About muscular tension and movements

I was already aware that the focus on muscular relaxation is very important to my practice. My experience is that greater relaxation results in greater control. This is also confirmed by results from sports research[1]. Therefore, I knew that I was aware of not building up tension during my work on a difficult passage, for instance by pushing the tempo too early. For myself and my students, I am also focused on having “free” movements, that is, continuous rather than jerky movements. My experience is that they are more relaxed and use less energy.

But when I watched the videos, I was surprised to see that when I focused on muscular relaxation and freedom in my arm and shoulders, my musical expression also improved. I also observed the effect the other way around: When my musical expression was communicated better, I relaxed more in my arms and had freer movements and a better bodily posture.

It is necessary to have very detailed control of our movements at the beginning of the learning of a passage – we have to monitor that our fingers are in the right place at the right time. But this precision work often results in a fixation in the arm and shoulders.

Here’s a fun exercise: Try to aim consciously and slowly at your nose tip and feel the sensation of your arm. Then try to make the movement again, this time quickly. You probably hit the nose tip again, but this time the arm is much more relaxed.

The interesting thing about my above-mentioned experience is that less focus on precision of details leads to more free movements, which opens up for greater access to musical “targeting”. This shift in attention obviously means that my motor skills better convey my musical intention – or at least opens up for this to play a bigger role. There is apparently something that “clicked” cognitively. (See About action representation and motor cognition)

Being too tense in your muscles is unfortunately a problem that goes beyond the question of the rate of learning a piece. Constant tension can cause major problems in our muscles and joints, and tendonitis and other serious bodily problems are a real problem for many professional musicians.

The solutions are often based on medical knowledge about joints, muscles or nerves, but the question is whether there are also elements related to our cognitive work process? For example, if we do not experience a connection between our musical performance and the sounding acoustic result, the consequence may often be that we focus solely on our movement skills to gain more control over the process. But in addition to the fact that this often does not help to promote our feelings of wholeness, it can also lead to an inappropriate “willfulness” in our motor system that may have all kinds of harmful effects. Here, a solution could have been to train one’s competences in releasing control in an appropriate manner. (See About being in several places at the same time)

An anecdote: A few years ago, I taught a group of researchers and students at the Technical University of Denmark in piano. Virtually everyone was very competent in terms of analysis and musicality, but they were very tense in their motor skills and therefore typically also had a very limited and not so beautiful sound. One person surprised, however, by having a sound quality, which was almost at a professional level. I have no doubt that it was due to his approach to playing the piano, which was to improvise completely freely -without sheet music and without stylistic bindings. That means that from the outset he had opened up for the optimal cognitive unity between imagination of the music, the motor action and the aesthetic sensation of the result. And consequently, he had no tension in his muscles at all.

[1] R.A. Schmidt og C.A. Wrisberg: ”Motor learning and performance”. Human Kinetics (2008), 10

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