Sometimes you don’t even notice that you aren’t relaxed when you play.
I see it in my teaching studio all the time, and sometimes I catch myself doing it too. The jaw sets, the shoulders tense, the hands squeeze a death grip. You get so preoccupied with hitting the notes that everything else disappears, including the body that’s playing them. But this kind of “body-blindness” makes it difficult to play smoothly, because you don’t recognize tension when it appears. And tension gets in the way, while relaxed playing is more natural, fluid, and accurate.
I developed a repetitive strain injury in my mid-twenties after ten years of intense classical guitar study, practicing between three and eight hours a day. I had to quit playing for six long months, and spent the next year gradually rehabilitating my guitar technique. The most important lesson I learned from this process was that I had no idea how much tension I had been carrying in my body.
My teachers certainly had addressed the issue in the past. I remember my teacher Nicholas asking me to play a passage “without using your back this time”. I had no idea what he meant until he pointed out that I had tensed my back in anticipation of a challenging passage. But I guess I didn’t pay close enough attention. A year after I finished school I started to develop severe pain in my hands. I went to see a physical therapist who told me the muscles of my forearms were so tight they were practically locked. Again, I hadn’t felt it. Over the next two weeks the pain spread from my hands up my arms to my shoulders and back, as the muscles began to wake up and let go.
These kinds of problems can be career-ending, especially when they’re a result of ingrained habit.
But the methods I learned in the process of getting my playing back made it possible for me to continue to play music. I still catch myself getting tight, tired, or sore, but I have techniques I can apply that keep the issues from becoming chronic again.
You may not be at risk of developing similar issues, although repetitive strain is an occupational hazard for the pro. But patterns of tension and “holding” will definitely restrict your playing and your growth. Learning to recognize these patterns when they arise will make you more fluid, enhance your sound, and ensure you can keep on playing for a lifetime. And you can start very simply by just paying attention to a few key points in the body.
1. Free the neck and shoulders
We guitarists tend to focus on our hands, but they’re still part of a larger mechanism. The forearm, upper arms, and shoulders are all involved in the way we move. When we do place all our attention on the hands, it’s as if the rest of the body disappears from the mental picture. Worse yet, we often compensate for the effort in the hands by bracing the larger muscles of the neck and shoulders. I’m as guilty of this as anybody, but “checking in” regularly to make sure I let my shoulders drop helps release any building tension. Be aware that this tension accumulates as you keep playing if you aren’t loose, restricting your movements more and more and making the muscles of the hands and forearms work harder. All it takes to counteract this is to pay attention, and to “ask” the tight muscles to let go.
This is especially important when playing an acoustic guitar sitting down. The sitting position can make you twist your upper body and raise the shoulder of the picking hand. Again, simply staying aware is the trick. Watch yourself in the mirror or on video. If you find strumming awkward or hard to control, mentally find your shoulder blade and imagine it floating on top of the rib cage as you strum. I’ve seen literally hundreds of students suddenly begin to strum more freely and musically simply by applying this thought.
2. Mind your stance
The way you stand has an impact on the overall system as well. The muscles of the upper body are freest when supported by the lower body. This means that your stance allows your weight to distribute evenly and keep you balanced. But many people lock up their legs, or put all their weight on one side. This throws the hips and spine off, and the domino effect continues up the body.
This doesn’t mean you can’t move as you play. Ideally, your body should be in motion. You’ll feel the rhythm better and you’re less likely to lock your legs. But you should be as light on your feet as a boxer or tennis player. If you play primarily sitting down, be aware of how you sit. It can really help to sit closer to the edge of the seat so that some of your weight is thrown onto your feet, supporting the body on three points. This might feel odd or uncontrolled as first, but as you explore the sensations you will probably feel your upper body relax and loosen. This in turn helps free the neck and shoulders as discussed in item 1.
3. Open the hands
Most guitar teachers seem to focus on the fingers and thumb when discussing technique, if they discuss it at all. Some misguidedly advise their students to apply as much pressure as they can, or even use the term “grips” to describe chords. This is, frankly, terrible advice. All you need to do to test this theory is tighten your hands and try to move your fingers.
Yes, you do need strength in the hands to play guitar well. But you also need coordination, finger independence, and a hand position that maximizes leverage while minimizing effort. And while there is, more or less, an ideal position, everyone’s hands are proportioned a little differently. Things like the length of your fingers and the proportion of fingers to hand are really significant. You should be able to keep the wrist basically straight and the fingers partially curled. Your fingers will probably curl more on the treble side and extend to reach the bass strings. Recognize how the wrist follows the lead of the fingers, with the position of the thumb determined by the wrist.
We can apply the same kind of mental check-in to the hands that we used earlier for the neck and shoulders. Focus on the center of the fretting hand and the base of the thumb. These are two points where tension accumulates easily, and tuning in to notice what’s actually happening there will have the same affect on your fingers that the shoulder check-in has on the strumming hand.
A core idea to keep in mind here is that the guitar in general tends to make the body compress forward an inward as we pay intense attention to the hands. Understanding the patterns this leads to creates greater body awareness, and more fluid playing as a result.