Like many people around the world, I’ve been glued to my television, watching the Olympics. I am in absolute awe at the athletic ability these young people exhibit. My favorite events to watch are the figure skating and snowboarding, and while watching this year I’ve picked up on a few comments made by those critiquing the athletes. It dawned on me that these are some of the same comments I use with my students, especially as they prepare for an adjudicated festival or competition.
“Muscle memory” is a two-word phrase that was used during the pairs figure skating event often. Muscle memory originates in the brain, so it’s not that your muscles have their own special memory, but your brain and your muscles work together. Think typing on a keyboard, or riding a bike. Muscle memory is the retention of motor skills upon repetition of the action. I really picked up on the whole muscle memory issue as I watched a couple of snowboarders prepare for high air jumps. They stood at the top of the slope and moved the upper part of their bodies in the motion they would be doing in the air. Another time I saw muscle memory in action was in ski jumping. The athlete (who won the gold medal) moved his arms during his rotations in the air so precisely that I knew he must have done those arm movements so many times that it was an ingrained part of the jump. Repetition, repetition, repetition. That is the key to muscle memory. The figure skaters know it, the snowboarders know it, the skiers know it, and pianists know it. Imagine repeating the same flips on the ice for four years in preparation for the Olympics! So, when a music teacher says, “play it again” or “play it 10 times a day,” it is to help solidify that muscle memory. Another Olympic commentator said, “She’s got everything locked down.” The only way to do that is to practice until you feel like you can practice no more, and then practice again.
A really important reason to practice, practice, practice, and develop that muscle memory, is to allow the performer “to focus attention synchronously elsewhere, such as on the artistic aspect of the performance, without having to consciously control one's fine motor actions.” (Wikipedia) My favorite figure skating programs to watch were not the finely tuned technical ones, but the very expressive ones that made me feel something. The figure skaters who used their music and their athleticism to tell a story – those were my favorites. I tell my students all the time, “Don’t just play the piece, tell a story. Make people wonder what comes next.” Many years ago I took on a student who did not need any help with notes, counts, or fingering, but listening to her play was boring. We worked on phrasing, dynamics, and even considered how to interpret the rests and fermatas. Her muscle memory allowed her to focus solely on her story telling.
As a medal-bound snowboard participant headed down the halfpipe, the commentator stated, “Let’s see how he can make his run different from what we’ve already seen.” That made me think of what I tell my students before they sit in a room of other students who may be performing the same piece for a panel of adjudicators. I mean honestly, how many times can an adjudicator listen to Fur Elise without falling asleep! I ask my students, “How can your performance stand out above the rest?” Then we work on not just the dynamics, but the dynamic contrasts – can the louds be louder and softs be softer? We analyze the phrasing by asking the question, “How does this sentence read?” And we always discuss what story we believe the composer was trying to tell with his composition. For instance, when you read about Chopin’s Prelude in D-flat Major, you learn that Chopin had a dream involving drowning and rain falling, which totally helps a student interpret the very repetitive middle section, where a left hand A-flat is played so many times you could be hypnotized to sleep! Listen to the rain hitting your roof and pick up the nuances. Those drops do not sound all the same. Speaking of repetitive, the question is always asked, “How can this repeated section be interpreted and played differently than the first time you played it?” It’s the same thing with the snowboarder. Those that were assigned to judge his performance had seen the same flips and turns over and over and over throughout the course of the competition. This particular athlete needed to add something different – more amplitude, softer landings, etc. – in order to impress the judges. Same with piano performance.
It was so hard to watch some of the figure skaters make a mistake and hit the ice with an ungraceful thump. Time and time again I thought, “How do they get up and keep going?” These athletes work for four plus years for their three minutes on the ice and they take a fall? Devastating. When awards are determined by one-hundreths of a point, once tiny mistake can mean the difference between being on the medal podium or watching from the stands. But I saw every single one of those skaters get right back up and continue their skate, most with a smile on their face. I call that “mental toughness.” The word used for this kind of mental toughness is “resiliency.” Performers are always going to be nervous and mistakes are always going to be made. We rarely witness a perfect performance. Stuff happens. I teach my students that it’s not about whether or not you make a mistake, but it’s how you recover from that mistake that makes the difference. When I adjudicate piano festivals, I do not comment on the mistake, but I always comment on the mental toughness displayed by being able to continue performing. A performer cannot get inside their head and analyze or self-critique during the performance. They’ve got to be tough to shoulder on and complete, and complete with a flourish!
One last thing that I noticed while watching a half-pipe snowboarding event. When the athlete had pretty much cinched the gold medal but still had another run she could take, not only did she take it but she performed it with ease and style. What a difference it makes to enjoy what you’re doing versus concentrating so hard on competing. That particular snowboarder just got to “strut her stuff.” We’ll see it during the figure skating exhibition at the end of the Olympics. We’ll see more smiles, more relaxed shoulders, and more than likely, less falls. They will be enjoying the experience. Imagine how it would be for the athletes, as well as piano performers, if, during the competition they could perform as if they were doing it purely for the love of it.
Bottom line, this is what I’ve learned from watching the Olympics that I will impart to my students:
Sally Palmer owns Sally L. Palmer Music Studio in Bellevue, Washington. She has over 40 years experience as a piano and vocal teacher and coach, and is an accomplished accompanist. She is the author of Six-Word Lessons for Exceptional Music Lessons.