Monday, August 24, 2009

Now that I am no longer playing hymns or practicing church music I have been indulging myself by digging through baskets and boxes of old music and the memories that these old books arouse.

In 'The Lives of a Cell' Lewis Thomas has a chapter headed Autonomy, and he begins it with these words;

'Working a typewriter by touch, like riding a bicycles or strolling on a path, is best done by not giving it a glancing thought. Once you do, your fingers fumble and hit the wrong keys. To do things involving practiced skills you need to turn loose the systems of muscles and nerves responsible for each maneuver, place them on their own, and stay out of it'.

He goes on to speak of autonomy and the possibility of visceral organs being taught to do various things by the reward system, but this is not the theme I want to follow.

I am more interested in the idea of enduring skills, accomplished by teaching the muscles in various parts of the body to do certain things, and then leaving them to it.

Wonder of wonders - somehow they retain these skills throughout a lifetime. Everyone knows that once you learn to ride a bicycle you never forget, and I have found that once your fingers learn to play a piece of music that skill might grow a little rusty, but it never leaves.

Amongst the music I have unearthed is Beethoven's Pathetique, - music that I once played passably well, but today the score looks familiar, but slightly beyond one with all its accidentals and complex chords.

That is until you start to play.

If you are wise enough to let the fingers have their way they proceed with great confidence, but once you grow self conscious, or look too closely at the notes, you are lost. And when you are playing by memory and you hit a cliff and tumble off, then you must start again from the beginning so that the fingers can follow the progression of their memory.

Fascinating stuff.

I am just doing the first three pages so far, - start off with all those lovely chords, then the crescendo's and the sf's and the chromatic runs. At one time Caspar used to sit by the piano and listen to me play, but now, with his deafness, it must be all a cacophony of sound to him and he pads off into another room and comparative quietness. I tell him about Beethoven and his lack of hearing, and the wonderment of hearing the music in his mind, but Caspar, poor dear, pays me no mind.

Here is Glenn Gould Playing Part 1 of the Sonata...

I love the Gould performance, but the Horowitz is excellent too.

My fingers curl up and sigh, - they never had this marvelous dexterity to begin with!


Barb said...

Hello Hildred, I think muscle-memory is a fascinating subject. I think maybe that's why when you learn something, it's best to practice "correctly" because after bit the brain and muscles do remember - if you've learned incorrectly, the mistakes are hard to correct. This certainly happens with sports, too - people pay lots of money to correct "faults" in how they perform.

Hazel said...


I enjoyed reading this post. I arrived here from ABC Wednesday because I was attracted to your Eventide. What a double treat!

I agree that "once your fingers learn to play a piece of music that skill might grow a little rusty, but it never leaves." I was asked to accompany a few (but the major ones) pieces of music in a children's concert - after not touching a single key for three years. I was given only a few hours to rehearse, but like you said, what the fingers once learned never leaves. I survived the night.

Listening to and enjoying Gould's performance is I guess the best I could do to it. Neither do I have such dexterity.

Dimple said...

Thank you for putting up Beethoven, it has been years since I listened to anything classical. I also enjoyed your post. I agree that skills, once learned, do not leave us. My own example would be playing guitar; I have gone long periods without picking mine up, but when I return to it, although I must play more carefully for a while, I still can play.

Gaelyn said...

Thank you, what you write rings so true. I haven't played my recorder in forever and yet my fingers will find the notes if I let them.