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How to Play Classical Guitar without Dysfunctional Tension

——Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor! I’m not a tendinitis expert! If you have lingering pain or some other issue with your hands that really concerns you , and just doesn’t friggin’ go away — see an appropriate professional. ASAP!——Jay

  Excess Tension comes from Good Intentions.

Excess tension can lead to uncomfortableness, tiredness, pain, and in the worst cases repetitive stress injury.

It also can lead to all kinds of poor guitar playing.

But it has nothing to do with being stupid or inept or lacking physical talent.  It simply comes from trying too hard, without tuning in. Tuning in with enough sensory receptivity and responsiveness to what is actually going on.

At its heart, excess tension comes because you’re trying to do the right thing the wrong way.

 Let’s look at an “excess tension” worst case scenario. Imagine yourself in this predicament:

Your current goal is to have people swooning in their seats as you play Caprichio Arabe like it’s never been played before. You can imagine it in your head— it’s pure magic, an exotic filigree of expressivity flowing passionately from your hands, out beyond the the stage into the shadowy auditorium and directly into the audiences ears, giving them no choice but to sigh  or gasp pleasurably.

But here in your practice room, you can’t get much further than the first lovely harmonic chord without crashing.

Every time you try to play that first mesmerizingly descending 16th-note passage, your right hand fingers trip over each other as they tighten up. They rip notes into twangs and pops without rhyme or time. Meanwhile, your left hand misses every shift by the exact mathematical amount needed to create the most annoying fret buzzes known to human ears. And once you’ve splatted out the final note, you notice that you quite often find your nose, suspiciously, within inches of  the 7th fret, and that your left shoulder ends up close to your left ear. 

 Something doesn’t feel right. This is tension. It’s not working, definitely not working.


So how do you get rid of tension?

You don’t. You need tension. You can even let tension get a bit excessive now and then.

What you don’t need is dysfunctional tension, which forms over time when excessive tension becomes unconscious and habitual.

When you start out any new thing that’s difficult, it’s natural to have a lot of tension, even excessive tension. Your body naturally makes up for lack of sophistication by using too much tension and strength in the wrong places.

But as you learn to use this tension you start finding out:

  1. Tension just needs to be applied in the right place—well distributed and appropriate. This is were correct form comes in.
  2. Tension needs to be applied in the right amount—just enough to get the job done, and no more. This is where you need to learn to balance effort with responsiveness.
  3. Tension needs to be released—when it’s not being used. This is where you need to cultivate awareness of your sensations.

In other words, tension needs to be in constant flow. It needs to be be responsive to the moment. The appropriate tension needs to be applied exactly when and where it’s needed, and then it must be redistributed to the new place where it’s needed.

 Tension is Yang to the Yin of Responsiveness

Functional Tension is simply exertion of energy, or effort. This is healthy Yang. Yang is effort. It pulls together its force into something strong enough to push through, to make an impression. Then it releases its energy by transferring it into the task— just like the index finger pushes through the guitar string, transfers its tension to the string, which then releases it as sound.

It’s necessary counterpart is Receptivity and Responsiveness. This is healthy Yin.  Balancing effort with receptivity and hence appropriate responsiveness is the antidote to excessive tension.

When you balance effort with responsiveness—Yang with Yin,  appropriate tension with cultivated awareness, you are on the road to developing your own best technique. 

In my next post, I’ll talk about exactly how to deal with the fact that excess tension occurs whenever you try to accomplish a higher order, complex task and don’t deal appropriately with the disparity between this and your current less sophisticated, less refined, and even incorrect mechanism.



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