Muscle learning

For the past month or so I’ve been engaged in a couple of learning opportunities, both of which are body-centered. The first is (drum roll….) I committed to ride the Wine Country Century on May 1. This will be my first full 100 mile ride (my greatest distance to date is 100K = 62 miles when I was living in Vermont many years and pounds ago.)  The second is that after a hiatus of 4 or 5 years, I’ve picked up my guitar again. To jump start my playing I signed up for a music class with Carol McComb, and on my own I’ve been re-learning some of my old classical pieces.

Training for the Century and working up to some full-length guitar pieces have been fertile ground for reflection on learning.  In no particular order:

I needed to make a commitment.  I rode fairly regularly all last year, but always felt like I could be quite a bit stronger and lighter if I’d been more regular in my practice. Signing up for a 100 mile bike ride and feeling those weeks count down has been highly motivating. Similarly, paying money for a class – and just physically showing up for it – ensured that I’d be playing at least once a week, and after that it was easier to get back into the habit of practicing. What I really should do is commit to fully memorize a favorite piece (like The Clap or La Catedral) by, say, Christmas, and see what that does.

I’m bumping into internalized judgment about mere “physical” learning.  Compared to, say, taking a rigorous academic course, it’s easy to denigrate these learning challenges as “mindless.”  But what does that mean, and where does that attitude come from? I suspect that underneath it is the belief that training for a century or a musical performance is “merely” practice and more practice.  One doesn’t need any special mental talent (so the story goes), just a strong will.

Of course, I realize that reflective practice is cognitively demanding. As soon as I stop and think about it, I see that these practices are far from mindless. On the bike I need to really become familiar with how my body handles various forms of stress – muscle fatigue, back stiffness, oxygen debt, etc. I take mental notes about what it feels like to push a particular hill climb, or how long it takes that Clif bar to break down and provide fuel for my legs. The musical passages have all sorts of mini-challenges as I work out fingerings and the overall musical flow of a piece.

So what?  That last paragraph sounds like a rationalization: “Phew! I’m spending time in cognitively demanding practices after all!”   Why does something need to be labeled “cognitively demanding” to be valued?  While I have quibbles with some of Gardner’s “multiple intelligences” theory, he did popularize the notion that there are many ways to be “smart.”  Still, the “so what” question lingers – why do we need an attribute like “smart” to feel valued?  Why not merely “skilled?”  Put “smart” and “skilled” on a balance scale, and it’s pretty clear which way the scales tip among the intellectual class.

(I should know better than to blog late at night – brain is shutting down). I’m going to continue to ponder this (artificial) split between the cognitive and the physical, the “smart” and the “skilled.”  More to come…

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