Imagine an event when you felt as if everything was going well, as if you were “in the flow,” something you might call a peak moment. It can be anything at all, guitar-related or not. Maybe it is something in sports, or at work, or even a special time with people who are special to you. Concentrate on how that feels, and make a list of adjectives to describe that feeling.
Now, recall an event that might be described as being the opposite of that, when everything was just all wrong, no matter what you were doing. Again, it can be from any aspect of your experience, not just related to playing guitar. Again, concentrate on the feelings associated with that event, and make a list of adjectives to describe that feeling.
If you were to make a list of adjectives to describe how it feels when you play guitar, would it more closely resemble the “peak” list or the “valley” list? Is there a different set of adjectives for practicing and performing?
We tolerate a high level of confusion, anxiety, and even physical tension in our work. We do this under the assumption that something is hard, that we are just beginning, that we don’t play well enough, or that we don’t know enough. When we tolerate those things, we condition ourselves to make them part of our playing, even to the point where we associate some level of this “fog” with playing the guitar.
It is possible for any of us to feel “in the flow,” or comfortable or relaxed or open or (insert your adjective here). It is a natural, common human experience. What if we were to work in such a way that we put ourselves in a state of “open” (my adjective) before we even touch the guitar? Sit comfortably in your chair and concentrate on your peak event. Find that feeling, and concentrate on it. Only when you are really there, pick up your instrument. Can you hold on to that feeling? What if you place your hands on the instrument to play, or if you play a couple of open strings? What if you play a few chords or a scale? When does the tension start to creep in? Find the point at which the open starts to close, and work there. With a little awareness, you can find that you can draw that feeling into your practice and eventually into performance.
One of my students proofread this and had these words to add:
I remember being in seventh grade science class, and Mr. Lehman, the teacher and also the high school track coach, making a pitch to the students in the class to go out for track and field. Mr. Lehman went so far as to say that the skills you learned through participation in track and field could enhance your performance in any other sport. Another student immediately expressed his doubt and stated that he failed to see how track and field could help him with marksmanship. Coach Lehman quickly fired back that by getting in better physical shape, the student would lower his heart rate which in turn would improve his marksmanship.
I hadn’t thought of this scene since it happened almost 24 years ago. That is until recently practicing a particularly difficult passage one evening, I took a break and noticed how tired my lower jaw was. “That’s odd,” I thought, “Am I clenching my teeth?” I must have been because I’m sure feeling it now. I began the passage again and this time did so with the intent of keeping some space between my teeth. Through this one change, I played the passage more legato than I ever had before. “Wow!” I thought, “Could the tension in my face have that much of an effect on my playing?”
Then I had another thought, “Could the skills I learned in track and field enhance my performance on the guitar?” I was specifically remembering our “form running” sessions at the end of practice. One of the drills we did was called, simply enough, “loose jaw.” The idea was to keep your face relaxed while running thirty or so yards. If you did it right, you would have some space between your teeth, and your cheeks and lips would bounce up and down as you ran. I’m sure it seemed pretty silly to several of us at practice, but if you’ve ever seen world class sprinters coming down the home stretch, most, if not all, will have a relaxed face, space between their teeth, and their lips and cheeks will perfectly conduct the vibrations going through their body from each step they take.
Those sprinters know that any tension in the face will be transferred to their arms, and, in sprinting, as the arms go so go the legs. That is, any tension in the arms will inhibit the arm swing which, in turn, will lower the stride frequency and stride length. Speed is directly proportional to stride frequency and stride length. So, to come full circle, facial tension means less speed and less speed is bad for sprinters.
Facial tension will not only inhibit our “sprinting” on the guitar but are general “running,” to continue the analogy, on the instrument as well. Any tension in the face will be transferred to the arms, hands and fingers. Tension in those areas can only negatively impact our playing whether it be while playing a fast passage, playing legato or simply trying to play the right notes.
The next time you are practicing a passage over and over with no immediately obvious improvement stop. Take a moment to assess what else may be going on when you are playing. Then begin the passage with your attention not so much on the notes on the page but on your reaction to those notes whether it be physical, mental or emotional. If the reaction is negative, such as clenching the teeth, then try to remove it from the process as you practice the passage. More than likely, you’ll notice an immediate improvement in your playing of the passage and in your playing in general.