I have a problem, and was hoping someone here would have some
suggestions to help me.
Posted In: Young Harpists
You should never feel tension like that when you play. I don’t have any advice but to relax, though. Concentrate of keeping your arms loose and comfortable. Do you only feel it after an hour? Maybe you can just practice in one hour intervals a couple times a day. I do think that you should beat this problem instead of avoiding it, though. Make sure, with your teacher, that you have a correct and exact position. I don’t know why you would be tense with a correct position, really. Make sure you don’t raise your shoulders when you play higher up. Maybe if you spend a while simply playing “warm ups” with an exact position you will be able to get over this. Make sure you are sitting the correct distance from the harp because this could cause neck/shoulder pain, I’d guess. There are also times when you simply reach your limit, and after that your arms and back become tired… maybe this is happening to you but instead of just being tired they tighten up? If so, you just need to build up the amount of time you can play for. You could also try strengthening your muscles.
Sorry I don’t have any good advice! You definitely need to fix this, though. Besides the potential for injury that you mention, it is simply incorrect playing. Good luck!
Good suggestions everyone. In addition to relaxing, make sure that your body is aligned while playing the harp. Since we pull it over our right shoulder, there is a temptation to twist to the left – be sure to keep your back straight. Lay on the floor and notice how your back and shoulders feel when straight and relaxed. Be so sure your spine is straight – not leaning left or right, not curved out. If any muscles are thrown off balance, it is like a domino effect which can strain all sorts of additional muscles. You mention tension in your neck. Twisting the head is also a temptation – either straining forward or twisting to the left. Get a full length mirror by your harp or video yourself playing. You may be surprised what you discover. Also, stand by your harp and gradually tip it back. You will notice there is one point where the harp almost balances itself. After this point, the further you pull it back the heavier it gets. You want most of the weight of the harp to go directly into the floor – not on your shoulder. Allow the knee to help hold the little weight needed to balance it. It should be pulled just slightly past its natural balancing point. Does that make sense? Also, if your bench is too low, your shoulders may be straining to reach high enough for the middle of the string. This last one is an adjustment I have needed to make recently.
Sometimes we play differently at our lessons than when we are tired and by ourselves at home. It may be that it takes a while before your alignment goes out. Do your best to observe what is happening. One last point to observe is your breathing. It is tempting to hold one’s breath when concentrating. Try to breath deeply between phrases. This is another way to observe if our body is aligned. You need to be sure to get enough oxygen, and breathing deep and full keeps the muscles relaxed and the body aligned.
Take time to stretch – even during practice sessions. There was an issue of the Harp Column that went over different strengthening exercises as well. In Yolanda Kondonassis’ book “on Playing the Harp” she includes useful stretches to do. This book has all kinds of wonderful, practical advice for healthy playing.
I have worked on this quite extensively. One thing that helps is instead of having the harp aligned straight out, have it more of a diagonal from left knee to right knee, so the left arm has the bass strings a bit closer and doesn’t have to reach so far; in other words the harp is angled at about 11 o’clock instead of 12 o’clock. Check your bench height: you might need to sit lower, or higher. The rest is probably in how you practice, and your position. Your elbows may be a little too high, which tenses the trapezius (?) muscles. They also tighten, as does the neck, when cold, so try wearing a light scarf around your neck and a sweater or shawl over your shoulders. Next, relax your thinking. You are probably driving yourself too hard and pushing too fast, which hampers your progress. You must have breathing space between your repetitions. And breathe fully while playing. Drop your arms and let them swing naturally. Place them behind the bench and stretch them. Play a lot more exercises, taking one exercise and doubling the tempo four times so your are not thinking about the notes, only your technique and relaxation. Removing the effort from playing requires conscious attention. Doing so increases tone and quality and facility. Do not play anything louder than a beautifully full and ringing pianissimo tone with no effort, then give it more energy, but no effort, until you can do it fortissimo with just a touch on the strings. You will find an article appearing in the American Harp Journal’s next issue or so on the subject by Carlos Salzedo. I also have written an article on removing the effort from playing, which I could republish. You also might need daily lessons until this is resolved, so you develop better habits. Also, have a private practice space free of distractions and pressures, with mirrors to check yourself.
Judy Loman taught me this: relax your hands completely in between each note or chord, at
a very slow tempo. Develop this habit of relaxing between every note, and, as you speed
up gradually, your muscles will remember how this feels. Do not tighten up as your speed
increases. Breathe deeply as you play, and be careful not to clench your jaw. Also, never
practice for more than an hour at a time, to avoid injury.
I don’t know how well this applies, but think about this: when little kids start learning ballet and they put their arms above their heads, they tend to raise their shoulders up to their ears. Maybe you are doing something similar when you raise your elbows. Hold your elbows up but remember to drop/relax your shoulders.
I get tension exactly like this when I am at work, and it is because I lean forward at my desk instead of sitting up straight which causes me to raise my shoulders and it tightens up all the muscles in my upper back and neck.
Round your fingers, that may help.
Tension is something young players fall into, I think, because they can feel it, and it creates a sense of security. It is not real security. One must develop clear distinction between tension and relaxation, and my guess is that the original poster has too extreme of an arm position. It should not be difficult to practice two hours or more. Raising the elbows too high will cause tension in the shoulders and neck. The method says something like parallel to the floor, but it is a generalization, not a specific unalterable position. The most important thing is freedom of movement.