why do some skills become so ingrained, so quickly,(riding a bike, learning a language as a child) while others take years of effort to get to a similar** result (playing the cello, learning a language as an adult)?

Setting aside the natural plasticity of a young brain for the moment, I believe that it has to do with the way we approach the learning process. A complicated skill, such as a language, or playing an instrument, has to be thought about and broken down into many sub-tasks. We spend most of our early learning time in a very conscious state, filled with top down, executive effort***. We force our hands to do tasks according to rules we learn from our teacher, we memorize words and grammar purposefully. The nature of the skills themselves create many opportunities for thinking; the learning takes place with no external constraints on the time to acquire, there is a great freedom in how we can use our minds as we go about the task of learning. Contrast this with the urgency of skill acquisition when learning to ride - there is no room for thinking, adrenaline is flooding our system, the task takes place in a "do or die" environment! In other words, we are forced to leave the realm of conscious thought and learn at the root level, something much closer to a pure sensory/motor experience.

Now, it seems impractical to suggest that we somehow contrive to add this urgency to our instrumental practice (although it does point to the value of immersive experiences that contain urgency, such as moving to a country where you do not speak the language, or playing in an orchestra of more accomplished musicians). However, we can certainly learn from the results of that urgency, and construct learning experiences that contain as little conscious effort as possible, learning that focuses on the senses and the goal, that places a greater emphasis on feeling (both sensory and emotional) rather than thinking. I will explore how to do this in part two....


  • Wouldn't it be nice if we could learn the cello like we learned to ride a bike? (i.e. quickly and deeply)
  • Executive learning (top down, conscious) is powerful, but slow and effortful.
  • When we learned to ride, the situation forced us to think less and feel more.
  • Procedural skills are done without thought (implicitly), and are best learned that way as well.


*Ok, technically the part of the brain doing the most work is called the putamen.
and really, the result is never as natural or facile.
***Sometimes called the cognitive state, or verbal state



Some useful vocabulary

Sometimes science has great terms for things we already know by experience!

Cognitive Disfluency: the subjective feeling of difficulty associated with any mental task. Disfluency occurs when information is costly–perhaps it takes a lot of effort to understand a concept, or a name is unfamiliar and therefore difficult to say.

My level of cognitive disfluency seems to go way up when I have a cold; guess I'd better stick to practicing slow and simple things today!

Procedural Memory: The type of memory associated with skills learned through repetition, requiring little thought to execute; as opposed to explicit memory, which deals with facts and experiences.

I've practiced my scales so much this year, they're just about locked into my procedural memory!

Expertise-induced amnesia: When using highly trained skills (procedural memory) , the practitioner has no specific memory or ability to explain details of the actions performed. 

I have no idea what happened during my last recital, but the audience seemed to like it. Guess I have expertise-induced amnesia!

Know what you want, then make it sound like that.

Know what you want, then make it sound like that. This is how music works right? A statement so general is completely unhelpful. Or is it? I find that this statement is the starting point of real practicing. Any problem with a performance resides in one or both of those parts. Is the problem in knowing what you want, or in making it sound like what you want? If you ask this question thoughtfully, the answer may surprise you.

Much of the time, the problem lies in knowing what we want! We know what we like when we hear it (reactive listening), but often fail to have a clear internal representation of our goal (anticipatory listening). This applies at all levels of our craft, from phrasing, to tone, and even to intonation. When is the last time you imagined what an ideal cello tone sounds like, vividly and clearly? What about the ideal tone for a specific note in a passage? Or the exact C sharp you are aiming for, ringing like a bell in your imagination before you begin the shift? We tend to fall in the habit of completing a shift on the physical level, and then checking in with the ear to see how we did (and it all happens so quickly, we think it is simultaneous!) Unfortunately, this exactly reverses the tasks our mind and body perform best. Without a clear goal, our body is pulled in many directions by competing areas of our brain, and our conscious thought process hinders our movements. We confuse the desire to hit a shift with the clear image of the goal. We focus on the action instead of the outcome. Our conscious mind is terrible at moving our body, and our body is terrible at knowing the desired result.

I'm sure every cellist can remember a passage where they had trouble finding a note because it was difficult to hear (maybe because the shift was up a major 7th, or some other interval confusing to the ear.) Once the ear learned the passage, the shift became much more reliable. This principle can be applied to all areas of the cello. My shorthand for this is "lead with the ear". Your imagination sets off a chain reaction in your brain, smoothing the way for the exquisitely timed hand-off from muscle group to muscle group that can never be consciously controlled (not well anyway!) The stronger your imagination, the easier the task.

There is a difficulty with language in discussing this topic; the words "want", "desire", and "goal".  I may desire to have a successful outcome, I want to hit the shift, my goal may be to be perfect. I may have a burning desire, like the heat of a thousand suns, to hit that shift. Even though my heart is in the right place, none of that will help (and may actually hinder.) This is because the goal is nothing that the body can use. It is too general, and in a way, greedy. The desire to hit the shift is based on my self image and carries a lot of baggage. So we can have a harmful (or at least useless) goal, or a helpful goal. Desire can be applied at a base level, in the moment (think toddler), or a higher level, driving the structure of our practice and how we order our thoughts. Helpful goals are specific, sensory, and vivid. Harmful goals are general, grasping and involve the conscious control of our fine motor skills. Learning to tell the difference is a big step toward mastery!

Imagine if you applied these ideas to all areas of your life!


I often find myself saying...

Me: “You have an awful lot on your plate! I think you should consider a detailed practice schedule.”

Student: “But I already schedule my practicing!”

Me: “A detailed schedule is more than deciding when you are going to practice (though I am glad to hear you are doing that!). A detailed schedule means working backwards from your goals for the week, breaking each goal into manageable steps, figuring out how much time each step should take on a daily basis, and then deciding what is the best order to do them in.”

Student: “That sounds like a good idea – except how do I know how much time each goal will take?”

Me: “Only by doing it. Start with your best guess and then refine as you go along.”

Student: “The problem is, I never seem to stick to things like this. I always lose track of time, or get too involved with what I am doing in the moment.”

Me: “Well, here is the great thing about this system; the schedule lets you be two places at once!”

Student: “…”

Me: “Imagine how well you would do, if one part of you was organizing your practice, standing over your shoulder, while the other part was practicing. The overseer (let’s call it the executive) calls all the shots, and is a tough customer. The part of you doing the practice only needs to focus on the immediate task, and do it as well as possible…do you see where this is going?”

Student: “You mean that when I am making the schedule, I am making decisions for my future self, so I can just be in the moment when I am practicing?”

Me: “Exactly! You get to have the best of both worlds; clear headed, logical planning, and purely in the moment practicing. I find the most useful part of the schedule is that it provides a clear stopping point for a task, so you don’t practice a skill or a passage too long. You only bring your best, concentrated work, and then you move on to something different.”

Student: “I think this could work really well, if I actually do it.”

Me: “If it works for you, you will have a tool you can bring to any area of your life. Imagine if you used this in all your classes!”

Student: “That’s almost a little frightening!”