Thoughts about “Muscle Memory” and Flow in Performance

I recently posted a meme on Facebook, borrowed from musiciansunite.com, on the merits of “muscle memory.” Here is a link to that statement, which I believe to be essentially true, presenting a vital approach to preparation and performance.

As posts on FB tend to go, a few friends have agreed with the concept, and a few rightly suggest that muscle memory – just one level of memory that we call on as performers – does not allow us to securely recall text, or that it is not alone sufficient for solid memorization. Please read on for further thoughts on what we may call “muscle memory,” actually much more than what it seems to be. You will see below that I describe the imagination as the connector of technique and meaningful, artistically-based performance. I suggest that “muscle memory” is essentially what develops through effective, frequent, and dedicated practice – particularly practice that engages “performer energy.” What may first be seen as the pianist’s fingers busily playing the notes of a Bach Invention – with no visual memory of the musical score and no apparent thought process guiding the intricate movements of those fingers – may be the first awareness of “muscle memory,” yet it actually encompasses far more.

Based on my limited reading of learning theory, brain function, and other scientifically-based considerations, yet allowing that scant knowledge to be enhanced and enlightened by my forty-plus years as singer and teacher, I am convinced that the ability to perform music (including vocal music) from memory in a fluid and effective manner is characterized by minimal specific thought of memory or technique (this level of engagement may be described as “in the zone”). Notice my use of the word “minimal,” since conscious thought frequently has an essential role to play in performance, primarily with memory or technique. The issue of balance – so much at play in any kind of engagement or performance – is vital here for performers. The artist who seeks consistency and excellence in performance must not be inextricably tied to conscious and effortful thought. Neither should that performer fear the need to think consciously and specifically about detail of music or technique on occasion, even while they are engaging with the audience.

The ability to perform without inhibiting and tension-inducing dependence on intellect (left-brain, as one theory suggests) is based on three levels of preparation:

1. The material has been accurately learned, based on good teaching, strong musicianship, diligent attention to textual elements, and repeatedly thorough and imaginative exploration of the music in question. To the highest degree possible, the material has been “loaded into” the artist’s consciousness effectively and accurately. Yes, that initial inputting process may be altered later (correcting mistakes or choosing alternatives), but that will necessitate significant, repeated work at the second level.

2. The second level is practice. To some degree, such practice is based on conscious application of technique, but as much as possible and as soon as possible, the artist must practice performing. This means that “performing energy” is called on frequently – in much the same way that it is in live performance – so that the artist accesses his/her abilities via the imagination. In this process, “imagination” describes a state of heightened concentration and commitment to fluid, effective, and truthful performance. In this optimal state, conscious thought is relatively narrow in focus and may be hardly noticed. Here, so-called “muscle memory” is able to function well, without interference from conscious thought of technique, personal insecurities, or other inhibition.

3. Throughout the pursuit of practice and performance (including with a live audience), the artist develops trust in the process, and in his/her own abilities to repeatedly engage effectively in performance. Boris Goldovsky wrote about “razor blade moments” this way: just as a gentleman who is shaving may drop the razor (let’s say a single-edge, potentially dangerous blade) into the sink, he will take a moment to focus, to avoid injury as he deftly picks up the razor. Goldovsky said that an artist may have one or two such moments each night on the stage. We as performers should not be alarmed or fearful of failure at those times. Rather, we recognize the need to think specifically at that moment, expecting success, so that the flow of performance is not disturbed.

The trust that an artist develops in the material and in their abilities allows the audience to trust the performer, as well. The stage is then set for an effective and satisfying experience for all in the room.

NB: Trust is not developed merely with the application of positive thinking/imaging, nor is it found in the momentary engagement of superior intellect. However gifted or bright the performer may be, trust is the fruit of effective work done beforehand. See this post for more ideas on trust and confidence.