“Just let go.”
Has anyone ever said this to you, as if you’ll dramatically be able to lay down all of your burdens, release your entire body’s held tension, and immediately transform like a relaxed-butterfly from a tension-cocoon?
Same. “Letting go” of tension or anxiety is not that easy. It’s actually physically impossible (How would you read this right now if your heart wasn’t tensing regularly to keep blood pumping in your body?) AND it’s not really necessary, either. Tension gets a bad rap, but it often works in our favor, not always to our detriment. For example, can you imagine a movie that had no tense scenes? Without tension in music and movies and our hearts, life would be lame.
HOWEVER, too much tension is not cool. To use the same example - What if every single scene of a movie had some intense, anxiety-inducing drama? Nah. That’s the reason I don’t like action movies, y’all. I’m already anxious enough as it is. To create something truly interesting, a balance between tension and release must be created. Maybe the movie should only have two car chases, not twenty five.
The same rule applies to our bodies. Releasing all tension from the body while playing your instrument may leave you feeling too loosey-goosey, out of control, and disconnected. For some people, trying to release tension makes them even more tense with effort (I see you, type-A perfectionists). Conversely, tensing every muscle in your body makes you completely immobile. Where is the middle ground?
Listen, here’s where you start: Notice. Love your tension like you love your friends - without judging it and without trying to change it. Notice where it exists without labeling it as good or bad, or without judging yourself for having it. Before you begin practicing, take thirty seconds to scan your body for pre-existing tension. If you feel like you can move it out with a little stretching, shaking, or a Practice Room Yoga video, do it. If it isn’t bothering you, leave it alone. As your practice session develops, notice how that tension shifts. You can do this in a few ways:
Set a timer on your phone for a random amount of time. When the timer goes off, freeze exactly as you are and take note of the places in your body that feel rigid.
Video yourself playing a short section. Watch for rigidity in the shoulders, rounding in the back, tension in the feet, flailing fingers, etc. Take notes as you watch, and watch as many times as you need.
Practice in different positions and notice how they feel different. Here are some of my faves: Laying down, squatting so that tension shifts to my legs, in boat pose so that tension shifts to my abdominal muscles, laying on a piano bench with my shoulders hanging off of the side so that my head is upside down, standing on one leg.
Noticing is the first step. Once you are aware of the places that you’re holding tension, it’s important to recognize what is necessary and what is unnecessary tension. Necessary tension is the muscle engagement needed to play your instrument, like tensing your abdominal muscles to maintain breath support during a long passage. Unnecessary tension is tension held in places that will not benefit your music making, like lifting your big toe during a technical passage. Imagine that your body has a limited supply of energy for each practice session. It isn’t worth it to expend that precious energy on squinting your eyes during a technical passage when you could be using it to move your fingers more quickly.
This process of noticing without judgment takes time, friends, but after some practice, you may be able to expand your awareness and find more ease in the practice room. I invite you to take time to experiment without any expectations. Let me know how it goes!
P.S. A few years ago, Dr. Terri Sanchez wrote a wonderful article on this very topic. It is linked here. Dr. Sanchez provides five reasons that trying to relax can detract from your practicing, and five tips to help you find your happy medium. It is so worth a read!