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Ageing, finger dexterity and muscle memory


Greetings to you all,

I'm now an organist with 68-year old fingers, but I courageously continue with my "daily practice", so my dexterity remains in reasonable shape.

Before I took up the renewed keyboard practice via my Hauptwerk set-up in January 2019, I had NOT TOUCHED ANY KEYBOARD for more than 35 years, and the initial months were marked by many "flashbacks" and memories of the organ lessons in my childhood as a 7-year old, and my second and third periods as a teenager.

It was wonderful to consciously thread the needle and come to some conclusions about the physical processes of "finger dexterity" and suppleness. This process included realisations about the process of memory, where the sequence of notes in a composition shift from "conscious application" of "the right notes to play" to a phase where the sequences are almost (or entirely?) becoming part of a subliminal or unconscious memorised process. Here are some of my conclusions - THEY MAY NOT BE CORRECT, but this is how I see things. I'm REALLY INTERESTED in your findings, both in a sharing of your opinions and your sharing of any theories of learning. Below are three points, and in those I deliberately will contradict myself to assist the discussion on this Forum.

My training was NOT professional training. My organ lessons were supplied by "the local village music teacher" (1 year, 7 years old) and a "local church organist" (1 year, 12 years old, and 1 year, 17 years old). With that background I became a church organist for about 15 years, in 4 subsequent appointments.

1. Playing the keyboard(s) as an organist is like SWIMMING: once you learn the process, it establishes into "the system" and aspects like "muscle memory", an interplay between the brain, neural pathways and long-term and short-term memory play an essential part in this system of "skill improvent" and "skill recall".

2. Development of muscle mass in the fingers and the suppleness of tendons and the structure of muscles in fingers and hands can ALWAYS develop - it is NOT dependent on age and prior training.

3 Statement (2) is ENTIRELY WRONG - professional training in childhood and youth can never be approached and equalled by training commences in later life.

Over to you!

Jack
by jacko
Oct 3, 2020 07:10 PM

Replies (5)

RE: Ageing, finger dexterity and muscle memory

Interesting questions. Taking them, perhaps perversely, in reverse order.

3) I think you could get to be very good taking up the organ (or other skill) later in life, but I suspect that you wouldn't get to be as good as you would have been if you'd started in childhood, for the simple reason that, ipso facto, you have missed out on decades of practice and experience.

2) There has to be a limit to how far muscle mass and suppleness of tendons can go, but, if you haven't reached that limit, I don't see why you shouldn't develop and improve them whatever your age - just as you can lose them through dis-use.

1)This is the really interesting one. Muscle memory is key. I was largely self-taught until I was 18, but progressed enough to get myself to college where I had four years of regular lessons rather than the occasional guidance I'd previously had. I got to diploma level, but was never going to become a cathedral organist (my teenage ambition because I had nobody to tell me to get real) or, indeed, anything more than a reasonably good amateur. So I was learning the "big" pieces, which, of course, I never got to perform for real. In the 40+ years since then, I've fetched them out and hacked my way through them every so often, and I'm always surprised how well my hands and feet do under the circumstances. Not performance standard by any means, but not bad for something I haven't looked at for several years. Interestingly, I often find that, when I resurrect an old piece, the first run-through is actually better than what happens in later practice. I'd never actually dare do it, but I've often wondered about giving an entire recital of pieces I haven't played for months - it'd probably be better than the ones I've practised hard for!

Muscle memory, however, isn't infallible - at least not for me. I am incapable of playing an entire piece (even a simple hymn) with no wrong notes, and it's not a failure to learn them, because they'll be different wrong notes with each performance, and not necessarily in the difficult bits either. Moreover, I can play nothing without the score: a few bars of some pieces and maybe a couple of hymns and carols, but that's all.
by alanr
Oct 5, 2020 07:08 AM

RE: Ageing, finger dexterity and muscle memory

A couple thoughts. Your 35-year hiatus is my story exactly, and diligent practice (far more so than in my youth) is now my inclination.

BTW, I think this topic would likely be quite actively discussed over at organforum.com.

