Thursday, March 30, 2017

Muscle Memory

March 30, 2017

Yesterday I learned something about playing the piano. After practicing yesterday, Linda mentioned that when she was younger, she could reach for a low A and instinctively know where it was on the keyboard, but now she has to look to make sure her fingers are where they need to be. "I've lost the muscle memory I once had," she commented. I had never before considered the need for muscle memory in order to play the piano. For those unfamiliar with the concept, muscle memory is what happens after a task is practiced repetitively until it can be performed without even thinking about it. Musicians depend on it, as do basketball players, race car drivers, surgeons, and shooting sports enthusiasts.

Muscle memory is needed to play the bassoon, too, but it's different. The location of the various keys and holes in the instrument don't change, so there's not a lot of moving of the fingers from one location to another. Oddly enough, there is a lot of thumb movement. But it's on the upright bass that I've had the most difficulty with muscle memory. Without frets and with the neck of the instrument being mostly out of the line of sight when reading music, there are only two reference points: the curl at the back of the head of the neck, and the curve at the heel where it attaches to the body of the instrument. There are a lot of notes in between those two points, and when I play, my hand tends to slide downward with gravity, causing my notes to go sharp. I don't know how much practice it takes to instinctively know where the notes are, but it's more than I have done.

There's only one way to produce muscle memory. Practice. Repetitive, boring practice. Over and over. Someone once said, "You don't practice till you get it right; you practice till you can't get it wrong." That's a lot of practice, but he was right. So I'll keep at it. I don't think I have enough years in me to get to the point where I can't get it wrong, but I do hope to get to where I get it right most of the time.

Life is like that. The only way to develop spiritual muscle memory is to practice the spiritual disciplines over and over till you don't have to even think about doing the right thing, but instead get to the place where you almost can't get it wrong. The disciplines are repetitive, and can even be boring, but like practicing your musical scales, they give the foundation for freedom. Great musicians play seemingly effortlessly because they have spent so much time mastering the basics. We live seemingly effortlessly when we do the same with those disciplines of prayer, meditation, fasting, study, and worship. There's no mystery to it, except for those who believe that great living is only for the gifted.

I am grateful for muscle memory. It gives me hope for my bass playing. And for my living.

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