Monday, May 30, 2016

Quit Trying to Relax: How to Work WITH Your Tension (Instead of Against It)

This post is dedicated to all students, teachers, and performers dealing with unwanted body tension!

I'd like to begin by sharing a little insight into my perspective on this topic.  As a music teacher, I feel clear and confident with many of the concepts I teach, and often see positive results that give me encouraging feedback about my methods. One area of teaching that has historically been frustrating for me, however, is teaching tense, tight students to release their tension and play with ease.  

Those students that have really "bought in" to my philosophy of flute playing (and been vulnerable enough to immerse themselves in the process of softening their faces, lowering their shoulders, releasing their lower backs, loosening their hands, etc.) have definitely enjoyed the benefits, BUT I have no problem admitting that a good portion of my students still struggle with the never ending battle between tense, illusion-of-control tightness and the seemingly ethereal, zen like relaxation lauded by me and countless other flute instructors.  

In my ongoing search to find real and practical hooks for my students (that don't involve a year of Yoga, Pilates, Alexander Technique, meditation, or massage before they receive any benefits), I am starting to figure out some of the main obstacles to releasing tension and (little by little) learning how to shed light on them in simple, easy language. 

So... without further adieu...

5 Reasons Why You Should Quit Trying to Relax

1 - Forcing yourself to relax causes forcing, not relaxing.

2 - Trying to relax causes trying, not relaxing. 

3 - When a tense, tight musician does anything resembling relaxing based on their current point of reference, it will always have some some kind of a tense, tight interpretation or substitution (i.e. they might release the tension in their hands but substitute it with tension in their neck). 

4. Even if a tense, tight flutist (or other instrumentalist) COULD totally relax, it would be physically impossible to play their instrument without any kind of tension.  Jello cannot play Prokofiev. 

5.  Focusing on relaxing for the sake of relaxing can often take a tense, tight flutist so far away from their frame of reference that they have trouble applying all of the GOOD musicianship skills they already have in the new context.

Before I share with you my thoughts on how to work WITH your tension (instead of against it), I'd like to clarify that, while I'm still exploring this topic as a teacher, I have been to hell and back (and lived to tell the tale!) with this topic as a performer.  

As you read the super quick version of my "musician physical tension story" below, keep in mind that today, I play with almost no pain and a feeling of ease and freedom of movement about 95% of the time!  (To see my comfort level with movement, click HERE for a recent performance of my husband and I playing the Martinu Flute Sonata live in recital).

Here is my musician physical tension story:

I played TENSE and TIGHT when I was younger, thinking that this gave me control over my instrument. 

In high school, I suffered various flute playing injuries (pain in hands, pain in upper back, tight jaw, and more). 

In college, I practice much more and caused more severe injuries (same painful areas plus lower back, neck pain, pins, needles, and shooting pains in lots of areas). 

Toward the end of my undergraduate degree, I developed severe carpal tunnel syndrome and had to wear braces on my wrists for 8 months (no flute playing, no driving, no turning on water faucets... no joke). 

Convinced that having surgery was not right for me, I bought a flute with a much lighter touch (I love my Miyazawa!) and COMPLETELY TRANSFORMED the way I played my flute.  I dug deep and, in the course of about a year, I synthesized the information gained from flute professors, Alexander Technique classes, and personal research with my own experimentation and exploration.  Motivated by an extreme desire to avoid any more pain and injury,


And, I did it by working WITH my tension instead of against it.

5 Tips For Working WITH Your Tension 

1. Practice in short bursts, with plenty of breaks, stopping frequently to reflect on tension levels in particular areas.  For example, if a "10" is holding on for dear life and a "1" is blissed out zen fingers, what have your fingers felt like for the past few minutes?

2.  Anytime you become aware of physical tension, trade judgment or worry for simple curiosity.  If your tension is a 7, is it possible to release just a little and feel more like a 6? After a couple of weeks of 6 being easy, could you sneak into a 5?

3.  Get curious about what areas of your body you WANT to be tense, firm, or engaged.  For example, flutists can benefit from their core muscles being extremely engaged, but can be held back back their hands demonstrating that same amount of engagement.  Keeping in mind that every flutist and musician will have slightly different lists, here are my YES/NO flute tension lists:

YES for moderate to extreme tension, firmness, or engagment:
Fast Airstream
Muscles toward the center of the embouchure
Core muscles (alternating with relaxed)
The feeling of lift in the ribs/chest
Sometimes thighs/butt

NO to tension, extreme firmness or over engagement
(in other words, YES to relaxing):
Face and Neck
Muscles toward the corners of the embouchure
Upper and lower back (when constricted)
Hands, arms, and shoulders
Feet (tension would be caused by imbalance)

4.  Instead of obsessing about an area of tension you want to get rid of, shift your focus to another area that NEEDS engagement.  For example, shift the focus from tight hands to a faster, more pressurized airstream. 

5.  The best tip of all... 

you've heard it countless times in your life... 

it's tempting to ignore it when someone gives you this advice... 

but it's really and truly the best and ONLY way you will be completely successful with a body tension release transformation... 

seriously, remember that I know what I'm talking about because I've been to hell and back with this topic... 

if I can help even one person to accomplish something meaningful by sharing this ESSENTIAL tip for tension release it will be worth it to me... 

in other words,  I hope you really, really...


believe my final tip about relieving yourself of unwanted tension as a musician...

before you read any further, PROMISE yourself you'll take this tip seriously... 

Here it is...

You must embrace the process.  

If you are a TENSE, TIGHT musician reading this post and sincerely wanting to transform your playing, somewhere along the way, you'll have to realize that the way you have THOUGHT about your tension has actually been the reason why you have been stuck with your tension. 

Analysis, overthinking, forcing, confusion, impatience, frustration, self-deprecation, insisting on instant gratification and beating up on yourself or complaining when you don't get it IS the very reason that you are having so much trouble relaxing!! 

I'd like to personally encourage you to do your research, take good notes in masterclasses, listen to every piece of awesome body mapping advice any music teacher has to offer you, and ultimately trust yourself to be able to synthesize the new information in your OWN way, patiently, kindly, and with baby steps. 

I'll wrap this post up now by wishing you the best of luck in your tension transformation project and simply saying... 

Happy Practicing!  (Seriously.... HAPPY Practicing!!)

Terri Sánchez

New Message posted on 10.27.18

If you've enjoyed posts from The Self-Inspired Flutist, head on over to my new creative project, Practice Junkie

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Terri Sánchez