Muscle memory, poise and skill


It’s in your fingers, it’s in your hands, it’s in your legs, arms, back, neck and almost every muscle in your body. What’s that I hear you ask?  It’s muscle memory.  And we’re not talking about your brain as that’s in your head, but the ability for muscles to record patterns of tension in relation to one another and work together without specific conscious thought controlling them. Although this wonderful ability is referred to as ‘muscle memory’, the information is actually stored in the nervous system and subconscious.  As we develop a new skill new neural pathways are developed and become established so making repetition relatively easy. But for the sake of ease, I shall refer to it as ‘muscle memory, in this entry.

I was talking to one of my pupils about how we can develop the ability to perform extraordinary skills in our lifetime, and how this ability also manifests itself in the form of habits of poise and movement.  I was reminded of a concert we went to some time ago at the Barbican Hall, London where Hilary Hahn the virtuoso violinist was playing Mendelssohn’s violin concerto No.1 in E Minor and ‘The Lark Ascending’ By Vaughan-Williams. Here is a superb non-flashy serious musician who plays with the lyricism of Kreisler, with every resonant note well articulated and clear, sensitively performed with just the right nuance to let the music speak. It was wonderful.

This young musician had just completed a Japanese tour which had been un-thought of a month before. Apparently she had been asked to substitute for an unwell soloist.  She said in her blog the repertoire was the Beethoven Violin Concerto that she had actually been performing just the previous month and the tour just fell into place with her own performing schedule.   Also, with regards to playing the Beethoven, …quote…..”It was in my fingers.”  What she was referring to was the ability of her fingers to find the right notes and play with the necessary dexterity without her thinking of each note individually. Some of the passages of music are so fast it is impossible to ‘think’ of every note. The patterns of muscle movement have become familiar through practice to be available to her, almost instinctively. So she may ‘think’ an entire passage of music and her fingers will find all the individual notes and phrasing.  ‘It’s in her fingers.’

When we do something for the first time, we need to think clearly about every aspect of our actions, but with repetition we get the hang of it. When we’re very young we are shown by our parents how to tie our shoe laces. At first it takes a lot of thought and practice. Eventually we can do this without thinking. As I type this blog, I’m thinking the words and phrases and not worrying about hitting the right keys….at least most of the time!

It’s the same with almost anything involving our hands and for that matter, any group of muscles in our body.  To hit a golf ball accurately over distance the whole body is involved in making this stroke. As a novice our shots will be wildly variable, but with practice we get better and more consistent. Muscle memory helps us refine our performance.   For Hilary Hahn it’s not just her fingers, but her whole body too is involved, from her stance and poise, to overall balance, support in her back, freedom of the wrists and arms yet with appropriate muscle tone to generate the energy and quality of sound required.  She brings her whole body and mind to the performance. This learnt ‘co-ordination’ gives her the ability to play the violin and such a piece of music as the Beethoven violin concerto (as well as her musicality and ability to interpret the meaning). The stored information in her subconscious enables her to play those particular notes in the right order, phrasing and tempo.  So there is the general set up of skill and co-ordination to play the instrument and the specific detailed information within the fingers and arms to play any particular piece of music.

Repetition of any activity brings familiarity and with it habitual muscle patterns to perform the task. This also includes the simple act of walking or sitting. We use hundreds of muscles in the process and as children we practice, we become able to walk, run and jump or write a letter. Muscle memory allows us to perform tasks without the same conscious thought that was required the first time we did it.   It is also the case that we can ‘pick up’ unhelpful habits too in any activity.  There are no greater habits that are detrimental to our walking as stiffening our necks and stooping forwards, yet many of us have picked up these tendencies, possibly from our parents or friends or others.  James Dean the actor has a lot to answer for!  Stooping or slouching severely interferes with the muscle co-ordination required to walk and run easily with minimum effort. It’s not how we did it as children! These tendencies throw us off balance so we are constantly fighting the pull of gravity to stay upright while we walk. So we use far more effort and our body is under far more strain than necessary. These are the very habits amongst many others, that the Alexander Technique addresses and which Alexander Technique teachers work to eliminate with their pupils.  The unwanted habitual tensions are ‘in our muscles’, just as much as in a good way, the Beethoven concerto is in Hilary’s fingers.

Any repetition or practice of an activity brings familiarity and habit. So it’s really important that we get the best possible examples from which to learn. We should choose experts who are free of harmful habits themselves. Because if our parents tie their shoe laces with stiff neck, hunched shoulders and tight fingers while holding their breath, that is absolutely the way we are going to learn to do it too!  Like father, like son. But…… BUT it’s important to remember that we may have habits of poise that will affect our interpretation of the example. So we may believe we are copying the expert’s example, but it is likely that this is not accurately the case. As FM Alexander rather bluntly put it…”All the darned fools in the world believe they are doing what they think they are doing!” because habits affect how accurately we feel.  If we have alexander lessons to eliminate our habits and if we can maintain a good ‘head/neck/back’ relationship while studying and practicing a new activity such as golf or playing the violin, we will be far more successful and less likely to develop faulty co-ordination.

So the good news is, with awareness we can do something about it.  We can give the best example to our children as possible. When we decide to learn something new, we can choose the best possible example or expert to observe, copy and emulate.  Hilary Hahn does it for me and I emulate her calm, well poised and integrated approach to her instrument every time I pick up my own violin. Thank you Hilary.