Is your tension preventing you from playing the way you want? Relax!
Playing music isn’t supposed to be so hard. Of course, practicing is hard work, but there should come a time when you can just relax and play, right?
Precisely because practice is such hard work, especially if you do it right, it is essential that you learn to play with relaxation instead of tension. Tension makes every aspect of music making harder. In fact, I’ll go further…
…when you’re holding tension as you play, you are letting the enemy win.
Tension works against you physically.
“True Grit” was a great movie, but gritting your teeth isn’t the right way to play music. You can’t just power your way through a difficult passage or fast piece. Putting more muscle into your music will create more fatigue, and can lead to stiffness and weakness as the lactic acid builds up in whatever muscles you have clenched. Those arpeggios that you worked so hard to make fluid and facile may totally lock up on you.
Tension works against you mentally.
The more you mentally pour on the power to try to make your fingers do your bidding, the more you increase your stress and anxiety. It may feel like you’re simply very focused, but instead of being focused on expressing your music, you’ve actually pitted yourself against it. This is not an ideal state of mind for a musician.
Tension works against your sound.
When you are tight and tense, your sound will be too. And when you aren’t pleased with how you sound, you may try harder to make it beautiful, which adds to the tension, which adds to the problem….it’s the old vicious circle.
Remember that your sound is not measured by its volume. A beautiful sound is beautiful at any dynamic level. It is measured by its resonance and clarity, and a relaxed sound is more resonant.
Try thinking about your sound production this way: don’t pull the string. Instead imagine releasing the sound from the string, using your best technique, and of course, staying relaxed. You don’t have to try hard to make a beautiful sound; the harp will do it for you. Remember that was one of first things you loved about the harp – the way it spoke to you the first time you touched it?
Sometimes I will see a student holding her breath when she starts playing a piece. I call it “upbeat by inhalation.” This is often a sign that the student is holding her breath while she’s playing, not the entire time, but just not maintaining a normal breathing pattern while playing.
If this sounds like you, or if you’re not sure, try breathing out as you prepare to play the first notes of a piece. You can visualize your exhalation as the movement of your music, breathing life into the notes. And then keep breathing!
It is helpful to learn to let go of tension while you’re playing. You can practice this with any challenging technical passage or etude. Practice the passage two ways: slowly with a full sound, and faster at a soft dynamic. Then practice the passage at your goal tempo with a continual decrescendo, releasing the tension as you get softer. Visualize the tension leaving your body, flowing down through your legs and out through the soles of your feet as you continue playing. Imagine how mastering this skill could help you in a stressful performance!
If your visualization skills need a boost, try it away from the harp. Sit quietly and listen to your body. Where do you feel tension? Then starting from the top of your head allow the tension to flow away, muscle by muscle, joint by joint, vertebra by vertebra until you can feel it flow out through your feet and into the floor. That’s all there is to it. Now do that same exercise sitting at the harp. Then take the final step and try it while you are playing.
Now you’re relaxed and ready to make music!