Muscle Memory – Kaput!
This past weekend I was feeling out of sorts. On Sunday morning, I told my husband that I felt like taking a swing at something. This is definitely not a normal state for me, and the fact that it was so unusual for me to feel mad at everything made me feel even more uneasy. He suggested I play some music and I thought it was a perfect idea.
I had started violin lessons when I was in my late 30s and had enjoyed them. When I turned 40, I needed to get braces on my teeth and stepped away from my music lessons because I didn’t feel right spending the same amount each month on violin as I was on my dental health. I promised myself I would keep playing and start lessons again as soon as the braces came off.
Eighteen months later, I was once again metal-free, but life has a way of coming between us and our dreams. So here I am four and half years out from my last lesson and I don’t think I have opened the case more than a few times.
The thought of reconnecting with this beautiful instrument made my heart lift and I told myself I would sit down and play through all of Suzuki book 2 and 3 to refresh my memory. I had been somewhere in book 4 when I stopped, but I was not going to be unrealistic about my chances of playing at the same level. I fully expected to be out of practice.
I went into our “music room” 🙂 and dug out my violin. Oh, I had forgotten how much I loved the smell of rosin and wood! Why had I neglected my instrument for so long? I set myself up with a freshly rosined bow and my music and tuned up. A small miracle but my lovely violin did not disappoint! It had held in almost perfect tune.
I opened book 2 to the middle and started playing a Brahms waltz that I had loved when I was first introduced to it.
Yikes! Everything felt off. My posture, my grip on the bow, my death grip on the neck of the violin. I knew none of it was right, but could not seem to make the necessary adjustments. Valiantly, I continued, cringing as each note sounded. Huh? My intonation was all over the place. I could hardly remember the bowing technique and my rhythm was a mess. I stopped, stretched a little, and turned back to the beginning of book 2.
Trying another piece, I started sawing away at the strings. Every few seconds I would call out to my husband about how bad it was. 🙂 I stopped and stood up, stretching some more. I walked over to our shelves that are jam-packed with music books and started rummaging. Aha! Book 1. That ought to do the trick.
I opened it to the very first page – no more false illusions about the level my playing was currently at. Variations on Twinkle Twinkle. Surely, I could play this. I did. It wasn’t pretty, but it was recognizable and I know I had the bowing right because there was no trick to it. Just up bow, down bow and repeat. I made it through two pages of different rhythms and was exhausted.
I noticed I had been not only pressing the instrument tightly between my shoulder and jaw bone (a no-no) but I was actually clenching my teeth. Why was it so hard to hold this thing all of a sudden? Why couldn’t I get comfortable? I repeatedly removed and adjusted the shoulder rest trying to make it sit more comfortably on my collar bone. Nothing seemed to work.
I placed a soft cloth between my chin rest and my jaw and attempted some scales. I can do scales and I figured it would help with the finger placement. Wow! Those were NOT pretty either. What the heck happened?
I packed it up, pet the cat, and left the room. [By some miracle, one of our cats, Lily, stayed in the room, ears laid back but determined to nap. (Personally, I think she stayed because she knew all the other cats had scattered at the sound of my case opening and she wanted them to leave her alone. As long as I was making a racket, she was safe.)] 🙂
I felt even more depressed and out of sorts than when I started that little musical adventure. I shared this with my husband. He laughed and asked if I really expected to be able to pick up my violin after all this time and just be able to play it.
I paused for a moment and thought, well, yes! Yes, I did! And how crazy and naive that was of me. Playing an instrument – any instrument – takes time to build up muscle memory so that it becomes more natural and my muscle memory is gone! Kaput! I had done absolutely nothing in the last few years to reinforce it.
Muscle memory is defined in Wikipedia as “a form of procedural memory that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition. When a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort.” In simpler terms, it is what occurs when you practice a motion over and over until you can do it without thinking.
Musicians do this. It is how they are able to play their instruments with the proper amount of tension and pressure in the body to make the music soft, loud, pizzicato, legato, and so on. Although I have never been an athlete, I imagine they develop this too. How else to throw consistent curve balls, or make a double axle look effortless? Take any activity that requires muscle coordination and strength – riding a bike, lifting weights, knitting, drawing- none of these tasks are easy and smooth the first time you do them. Even walking took us quite a bit of practice to get down at first. 🙂
Any time you take a large chunk of time away from any of these activities your muscle memory gets lazy. You are not exercising it and strengthening it. Just like an ice skater who doesn’t get out on the ice for a few years, your muscles will be weak. It will take time to build up that strength again. It will take time for my fingers to remember where to go and what to do. It will take time for my arms and shoulders and neck and jaw to adjust again to supporting a violin.
The same is true for writing. The muscles in this case are in the brain. It takes time to build up your ability to focus and create. And if you step away for a while, you need to give yourself time to relearn the skills. One of the things that drives new writers away is that belief that they will be able to sit down the first time and write a masterpiece. But it takes practice to make dialogue flow, and characters come to life. We cannot expect it to happen the first time we sit down, or the first time we sit down after a long absence. We have to train ourselves – mind and body – to be able to sit for long periods of silence and solitude and spill our words out onto the page. It can be exhausting, but the reward is huge.
I am hoping that my muscle memory with the violin comes back to me quickly. I know it will take practice and time and focus, just like my writing. But if I am passionate about it, it will come to me. I will no doubt never play Carnegie Hall no matter how much I practice, but I know that the reward for me, mentally, will be huge. 🙂