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Unlocking Hidden Finger Tension From Guitar Fingers

jamie andreasAt Guitar Principles, we get a lot of long time players who want to figure out why they haven’t gotten any better at guitar in the last few decades, and see if they can do anything about it. This type of player, the “remedial student“, has a particular problem not often possessed by a beginner. The long time player has a history of subjecting their playing muscles to stress, sometimes great stress. They have logged many playing hours where they are playing things they are not really  comfortable with.

It might be that solo with the very fast hammers and pulls, it might be those difficult chord changes involving bar chords, or simply some fast scales. The fact is, they were straining to play, they have spent many hours straining to play, and in that process they have done a very bad thing to the muscles they play with, and that bad thing must be undone. It must be undone because it is the primary obstacle they have to playing well, or getting better.

The Enemy

What is that bad thing? It is locked in muscle tension. The muscles are, literally, in a state of excessive tension during the entire time they are being asked to play the guitar. The player does not know this. The player thinks that the feeling they have when they play is “normal”. It is just the way it is. They do know there is a difference in the music they are able to make and the music the wish they could make. They do know there is a difference between the music they make and the music their favorite players make. But they do not know that there is an underlying condition in their physical playing system that is NOT there in the playing system (the muscles, nerves, etc) of their guitar heroes, the ones that make it look so easy.

And so, a big part of my work with guitar players is to expose that hidden tension, to make them aware of it, so that they can begin go get rid of it. I do this by making them feel it, and even see it!

One of the reasons why players are usually unable to discover this tension on their own is this: when the average guitar player feels tension during playing, they immediately tense against that tension! They do this because it gives a temporary illusion of control. However, the “control” is gives is not real control. It is extremely limited, and limiting. It also has the effect of making it impossible to directly feel the original tension that caused the secondary tension reaction. It is like having a knot form in our muscles, and all of our efforts to undo the knot simply make the knot tighter.

It is impossible to reach a professional level of playing when this situation dominates our practicing and playing. It is also impossible to make the music we are capable of making. So, it must be undone.

We begin to undo this condition by taking a major step back in our approach. We pay a new kind of attention to our fingers, and indeed our entire body during the act of playing. We begin to treat our fingers differently when they “misbehave” and don’t do what we want. Instead of tensing against the tension we feel, and instead of reacting to it in any way – we do nothing ! We allow it to be. We stop ourselves right in that moment of discomfort, and “feel” – intensely feel our fingers, our arms, our shoulders, everything. We feel the tension profoundly, and once we do that, we find we are able to do something we have never done before – we can release that tension. Feeling, and releasing the tension is a far different response than tensing against the tension.

Now, we will usually not be able to release all of the tension, and that is okay. However, we will usually be to able to release anywhere from 30% to 50% of it, and that makes a profound difference. As we learn to consistently identify and release excess muscle tension a wonderful thing begins to happen – we begin to feel completely different when we play the guitar. Things that felt hard now feel easy. We notice we are able to play faster and still keep control (trouble playing fast is always accompanied by increased muscle tension as the speed goes up).

Shake, Rattle, Then Roll!

Performing this “tension release process” can only be done effectively by using all the components of the Principles method of practicing guitar, but one of the elements is always a great slowdown in the movement process. We identify and release hidden, locked in muscle tension by performing the playing motions in a super slow, tai-chi like fashion, accompanied by a great state of mental awareness (all great players naturally and intuitively discover this process). Very often, when we do this, a very funny thing happens: our fingers start to shake like crazy! The very act of slowing down the motion makes the muscles twitch like crazy, and completely destroys our sense of control over them. Many players get so upset at this that they immediately attempt to enforce their control by stopping the shaking – the same way they have always attempted to cover up their feelings of playing discomfort, by tensing up! Oh sure, you might bully the finger into stopping shaking because you tensed the muscles so much they can’t shake, but you will never get that finger to play with ease, and make professional sounding music. You have made an enemy of that finger.

The correct thing to do is let them shake! Let the muscles express the tension, and I mean “express” in the true sense of the word, let them “get it out”. If you do, if you let the shaking continue, and simply persist in feeling it, you will find it begins to weaken. Gradually, you will find that you can begin to exert a new kind of gentle, almost effortless control over your fingers that is different than anything you have felt before. It is the exalted state of “lightness” or “effortlessness” often talked about by experienced players.
Why Does This Happen?

What is going on here? Why are the fingers freaking out like this?

Imagine you have a class of 5 year olds, all in school for the first time. The teacher stands in front of the room and starts asking them to do different things and answer different questions. Every time one of them has trouble doing the task requested, or gives a wrong answer, the teacher comes up and starts screaming at them, right in their face! This goes on all year. Perhaps it goes on for a few years. As time goes by, the children learn how to protect themselves from this abuse, as a simple survival technique. They do what human beings tend to do in the face of painful experiences – they shield themselves. They build walls around their true feelings by simply “toughening up” and learning how to “not feel”.

Suppose that a new Principal (Principle?!) takes over the school, one that does not allow abuse of the children. The students are still in their usual state of toughness, or hardened “tension” as the new class begins. A student is asked a question and does not know the answer. She automatically prepares to be screamed at and tightens herself up for protection – but there is no screaming! The teacher just stands there with a loving smile and says “Oh, that’s okay dear, no one is perfect! You just sit down and don’t worry, it will all become clear as class moves along”.

Well, the stunned student simply does not know how to act! She stands there dumbfounded, and sinks into her chair. Her “tension”, her hardened feelings no longer have any pressure coming from the outside to protect against. It starts to weaken, and then suddenly, by simple force of habit, it reasserts itself. The girl is caught between the urge to tighten up, and the new circumstance which acts to weaken that response. She sits shuddering – and shaking. Over time, she will adapt to the new, loving environment. She will finally experience what it is to be normal. She will no longer be in a state of chronic tension, or shaking.

The fingers “shake” during the type of practice described here because they are in the same type of quandary as the little girl who finds that her habitual response is no longer needed, but doesn’t quite know how to have a different response yet. The finger wants to tense when it feels uncomfortable, and when it senses tension in the arm, shoulder, neck, etc. But, it is not being allowed to tense, that reaction is being prevented. So, it is caught in a cycle “urge to tense- prevention of urge-urge to tense – prevention of urge”. And thus, the “shakes”!

Over time, the shaking grows less and less, and finally disappears. However, new playing circumstances which demand something from the fingers they have no experience with, may also induce shaking. When that occurs, we must handle it the same way. When we do, we see an increase in our playing ability. We will discover we can now do many things we could not do before (see sidebar for one of my recent “shaking” projects!).

Often, guitar players will say “I can play this lick fast, but not slow”. What this really means is “When I go slow, the tension I am normally hiding by tensing even more starts to come out, and I feel out of control!” Yes, that is the truth of that situation. The illusion of control such a player has is just an illusion. Their playing would break down as the speed goes up anyway, and is always found to be weak and flawed in recording or performing situations. All professionals know that you must be able to play your music slow as well as fast.

So that is the story of what is happening to the fingers of the abused and recovering guitar player. The fingers, of course, are the children, who are constantly abused by the ignorant teacher – the person in charge of practicing! When the teacher becomes the wise and loving teacher (the person who has learned to practice guitar “correctly”) – everything changes. Then, the fingers become like the fingers of the great players.

Everything about “The Principles” system of learning guitar promotes the growth of this “wise teacher” inside of you. As you learn the true Principles Of Correct Practice and use them, your fingers will change, and so will your playing.

Watch a video of Jamie’s Personal “Shaking” Exercise >>

Copyright 2012 Jamie Andreas. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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