Listen (to Your Body): Avoiding Pain and Stress When Practicing


when Playing IS a Pain

You are likely familiar with the saying "no pain, no gain", especially as it applies to getting physically stronger. But such an ignorant approach to playing the guitar will likely lead to injury.

As they should, many teachers stress listening to their students. Listening develops an awareness of your playing and performing in ensembles. To not listen to what is going on around you is to be out of touch. The same holds true for listening to your body when you are playing.

If you are playing and part of your body begins to experience pain, listen to it. Pain alerts you that something is not working as it should. Sometimes this means you need to take a break; other times, your body may be telling you that your posture and/or technique needs adjusting. 

With beginner students, the only discomfort, if any, should be soreness on the fingertips. Even sore fingertips should last a couple of weeks at most if the student is playing the guitar several times a week. If sore fingertips persist beyond this point, the string height may need to be adjusted on the guitar.

Proper Posture and Technique

If you play in a supported position that is natural, you will play with much greater ease. Here are some general guidelines to ensure proper posture:

  • Keep your back/spine straight

  • Relaxed neck, shoulders, arms, and hands

  • Relaxed breathing 

You might feel these guidelines are obvious, but they are the most often ignored by players. Many times a player is so focused on a part of the piece or an element of the performance that one or more of these guidelines are overlooked. 

Programming Relaxation and Unprogramming Stress

Even if you have proper posture, stress can wreak havoc on your ability to perform. Your muscles, tendons, et al. need to be relaxed in order to work with easy. Unfortunately, many players program in stress by constantly reinforcing it.

Have you ever made a mistake while you practicing and felt a pang of tension? And when you decided to practice the part again, you made the same mistake, but this time the tension was more pronounced? So by now you are ticked and are going to really show those notes who the boss is, etc...

If this sounds familiar, you are reinforcing stress into your playing. But do not worry: you can unprogram it. Anytime you begin to feel stress or anxiety, check your breathing. Why? Because this is most often the first thing to go. Once your breathing is no longer relaxed, the rest of your body begins to tense up.

One of the most counter-productive things you can do is practicing under tension. If you are frustrated, put the guitar down and take a break. Return to it only when you are relaxed. Depending on how ingrained the habit, this might take 10-15 minutes or an entire day.

Naturalness and Ease in Playing

If there is one common element shared between virtually all of the master musicians it is how effortless they play. Even the most technically demanding pieces sometimes look like a casual stroll through a park for many of them.

Watch videos of some virtuosos. Do any of them look stressed? Are they struggling? Do their techniques look or sound forced? 

In order to achieve such ease, the player has to experience the ease of it. Developing the habit of practicing with proper, supported posture in a relaxed state will work wonders for you. Not only will your body thank you, your performances will improve, too.

Where are some of the areas you experience most tension when playing the guitar?

Dr. Seth Greenberg