“You need to relax” is a comment that virtually every musician has been told, or heard spoken to someone. We often think that we know how to relax, or better yet, believe we are a relaxed player. But the reality is that very few musicians can claim to be truly relaxed, and more importantly: in control. How many musicians feel that they can perform as well in front of an audience as they can in the practice room? Not many from what I’ve seen. The usual culprit is overt tension.
One of the insidious problems with tension is the fact that typically, the more tension a player is saddled with, the more they are unaware of it. I’ll never forget a moment when I was in college, my girlfriend, who is a fine violist, was showing me how to hold the viola and the bow. She told me that I needed to relax my right shoulder and I replied that I was relaxed. She said that I was not, and we dropped the issue. Later on, the proverbial light bulb went off in my head. For her to make those comments, and for me to respond in the manner that I did, made me realize that I had no concept of what being relaxed meant.
Let’s examine some of the issues surrounding being a relaxed player – of any instrument. It is beyond the scope of this article to systematically cover each and every aspect of playing the guitar, so I’ll try to offer some general concepts that, hopefully, will allow guitarists to examine their playing and gain awareness of the problems. First of all, we need a definition. Mine is this: Relaxed playing is the ability to activate the muscles needed, without the interference of other, non-necessary muscles. There are two facets to this statement that are of critical importance to every musician. First, we need to learn how to isolate the muscle groups that are needed for each aspect of our playing – and secondly, we need to understand the “tug-of-war” syndrome that so often plagues us. This tug-of-war problem is largely the cause of tendonitis in our arms when we are activating the extensor and flexor muscles (forearm muscles that control the fingers) simultaneously.
The first order of business is to examine our sitting posture. Most important is to have the structure of our body, our skeletal system, support as much of our weight as possible. So, sit with a straight back, with your vertebrae aligned on top of each other. When we sit with poor posture, we unnecessarily activate many lower and upper back, shoulder, and abdomen muscles. I have my students sit up straight and relax as many torso muscles as they can, then I’ll ask them to slouch and sit straight again several times so that they become sensitive to the difference.
Another important issue relating to sitting posture is the height that we hold the guitar. Frequently, a reason many guitarists have shoulder and neck stiffness is due to holding the guitar too high. When you are playing in first position, your left hand should not be above the height of your mouth. If it is, then you are overusing your left deltoid (shoulder) muscle. The weight of the right arm should be on the guitar, and if you hold down a chord with your left hand, the weight of both arms, plus the weight of the guitar, should be felt on your left leg.
The stiffness in our hands is usually when we contract both flexor and extensor muscles simultaneously. When we learn to play an instrument, we struggle to direct our fingers, and typically, we do so by locking up our arms and hands. Thus, the tug-of-war begins, and we force our fingers to behave - what I refer to as imposing “Martial Law” on our fingers. How do we rectify the problem? First, we need to relax our torso muscles as much as possible as I mentioned earlier, and second, we need to learn how to get our finger muscles to coordinate their efforts without strain.
For the right hand, I often ask my students to squeeze their fist for a few seconds, and then to release their hand. While their hand is loose, I ask them to wiggle their fingers. I tell them that this is how their right hand should feel when they play. Then I ask them to maintain that feeling as they randomly play open strings. The weight of their right arm should be resting on the guitar, and it should feel extremely loose and comfortable. Ideally, this feeling should never be lost. I then have the student play a simple p-i-m-a arpeggio, very lightly, making sure that they don’t tense up the forearm, and then they can try to make a subtle crescendo and decrescendo, all while staying loose.
The left hand is a bit more complicated. There are two states that the left hand maintains: clamping and moving; and routinely, both are required at the same time. Guitarists need to recognize when they are doing which, and more importantly, when to recuperate. With every piece, guitarists need to practice releasing their left hand tension at critical junctures, such as open strings, shifts, and major chord changes where there are no pivot or guide fingers. The idea is to take as much time as you need to relax and rejuvenate your left hand when you are learning a piece, and then, as the days go by, you’ll need less and less time to relax until the point arrives that you can do so in tempo. Ultimately, the habit of practicing relaxation points, to the degree that they become automatic, is the most important aspect of becoming a “relaxed” guitarist.
In addition to finding relaxation points, guitarists must learn how to effectively use the weight of their left arm to aid in pressing the left hand fingers. Essentially, while clamping notes with the left hand, pressure should be coming from three sources: the weight of the left arm “hangs” on the fingers to help apply pressure; the left bicep should pull ever so gently to relieve undue pressure on the left thumb; and finally, we do need to squeeze with our fingers and thumb. An excellent exercise is to play through a simple scale without touching the left thumb to the back of the neck. By using the weight of the left arm and subtle bicep pressure the player should be able to obtain clear notes. Then, add the left thumb lightly, more for balance than for squeezing pressure.
What does guitar playing have to do with concrete? Mixing 94 lb. bags of concrete in a wheelbarrow is a physically demanding job, one that in working on various home projects over the years I’ve done all too often. I must admit that when I used to practice or perform on the guitar, there was a similar feeling of struggle in both tasks, but not any more.
My wife mixes the cement.