How Guitarists Can Play With Less Pain and More Balance Through Martial Arts Lessons

Excerpt from the November/December 2022 issue of Acoustic guitar | By Judy Minot

Most of us don’t think much about our bodies when we play until we feel some discomfort or pain. When this happens, we tend to focus only on the part that hurts. Learning better overall body awareness can help stave off unnecessary tension and pain before it becomes a problem. It can also help you play more comfortably, more musically, and with more energy and focus. It may even help you play faster.

As a guitar player, I use many ideas I learned in martial arts training (I practiced and taught Kokikai Aikido for 22 years.) Whether I’m throwing a 190-pound striker to the ground or standing in front of a microphone and an audience, I have learned to stay physically relaxed, balanced and centered. You can start integrating body awareness into all of your games. You’ll see the greatest 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 game 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 part of the C-curve of your upper back. Position your head on 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 it your center of balance. Let go of any tension in your hands, thighs, knees and face. Close your eyes, take a deeper breath, and as you do, really try to feel that feeling with your whole body.

Start each play session by finding that best posture. As you practice and play, you’ll find yourself falling back into old habits of posture and tension. This is to be expected. The fact that you noticed is actually a win!

At first, you will need to stop playing to reset your posture and return to a relaxed state. Over time, it becomes easier to check in while you play. Get into the habit of being more aware of how your body feels when you play. 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 are used to slouching, it can be tiring to sit up straight at first. Our muscles are simply not used to it. Its good. You don’t have to aim for perfect posture all the time. Just try to do a little better than yesterday.

Note: If you sit down to practice and don’t play with a strap, seriously consider using a footrest. This will help you position the guitar so that you don’t have to bend over, slouch, raise a 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 rarely outnumber my opponents in mass. Relying on my muscle power is not a winning strategy to defeat an attacker. What works is to try slower instead of harder, using the minimum effort to get the maximum effect.

It is not easy. Our brains are wired to think that trying means using more muscle. When we play and focus intensely, we naturally contract muscles that are really not needed. We unnecessarily clench our fingers, hands, arms and shoulders, and even hold our breath. We need to actively reconnect the conditioning that makes us associate exertion with muscle tension.

If you feel like you’ve hammered out a chord progression, riff, or fingering pattern and you’re getting nowhere, take a break, sit down, reset your posture, relax, and let your center of balance sink into your hips. Take a deep breath and let your mind be at ease.

Now try more gently, using only the effort you need. Relax any muscles that aren’t needed to hold the guitar or pick, move your fingers, and bring the strings to the frets. Is it easier? Do you hear a difference?

Relax your face

In martial arts, even the slightest facial tension can be deadly, alerting an attacker when you’re about to move. Relaxing Your Face also has a handy application for musicians. A facial twitch or frown is a sign of mental or physical tension, usually both.

Actively relaxing your face can help release tension elsewhere in the body. Since body and mind are connected, it also subtly calms your mind. When you see your guitar heroes tearing off breathtaking riffs with a blissful smile, it’s because they know this stuff.

Learning to play with a relaxed face is easier than you think. Start by playing something you know quite well. As you play, be aware of how your jaw feels. When you release the tension from your face, does anything change in your game? Is it easier to get the sounds you want? Use a mirror if that helps.

You may not hear or feel an immediate change. It may take a week or two or even three, but gradually you will find that your face is calm for more and more playing time. You will also become aware of those little grimaces as they grow. produce. Smoothing them out will do the same with your game.


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Research indicates that changing a habit can take two or three months. Building better body awareness is no exception. You will need to offer persistent attention, humility and even a little humor. The rewards – playing with more ease, comfort and energy – will make the effort worthwhile.

Judy Minot is the author of Best Practice: Inspiration and Ideas for Traditional Musicians.




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