Musicians' Health Collective

Musicians' Health Collective: Supporting the health of musicians

What's Muscle Memory?

Usually, Family Circus is one of my least favorite comics, but for today, I find it rather applicable. 

Usually, Family Circus is one of my least favorite comics, but for today, I find it rather applicable. 

As you can probably imagine, to become a musician, you develop very specific muscle memory, which in fact has very little to do with memory being stored within muscles themselves.  Instead, it's a feedback loop between the brain, the many neurons of the body (mechanoreceptors, proprioceptors, and more!), and muscles, in a class of memory called Procedural Memory (or motor learning).  P.M. is the sort of memory that allows us to perform actions without thinking about them consciously. 

ex.  You had to think a lot about tying your shoe twenty years ago, but you probably never think about it now.   You revamped your bow hold/setup/embouchure in college, and thought a lot about maintaining those changes as you play.  Now, it's second nature. 

To get to Procedural Memory, one works on Procedural learning, which is repeating an activity until the brain and body automatically creates the action.  Hopefully, this is what you do every day when you practice!  Ideally, we are isolating difficult actions and skills and training our body to make them second nature.  Think of how many string players practice the first page of Don Juan- the goal is to make execution automatic, often.  I think it was Malcolm Gladwell that came up with the idea that one has to log 10,000 hours to become an expert at something, although I imagine that number is dependent on quality over quantity.  It also explains why true beginners need lots of hours of repetition to master a basic task, like holding a violin bow, or understanding quarter note rhythmic durations.

Now whatever you repeat in your procedural learning becomes ingrained in your body, so if you choose to repeat poor habits, those will become second nature too.  You can see this with your students, who often speed through scales and technique, and don't realize that there is direct crossover with the rest of our repertoire and performance.  We want to integrate mindfulness with instrumental practice in order to reinforce good habits and awareness of what we're trying to learn and perfect.

ex. Many of us practiced scales and etudes in front of the TV when we were younger.  If you're an auditory learner, maybe the extra stimulus helped you focus, but for most of us, it was just an excuse to log practice time and let our body execute scales automatically, without us thinking about quality.

Lastly, this feedback loop between the Central Nervous System and muscle proprioceptors (which tell you where your body is in space) is what allows you to take time off from practicing, and then get back to it without starting at the very beginning of your learning. 

ex. You take two weeks off from practicing, and then when you return, it's challenging to start, but you get back in shape in about a week, instead of starting as an absolute beginner.

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

Part of this ties into the idea of the practice/mastery matrix, which has a few different variants.  One is this idea of moving from unconscious incompetence (I don't know what I don't know) to conscious incompetence (I know I don't know this) to various levels of conscious and unconscious competence.  With any piece of music, we are going through these levels, whether it's in a quick period of time of listening to a recording, understanding the challenges, and then targeting them, or whether part of a larger process.  

This brain image is sort of hilarious- performing an overhead press is not just a muscle building activity, but a building of neural pathways that connect brain to muscles and back.  Cool, huh?

This brain image is sort of hilarious- performing an overhead press is not just a muscle building activity, but a building of neural pathways that connect brain to muscles and back.  Cool, huh?

What I find especially neat as a musician is that multiple aspects of your brain are being engaged simultaneously- you know what something should sound like, what it feels like in your hands (or with your breathing or tonguing), you hear how it sounds and respond accordingly, and maybe you see yourself in the mirror and adjust accordingly.  There's so much going on to make music!  (More on this later-)

I've been thinking about all of this a lot lately, as a I embarked on a beginning Crossfit trial a while ago, which involved a lot of motions and actions which I'm not used to performing as a yoga teacher/musician.  Many of the actions are performed for time, which I could care less about.  I'm so much more interested in lifting a weight with good form then finishing a certain number of reps, because my body will remember my poor form in the future more than I realize. Conversely, I've been doing pilates teacher training in the last year and have focused most of my efforts on good quality movement and ingraining good habits.  The movement method isn't the problem-it's how you learn (I need to do things slowly and practice by myself!) and how to learn, coordinate, and ingrain things over time. In the end, all of our movements are not just training muscles to be stronger or weaker, but instead are training our brain, which is pretty amazing stuff.

*Thanks to Jonathan FitzGordon's initial blog post on muscle memory and being a beginner for inspiring this! 

The Intersection of Music and Psychology: An Interview with Lisa Chisolm of Master Performing

Canadian Bassoonist and Coach

Canadian Bassoonist and Coach

As I manage a busy summer season in upstate Western NY with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, I wanted to take a little time to share what some other amazing people are doing in the fields of music, medicine, movement, the brain, and more.  This week, I have an interview with Canadian Bassoonist and performance coach Lisa Chisholm of Master Performing, who began her career exclusively as an orchestral bassoonist, and has since branched out, while still retaining a performance career.  

KM: Tell us a little about your varied career these days -how did you get where you are today, in terms of your multiple degrees in music performance, as well as psychology and counseling.

