Forgetting Muscle Memory
Posted Wednesday, August 10th 2016 by Eli Zoller
Whether you’re working to improve your voice, learning how to play a new instrument, or striving to make the world’s greatest grilled-cheese sandwich, it’s going to take practice...and practice means repetition. The natural human instinct, however, is to move on once something’s been accomplished, and an artist can’t stand being stagnant or still. Yet, the fact remains: improvement requires the diligent and repetitive motions of practicing.
Whether you’re working to improve your voice, learning how to play a new instrument, or striving to make the world’s greatest grilled-cheese sandwich, it’s going to take practice…and practice means repetition. The natural human instinct, however, is to move on once something’s been accomplished, and an artist can’t stand being stagnant or still. Yet, the fact remains: improvement requires the diligent and repetitive motions of practicing.
The confusion facing most practicers (of all experience levels) comes with how to perceive this inevitable repetition. This is when the hazardous notion known as muscle memory comes into the picture.
The concept behind the term muscle memory is really a sort of allegory for being able to perform a task or skill naturally. What we’re actually talking about now is genuine memory, and memory is all about the process in which we experience the events committed to our natural recall. If we look at the repetitive actions of practicing with result-based expectations alone, we lose what’s critical about why we practice: to permanently improve! This is why I favor the term knowledgeable instincts.
When we use repetition to train and acclimate our chosen skill-set with the intentions of educating our instincts, we’re actually saying, “This action will be better than yesterday because I’ll know more about what I’m doing and why.” A Broadway singer lasts 8 shows a week when technique is regularly used, and vocal technique only comes with conscious application. You can’t just rely on your larynx to stay down; repetitive practice turns this into a knowledgeable instinct. Without that knowledge, that clear perspective for what repetition has enforced within your skill-set, you risk the development of bad habits.
More often than not, bad habits appear unawares. A major league baseball player may swing the bat as many as 1,900 times in a season (and that doesn’t include the playoffs). If all he’s thinking about during batting practice are home runs, and not how to maintain a solid swing that he can produce for an entire career, then that much work risks taking a toll for the worse. Repetition doesn’t just exist in the process of practicing but in the execution of your craft. Without the application of knowledge before and beyond the immediate result, bad habits will form.
The reason, I believe, the term muscle memory came to being is because of its honest associations with the mental preparation for the application of a unique skill. We value memory. To remember something is to cherish it, to share it, and to take it with you wherever you go. Results are crucial, and as a teacher I want nothing more than for every student’s practice routine to bare lasting skills. The perspective you have for the repetition of your practice routine, however, can’t be controlled by anyone but you in the moment. Value your repetition in the present, and build up your knowledgeable instincts. Now, if someone wants to make me the world’s greatest grilled-cheese sandwich and credit muscle memory, I’d be ok with that…but I love grilled-cheese.
Head of New York Guitar Teachers
Eli Zoller is the Director of New York Guitar Teachers in New York City. Eli enjoys coaching guitar students, as well as numerous performers and actors on performing and auditioning with instruments. His clients have gone on to major success in the film & television industry, as well as in the recording industry and on the Broadway stage.
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