Being Mindful of the Physical Aspects of Music Making

One of the things I really love about playing a musical instrument is how it feels, the actual tactile experience. I particularly enjoy the feeling of fat strings under my fingers, which is one of the major reasons why I’m drawn to nylon strings. I love the breadth of the two-inch fingerboard combined with the feel of high-tension nylon strings. They’re nice and round, comfortable to push down, and visually pleasing as well. I don’t like the feel of carbon fiber trebles; they’re thinner than standard classical strings and bite into the fingers differently. Bass strings are also lovely combined with the wider fingerboard of the five string the texture and string response feels oh so good.

Playing brings a welcome tactile experience. There’s something about running up and down the fingerboard, the mechanics of the fingers meeting the strings and the clean order of solid technique being put to use. I don’t enjoy playing sloppily because it feels wrong. I’ve been trained, and trained well. I spent time developing clean playing habits, and while they’ve changed over the years due to working in different genres and the requirements thereof, my hands know the difference. Good technique inevitably feels better than bad technique, and good sound comes from good technique.

The longer I go without playing, the worse my hands feel. I’ve reached the point and the age where my hands start to stiffen and feel uncomfortable when I haven’t been playing regularly. The joints start to ache, and my palms and forearms start to feel crampy. Stretching helps somewhat, but what really makes the difference is spending a couple hours or more running the fret board, moving strings, and sending sound into the air. Doing, in this case, is far better than resting. Inevitably after working through some time on the instrument, my hands feel better, and so does the rest of me, especially when I focus on how it feels to play.

Focusing on the tactile experience also brings about healthier playing practices. There should be a sense of flow and order to the process of making the strings sing. The only physical tension that should be present is the amount needed to push down the string, initiate and maintain a clean sound. I have a tendency to carry a lot of tension in my body, particularly in my back, shoulders and neck. I also have scoliosis, which gives a pain response to tension in these areas. When I focus on the tactile process, I attempt to not only focus on the feeling of the strings under my fingers, but also on my body’s sense of relaxation. I try to keep my back, neck and shoulders as relaxed as I can, playing with as light a touch as I can while still maintaining a sense of dynamic response within the music. Musical tension might be present, but physical tension should be dismissed.

Relaxation promotes musicality, flow, and good health. Tension creates dissonance, pain and fatigue. At some point we all experience this, and we will still reach a point where we’re tired even when we’ve been maintaining a relaxed state. I have found that when tension starts to come into play my abilities decline dramatically. What was easy before now becomes difficult. My hands start to throttle the guitar or bass neck, while my shoulders start climbing toward my ears. Before long my abilities to deal with faster passages declines and emotional communication becomes static. Mistakes start multiplying and frustration escalates. By the end of the session, whether it is a gig, rehearsal or practice, I’m achy and ready for some ibuprofen. If it was a gig usually the next day is pretty physically brutal between the back pain and fatigue, often combined with a tension-induced headache. Tension also radically increases the likelihood of a repetitive stress injury that can sideline a musician for weeks. Been there, done that, don’t need to go there again!

Being mindful when playing makes a huge difference in being able to maintain a state of physical relaxation. The tactile experience should be pleasing, and when tensions starts to ratchet up being aware of the tactile experience’s divergence from pleasure to stress should be a signal. Granted, sometimes we do experience discomfort that requires working through as anyone who has ever played a steel strung acoustic guitar knows. It is necessary to build calluses in order to be able to play the instrument, and it is also necessary to train the muscles. In this case your hands and forearms are athletes and as such need to work out, stretch, recover and do it all over again to build strength and endurance. Athletes themselves seek flow, tension and release, as well as awareness of the physical process and tactile experience. They draw from this to enhance their performance, as should musicians. I can feel it, how about you?

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