Voyager Recordings & Publications

By Philip L. Williams

I play a lot of guitar and mandolin. Many years ago, before I learned better, I would get real tense, especially under the pressure of playing a fast mandolin break on a show or keeping up with a real fast fiddle tune on the guitar. This caused me some serious problems in the form of tendinitis. I simply had to learn to play without tension to avoid more injury. As I learned more about how my muscles worked when playing, and how to relax them, my risk of further injury went down, and my ability to play fast and accurately went up. It took time, patience, practice, and constant awareness of tension and motion, but it was worth it. I now can play with no tension at all, and so can you by taking the time to learn to play as relaxed as you can..

As soon as you feel any muscle tension, back off and see if you still can get the sound you want. There are times in picking and holding down strings to make chords or notes when you have to use pressure, and hence muscle tension, to get the job done. There are many times when you do not need a lot of muscle power. Tense the muscles only when you need to. Relax them when you do not need the tension. This is a skill that has to be learned. It does not come naturally. In the heat of a jam session or performance it is normal to ignore what your body is doing as you are concentrating hard on getting the notes. This very concentration produces tension and tensed up muscles, which detracts from your ability to play your best. I noted during my earlier years of performing on mandolin that every time it was my turn to take a fast break in a performance, my wrist muscles would get so tense that by the end of the break I could hardly play the notes. After learning how to play completely relaxed, these same breaks could be played much better with no effort at all, and no stiff wrist. Here are some exercises that will help you play with minimum muscle tension:

I also find it helpful to practice relaxation techniques before and during a performance. Get a book on relaxation and stress reduction methods and/or take a course from a therapist. A few simple relaxation techniques, such as taking a couple deep breaths and relaxing before taking that break can go a long way in making playing more enjoyable for you and your audience.

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