Muscle Memory

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In October I started seeing a new doctor and she was quick to inform me that the 30 minutes I spent five days per week exercising was not enough. Being even more eager to see my 61st birthday than I am lazy, I immediately bumped my daily routine to 60 minutes and in less time that I thought it would take, my body adjusted to the doubled exertion.

My mind, however, was a different story. After several weeks of exercising for an hour each day, I found myself becoming bored out of my wits. TV is a wasteland, listening to music doesn’t keep my interest; I’m too old and stupid to be any good at video games. (That’s not exactly true….even when I wasn’t old I was bad at video games.) Finally, out of desperation, I decided I’d break my one hour of recumbent bike/bar bells/stomach crunches into two half hours and do something productive for thirty minutes in between. I would fiddle.

(An aside--The truth is, I stopped practicing the fiddle many years ago. I play a fair amount (jams, festivals, gigs, rehearsals) but one hundred percent of that is bluegrass; I learned sixty or so fiddle tunes when I first picked up the violin, but that was more a means to an end; fiddle tunes and old time music just never held much interest for me. My ultimate goal was to play bluegrass improvisationally, which meant I needed to learn scales, and the best way to do that was to learn fiddle tunes. So that’s what I did…..for five years……and then once I was able to play bluegrass, my fiddle tune repertoire just sort of faded away. Only Whiskey Before Breakfast, Angeline the Baker, Gold Rush and a handful of others remained.)

When I began my new exercise-fiddle regime last month, I discovered right away that if I was
going to sit for 30 minutes and play the violin I’d need to play real, actual songs with beginnings, middles and ends. As in fiddle songs. And the second thing I discovered was that I’d forgotten just about every single tune I’d ever learned…..names, melodies, fingerings. The solution, which more and more turns out to be the solution to many of my problems, was the Internet. I went to Google, typed in ‘fiddle tunes’ and found a universe of books, recordings, transcripts, tablature, listings, discographies, biographies, music format technologies. After a little digging around I found that by perusing collections of TEF formatted fiddle songs I solved both my problems. By scanning lists of titles I was able to remember the sixty or so songs I’d learned 15 years ago, and by opening them in the TEB format, I could instantly LISTEN to them. And here’s the amazing part: almost without exception, once I heard a tune just one single time, in almost every case I could play it all the way through on my fiddle. I was astonished at how quickly it all came back to me. There was just one requirement: in order to play a piece through, I could not allow myself to THINK about what I was playing. I had to rely totally on ‘muscle memory’. In transcendental meditation the idea is to rid the mind of all thoughts by focusing on a mantra. When I started playing all my old fiddle songs, the idea was to focus on NOTHING. Absolutely nothing.

As I think about it, the process is a lot like playing bluegrass music inprovisationally—to play something that sounds half way decent, I have to make certain that I’m not attempting to think about what I’m playing. I just fiddle. For anyone interested in understanding the mechanics of muscle memory (which is what my poor brain has been endeavoring to do the past couple of days), let me recommend an article called The Neurobiology of Music. Oh, and if you ever find yourself trying to remember how a particular tune goes, let me recommend ALLTABS.COM. (In addition to containing notation and TEF files for hundreds of bluegrass and fiddle tunes, this page also links to a web site where you can download a free version of the TEF program.)

So how’s the new regime coming? Well let’s just say that I’m playing the fiddle a whole lot more than was the original plan. Fifteen years ago, when I first took up the violin, I played fiddle tunes as a means to an end. Now, happily, I’m playing them for the sheer fun of it. Here’s a list of the tunes I’ve been able to salvage from the cob webs thus far. Any additional you’d like to suggest?

Angeline the Baker
Arkansas Traveler
Ashowgan's Farwell
Big Sandy River
Bill Cheatham
Billy in the Low Ground
Blackberry Blossom
Bonaparte's Retreat
Cherokee Shuffle
Devil's Dream
Gary Owen
Gold Rush
Golden Slippers
June Apple
Kitchen Girl
Lonesome Fiddle Blues
Lynn's Reel
Midnight on the Water
Off to California
Old Joe Clark
Over the Waterfall
Pan Handle Rag
Ragtime Annie
Red Haired Boy
Red Wing
Road to Columbus
Sailor's Hornpipe
Saint Ann's Reel
Sally Goodin
Salt Creek
Soldiers Joe
Swallow Tail Jig
Temperance Reel
The Cuckoo
The Girl I Left Behind
Turkey in the Straw
Whiskey Before Breakfast

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