September 17, 2019, 12:42 PM · 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.

Replies (9)

September 17, 2019, 1:23 PM · 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.
September 17, 2019, 5:14 PM · "relax"; "trying to work on this for several weeks". I think there is your problem. Trying to work on relaxing is a beautiful oxymoron.

Play a tune that you love, that is easy (Edelweiss, twinkle, etc) and that you are never going to perform to anyone other than a 5 year old. While you are playing think only of expression, if anything. Lo! You are relaxed. Get that mindset and try to apply it first to something simple or memorized. Consciously relax every muscle in your body beforehand. The absolute key is getting into playing the music and not caring a damn what anyone else is thinking.

And (IMO) no, no alcohol, no pills for if you do you may find them hard to shake or they become go-tos when you are under stress.

September 17, 2019, 6:56 PM · 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.

Elise - you made me laugh - it is indeed a beautiful oxymoron :-) I also like your idea as well and will do that. Part of this, if not most of it, is the dynamic between being something of a perfectionist by nature and wanting to make/play music - I just need to find away to let go of that and loosen up while I'm playing.

September 17, 2019, 7:14 PM · .....I'm so concentrated on the music that I don't realise just how tense I become....

The first step is to recognize the excessive tension, then release it to the minimum amount required. Without holding the instrument, isolate each part of the body that is prone to excessive tensions and deliberately make the muscles tense, then decrease this tension in a scale from 10 to zero, where zero is the most relaxed you can find.

After becoming familiar with this exercise practice it with the instrument using long bows and being aware of the slightest tension increase then releasing to the 'minimum amount' required. Move on to more complicated exercises, all the time 'being aware of excessive tensions and releasing them'. Keep the playing simple so to allow the focus on 'tension and release'.

Edited: September 20, 2019, 11:17 AM · 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 do appreciate the feedback, thank you!

September 20, 2019, 5:01 PM ·
…..This isn't a solution, but a step closer...….

Yes, a step closer each time you practice it, the solution doesn't happen over night. Which reminds me, practice imagining how it is to be relaxed, this is best done at night before you fall asleep. And of course, learn simple relaxation techniques.

September 20, 2019, 6:08 PM · 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.
September 20, 2019, 6:16 PM · 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.
First of all, ignore the usual advice to "take a deep breath and relax."
A deep breath is NOT relaxing; it is tension producing. The only thing that feels like "relaxation" is that when you finally exhale, you only get rid of the tension that you yourself created when you inhale deeply and hold the breath.

A relaxing breath is something we all do perhaps several times every day without paying the slightest attention to it.

Think about it this way. You look at your list of things to do, or you look at something or someone you're proud of, and you take an everyday, little, ordinary sigh. We do it all the time. You will notice that the exhale is relaxing. That's it.

So, try this little routine:
1. Loosen your stomach muscles.
2. Take that little sighing breath.
3. Notice the relaxation, no matter how small it seems.
4. Now decide what you're going to focus your full attention on doing next. Make sure it is actually "doable" today, right now.
5. Now do what you decided, no matter how brief, minor, or inconsequential it seems like.

This may help you get yourself in gear to do what you need to do.

I hope that helps.


September 24, 2019, 6:08 PM · 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.

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