You get more when you relax by Daniel Getz

This post is by Daniel Getz.


Whenever someone tells me that I play with a lot of tension, my heart sinks. I spent years trying to build good playing habits and eliminating unnecessary movements, and yet there is still noticeable tightness in my approach to the viola.

As an observer of my own playing, I notice myself becoming tense as I get closer to a big performance. When I start to second-guess my intonation, shifts and articulations, I get nervous, then I get tight, and then everything becomes more difficult. It is a vicious cycle that brings back old habits that I have tried to overcome. But in the best of circumstances, one can find ways to stay calm even when it is easier to get tight. The following points, relating to both mechanics and attitude, can facilitate breaking that cycle.

#1: Position
Perhaps the most obvious step toward eliminating tension is to examine our playing position. Our bodies are not built to withstand the strain of playing such an unnatural instrument, and we often exacerbate that strain through our solutions to compensate for this weakness.

When I was very young, I recognized that my left shoulder gets tired holding up the viola, and that it is significantly easier to stabilize the instrument using the weight of my head. This was a good solution at the time – the muscles involved in transferring head-weight onto the chin rest are bigger and stronger than our arm and shoulder muscles. But over time, I started to compress my upper body, which led to tension and weakness in my neck, shoulders and upper back. While I am still looking for the most efficient way of holding my instrument, it is clear to me that there needs to be some balance of activity between the muscle groups involved: any position, however momentarily comfortable, causes a strain if it is held constantly without movement.

We tend to take such postural habits for granted. When I begin to notice that normal motions on the viola are more difficult than usual, I take inventory of different parts of my body that may be feeding into a general tightness. Am I squeezing with one or both hands? Am I positioned so that I have the optimal amount of leverage to move about the instrument? Is my neck free?

#2: Change your vocabulary
It may be counter-productive to say things like “tension is bad,” or “you are too tight.” Any specialist can attest that our brains do not process negative commands as well as positive commands. For example, if someone were to tell me, “do not think about the purple elephant,” I would of course visualize nothing except purple elephants. Similarly, hearing “you have too much tension” can easily make me clench my fists, curl my toes and tighten my abdominal muscles without even thinking about it.

If I start to notice tension in my playing, I immediately consult a note in my viola case that says “you get more when you relax.” Rather than demanding of myself to release my tension, this reminder offers a reward: if my joints and muscles are free, I will play more powerfully and expressively.

Another cause of tension is our use of the word itself. How many times has a conductor, mentor or colleague noted “tension” in the music that needs to be reflected in our execution? Many, because it is such a descriptive word that we never think about its negative subconscious repercussions. But for a person prone to becoming physically tense, it is a very bad word. When I hear “give this chord member more tension,” I now translate “tension” to “resistance.” Resistance makes me think about using a slower bow and pulling into the bridge, so I prevent myself from succumbing to physical tightness. If you have experienced this word-association problem, try thinking of an image that works better (“pull” is also a favorite of mine).

#3: Take a deep breath, because it’s not [all] your fault
Of course there are always ways we can move more efficiently, and utilize playing positions that facilitate this ease. But playing habits make up only a portion of what makes us tight. Anyone can see the blissful ease of movement of babies and toddlers. Observe a newborn baby gripping your finger — there is no tension in their tiny hand, but to pry yourself away you need to pull pretty hard. That is a perfect bow grip: the hand is tremendously loose, but there is no way your bow is going to slip away. Similarly, an Alexander Technique instructor once told me that to learn to walk more efficiently, I should just watch a toddler and imitate. Sure, they fall down all the time, but their joints and muscles are free as can be.

So what changes as we get older? A lot. We focus much more on precision than we do when we are toddlers, because we simply do not want to be falling down all the time. Our bodies react, and our movement patterns change.

There are also theories that our bodies hold on to emotional, as well as physical, trauma from a very young age. It is commonly accepted that shoulder and neck tension is often a result of external stressors, and that some chronic tension comes from emotional trauma one experiences as a child (when I get a knot in my shoulder, I usually name it after someone in my family).

But knowing all of this, one can still be inhibited physically while playing the viola (or doing any activity, at that). What helps me is recognizing that not all of my physical tension stems from bad habits in my approach to playing. Like I mentioned earlier, I notice myself sulking whenever someone alerts me that I am tight when I play, mostly because I start to question whether I have been playing the viola properly for the last 15 years. Sometimes I find it useful to remind myself that, over the last 24 years, my body has been affected by extra-violistic stimuli. Sometimes simply hearing that allows me to take a deep breath and release the burden of having to take responsibility for every weakness, tight spot and inefficient movement that I employ.

Several years ago, I was getting advice from another violist about playing without tension, and she said to me, “it is very hard to play relaxed.” On many levels, this is true. It takes a lot of observation and discipline to arrive at a postural solution that is efficient and balanced, and that makes us sound good. Beyond that, there are so many non-musical reasons why our bodies get tight that once we arrive at the instrument, it is no wonder that we cannot easily let go of all of our tension. We cannot change how our bodies are built, nor can we control what irritates us emotionally and transfers into our musculature. We can simply observe ourselves and be aware of what we are holding and squeezing, both physically and mentally.

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