Musicians' Health Collective

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

Filtering by Tag: muscle

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 http://www.oyginc.com/articles/learning2/

Image courtesy of http://www.oyginc.com/articles/learning2/

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! 

What is a Muscle Knot?

Last week I mentioned the importance of getting bodywork to target muscle knots- I imagine that few people see muscle them as literal knots, but what are they exactly and how do they exist?

There are a few words to know first- trigger points and fascial adhesions.  I mentioned trigger points last week, but "a skeletal muscle tissue trigger point is a hyperirritable focal area of muscle hypertonicity (tightness) located within a taut band of skeletal muscle tissue." (Joseph Muscolino)  These areas of tightness often cause pain and discomfort, especially in those overused musician areas of the upper back.  The word trigger point came to use in the 1940's because of a Doctor Janet Travell (yes, an awesome woman pain doctor in the first half of the twentieth century!) and her research into myofascia, trigger points, and pain.

This is Dr. Janet Travell, who was also a white house physician!  Image from her website.

This is Dr. Janet Travell, who was also a white house physician!  Image from her website.

It is not something subjective, not something of which the patient complains. It is an objective physical sign in that it is disclosed by physical examination of the patient. Then, the trigger point is identified as a localized area, a spot of deep tenderness in a firm band of muscle that can be readily felt. Usually the palpable band parallels the muscle fibers; occasionally it feels like a button, or a nodule. At the spot of maximum tenderness (the trigger point), if the band is snapped briskly (transversely), and is thus mechanically stimulated, it contracts; this we have called a ‘local twitch response.’ The examiner can feel and see the line of contraction of the band, and can judge which muscle harbors it.
— Janet Travell, Basic Principles of Myofascial Pain, 1984
Remember this image from  last year's fascia post?  Fascia is everywhere in the body and is the "body's aqueous knitting fabric" (Jill Miller)!

Remember this image from last year's fascia post? Fascia is everywhere in the body and is the "body's aqueous knitting fabric" (Jill Miller)!

In some of Janet Travell's other writing, she talks about how the trigger point affects muscle strength and reflexivity, joint mobility, and radiates pain to surrounding areas.  (She was also a general badass and way ahead of her time in many other ways!)   There is a fair amount of disagreement about what causes trigger points, though we can all agree overuse, misuse, and abuse are contributing causes.  Carry a large purse on one side of your upper back and chances are, your trapezius will tighten up and eventually form a trigger point that could radiate into your forearm and neck, like the picture below. 

Images like this are usually referring to trigger points, or areas of myofascia that radiate sensation and pain to surrounding areas.

Images like this are usually referring to trigger points, or areas of myofascia that radiate sensation and pain to surrounding areas.

Now what's a fascial adhesion and is there a difference between that and a trigger point?  Andrew Biel writes that a consistently shortened or lengthened muscle will cause change within the muscle and the fascia, which may grow "dense and fibrous.  The excess connective tissue can result in fascial adhesions that affix one muscle to another, limiting range of motion."  (Trail Guide to Movement, 12)  Remember that fascia is everywhere in the body, like the white stuff in a citrus fruit giving structure to the juice within.  Your fascia can be dehydrated (think gross grapefruit!) or overgrown from a trauma or from overuse/underuse.  Adhesions address fascia, according to some folks, and also address scar tissue and an abundance of collagen from healing.  For example, if you had tendonitis in your forearm when you were younger, you may have some scar tissue lingering in that location- it might not be extremely painful but it might be hindering your ability to use your forearm and hand.  Trigger points are generally thought of as more muscular/myofascial in origin, though to be frank, your body's network of muscles and fascia is continuous!  There is a fair amount of disagreement in the manual therapy world about what causes what, and how things cause pain, and why they arise in the body, so this is just a general survey.

How can you help both your trigger points and your adhesions?  Well, go get some bodywork and talk to your bodyworker about what they find and what tissues they find acting abnormally.  Consider getting on the self-massage train and start excavating these issues yourself, and look into different types of bodywork.  Cranio-sacral vs. rolfing vs. deep tissue vs. graston technique.  Get curious!

If You Stretch A Muscle, You Lengthen It, Right? Wrong!

There are a great many myths perpetuated in the yoga and fitness world- one food will magically make you lose weight, you can spot tone areas of your body (6 quick moves for toned...), and that some miraculous pill will destroy belly fat, amongst others.  The worst offender, right now, is the myth that stretching actually physically lengthens muscle fibers.  (Quick, google stretching and see what you find!  "Increasing flexibility through stretching is one of the basic tenets of physical fitness." was a wikipedia find)

  How many classes/teachers have you been to where someone told you that you had tight hamstrings/shoulders/etc.?  And that you needed to lengthen them with stretching/yoga?  (I have been guilty of thinking and saying these things too!)  And to go with it, yoga often perpetuates the idea that the more frequently and intense you stretch something, the more open (lengthened) it will get.  In fact, it does not work this way at all!  I did not come up with this research, in fact, a yoga therapist/teacher/biomechanist did (Jules Mitchell!), and in studying the Science of Stretch, is challenging our conventional (and inaccurate) view of stretching.

Kino MacGregor has both feet behind her head.  Ouch!

Kino MacGregor has both feet behind her head.  Ouch!

Jules writes: "I understand this is a difficult concept to digest.  It is not what we learned in yoga teacher training.  We learned:
1. Stretch your hamstrings.
2. Make them longer.
3. Put your foot behind your head.
Boom."

So how many of you have believed this same thing, either from yoga, pilates, or other disciplines?  I certainly believed it for a long time, and have only in the last year embraced the idea that being infinitely flexible is not actually a good thing for my tissues (nor is it a practical goal for most folks). 

So here's the deal- when you stretch a muscle, say your hamstrings (backs of legs) in yoga class, your restriction or lack of range is (mostly) not your short muscle fibers, it's your nervous system saying "This is not a range of motion we normally explore---Abort movement!!!!"  In the Liberated Body podcast last week, Jules said "Lack of range of motion is not really about lengthening. It’s much more an issue of tolerance. It’ s a use it or lose it thing. If you never work in that range of motion your body doesn’t understand it and doesn’t want to go there. So your nervous system limits your range of motion."

Please don't stretch your hammies this way.  It's terrible for your back and spinal discs!

Please don't stretch your hammies this way.  It's terrible for your back and spinal discs!

What!?? This goes contrary to everything I've heard in yoga classes in the last decade, but it makes sense.  (I also did recently ask the question, if I've been stretching my hamstrings for 7 years now, why has my range of motion barely changed?)Think about it- the places that we think of as tight are often our shoulders, hamstrings, and hips, but in your day to day life, when do you put those areas through full range of motion?  Even better, do you know what full range of motion might even entail?  This comes back to the idea of diverse movement as paramount, as opposed to strict stretching or exercise regiments.  Musicians often don't move enough (or exercise) which explains a limited range of motion in many joints (rather than short standing muscle length).  Brooke Thomas said (in response to the interview with Jules), "When flexibility is the issue for a person, stretching is not going to help. Moving frequently in more full ranges of motion and incrementally increasing the load is actually the answer."

Don't worry if this discovery leaves you with lots of questions like: how do I actually increase my range of motion?  Why do I feel tight?  Why do I feel better after yoga if I'm not actually lengthening anything?  How do I move frequently in full range of motion? More to come, but check out Jules Mitchell's game changing research (and this awesome interview with her, courtesy of the Liberated Body), especially if you're a science-y person!

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