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Amanda Grow

From Memory

August 3, 2009 at 3:33 AM

In some ways my return to the violin has been like the proverbial bicycle. They say you never forget how to ride a bike, right? To a degree I find this to be true of my violin. It's been since I was barely a teen since I played with any regularity. Now as I'm almost 30 trying to return to playing, I find myself remembering and forgetting so much at once. It feels very natural in many ways. In other ways, it is so alien. Memory is perhaps a friend and enemy in this process.

I find I remember songs by their feel. Flipping through youtube videos of other players, within two notes of hearing the video, my fingers walk the neck where they should, and my arm moves the bow instinctively to the proper string.  Or what I remember to be proper. In other cases, I just know a song without knowing the sheet music nor the name of it - just the feel and the sound of it. Unfortunately I am quickly learning that muscle memory alone is not enough, and my technique is presently horrific. I've heard the debate that there is no such thing as "muscle memory". I disagree, but not based on anything related to instruments or music. I find the term is misunderstood and misused more so than a mythical phrase.

When I was an artist's model, we used the term "muscle memory" to describe a model's ability to return to the pose they held after an extended break. When you're sitting in front of a room of artists sketching or painting you, you must hold very still for a period of time - sometimes as much as hours, or as short as seconds, and everything in between. Naturally no human being short of a Shaolin Monk could ever hold the same position for more than thirty minutes straight without consequence, so it is customary during longer poses to take breaks of ten to fifteen minutes to allow the model to move about and get the circulation going again. Once the break is over, the model returns to the pose getting as close to the original positions as possible. It includes everything from the way the head is turned or titled to the position of fingers, feet, and twist in torso... and more. I always got a lot of praise from the artists for having excellent "muscle memory". It is not that my muscles remember where to go - that would be silly as muscles have no reasoning power. The phrase refers to my brain's ability to remember the feel of how the muscles (and other parts of the body with feeling) were previously in order to reproduce the same position a second time. How much tension was in the thigh; how much twist was in the forearm; which secondary muscles were straining in the neck in order to give the correct amount of tilt; what areas of my skin were taunt and which were relaxed; and so on. I never made the connection when I was a model that this type of use of memory dated as far back as my violin lessons...

I never learned to read music. I still can't. But I have always been able to memorize the sound and feel of things, and to remember which fingers produce what sounds that I want. In some ways I wish my instructor had been more harsh in insisting I learn to read music, but unfortunately the ultimate "test" of learning the songs was being able to get in front of the room and play the songs. I had my sheet music, but I was never reading it. I would just memorize what the song was supposed to sound like, and where my fingers and bow needed to move to make that happen. The book was in front of me, but if it was possible to watch my eyes, I was not following the sheet at all, just looking "at" it (or even through it).

We used to keep a chart of the progress we made with the songs. Next to your name below every song you were able to play in front of the class you got a little sticker. My song list was twice the length of the other students. Now you would think the teacher could "catch" me by forcing me to sit down with a sheet of music I hadn't seen before and asking me to play it back. This is correct, it was a way to catch me at it. Unfortunately that required you to present me with sheet music for something that I didn't know the sound of. There were two things working against my teacher for that sort of trap. The first was my love of music. I listened to a lot - and varied - music back then. So if I recognized the title of the song, then I recognized the sound, and I'd play it. The other problem was me being a diligent student in the wrong way. So those of you who play(ed) under the Suzuki school of teaching remember the little books and series of tapes that went with it. That's right, you guessed it: I would just look at the title of the song and listen to the tape, and play it all the way through based on the feel and sound of it, not the sheet music. I just memorized what melody went with what song name. Then I'd memorize where my fingers needed to go to make that happen. If I got the bow strokes wrong, she'd correct me, and I'd memorize that too. I'd even listen to the tapes to fall asleep at night like any other music because I thought they were pretty. Now if you've ever kept the same tape, CD, or MP3 playlist around without changing it up, and listened to it over and over again, you remember them. You know the songs so well you could probably hum the whole album straight through on your own. Well I can anyway if I use the same playlist over and over again, but I'm sure many of you can do that sort of thing too.

So she would pull out a song from a book or two ahead and I'd play it because I'd been listening to it on my tape player at home already before being prompted to study it. I know she was susipicous that I couldn't actually read the music, but because I was able to play the songs (and more songs in quantity than anyone else in the class) I guess she felt if she penalized me it might discourage me. I mean how do you "prove" someone isn't reading the music? You may be able to prove they don't know the names of the notes, but if by looking at the note they know where to put the finger and the appropriate sound, then what? Is it exceedingly important that they know the quarter note on the second line is ... whatever note that is when they're able to play the note on the proper string for the proper amount of time when you point it out to them? Well it should be! Okay but for me, it wasn't - heck I'm not even that good to be able to know what the notes are supposed to sound like when I see them on paper like that. I really couldn't read the music. So I sustained myself on the memorization of everything BUT what the sheet music actually meant.

