Friday, February 07, 2014

Who woulda thunk it?

Muscle memory is an amazing thing.

I went out on the groomies on classical skis this afternoon for the first time in at least a year, maybe two. Admittedly, waxing conditions were as perfect as they get. Still, I never expected to be able to set the kick and lay down such a fluid stride when all my groomed-trail classical has been imaginary for so long.

I have no stamina. I can't maintain the rhythm on the climbs. But the body remembers even if the cardiovascular system and all the tweaky little supporting muscles burn out quickly.

Classical requires precision that skating does not. Skating requires some basic commitments, but classical depends on repeated subtleties to get sufficient grip from a ski without too much grip wax on it. It's easy to remind me of playing music, so it reminded me of playing music. To get a good sound you have to be in the right place at the right time with just the right amount of force.  This is especially true on a fretless, bowed instrument like the fiddle.

As it happens, the weekly String Band has finally come around to playing a tune I took up as a challenge on my own about five years ago. I downloaded some sheet music for it because I had it on a Darol Anger CD and wondered if I could ever get a handle on it. Turns out that five years of practice will get me a half-decent toehold. Hell, I've got my whole foot on there.

Ordinarily I set my chair back just a little at the weekly jam and struggle gamely with the tunes. I make no pretense of being one of the top players. But the evening our leader introduced the idea that we might take up Banish Misfortune, the others in the group each gave an opinion and then turned to me.

"It's like this," I said. Then I ripped through the A part with a precision that surprised even me. Apparently, the practice had set the tune in my mind and muscles so thoroughly that I couldn't even mess it up when playing out loud, alone, for a room full of people. Muscle memory.

"You can wait in the hall," said Big Scary John. He's a kidder, that guy, but he sure looked scary to me when I first arrived.

Muscle memory. The version of Banish Misfortune we're learning is a tad different from the sheet music from which I began my work. Of course it is. That's the nature of these folk tunes: endless little variations. Sometimes the same title will have two or three unrecognizable tunes under it. Fortunately this isn't one of those. But the variations interrupt the flow of the version I know. I feared it might be catastrophic when our leader first mentioned the title as a future selection. As it turned out, the autonomic nature of the tune gets me back on track immediately, even when my attempt to assimilate a variation derails me momentarily. Likewise, on the trail today, slips in technique did not break up into total turbulence. The body remembers.

As far as skiing goes, I wish I was in better shape. Never a racer, I still got a lot of satisfaction from knowing that I could surprise a few people. It's also just nice to lay down a powerful stride for mile after mile. No telling whether this will be my only indulgence this winter or if I might get into something resembling a routine. It depends on factors entirely beyond my control.

Getting my skis ready yesterday, I taped off the ends of the kick zone so I could get a clean, crisp edge on the glide zone. The memories and the longing it evoked, as I started the ritual of glide waxing made me think of an addict in a movie, holding the tourniquet of surgical tubing tight with his teeth. It's a powerful thing, skiing. Withdrawal had been brutal. I've suffered depression, genuine, medically treated depression, since regular skiing dropped out of my life. I'm taking a risk to dare to take a taste again. I've never managed to stop wanting it. And why should I? As addictions go it's pretty darn wholesome. But it has an undeniable effect on brain chemistry. Thus it has a power that I can prove to you can turn dark. To have a little is to want more, for a host of excellent reasons.

The body remembers. The connections spark with the familiar electricity. The rhythm wants to assert itself. Getting winded is like hearing a tune in my head and lacking the chops to play it at that speed. It makes me want to practice, so when practice is denied the frustration is that much worse. It can grow into despair.

We'll see what happens with the rest of the winter. At least I know I'll be back at String Band next week.

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