Monday, January 5, 2009

Muscle Memory, the Pledge of Allegiance, and learning your DAMNED LINES!

I was first introduced to the concept of muscle memory in, not surprisingly, a fitness magazine.

While it seemed to my scientific mind like a "muscle-headed" concept at the time (ahem), I've been reading, and thinking, about Muscle Memory again, and how it applies to the ongoing issue of memorization.

FOR THE UNINITIATED, "Muscle Memory" refers to how a formerly fit person's body gets back into shape after time away from the gym. According to the theory, the muscles of a formerly buff, in-shape bodybuilder "remember" their previous state of, well, "jacked-ness;" as a result, a fit person will get back into shape in less time than a novice would require to achieve the same level of fitness, since the fromerly-fit person's muscles carry a sort of "memory" of being in shape.

See what I mean? Hair-brained.

On another level, though, it had a degree of anecdotal truth: I knew from my own experience as a runner that I'd "get it back", after an absence from running, in much less time than a beginner would require to reach my level of fitness. Still, I chalked much of that up to experience and psychology, assumed it was a mind-over-matter thing, and otherwise thought little of it.

But now Muscle Memory is back. Recent research into soft-tissue structure and functioning is providing some interesting, and startling, insights, and may even be proving the muscleheads right. No, I'm not going to get all scientific on you, but consider: all the mushy stuff inside you (well, most of it, anyway) is tissue. Brain? Tissue. Muscles? Tissue. Intestines, stomach, etc? You guess it-- tissue. Yet, organ-wise, we've been brought up to think that all of our thought and awareness and memory occurs, and is stored, solely in our brain. In other words, our brain tissue is somehow fundamentally different than all the other tissue in our bodies.

But what if it isn't? Think: how does your stomach "remember" what to do? How does a bone "remember" what it felt like before you slipped and broke it? Researchers are exploring the idea that brain tissue may not be the only place in our bodies where what we think of as "memory" is stored after all.

"Well, duh. "

I hope that's what you're thinking as you read this, because every actor should innately understand the link between muscular activity and memorization.

Why? Because speaking is a physical activity. You speak with your muscles as much as your mind. The muscular activity involved in speaking is subtle, yes, but so is surgery, and certainly no one would underestimate the importance of motor skills to the guy who does your gums. And it's always seemed to me, even back in my own acting days, that deep concentration never led to quicker memorization-- and now scientific thought supports what I've been saying to many of you for years: you carry the memory of your lines in your mouth as much as your brain.

Think not? Then try this simple test: say the Pledge of Allegience.
Right now, out loud. DON'T THINK-- look away from your I-phone or laptop or whatever RIGHT NOW and do it.


Done? How'd you do?

Here's what I know: if you didn't say it perfectly, you at least came pretty damned close. Now some of you have seen this exercise done in my class-- if you were lucky, you witnessed a fellow actor, fully insistent on the futility of the exercise, growing more amazed as strange words came out of their mouth that they were absolutely certain no longer existed there. Me, every time I watch this exercise I think I'm witnessing something of a miracle. Here's why:

Chances are, you haven't thought of those words in years. for many of you, it's been DECADES since you last spoke them. More, you didn't wake up this morning thinking about your "big Pledge of Allegiance audition." In fact, you didn't "rehearse" the words at all-- you just looked up and started speaking. And out they came.

So where were they? In what corner of your brain were they sitting, assumedly forgotten, waiting to be instantly called up? I think there's something to the possibility that they were lodged somewhere in your muscle fiber.

The lesson is clear: whether you've got two weeks or two hours or twenty minutes, your focus during memorization should be on Muscle Memory. I've long maintained that memorizing is an athletic activity-- and as with any athletic activity, one can be in, or out of, shape. Like any exercise, you become a better memorizer by working the muscle of memorization.

How? Mainly by simply speaking, not "acting," your lines OUT LOUD again and again and again. And again.

Most of you may be familiar with the "speed through"-- the up-tempo running of lines with regard for little but speed. (Back when I was acting, this was sometimes called an "Italian" run-- we guessed that it had to do with the notion that Italians speak quickly, which is certainly true; others theorized that it had something to do with opera, but no one was really sure. And I digress.)

If done properly, the "speed-through" may be the most efficient way I know of to quickly internalize text. But keep in mind that diction CANNOT be a casualty of the speed-through. If you're speaking so quickly that you begin to mumble, slow it down. If anything, it will help to over-pronounce during the speed-through. Lines get lodged in your mouth muscles when you work them, hard.

Why does this work? Because by focusing on tempo... you, the actor, free yourself from worry about performance. You're not trying to be good, you're trying to be fast. And here's secret number #1 about the speed-through: a little performance creeps in anyway.

Secret #2? When left alone to rehearse, actors tend to weigh a scene down with Meaningful Pauses. What actors don't notice, during the speed-through, is that some of their pauses creep in anyway-- but only those that are necessary to the scene. There's no time for the others, and they rightfully fall away. So remember:

1) STOL. In other words, Six Times Out Loud. This should be an Actor Law, especially as relates to auditions: when you go in to audition, it should be AT LEAST the sixth time you've read the scene OUT LOUD.

2) OUT LOUD means FULL VOICE, whatever that may be. This is my least favorite thing: watching actors eagerly run off to their fifteen minutes of prep, and on those occasions that I may pass them on my way to the restroom, I find them deep in thought, script in hand-- and SILENT. They'we wasting incredibly precious time THINKING about something they should be SPEAKING about.

So when approaching memorization, focus on putting the words in your jaw muscles, not your brain. And if you were a jock in high school, and not a brainiac? Ends up you might be the better memorizer, after all. Who'da thunk it?

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