Why we never let go of our music

muscle memory

If you repeatedly play a passage the wrong way during piano practice, you are tacking on dead weight. Each time you do it, you are solidifying a mistake you make and it is that much harder to change it down the road.

You will get a different answer about how muscle memory works depending if you ask a neurologist or a biologist, but the consensus is that muscle memory persists throughout life.

In fact, a recent study from Keele University suggests that the habits that you’re teaching your muscles trickle down to the DNA level and that muscles really “remember” their earlier growth. Researchers studied over 850,000 sites on human DNA, and discovered that genes were either ‘marked’ or ‘unmarked’ with special ‘tags’ when muscle grows and shrinks following exercise. The markers tell the genes how to behave, and they persist until later in life.

The weekend I went glamping in Canada, it was blistering when I dipped my feet into the lake.

I say, “Let’s go swimming.”

“I didn’t bring a swimsuit,” my sister says.

I shrug. Maybe she doesn’t want to swim. She doesn’t laugh or dance with me when she is with her boyfriend. She is quiet. She rolls her eyes at my jokes and explains why I act the way I do, to her boyfriend.

We climb by the docks and I jump in the water.

muscle memory

That first dip that rinses off the day’s sweat and sunscreen is shocking to my muscles.

When I swim back to my sister and her boyfriend, she is playing ukulele on a platform in the middle of the water. There is a rope that you tug to get to either end and now there are two other girls whom I don’t know, standing on the dock.

When I look back at my sister, she is smiling at the sunset. She doesn’t care that she’s not swimming with me.

We live in different countries. She doesn’t always respond to my texts. The network is bad, she says. I’m the last to know about her life. She looks to her boyfriend to bring her a sleeping bag or pillow when she’s missing one.

I am not there for her first day of university, her first boyfriend, her first job. I was in Hong Kong, and Mexico, during those different milestones she stepped through.

Last year, our family went through a great big argument and I set out to distance myself from anyone on that side. The argument was unsolvable. Views of skin colour are very outdated in asian culture and apparently a person is not supposed to closely align themselves with anyone with a darker skin colour. Look, asian ads have been found promoting light skin in ads for anything from tide detergent to Beyonce.

An unintended consequence was that my sister and I were distanced. I couldn’t share close details about my life in case it accidentally slipped from her.

It is common in Asian culture for parents to dictate your life for a long time. The parents “plan” your life for you because they care and want you to go down the right path. I was angry that all these things were decided for me, as if I were property.

I’m grateful I learned to be a sister, though, like I’m grateful I learned piano.

“Do you miss me?” I say.

“Yes,” she says. “Of course.”

Over the years, tasks become easier when we perform them over and over again. Our muscles don’t have individual brains like an octopus, but instead, a collective brain that stores different sequences for years as muscle memory.

Each time I open dusty sheet music manuscripts from ten years ago, I can set it on my piano and trust my fingers to know what they’re doing. I can relive music from when I lived a different life.

I want to tell my sister the details about my other life, all the details that one side of the family wouldn’t approve of. but would it ruin the illusion of family we’ve managed to stitch together? But I think she knows already. I think she knows. Maybe she will read this and tell me she knows.

My sister doesn’t remember when I leave for Seattle, or maybe she doesn’t care. I miss the sister who would dance with me for no reason, who would play games with me, who would ask for advice.

I’m hoping that the day that my sister needs me to be a sister again, I’ll have enough muscle memory to pick it right up where we left off. Before that, I’ll be remembering all the times that I was a sister before everything changed.

7 Comments


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7 Comments

  • Reply Elenmirie Anorne August 22, 2019 at 2:20 am

    Blessed be, Grace!

  • Reply Mike August 22, 2019 at 6:02 pm

    I understand exactly where you’re coming from. I have the same sort of problems, too often. But you love your sister, so whenever, and if ever, she becomes receptive, you’ll be there for her. Because that’s what you’re like. And love is more important than anything else!

    • Reply Grace Lam August 22, 2019 at 7:02 pm

      Thank you, Mike. Love is important!

  • Reply Kate Hofherr August 22, 2019 at 7:11 pm

    Totally agree with all of the previous comments Grace! The fact that you’re sharing this means everything about who you are: a huge heart. I have sisters too, and felt lonely and betrayed in their midst and all sorts of previous family dysfunction — ugh. Forgiveness and patience were the only things that got me through — plus a really dear husband and the gift of a personal relationship with Jesus. Don’t stop being who you are and expressing it here — it’s such a source of light for all of us. Piano muscle memory is an apt and beautiful metaphor for your relationship with your sister — keep practicing it the right way even if others aren’t Blessings Grace!!

    • Reply Grace Lam August 23, 2019 at 5:16 pm

      Thanks for this, Kate. You are so kind!

  • Reply be dazzled by LL August 29, 2019 at 9:23 am

    I’m in an all-inclusive “progressive” church that’s actually I think how it was in the first century christendom when people were trying to adjust to a new world order. “brown-skinned/darkies/blackies” are just another shade of the Lord’s lambs.

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