The Real Meaning Of Relaxed Guitar Playing
Supposedly, when certain people (these people obviously are those who are the best at playing guitar) play guitar, they experience a complete relaxation both physically and mentally. I was wondering if you experience this when you play? Additionally, I would like to know, if the answer is yes, how I can develop my playing so I experience this (that is, if the answer involves something that is not in your book)?
I think very likely there exists here in your question Ben, a very common misconception about this word that we hear all the time, and one that I use often as well: relaxation. I will make my best attempt to bring your understanding of this subject up to a higher level.
No, it is not true that good players experience a “complete relaxation” when they play, at least not in the sense that many people think of when they use the word “relaxation”. People tend to think of a very passive state, as we might think of in going to sleep, or being hypnotized. Often, this elusive state of “relaxation” is described as such a thing, which is very misleading to those trying to grasp it. It makes them wary of any sensation of “effort” in their playing, and this wariness makes them reject certain approaches and inner sensations that are quite appropriate, and would, if pursued, lead to further development of ability.
First of all, understand this: relaxation is not a state, it is not a condition that you experience. Relaxation is an activity, relaxation is something you do. The failure to perform the action of relaxation does result in a state or condition which we might call “discomfort” or chronic tension. The state that result from performing the action of relaxation may be called “poise” , balance, or “comfort in action”.
Relaxation is something we are either good at, or not so good at. Relaxation, like so many abilities, such as thinking, is something some people never do, and also, again, like thinking, it is something many people believe they are doing when they are NOT doing it.
Look at the word: re-lax. The prefix “re” means to “do again”, as in repeat and repetition. What are we supposed to be “doing again”? “Laxing”, that’s what. Lax means “loose”. The word “relax” is pre-supposing we were loose to begin with, and then, we made some kind of effort, which, when it comes to motor activities, means a contraction of muscle tissue, and then we “re-loosed”, or relaxed, and returned that muscle to it’s original condition of “laxness”, or looseness.
Well, the fact is, many people are NOT loose to begin with. Many people are chronically tense, playing guitar or not. Many people are chronically tense in all the muscles of the playing mechanism during playing, and for these people, there is no possibility of “re-laxing”, since there is no looseness to return to.
Now, you ask “how can I develop this ability if it is not covered in your book”? Well, everything about my book is designed to develop this ability. Everything in my book is designed to DEVELOP this state of looseness, and then train you to return to it after making an effort. (And also to train you to make the smallest effort possible!)
Look at it this way: a person who is chronically tense is like a person who has no “awareness” of their actual condition. They have no communication with their own body. They have no “wiring” between their mind and their body. That is why so often people think they are relaxed when they are not, they think they are loose when they are not. They don’t know what loose is, they have never felt it. Someone with their muscles obviously in knots, perhaps their shoulder up to their earlobe, will happily and sincerely report “Hey, I’m relaxed”! In reality, they are not feeling anything, and they assume this state of numbness is “being relaxed”. They might as well be under general anesthesia!
The way this wiring is created is through the power of the mind, through attention to the body while practicing. Real attention, not “thinking about” the body, but BEING the body, “thinking AS the body”. The second principle of correct practice states “practicing is the infusion of conscious awareness into the body through the mechanism of attention”. Everything about my book shows you how to do this, IF you actually DO what I tell you.
It is important to understand that this “looseness” of the body, and this awareness of the body is a natural thing; every child has it. However, it can be degraded, and it can be lost. Just as it can be developed through attention to the body, it is lost through in-attention to the body, and this in-attention to the body is what most people learn as children, and begin to practice with great fervor. It happens because attention begins to go elsewhere then to our “beingness” in our bodies. It goes into our “beingness” in our minds. As the years go by, we identify not with our bodies, but with the mental and emotional operations going on between our ears, that we call “ourselves”. And a lot of these mental and emotional operations are pretty screwed up! A lot of them are full of tension, negativity and conflict, and the quality of all this energy manifests in the physical body, and that is why there are so many up-tight, constricted people walking around.
So, when someone picks up a guitar and asks their body to start learning and doing all these new things, all of this history comes into play. Of course, we are all going to find ourselves somewhere along the spectrum here, and we will each have our own particulars to deal with, but I have laid out in general what we all go through, and what we all must deal with.
Get In Touch With Your Inner Animal
This division between mind and body which lies at the root of people’s inability to be “lax” and then to perform the action of “re-laxation”, is not present in animals. Animals are not holed up in their tense little minds, worrying about the mess their lives are in, and the mess the world is in, and having this tension reflected in their bodies. Animals exist in the moment, in direct contact with their own world, their own reality. They act when they need to act, and they don’t sit around and worry about the next time they might need to act. They live “as” their bodies, and so they have a natural grace and poise, a natural physical appropriateness to every circumstance. They would not have to “discover their discomfort” because they wouldn’t lose it in the first place. (I’m not saying an animal cannot become as screwed up as a human, given enough contact with “human society”). This is why so many martial art forms, such as tai chi, have drawn inspiration from observing the form and movement of animals.
Part of the price of developing the vast powers of the human mind has been the loss of this natural state of connection to our physical selves. But I believe we must regain it for ourselves, and certainly we must if we want to play the guitar well! At one point in my life, I realized I needed to strengthen my awareness of myself as an animal, so I put up signs around the house like “you are an animal”, and “get in touch with your inner animal”, (while everyone else was trying to get in touch with their inner child!).
You must be in touch with your animal nature when you practice and play. You can begin to develop this in all areas of your life. How many people pay attention to how they sit, stand, walk, and breath throughout all the moments of the day. How many people are communing with these aspects of their physical reality as the moments stream by? Ask yourself these questions about yourself. Ask yourself where your attention and energy really are all the time. What are you really thinking about all day, what are you really feeling? What are you really doing with, or to, your body. Start to develop in these areas and see what happens to your guitar playing.
Let me sum up by repeating that relaxation is not a state you will come to, it is an ability you will develop. It goes hand in hand with effort and exertion, it is not the cessation of effort and exertion. It is made possible by heightened awareness and sensitivity to your entire self, including your physical self, and its connection to your mental and emotional selves.
There is a state you will come to, however, when you develop the ability to be “lax”, and then to “re-lax” after effort, and that state is called “poise”, which is the maintenance of balance in the midst of action. When you talk about this “something” that all the good players have, that something is poise. And we would all do well to study the poise of the great players. Watch them, “feel” them as you watch, imagine it is you. You will subliminally take on these qualities as you do so. And you will become increasingly aware of, and uncomfortable with, your own lack of poise as you continue this process.
Athletes and martial artists also talk about the necessity of "relaxation" during performance, yet, they are using great muscular effort. Think about that. What they are really trying to describe is this wonderful state of poise that results when the body is trained to use exactly the right amount of effort, at the right time, and in the right way, and then immediately releasing that effort and moving into the next required action. In a technical sense, playing the guitar is the application of force to the elastic medium of the strings. Poise is the state that results when those forces are perfectly balanced.
Everything in "The Principles" promotes this state of functioining in the developing gutiarist. Hopefully, you will now have an expanded understanding of the subject of relaxation to assist you in getting the most from you practice.