LC: I studied music at McGill and at Juilliard, and have enjoyed 20 (egads!) years of a variety of freelancing and full time orchestral positions. Today, I am equal parts performer and coach. As an aside, I find this very helpful - it's important to be able to relate to clients on the level of having experienced elite preparation and performance, and I do often hear that feedback from clients. There is so much about sports psychology that translates nicely and directly into the performing arts, but so much that does -not- translate quite so directly. Filtering it all through the lens of a seasoned artist has proven to be, in my opinion, a wonderful combination.

The question of how I came to develop a parallel career with the Master Performing curriculum is a great one! Originally, I went in search of consumer-grade sport/performance material in order to bring more Olympic-level consistency to my own auditions. However, in my search, I found that there was a great lack of relevant and/or high quality consumer-grade material available, so I decided to go right to the root of the material, academically - so, I went to school when nobody was looking! I pretty quickly realized that there was a vital piece of curriculum that I wished I had had in my own training, and that I wanted to bring to other performing artists. That is why/how I developed my Master Performing program.

It's important to note, I am still as active as ever as a performer, by the way. Sometimes people assume that I have left playing in order to coach - quite untrue! One aspect of my coaching that I feel is vital is the fact that I am still very much on the stage, and am constantly filtering sport/performance psychology through the lens of a performing artist. I'll never stop playing; it is so much a part of who I am - and I also think it adds a vital dimension to my coaching.

KM: I can totally relate to that with my own dual career life.  What is the intersection between psychology and music, and how has learning more about the brain/mind/body connection changed your life and music making? 

LC: Wow, that question could take an all-afternoon chat -- and it would be a great one!!!! I think what I love the most is the idea that "psychology" is "the study of the brain/mind".... Often in a colloquial sense, people think of psychology strictly in the therapy/counselling sense, and often associate it all with stereotypical "problems", anxiety, depression, "seeing a shrink", etc. All these things are of course part of the field; but not to be overlooked is the part of psychology that is about how our mind learns, processes, recalls, executes... all these things that help us as performers! How to better acquire (learn) our material - memorize better, execute a passage more smoothly..How to be more efficient at practicing. How to handle distracting thoughts or occurrences during a performance; focus and distraction control. How our minds process the worlds around us and how we behave/perform. All these tools of excellence in preparation and consistency in performance - that is all psychology!  It is tremendously exciting to catalogue all this great stuff together into batches of information that is relevant to a high-level performer.

On this note, the Master Performing curriculum is a mix of sport and performance psychology, social psychology, the psychology of learning and memory, delivered through a coaching approach rooted in the approaches of positive, narrative, cognitive, behavioural, and solution-focused schools of thought. 

What I love most on a personal level is how EASY it has made things for me. As all performers know, a wonderful side effect of teaching and coaching others is that is brings clarity to that area in your own skill set. So it's a cute little triangle, that I originally sought out this information for my own betterment, instantly realized I wanted to collate it all together and bring it to other artists, and in the process of delivering it to other artists, presto-change-o, there is a degree of ease in my own preparation and performance that I am very happy about. Talk about win-win! :-)

KM: In terms of your client base, who do you primarily work with right now?

LC: In the performing arts, I work with approximately 50%-50% actors - musicians, and some dancers. (But presently mainly actors and musicians.) 

KM: What can working with you do for musicians, and how might they get started?  

LC: Working with me will make you smarter! Better-looking! You'll get more dates!!!! (*KIDDING!!!*)  Seriously though... Working with me, my goal is to educate performers on the mechanisms and concepts at play when we are getting in our own way, and to equip artists with a variety of tools which they can apply at the right moment. I feel very strongly that You Are The World Expert on You, and the best approach in terms of lasting improvement is a psycho-educational approach, where you learn the mechanisms at play in your own world, and can learn how to create a more efficient and effective performance approach for yourself. 

I am fairly no-nonsense and practical/tactical. I teach as much factual, evidence-based material as I can find. I avoid pseudo-science and soup-du-jour tactics, and I encourage critical thinking. I always want an artist to understand -why- they might employ a certain strategy for themselves, because what may work beautifully for you this week, might not work so well for you next week. I want you to have knowledge and tools to reach for in order to develop your own best approach for consistency. We are ever-changing and unpredictable in our vulnerabilities, and there will never be a one-size-fits-all answer. I am very wary of any approach which says, "Here are your X-number of steps and here is just what you should say/do pre-performance."

My workshop curriculum is loooooong. Presently 19 hours long. This is the best way to get all the foundational information and concepts. After that, 1-1 coaching is the best way to tailor those to the individual - we come up with strategies together that the artists will use for themselves.

KM: What are some of your upcoming projects or events?  

LC: Funny you should ask, particularly on the heels of that last question. :-)  Actually, very soon, in Boston I am hosting a 5-day intensive workshop from 7-11 August. It will cover the full Master Performing curriculum as well as some drills and "road-testing" of the skills. Here is the link to that:

KM: Any last words/things you'd like to add?

