Q&A On Pain In Playing
Left Hand Finger Pain
My problem is left-hand finger pain. How can I know if I’m pushing my hand too much? To what degree can finger pain be disregarded? I practice at night and usually the next morning the pain is gone but within minutes after starting practice the pain returns. This pain doesn’t seem to interfere with my practice but I worry that I might be doing damage yet I don’t want to take any days off.
Well, I am very glad to see you have ordered my book. It is what you need. Pain is always bad, always a sign of practicing with too much tension. As you will begin to see as you read my book and do the exercises, the awareness of tension must become very subtle. You are ignoring the tension, and working anyway, and so the tension turns into pain. Back off for now when you feel pain.
Until my book arrives, read my essays “Discover Your Discomfort”, and “The Secret of Speed”, and begin doing those exercises, which are derived from my book.
Good Luck, (things will improve)
Eliminating pain from practicing has a lot to do with knowing how to relax during playing and practice. Many students do not realize how much focus in requires to do this!
Can’t Relax My Shoulder!
I bought The Principles a few weeks ago. After reading through it and then playing slowly, I found all the problems involving tension that you write about, especially shoulder tension, in my playing. Thank you for bringing this problem to my attention. As they say “knowing that there’s a problem is the first step to the solution.” However, no matter how much I try to relax, I can’t seem to get rid of the tension. Any suggestions?
Eli, I hear this all the time. You have not yet generated the intensity of awareness necessary to be there, in your body, BEFORE the natural tendency of the body to tense AND muscle memory from past tension TAKE OVER and run the show. When you do REAL No Tempo practice, when you really use POSING, you will not say “no matter how MUCH I try to relax”. It is not a matter of MUCH, as if you should do MORE of what you are doing. You are not actually doing the right thing!
I know it’s frustrating, because, by definition, what we are talking about is a BLIND SPOT for you. I guarantee you, if you were sitting in front of me, I would point out the tension AS it is beginning, and I would focus your attention to the point BEFORE it occurs. This is what I call “deepening the bottom of your practice”. Your practice is not deep enough yet. Realize this, and work to deepen it.
Here is a little device to try, which I use myself when I am having trouble locating tension that I know is present, because it is manifesting as a “playing problem”. Play up to the very note that is the “stress point”, and STOP! Stop right there, in position, and examine your entire body. And then, RELAX in that position. In this way, you teach your body HOW IT FEELS to be relaxed in that position, even though your body does not think it is possible.
Then, through no tempo and slow tempo practice (following the Basic Practice Approach), re-create and build those relaxed sensations into the movement process required by the music.
Try this, and good luck.
Right Wrist Tension
I like your approach to guitar playing. I used to read your newsletter quite quickly. But now I really read it carefully. Just because I realize how important it is.I am actually dealing with tension in my right wrist and this is really worrying me. Because if I have, what we call in French, a “tendinite”, I won’t be able to practice anymore. I think in English it is called an inflammation or something.
Could you post an article on how to handle with the tensions on the right wrist because I don’t want other guitarists to have to deal with this problem.
Pierre, a French reader (keep on sending)
Thanks for your words. I am glad you consider the fundamental issues I write about as fundamentally important! As far as your question, the answer is this: EVERYTHING I write concerning technique is ultimately dealing with the dynamics that lead to your painful condition.
There is no one quick little fix-it for not creating physical damage to the playing mechanism. As I am always saying, as I say to my students, especially the long time players with physical damage YOU ARE PLAYING WITH SUBTEL LEVELS OF TENSION THAT YOU ARE NOT AWARE OF. I MAKE my students aware of it when they sit in front of me, I make them feel physically what they have trained themselves to ignore and think is “normal”. Then they must take that awareness home with them, and use it to build a new structure of technique.
You, Pierre, are playing with some subtle (or not so subtle) level of tension present in your muscles, and asking your muscles, tendons and so forth to perform strenuous and highly coordinated actions WHILE in that state of stress. I guarantee you that it is not just your wrist that is tense, because that is impossible. All the muscles that go through your wrist are located throughout your forearm. Your entire forearm is tense, and if your forearm is tense while you are playing, you can bet your entire arm is, and then your shoulder, etc.!
Unless you can deepen your awareness of this situation, and then minimize and eliminate it, you will not see a change. I wish there was a quick easy answer, instead of this long, difficult answer, but, unfortunately, there is not. There is no one simple, isolated thing that got you into this situation, and there is no one simple isolated thing that will get you out of it. EVERYTHING you are doing on the guitar caused this, and EVERYTHING must change, from how you touch a string to what you think about when you play. However, once you begin on the proper re-constructive path, and start to see the results and improved playing ability it brings, it is very exciting and encouraging. The essay on “Changing Bad Habits”, will help.
As far as long-distance advice, that’s the best I can tell you, Pierre. Study my work, and use it. That is why I created it.
Cramping On Bar Chords
I’ve played for 28 years and am basically self taught. While I work full time and have two small children, I don’t have much time to practice. Here is my problem. At Christmas and Easter our Church has very elaborate programs which we perform 9 to 10 times. I am usually playing for a full hour during these times, and often day after day for 3-4 days straight. During the rehearsals and performances my left hand cramps so bad I often have to stop playing.
