I'm happy with how my playing is progressing, but am observing that overall tension while playing is holding me back. My teacher observed last night that this is impacting my attempts to play legato. I've been trying to work on this for several weeks but to no avail so far.
So, short of taking a sip of fig brandy before practicing, what other ways have you found to address this - or advise your students? Part of it, perhaps most of this, is I'm so concentrated on the music that I don't realise just how tense I become.
I've found Alexander Technique to be helpful in being more mindful about tension and not rushing into stuff and getting tense, but it's probably something that takes a while to work itself into your playing. It is something that works itself out over time, but it may help to break technical issues down into something where you aren't working too many things at once. That's why exercises like Schradieck are good. You get to work on a relaxed finger technique while not doing pyrotechnics with your bow, but you can also work on the quality of your bowing and sound at the same time. I don't think there are many quick fixes, but one thing that is good is to not just play through stuff mindlessly, and always have a certain intention to focus on this or that BEFORE playing a small chunk that you are practicing.
"relax"; "trying to work on this for several weeks". I think there is your problem. Trying to work on relaxing is a beautiful oxymoron.
Thanks Christian and Elise! My teacher uses rep 100% in teaching technique. Christian I like your advice on range of focus/purpose when working in each little section.
.....I'm so concentrated on the music that I don't realise just how tense I become....
While I focus on this, I'm finding that one way to release that tension (once aware of it, that is) is to simply stop what I'm playing and walk around my practice room a few times and either play a scale or 3, or something easy I've memorized. I can then return to playing without tension for a period of time. This isn't a solution, but a step closer. Being aware of it before my bow starts shaking or my legato starts resembling marcato is my current goal:)
I wouldn’t advocate a steady diet of this, but sometimes when I’m tired of the day’s technical practice, and succumb to that same tension, I stop, close my eyes, and play something from memory ever as sweetly and expressively as I can. Maybe sing it to yourself first. This is absolutely no substitute for technical work, but it does release tension and maximize the consequence of what you have already achieved. We’re aspiring to something that is a complex mix of volitional and automatic, and I think this is one way to tap that ineffable relaxed expressive state that can be ruined by tension. One of my favorites is to invent variations of Hatikva.
Here's a simple, quick, easy, and effective way to relax quickly, mentally and physically. It may not result in complete relaxation, but it's a very effective first step, and may in fact be all that is necessary, depending on the situation.
I grew up around Chicago Symphony brass players. Whenever their horn is down, their whole body relaxes. Even when their horns are up, they are as relaxed as they can be. It’s a bit like when I used to do USCF time trials and triathlons. You rest everything that you are not using to improve performance. It IS very similar to yoga practice like Menuhin espoused in his teaching.