I wonder if anyone else has this problem when playing. I’m a beginner on the harp, and I am trying to learn to get rid of tension when I play, as it’s a real issue for me. I’ve had some Alexander technique sessions, which helped me become a bit more aware, and one thing that I notice is that I clench my teeth when I play (particularly when I’m concentrating on trying to relax other bits of me). That increased tension – which also ends up in my neck – contributes to making the sound very twangy, as well as gives me sore jaws and teeth. I’m not having lessons at the moment. I have tried holding a pencil between my teeth, but I just end up drooling, or clenching down on it, which doesn’t really help! (I also have a guard that I can wear on my teeth to protect them, like when I clench at night, which is fine, but doesn’t do anything for the tension itself). I play really slowly, trying to release everything in between each note, but it seems to happen as I’m actually plucking the string, so it’s quite hard to control. And other times in just creeps in without me noticing it start. Has anyone found good ways to overcome a habit like this?
I used to have the same habit and still do when deeply into arranging. I’d say that the key to relaxation lies in one’s mental state – it is well known that we retain more and play better in what neurologists call the Alpha wave state. Here are a few harp-specific suggestions:
Start with slow relaxed stretches, particularly the spine and lower extremities.
Sit comfortably at your harp with feet flat on the floor and back straight – NOT military ram-rod. Then begin with very slow scales and argpeggios – I know one professional who does this no faster than one quarter note at 20 bpm.
Listen very closely to the sound of every note. Do NOT try for speed but for beauty.
As soon as you find yourself tensing up, stop. Get up, stretch, whatever until you feel relaxed again.
Just as strength and agility take practice, so does calm even playing; one must break the habits of rushing and stopping to correct every single mistake.
As my teacher keeps telling me, “If you practice with bad habits they will become habitual. Therefore practice good ones no matter how slowly you need to do it. Speed and precision will come sooner and more easily that way.”
She does half an hour of yoga every morning upon waking – me I need my coffee but you can see where she is going with that.
Thank you for the suggestions.
I do the really slow stuff already – in fact I’ve not been able to get much beyond this, as I have to consciously relax everything after each note and I don’t seem to be getting ANY faster at that! I listen to each note and try to make it beautiful, but I can hear that it’s not, unless I manage to get everything released before I play it (and I can’t always tell in advance). I think my fingers are quite weak, so I am trying to recruit other muscles to help, and clenching my teeth or bracing myself might go along with that – maybe it will diminish as I get stronger.
But I will think about yoga, and more stretching and so on. I can completely see that mental state will be important to relaxing, so will work on that too.
I remember when I was a beginner. I could practice only about 15-20 minutes a day because I got so tired holding up my arms with the wrists in. I was taught Salzedo, so there was built-in tension.
You don’t mention a teacher, so I would wonder
1. if you have one to discuss the problem with
2. if maybe you are afraid. (the fear of failure)
I have had a few occasional lessons, but she hasn’t any ideas for this. I probably am anxious, rather than afraid, but wanting to do well; this seems to be more of a physical thing though. I hope that getting stronger fingers/arms will mean that there less temptation to clench and tense so much. I guess it really just is a habit, and like all habits, I have to just keep making myself aware of it, and trying to replace it, and there’s probably no magic solution apart from general relaxation stuff, both mental and physical.
I think that finding the reason for the clenching is the first step in fixing the problem. Is it related to the clenching at night? Do you clench when you are concentrating while doing other things? Is it caused by frustration? Or maybe it’s something simple like your seat is too low.
..I’m a relatively new learner of the violin. I find myself biting down on the sides of my tongue while I play (not hard enough to cause damage). I think it might be because I am concentrating on so many other things, I can’t concentrate on that. Or maybe my shoulder rest isn’t properly adjusted–a subconscious effort to raise my head just a tiny bit more. Or maybe my teeth don’t fit together just right when my chin is pressed against the chinrest so my tongue slides in between to make it more comfortable. Or it could be a beginner thing. I am not sure. I tell you all this to give you some ideas and hopefully get your “figure it out” juices flowing.
I’m trying to think of things you can try. Knowing so little about you, it’s hard to know if anything will actually be useful, but I’ll give it a try.
Try not to focus on the tension. Sometimes the anticipation of a thing actually causes it. Try to think about what you are doing well, not what you are doing wrong. Imagine yourself playing perfectly and beautifully in your ideal setting. Focus on the thing you DO want to cause, not the thing you don’t.
Try playing something faster; not a song from a book, but perhaps random notes or a scale or something that just makes you happy. Not too fast though. The idea is to not give yourself time to regain tension between each note. Sometimes I find it freeing to allow myself to play any note I want, which makes it impossible to play a wrong one.
Try playing a note really softly, the softest sound you can possibly play. Keep good hand position of course. Do you still have tension? Gradually play louder and see if the tension stays away.
be kind to yourself. 🙂 Nothing boosts one’s confidence more than a good sense of self worth. And with confidence, hopefully, will come eased tension.
I know I made some assumptions with some of my suggestions….feel free to throw out anything that isn’t helpful. 🙂
Good luck. 😉
Thanks very much – I’ll give all those a try!
Yes frustration is definitely part of it, as I can hear how different the sound is when I am tense or not. I am aiming to be able to keep a good hand position, and to play a note or two, without introducing tension.
thank you, that’s an interesting observation. I know that I often find I’m holding my breath or bracing somehow; I’ve been taught how to breathe properly before, but it’s hard to remember that as well as everything else. Some kind of biofeedback – not really what sort of thing would work – that let me know when I was doing it right or wrong would probably help a lot.
It is often connected to the actual action of plucking a string, like I need to get more strength from somewhere; I think I end up tensing far too much in my fingers and hands each time I play a string, and whilst I spend ages trying to relax it all in between, I am not sure I ever quite get there! That’s why I’m trying the AT lessons, to really learn what that feeling is. We work on breathing there too, but it’s not yet become a new habit.
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