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Mind Over Muscle?

It’s very difficult to tell muscles what to do. Mostly we remind them of what to do–something they’ve done before. When we want muscles to learn something they haven’t done before, we have to focus on the motion and the coordination until they get it, and then the muscles can remember, and be reminded when we need that action.

Beginning students often assume they just have to understand what to do, and then tell their fingers or hands to do it. This is a recipe for frustration, as they watch their fingers refuse to obey, or as tasks become more complex and the brain simply can’t keep up commanding the hands to do everything correctly.

At some point, students learn that if they keep trying to command the fingers when and how to play every note, it’s like trying to keep in mind how to spell every word they speak. You just can’t do this without slowing the whole operation down to a snail’s pace.

Our fingers, hands, arms, have to learn their tasks much they way we learn to speak. Our brains think about what we want to say, but we certainly don’t think of all the letters that spell what we’re saying. We don’t even think about every word, but rather the phrases that we put together to say what we want at a conversational tempo. We do the same in music. As we learn the musical phrases, we say them with our instrument or voice, rather than fixate on individual notes.

As music teachers, if we keep in mind that it’s best to remind muscles what to do, rather than order them around or teach them every motion anew, we can think about customizing lessons to our students.

For example, one of my students is a flight instructor, and it was fun to teach him about bowing dynamics while he taught me how it connected to terminology and physics of landing and taking off in his plane. Another student is a physical therapist who, when she linked some of her daily routines for moving patient’s muscles with the motions she was trying to learn on her instrument, became bolder and more confident about moving her bowing arm and hand. Another student is a postal worker who was able to think about a machine or a sorting action he uses every day at work, in order to move his bow with the same kind of confidence he has professionally with that machine or that workaday action.

It’s nice to learn enough about your students to be able to customize your lessons, and to think about their physical perspective.

I always like feedback and stories from you guys, though not enough people write. But I always ask! Please add your comments below on how you have connected student workaday experiences with their music learning. We’re all ears!

About the Author

Ed Pearlman
Ed Pearlman has focused on performing, teaching, and judging fiddle music for over 30 years, offering performances and workshops throughout the USA and in Canada and Scotland. His original training was with members of the Chicago and Boston Symphonies, and he played with orchestras and chamber groups at Yale and in Boston. He currently teaches privately in Maine and at workshops around the countr... [Read more]