Musicians' Health Collective

Musicians' Health Collective: Supporting the health of musicians (and normal people)

Filtering by Tag: awareness

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! 

It All Starts With Awareness

On Monday, I listened to a podcast episode of Yoga and Beyond, in which Ariana Rabinovich and her guest Jenn Pilotti discussed the merits of core stability work for back pain.  The conclusion, in the end, was that core stability work is no more effective for treating non-specific back pain than any other host of movement modalities, which include walking, yoga, somatic practices, traditional weight training, and more.  A good question you might be having right now is, "so what?"  Ah- well at the end of the episode, Jenn suggested that the most important thing for treating pain, and back pain in particular, is developing awareness.  As I mentioned on Monday, there is no one right way to move, and the same is true for cultivating bodily awareness-for some, it may happen via yoga or pilates, and for others, via Feldenkrais and Alexander Technique, or bodywork.  Essentially, developing proprioception (awareness of one's body in space) is key to changing the way you move throughout the day, especially when working with an injury or area of pain.  I find this particularly interesting in conjunction with music study- musicians are often unaware of what they are doing with their body in space as they play, especially if they play in pain.  

This curious illustration shows where the body map "lives" within the structure of the brain, but also the disproportionate nature of the map, .i.e., not all areas of the body have the same quantity of nerve receptors and awareness.  Image courtesy of   Neurocirugia.

This curious illustration shows where the body map "lives" within the structure of the brain, but also the disproportionate nature of the map, .i.e., not all areas of the body have the same quantity of nerve receptors and awareness. Image courtesy of Neurocirugia.

How do we develop proprioception and bodily awareness?  The Merriam-Webster definition of aware is "having or showing realization, perception, or knowledge."  I've previously mentioned the importance of body mapping, or cortical maps, in helping our bodies direct our actions efficiently and accurately.  We create such cortical maps in response to the movement habits we adopt, which may be instrument specific, movement specific, or responding to lack of movement.  Musicians, for example, will most likely have a more developed awareness (and body map) of their fingers and hands, and in the case of wind players and singers, a more expanded map of their mouths, tongues, and muscles of respiration.  To enhance or expand a cortical map, one must move in a diverse way, but the movements must be controlled, slow enough to be coordinated, and with a relative amount of ease, at least to start.  If you think of someone who is just beginning a weight lifting practice, they need to start with lower weights and slower movements as they begin to acquire movement awareness, and then over time, the tasks become easier, the brain and body are more able to execute the task, and weight can be added, as well as complexity of movement. (It can also be extremely helpful to learn about some of the basic anatomy of the body too!)  Todd Hargrove, a Feldenkrais instructor, rolfer, and author, writes eloquently that,
"Of course, not all movements are created equal in their ability to stimulate the body maps. Movements that are most likely to lead to changes in the quality of the maps are movements that are curious, exploratory, novel, interesting, rich in sensory input, slow, gentle, mindful, non-painful."
 In addition, lack of movement will limit the brain's ability to map the body, as will pain (nociception).  To improve your body map, the best bet is to engage in creative, non-repetitive movements, more frequently, which will not only challenge your muscles, soft tissues, and bones, but give your brain a chance to move in new ways, with new awareness.

The Pain in Your Neck

Photo from Erik Dalton, PhD!

Photo from Erik Dalton, PhD!

Everywhere I go, I see people in pain, at least when it comes to their cervical vertebrae.  What am I talking about?  Texting head, turtle head, slumpy posture-there are any number of names for it, but the short form answer is that when your head is forward of your natural spinal carriage, you increase the amount of weight that your upper back, cervical vertebrae, and shoulders are supporting.   (PS. Your cervical vertebrae are your 7 vertebrae below the skull and above your thoracic vertebrae.  Think of them as your neck vertebrae.  They are built for mobility rather than stability in comparison to some of your other vertebrae).

Ok, so the head weighs 10-12 pounds, depending on who you ask, and frankly, how big their head is.  If we take this picture on the right, we see the natural curve of the spine on the far left.  The middle image shows a typical slump, and the increase in weight that the body is supporting is 20 lbs!!!  Then our man on the far right demonstrates the dowager's hump position, which means the upper back is supporting 30 extra pounds in order to accommodate your head.   Yikes!  And yet, many of us play our instruments in a head forward position.  I often see pianists, clarinetists, bassists, cellists, and even violinists in this position, which then reveals why so many of us have neck issues.  

Not only does this hurt the soft tissues of your upper back and neck, but it can create long lasting structural change in your bones, which you definitely don't want.   

Here are some suggestions: 

1.  Have someone take a side profile photo of you while sitting, standing, and playing an instrument.  Be objective and notice what your tendency is.  If you are prone to turtle head, don't try to just jam your head back into place, but slowly start to bring the back of your skull backwards in space, feeling both a backwards pull and an upward lengthening through the crown of the head.

This is a simple fav for the SternoCleido Mastoid (more on that another day) and general neck mobility. 

This is a simple fav for the SternoCleido Mastoid (more on that another day) and general neck mobility. 

2.  Make sure you do some simple neck stretches every day, especially if you are a one sided sleeper (!) or have chronic pain related to your instrument.  (Violinists and violists, I'm talking to you.)  You want to try to avoid excessive popping, snapping, and general "Rice Krispies" sounds in the joints, so move gingerly to stop.

3.  Set a timer while practicing to remind yourself to reset, stretch, and try to find a neutral neck position.  Consider some body awareness practices such as Feldenkrais and Alexander Technique to cultivate that proprioception.

4.  Be aware that pain below the neck due to misalignment, gait, knee pain, hip pain, etc., can absolutely be the primary cause of your neck discomfort.  Don't forget that elevated shoes of any sort can compromise your posture and put you in the head forward position!

5. If you're working with chronic pain, definitely see a medical professional.  You want to get checked up before you have disc pain, rupted discs, etc, and see a PT or restorative movement specialist to get resituated.

6.  Please, please, please do NOT do shoulderstand, plow, or headstand in a yoga class.  You can ask me why, but let's just say that for most people, it's not a great idea.  Be cautious about pilates ab exercises where you don't support your occipital ridge (aka. base of skull) with your hands.

Not just head forward, but whole body slump.  Ouch!

Not just head forward, but whole body slump.  Ouch!

7.  Pay attention to how you sit when you drive, type, etc.  Please also remember not to text and walk.  Not only is it super rude to the people around you (and you might get hit by a car*), it's walking in a slumped head forward position.  ouchies.

8.  Roll it out.  I'm sure you're detecting a theme here, but using small rubber balls along the base of the skull (occipital ridge) feels amazing, especially if you're working with some pain in that area, trying to change your alignment, or just feel tight. 

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