From the November/December 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Judy Minot
Most of us don’t think much about our bodies when we’re playing until we experience discomfort or pain. When that happens, we tend to focus just on the part that hurts. Learning better overall body awareness can help ward off unnecessary tension and pain before they become problematic. It can also help you play more comfortably, more musically, and with more energy and focus. It can even help you play faster.
As a guitarist, I make use of many ideas I learned in martial arts training (I practiced and taught Kokikai Aikido for 22 years.) Whether I’m tossing a 190-pound attacker to the ground or standing in front of a mic and an audience, I’ve learned to stay physically relaxed, balanced, and centered. You can start to integrate body awareness in all of your playing. You’ll see the most improvement if you approach it consistently and with a bit of a plan. So, here’s the plan.
Find Your Best Posture
Before you start a playing or practice session, take a moment to assess your posture. Sit or stand with your guitar. Take a deep breath and lift your chest to take some of the C-curve from your upper back. Position your head over your shoulders and deliberately relax your upper arms, shoulders, neck, and lower back.
Next, visualize a spot in the middle of your body just below your navel. Make that your center of balance. Let go of any tightness in your hands, thighs, knees, and face. Close your eyes, take some more deep breaths, and as you do, really try to experience this feeling with your whole body.
Start every playing session with finding this best posture. As you get deep into practicing and playing, you’ll catch yourself slipping back into old habits of posture and tension. That’s to be expected. The fact that you noticed is actually a win!
At first you’ll need to stop playing to reset your posture and find a relaxed state. Over time it gets easier to check in as you play. Make a habit of being more aware of the sensations in your body while playing. What happens physically when you make a mistake or try something tricky? Does it make a difference when you open your chest, find your center, and relax more?
Because many of us have a habit of slouching, it can be tiring to sit upright at first. Our muscles just aren’t used to it. That’s OK. You don’t have to aim for perfect posture at all times. Just try to do a bit better than you did yesterday.
Note: If you sit to practice and you don’t play with a strap, seriously consider using a footrest. It will help you position the guitar so you don’t need to hunch, slouch, raise one heel, or cross your legs. This can quickly make a difference in your playing comfort.
Don’t Try Harder, Try Softer
As a small person practicing a martial art, I seldom out-mass any of my opponents. Relying on my muscle power is not a winning strategy to defeat an attacker. What does work though is trying softer instead of trying harder—using the minimum effort to get the maximum effect.
This isn’t easy. Our brains are wired to think that trying means using more muscle. When we’re playing and focusing intently, we naturally constrict muscles that really aren’t needed. We unnecessarily tighten our fingers, hands, arms, and shoulders, and even hold our breath. We need to actively rewire the conditioning that makes us associate effort with muscle tension.
If you feel you’ve been hammering away at a chord progression, riff, or fingering pattern and you’re not getting anywhere, pause, sit up, reset your posture, relax, and let your center of balance sink into your hips. Breathe deeply and let your mind be at ease.
Now try softer, using only as much effort as you need. Release every muscle that isn’t necessary to hold the guitar or pick, move the fingers, and bring the strings to the frets. Is it easier? Do you hear a difference?
Relax Your Face
In the martial arts, even the slightest facial tension can be deadly, alerting an attacker to when you’re about to move. Relaxing your face has practical application for musicians, too. A facial twitch or a frown is a sign of mental or physical tension—usually both.
Actively relaxing your face can help release tension elsewhere in the body. Since the body and mind are connected, doing this also subtly calms your mind. When you see your guitar heroes rip out amazing riffs wearing a beatific smile, it’s because they know this trick.
Learning to play with a relaxed face is easier than you might think. Start by playing something you know pretty well. As you play, be aware of how your jaw feels. When you let go of the tension in your face, does anything change in your playing? Is it easier to get the sounds you want? Use a mirror if it helps.
You may not hear or feel an immediate change. It may take a week or two, or even three, but gradually you’ll find your face is calm for more and more of your playing time. You’ll also become aware of those little winces as they happen. In smoothing them out, you’ll be doing the same with your playing.
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Research says that changing a habit can take two or three months. Building better body awareness is no exception. You’ll need to offer persistent attention, humility, and even a bit of humor. The rewards—playing with greater ease, comfort, and energy—will make the effort worthwhile.
Judy Minot is the author of Best Practice: Inspiration and Ideas for Traditional Musicians.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.