Years and years later with no lessons or instructors motivating me, much of what I learned was relegated back to the deep ressesses of memory. The trouble with memorization is that you need constant repetition to keep it fresh. When you try and come back to it, you remember large chunks, but stumble a lot putting the chunks together again. It's like there are little foggy holes in some places that you're trying to fill in.

So now that I've gotten an instrument and started prodding at those memories, my bow arm and fingers are moving where they should... for the wrong instrument. I'm having to re-learn to play not because I don't know the songs, but because my fingers and arms "remember" a much smaller violin (and a much smaller me). Motions that were appropriate to move from the E to the D on my old violin are not correct for this one, among other problems. Furthermore, I know the melody of songs, but in many cases the titles of those songs are long forgotten and I'm having to scower music to reunite the two. It's frustrating to fumble through a song that only I seem to know the melody (or existance) of. Someone will ask me "do you know [song name]" and I have to stop and think... do I? Then there's the problem of forgetting what you were never taught...

It's been so long that I'm quickly realizing how little advancement I actually had. It's funny how when you're a student you feel like you know a lot more than you do (plus you're young so thinking you "know everything" is part of the territory). I distinctively remember two things I never learned to do back then: read music and any kind of vibrato. I now realize that there is so much more to playing that I never learned. Back then my skills were fine for my age and the amount of time I'd been playing, but they were far from refined. Now I bind up whenever a friend or relative asks to hear me play something even casually because I feel so subpar.

The only advantage to having the memories now is it's made for less frustrating practice. I find it's a lot easier to stomach playing the same things over and over again to improve your technique when it actually sounds like coherant - although sloppy - music. When I want to practice crossing from E to A, I have a song or three for that. When I want to re-educate my fingers on double stops, I have a song for that. They don't sound as good as I remember, but I can get them there again with time, practice, and research. Maybe I'll even mix in some memorization techniques for sheet music to make up for my old earplay sins. I have a few friends who offered some good sheet music techniques, so I'll give them a try. I think a big part of my old dread of sheet music reading was a stigma around it rather than legitimate effort to try and master it. If I can memorize the sound and the feel of things, why not the look, no?

The one conselation in my overbearing reliance on memories is that there is an echo memory between now and then. This shared link between past and present solidifies my comittment to sticking with it: it feels, and has always felt, good to play.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on August 3, 2009 at 2:43 PM

 Your memory skills sound really useful.  I'm the opposite--I over-rely on sheet music, and I just played my first recital ever from memory in April.  I played a piece that was all of 5 minutes long, and it was a real challenge.  But it's important and I'm planning to do more of it.  

From Fernando Almeida
Posted on August 3, 2009 at 5:16 PM

Very interesting blog, specially when you compared your "muscle memory" applied to the violin and as an artist's model. I know what you mean by knowing where your fingers need to go, as I myself have returned to playing the violin after several years. We know where our hand need to be, remember the pieces but technically we're lacking. I was never very good at it, though.

Maybe you could try to learn to read music now, it can be fun! When I was a kid I used to play the piano, but for some reason my teacher also wanted me to play some popular tunes. For that, she bought some music magazines with simplified scores of about 20 songs each. Then, I had to play many of them weekly. I wouldn't be interested in that anymore, but it certainly boosted my sight reading.

You may find a good way for you to improve your skills in that area. Good luck!

From Amanda Grow
Posted on August 4, 2009 at 5:41 AM

Re: Karen

It's definately useful - especially when you have trouble finding sheet music. You just fumble your fingers along until you find the notes and sounds you need to get you part way there. But it's definately not been good to be unable to read from the sheet. If you don't already know the melody or hear it somewhere, then you're stuck :X

Re: Fernando

I'm definately interested in learning to read it. I think if I put my mind to it I'll get it with time. A friend of mine told me a neat technique I'm going to try: he said to get the sheet music, and a second piece of paper with the staff.  Rather than writing the letter or fingering underneath the note on the sheet music (as some people do and lord knows I tried this as a student back then), go to the blank page of staff lines and write the letter in the right spot. The act of writing the letters in the physical place the note would normally appear apparently helps to re-enforce that "spot" as that particular note. It's a start, and I'm willing to try anything at this rate ^^

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