At age 68 I don’t feel a significant diminution of my physical capacity to advance at the organ — to quantify, maybe down 10%. But this is more than offset by smarter practice and, above all, by a more mature musical sense. I at least believe I have a far better idea of what I’m listening for and hence trying to do with my hands and feet. Plus I now have the patience to work on some dubious habits that ironically I never felt I had time for — e.g. I developed the habit of playing with the outside of my right foot (but not my left). Now I do some drills regularly to break this habit, without impatience, and feel confident that the old motor pattern will gradually fade away. Confidently looking forward to steady improvement is very pleasing!

And finally, the modern world has some huge advantages: e.g. home instruments that feel and sound great and the internet for community as in this forum and for exploring repertoire (Youtube, IMSLP, etc). Feeling fortunate even in difficult times!
by gary_chapman
Oct 6, 2020 07:45 AM

RE: Ageing, finger dexterity and muscle memory

Je partage confusément les avis exposés ici ainsi que certaines expériences.
La passion de l'orgue combat et balaie bien des habitudes malheureuses, mais l'absence totale de professeur rend cependant totalement impossible l'accès au grand répertoire. Ce que j'éprouve avec l'âge (octogénaire) c'est le manque de confiance en cette mémoire musculaire alors qu'elle résiste obstinément au vieillissement.
Si mon cursus musical, sinueux et passionné, peut amuser certains, je peux, sur demande, leur envoyer quelques pages (pdf) de mes "Mémoires à l'usage de mes enfants."
Yves Roze
by roze
Oct 6, 2020 11:12 AM

RE: Ageing, finger dexterity and muscle memory

At almost 74 years I find myself miss-reading a note now and then and sometimes my feet hit the correct pedals like they could never make a mistake, other times I'm sure someone snuck in and rearranged them during the night.

Visual ability is probably the major problem area for most of us. Even with corrective lenses, it's more difficult to read the small music books as well as I used to. Hearing is also a problem that some of us have to take into account. The best hearing aids often can't help determine if the lower or upper notes are balancing the mid range volume.

I'm not so sure 'muscle memory' plays as big a part in keyboard music as in athletics. Brain memory and processing is certainly vital. I notice that my playing is affected more by being tired than it used to be.

On the positive side, playing the organ is one activity that we can continue to enjoy very far into old age. Listening to organ music played by the the contributors to this Concert Hall is something I enjoy very much, so Thanks to all of You.
by bayless
Oct 9, 2020 05:08 PM

RE: Ageing, finger dexterity and muscle memory

Your report caught my notice because I'm experiencing the same things you are. I briefly tried to learn organ but stopped when I left college in 1969. Now retired, I discovered Hauptwerk and dusted off my old music I'd somehow kept and tried again. One thing I noticed was how hard it is to read the notes. I don't know if you have bifocals like I do, but having done some car work I recognized the problem. The close up lenses are at the bottom and the distant lenses are at the top so that when you go to look at music, it is too close. The solution was simple. Get some cheap reading glasses from the drug store that give you good focus at the distance your eyes are from the music and it will be sharp and clear.
I gave up trying to use fingerings from 1969. For one thing the interpretation of Bach has changed for the better, but also my old thumb doesn't bend under as well as it did.
On the plus side, I am really enjoying my time with the organ even more than I did back then. I never dreamed I'd actually be able to play on a symphonic organ. I suppose I am learning much more slowly than I did 50 years ago but I have plenty of time and I am playing things now I never dreamed of even attempting. Headphones are such a blessing. We are still married and unlike lots of old couples under house arrest together because of the pandemic, we don't fight all that much. I hope to continue to play the great works badly. Back in 1969 E. Power Biggs was my hero. Now I aspire to be the Florence Foster Jenkins of Hauptwerk. Good luck and hope you continue to enjoy what you are doing. Oh I should add that if you suffer from lots of astigmatism, you could have a special pair of reading glasses made that would allow your eyes to focus on the music with your neck straight.
Oh yes I nearly forgot to mention the ears. I had done elaborate registrations for some pieces and then got some wonderful Phonak hearing aids and when I wear those with the over the ear headphones, that registration sounds really awful. Funny, the registration the composer recommends actually sounds great now.
We are lucky to live when we do to have all of this plus a virtual symphonic organ.
by rshill5
Oct 10, 2020 12:54 PM

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