The cramping is from barre chords, and occurs just behind the web between my thumb and first finger. Am I out of shape or playing incorrectly? Usually the cramping goes away about the time we end the performances, but last Christmas, I continued to have the cramps. What am I doing wrong?
Thanks in advance for your time,
It could be a few things, and perhaps a combination of these things. Here is what I would look at. First, make sure you warm up gradually. Do about 15 minutes of slow scales, or other mild workouts for the left hand. I have often experienced having to play something that demanded a lot of strength, meaning lots of bar chords or a song in a nasty key like Bb, and not being warmed up. Let me tell you, it can be “my hand is falling off” time! Especially when I was playing a 12 string!So, make sure you warm up.
If that doesn’t improve the situation, then look to your technique. MOST people press way too hard on everything, especially bars. Make sure you read my essay on bars, on Making Bar Chords Easy.
The last thing to look at is the guitar. Make sure the action (lowness of strings, and also the tension, which determines how much force is needed to press them down) is not unreasonable. You could try lower tension strings, moving from perhaps light to extra light.
My guess, Doug, would be that it is mainly the second reason, pressing too hard. If so, your entire technique, from holding the instrument, to hand and arm position, to exact finger placement, would need to be examined. And remember: RELAX THOSE SHOULDERS!
This letter illustrates very nicely how little guitar students understand about the level of concentration, coupled with extremely slow practice that is necessary to eliminate tension and train the muscles for effortless playing. For users of the Principles, this means using No Tempo Practice and Posing, both special forms of practice that use such extreme focus.
Tension: My Wrist Keps Wanting to Rest on the Guitar
Tension? woo wee, you know it! I am pondering the right hand here. My wrist keeps wanting to rest on the guitar body as an anchor. Is this wrong ?
That is an interesting phrase, “my wrist keeps wanting to rest on the guitar body as an anchor”. And I’m sure you are quite right, I’m sure your wrist is acting as an independent agent, with a mind of it’s own. And at various times during playing, your “wrist will insist” on anchoring itself. I am also sure that this happens when the technical demands of speed arise in the music.
This is why I say that in the beginning of developing skill as a player, you should expect your body to always tend to do the WRONG thing. You see, the various body parts involved in playing the guitar, the wrist, fingers, etc., are quite STUPID in the beginning. They WILL try to run the show, if you let them. They will try to solve your technical problems (how do I get to be able to do THIS) with their tiny little pea brains, but, before being made intelligent through proper instruction and correct practice, they will almost always come up with the wrong answer! It is your job to train them to be INTELLIGENT, so that they will either already KNOW the right answer, or have a better intuition about how to find that answer.
The various parts of the body will always try to do what seems best at the moment, and this usually means they will try to do what is best for them. To your wrist, it seems like a perfectly good idea to anchor itself on the guitar. Your wrist doesn’t know that by doing this it will be severely limiting the mobility of your pick, or fingers, especially as they try to span the range of all six strings, as in playing a scale from the 6th string to the 1st.
Of course, your wrist is doing this because it is reacting to all the TENSION that is building up throughout all the many muscles located in your forearm, upper arm, and even the muscles of your chest and back, all of which are connected to your upper arm bone (humerus).
So you see, given the fact that the whole limb is tied up with tension, your wrist could make a pretty good case for the wisdom of anchoring, or “locking” itself down onto the face of the guitar. At least that way, you will probably still be able to squeeze a little mobility out of your hand, and force a couple of notes out of the guitar. If you were only going to play the guitar at a relatively primitive level, this whole setup might work for you! However, if you made an attempt to create Vertical Growth in your playing ability, you would find that this whole setup, this whole foundation of your technique, simply would not support a more sophisticated technical demand.
Of course, I would recommend not being satisfied with your present technique. I would recommend learning how to practice in a way where the will of your wrist, or any other body part, is not running the show. Rather, the “little brain” of your wrist is put under the command of the “big brain” in your head. Of course, the “big brain” in your head has to fulfill the two conditions of practice: it must know the right thing to do (in whatever playing circumstance you are in), and it must make sure that the correct thing is actually being done as you practice.
Once this becomes your experience, you will find that you no longer say things like “my wrist keeps wanting to do” this or that. You will instead say, “my wrist wants to rest on the guitar, but I am in the process of training it to stay relaxed, even when I play fast”. You see, the “keeps” part of your statement will disappear.
This is what knowing how to practice is all about. It is all about having the POWER to create a change in your playing. Power means “the ability to create change”. When you have this power, it won’t matter so much what your wrist, or fingers, or big toe, tend to do, because you will be able to CHANGE that tendency to what you WANT to happen.
Good luck, I have to go now, my right hand wants to grab my guitar!
This letter is one of hundreds we have gotten over the years, telling us how their pains disappeared after their "system", their entire framework of their technique was transformed by using "The Principles Of Correct Practice For Guitar".
Until I read your book, I could only play for a few minutes before I got hand cramps. “"
I have been playing for 6 months now. I do not have a teacher like you, although my teacher is a very accomplished player. He is very useful for showing me the notes to play for songs I enjoy. But I would attribute my success to using your method.
Until I read your book, I could only play for a few minutes before I got hand cramps.Now, I can’t wait to practice every day. Often on the weekends I will practice for 3, 4, or 5 hours with only a few breaks. Yet I have no discomfort. Without your teaching regarding eliminating stress I don’t think that would be possible.
I am really enjoying this journey of musical discovery!