Muscle Memory

It’s like being lost in the house you grew up in. It’s like going to Wales and hearing people talking in what sounds like heavily (Welsh-) accented English only to realise that they really are talking in Welsh and you don’t understand them. It’s like suddenly losing your sense of smell, or spontaneously overnight growing eighteen inches taller, and suddenly the proprioceptive genius that got you this far is constantly slightly out of kilter.

I mean, actually, that I haven’t played the cello in a while. That I’m by and large good enough to play the orchestral cello parts for this that and the other, and had not realised how hideously out of practice I actually am. I used to go skipping up and down the fingerboard, always confident that the note I saw on the page was the note I would produce, and usually I was right. Now not only am I wrong more often than not – I’ve lost my way, of course – I’ve also lost the sheer guts I used to have that might make it OK, because I know how lost I am. I am timid, unsure, insecure, lost. I feel slightly mentally blindfolded. I’ve lost the knack of sightreading and making a thing into music at the same time and then also being able to communicate with the people I’m playing with so that it’s cohesive and alive and moves as one. I’ve lost it, and I know that I’ve lost it.

Which is irritating, and frustrating, and embarassing, and maddening, and all those things. But it’s also fascinating, because inevitably it makes me wonder what it was I did to learn those things in the first place – how does the brain do this, and that, and the other, to make music possible – how do we interpret this sequence of sounds as music, for a start, and then how do we do the practical muscular things to make that happen, how do we communicate almost intuitively – or not – with others, to make this something that flies rather than limps? What does all that learning entail, and what is it that happens when we don’t do it for a while, which bits is it that the brain loses the knack of? Because there is always an obvious difference, when you watch and listen, between players that are bad now but used to be better, and players that are bad now, worse in the past, and still learning, going to be better. Different things are problematic, different things are missing, and that’s interesting. How does the brain do that, and lose that, and…

…you can see why it was age-related neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimers that got me back into this science business in the first place. Meanwhile, though, I have some serious practice to do.



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3 responses to “Muscle Memory

  1. Adam

    For me, the most fascinating thing about playing an instrument are the things you do sub-consciously… Obviously I play a heathen instrument in the Electric guitar, so my experiences and expertise are different – but for me improvising is a true wonder…

    I used to sit with books and the internet and learn tonnes and tonnes of tricks, tips hints and so on… then try and shoe-horn all this knowledge into music, and it didn’t really work… After a while I stopped my knowledge-quest and just started playing what sounded good… I found my playing improved a lot, by not working on it – or at least altering the perspective from which I work on it…

    That said – there is always time for practice…

  2. It is fascinating, isn’t it.

    And I know exactly what you mean! I haven’t played the clarinet, even sporadically, since part way through my second year at university, and it makes me really sad because I know that when I was good, I loved it and wanted to play just because! The Mozart concerto came on the CD player the other day and I said to J, “I can play this!” before suddenly realising that I probably can’t any more because I have no lip muscles and even less finger agility any more. Will I get back into it? I don’t know, but I really hope so.

    • Jenny

      Well, take heart. My mother is an oboist who, having not played her oboe – or at least hardly at all – for probably about ten or fifteen years, joined the local ‘community orchestra’ (which was exactly as terrible as it sounds). At first I’m sure she sounded pretty rusty, but six or seven years on she now plays with another orchestra (an orchestra I sometimes play with too, when I’m home) as their principal oboist and is having lessons (once in a while) again – and sounding very good indeed, with a lovely tone and rattling around the range quickly and competently. I’m really pleased for/proud of her, and it certainly gives the rest of us some hope! So second time around, it does come back far faster than learning it in the first place. Like you say it’s regaining the agility and strength mainly (and in my case, being a string player, the ability to reliably hit the note I’m aiming for rather than being horrendously out of tune). Even in the last two evenings of playing I’ve improved a lot, though there’s still a long way to go. So if you want it, it’s still there, somewhere :).

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