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 Post subject: Right Hand Relaxation
PostPosted: Fri May 15, 2015 6:29 am 

Joined: Fri Sep 16, 2005 12:26 pm
Posts: 899
One of a the biggest impediments to good technique is the inability to relax the hands and let them do their work. Most students I work with play with what I'd call a chronic level of tension. By that I mean they play with more tension than necessary, all the time. Of course proper hand positioning and accurate movement forms can minimize chronic tension. In fact a player who has developed bad habits will need to play with more tension owing to the relative inability to play with the principles that make technique more effortless. That said, even a player with poor positioning or bad technique can gain more ability (and possibly even develop a better understanding of the principles of positioning and movement) by learning to relax.

The benefits of reducing tension is greater efficiency and accuracy. I personally feel cheated that while my hands were set up for efficient playing I too played - for years - with chronic tension and didn't realize I was. As I overcame chronic tension I began to relish the ease in which I could play. The more I learned to relax the better I played.

I remember one performance in particular. I had been working on this concept for a few months and during the performance my hand felt uncomfortable. I could tell my range of motion was small and my hand was tense. As I came up to a difficult passage I started to increase the tension when I wondered what would happen if I simply moved my fingers in a slightly bigger motion and relaxed my hand. Wow, the passage went like a hot knife through butter. I tried it again. And again. The more I relaxed the easier it was to play. And without mistakes. A few observers mentioned that my performance was more musical than ever. I felt like I had found the fountain of youth.

But you know what they say; the first step in solving a problem is understanding that you have one and the problem for most of us is that we don't think that we're tense because chronic tension feels normal. The inherent tension we embraced as we learned to play the guitar no longer serves us, but like a bad guest it still hangs around. It's perfectly natural, when learning a new skill, that there is more tension required at the beginning. Remember the first time you tried to ride a bike? Maintaining balance meant developing muscle coordination which meant compensating and adjusting your body for balance - which created tension. But, as you developed coordination it became easier and eventually it became like, well, riding a bike. Can you imagine riding a bike now while employing all that unnecessary tension, handle bars moving erratically, your core muscles firing randomly? Pretty pointless.

The good news is that correcting chronic tension (that tension which is unnecessary for the task) is not that difficult. In fact, after a few weeks (a total of 6) you'll become aware of chronic tension and simply choose to relax as a natural function of moving. And you'll begin to gain all the benefits; an ease in playing with fewer mistakes.

So let's start by grading tension between 1-10. A tension level of 10 makes it all but impossible to execute the simplest of tasks. Similarly a tension level of 1 is so relaxed that it too makes playing accurately nearly impossible.

Weeks 1-2
Pick an exercise where the demand is not only low but consistently low throughout. For my students this would be your Sympathetic Motion Exercises (arpeggio days) and Alternation Bursts (scale days). If your not familiar with those then simply play an open string arpeggio.

For 3-5 minutes play your exercise while increasing the tension level to 10, then lower it to 1 and then to a tension level of 2-3, the optimal range. 10, 1, 2-3, do that 3-4 times and then try to settle on 2-3 for a minute or so, maintaining that level. For the remaining minutes spike and drop your tension levels again. Good, you're done for the day!

As you continue on with your day's practice you'll soon become aware of this chronic tension. Simply observe the tension and if your inclined find that 2-3 range. But most importantly, simply observe. That's your job, to mostly observe.

Weeks 3-4
Let's increase the time that we cycle through those tension levels to 5-10 minutes over an exercise with a slight increase in demand. For my students that would mean Tremolo or Compound Motion on arpeggio days and scales or complex alternation in scale days. See you in two weeks.

Weeks 5-6
By now a relaxed hand is becoming easier and easier to maintain in exercises where the demand is consistently low. But what about those gnarly passages in some of your repertoire, don't they take more effort and more tension to play? Yes, so it's time to learn to ride the relaxation wave.

Trying to maintain tension levels of 2-3 start playing a piece where the demand is more erratic, as it is in most pieces. As the demand rises crank that tension level to the required amount, say 5-6. When the demand decreases immediately drop the tension level back to 2-3. Like a boat on the sea your tension level rises and lowers to meet the demand. (If playing harder passages requires above 5-6 consider playing an easier piece).

You should now feel like you can quickly identify and remedy a chronically tense right hand.

Oh, and for this final two week cycle maintain the exercises described in weeks 3-4. After this six week period you'll want to occasionally, say once every quarter, repeat one of the cycles from above but for shorter periods of time. In your technique work that would mean 1 minute per day OR one piece from your repertoire. That's the benefit of a learned skill; it only needs brief work to be maintained.

A couple of ideas on how to achieve relaxation. First, check your range of motion. Most players don't move their fingers far enough. I have students watch their fingers in relation to the P, (thumb.) before the finger strikes the string it should line up with the tip of the thumb. I call this the extended position. Then play the string bringing the finger to the flexed position where the finger lines up with the first knuckle of the thumb. To move less actually creates tension.

Go slowly as you do the above exercises AND repertoire. About 60 beats per note. I'm serious. (At first keep the metronome light on, no sound, just to monitor your tempo.) This will help to lower the demand - making your job of monitoring the tension levels much easier. While you'll likely resist and curse the idea it really is critical in learning this skill. You'll thank me, eventually.
Okay, feel free to add ideas and observations.

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