Muscle Memory and Learning to Play Guitar

muscle memoryMuscle memory is the process by which we use repetition to turn physical tasks into unconscious actions that can be employed automatically without thought.

My whole life I have wanted to play a musical instrument and never learned one. So a year or so ago I purchased a guitar and set about teaching myself to play. As a yoga teacher I blather on endlessly about repetition and Pavlov. When it comes to learning a physical action, simply do it over and over again and it will become part of your brainstuffs— if only…

Three chords were fairly easy to learn. Holding a pick between my fingers seemed easy enough as well. Combining the two actions at the same time was something else all together.

But I tried. For a bit. And then I stopped.

To learn anything initially, motor skills have to be developed through repetition turning them into muscle memory. General memory is the process through which information is stored and recalled. There are many classifications of memory. One of them, procedural memory, acts below our conscious awareness enabling us to perform common ubiquitous tasks such as turning a door knob, zipping a jacket and eating.

Implicit memory, of which procedural memory is a type, employs previous experiences to accomplish current tasks. Through repetition we build a pattern in the brain that stores an action and recalls it without conscious awareness. An adult who has been playing guitar for thirty years does not need to think about how to play—the brain and the body simply fulfill a long coded memory and the tune appears.

About a year after purchasing the guitar, with teaching myself to play seemingly a bust, and the image of the dust covered guitar sitting forlornly in the corner, I decided to take some lessons.

From my perspective, at 51, it is not easy to learn that which I am attempting to learn.

For one, I am not particularly musical which puts up a couple of roadblocks, I am a lefty learning on a right handed guitar (another story), and I have big thick fingers which on one hand might be a plus but at the moment feels like a hindrance.

When I first met with the teacher I told him I knew a few chords and a scale but couldn’t really put chords and strumming together. So we got down to business.

The interesting thing, and the point of this post, is that I remembered everything I learned and actually seemed to have a little more facility that I would have thought, but I also learned everything incorrectly and had to relearn with proper technique.

I have a fairly clear muscle memory of the chords I learned and now trying to relearn them is a trip. They are the same chords but with a different more efficient technique. Slowly but surely I am incorporating the new patterns and have faith that with patience I will be playing guitar without embarrassment.

The idea to teach myself guitar was for my kids as much as myself. I want to parent by example and while some of my examples might not be the best I think I have the right ideas in other areas. If they see me practicing and working hard to accomplish something they might be inspired to do the same.

It’s all yoga. Everything I teach in my classes, workshops and walking privates are the same thing. You can create any pattern you want good or bad. Repeat something incorrectly as I did with the initial chords that I learned and my guitar playing wouldn’t likely improve.

Learn poor walking and posture patterns and they will be your patterns and you won’t have to think to call them up but they might not be serving you as well they could.


Sunday Morning Music: July 4th Edition
New Exercise Toy: Stand Up Paddle Board