Practice Makes Permanent

This article originally appeared in a slightly different form on Teresa Y Green’s blog:

So Hen got to play the other day. One of those sudden chances that falls out of the sky for a lucky musician at the right place at the right time. A public performance with musicians he likes and respects.

He sounded great, of course, but he was self-conscious because he was not at his usual level of practice. I told him, “Your body knows what it’s doing. Let it do its thing.” And I was right (of course!). He had a great time, and we’re all hoping he will let me post the video soon.

Another friend, who is also a musician, reminded me that in the music world, the adage “practice makes perfect” is actually worded “practice makes PERMANENT.” One of the explanations for the way Hen can play wonderfully, even if out of practice, is because of the wonders of “muscle memory.”

Muscle memory is the information storage system between your muscles and brain. When you do a motion over and over, your brain sets it into a “frequent use” hopper of sorts. You don’t have to consciously think each time you pick up a fork to eat–but if you’ve never used chopsticks, and suddenly take them up, you have to concentrate on every bite. Music (and dance and sports and peeling an orange and riding a bike) are the same. Do a motion repeatedly, and your brain stores it for quick retrieval.

Of course, if you store that information improperly, you remember the bad version. My orchestra teacher kept after me to keep my wrist down when I was playing viola. I haven’t played viola in 30 years, but I know exactly how to keep my wrist down so my fingers have the greatest reach on the strings. Sadly, my muscles weren’t as interested in pulling a bow across the strings. The last time I tried to do that, I couldn’t get the pressure right, and succeeded in just making a screech.

One last thing. Today’s topic is called “muscle memory,” but since it’s also brain function, there is also another brain/memory phenomenon called neuroplasticity. When you think a thought or idea over and over, your brain rewires itself to access that thought more easily. So in addition to using your brain’s penchant for efficiency to master music in case you’re invited to perform, you can also repeat great thoughts like “I’m healthy,” “things are going well,” and “helping people helps me.” Healthy thoughts have been shown in research to create more healthy interactions in your  immune and endocrine systems.

So practice, and think the way you want to stay. Practice makes permanent.

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