LC: Kayleigh, you have asked some great questions! Thank you so much for having me as a guest. If I would add anything, it would be how delighted I am to be a part of this field, in a time where the performing arts field is really beginning to recognize that what we ask of our minds and bodies in performance is truly Olympic - and yet typically we have only had training on our artistic craft, and not the auxiliary areas necessary for prime performance. I am so thrilled to hear of schools which are beginning to incorporate this material into their curriculum, and practitioners who are bringing complementary physical and mental pieces of the puzzle to the artistic field. Outside of this interview, we spoke about Body Mapping - that is one great example! I would describe Body Mapping as "functional anatomy awareness for performing artists". Did anyone teach me about me rotator cuff and my ulna and radius when I was in school? No. Did I use my rotator cuff and ulna and radius 10 hours a day while practicing, reed-making, carrying my instrument, etc? Yes! When I think of it, how can we NOT be teaching this in conservatories?!? We're asking Olympic level duties of our bodies, and yet how many of us know how our arms and hands are put together?  Same goes for the mental preparation. So, I am so pleased to be here at a time that I would consider "the forefront". I hope that in 10-15 years, this material will be commonplace in artistic training institutions, and that we will all look back and marvel at this stage.

KM: Thanks so much, Lisa!

For more about Lisa and Master Performing, visit

How do I find a good massage therapist?

Most stock images of massage feature tropical flowers, perfectly white towels, and beautiful young women with flawless makeup.  This in fact has never been my experience and I'm 100% ok with that. I'd love for massage establishments to STOP using gendered stereotypical images like this.

Most stock images of massage feature tropical flowers, perfectly white towels, and beautiful young women with flawless makeup.  This in fact has never been my experience and I'm 100% ok with that. I'd love for massage establishments to STOP using gendered stereotypical images like this.

My friends and colleagues often ask me questions, and one of the most common is "how do I find a good massage therapist in my city/area?"  It's a great question, and not a simple answer.  

First of all, what makes a "good" massage for you, i.e. what conditions must be present for you to feel relaxed and supported?  What type of pressure do you like? (Soft tissue, energetic work, craniosacral, deep tissue, structural integration, etc.)  A "good" massage depends on your body, your issues, your likes and dislikes, and a host of other factors, so there is no one bodyworker that is perfect for everyone!  Just because you loved one particularly practitioner or session does not mean that your friend will, and that's ok.

What's going on in your body that is spurring you to seek a massage?  Are you overly stressed, in pain, working with a chronic pain or muscle issue, recuperating from a surgery, pregnant, dealing with chemotherapy, etc? 

This is a way more accurate image of my massage experiences- charts, props in the room, clothing on, etc.  I've never had a massage where tropical flowers seemed with an appropriate hair accessory.

This is a way more accurate image of my massage experiences- charts, props in the room, clothing on, etc.  I've never had a massage where tropical flowers seemed with an appropriate hair accessory.

What do you want to accomplish in your session- is this a one time session or are you hoping for multiple sessions?  This can help your bodyworker best serve you, but also help you choose a practitioner as well.  

One of the big questions I struggle with as a movement teacher is are you treating the symptom of a movement based problem, or are you treating the problem itself? So let's say that you have knee pain- you can get a massage that focuses on hips, quadriceps, and shins.  This can be totally beneficial, but what caused the knee pain to begin with?  Was it your shoes? Your gait? Do you want a session that will help clarify what the problem is, i.e. should you see someone who is a physical therapist, a bodyworker who does muscle testing or movement assessment, etc.

Next question is to look beyond chain massage facilities-there are some great therapists at chains, but many times, recent program graduates with less experience are working at such places.  When reading someone's biography, look at how many years of experience they have to begin with.  What sort of the training do they have?  Most states have a comprehensive 750-1000 hour massage certification, but beyond that, many people will seek continuing education, other certifications, or specializations. What sort of populations does this person serve or aim to serve? (older clients, those with special issues, etc.)  Do they have anything in their biography that indicates a focus on your specific issues, pains, etc.? If they don't say "focus on performing artists" in their biography, it doesn't mean that they can't be of help, but it's something to also consider.  Some of my favorite massages (and personal training sessions) have been from people who used to play the violin, viola, or cello, and who very much can visualize what my issues are just from playing the instrument.  

With all this begin said, I personally like deep tissue work, as someone who is not petite and with a lot of muscle mass.  This is not good for everyone, however!  I also like bodyworkers who understand human movement more in depth, and who maybe have training in assessment strategies, such as the work of Grey Cook and the SFMA/FMS.  I also have had some really interesting success with NKT and P-DTR practitioners.  If you're working with a chronic issue that is undiagnosed (and you're not being treated for), I'd highly recommend seeing a medical professional, and working with a good physical therapist who does both manual therapy, movement screening, and correctives.  Next up- unraveling the acronyms of movement and manual therapy!