I have been working on eliminating tension from my body when I practice, but I am getting a bad cramp in my left hand, on the palm side, in the pad below my thumb. I have been practicing “Caprice in D minor” by Carcassi and for some reason I get this cramp especially bad playing this song. Why am I getting a cramp and what can I do to prevent it?
I will guarantee you that there is no one single answer to your question, Chris. If you were sitting in front of me, doubtless I would point to about 10 different reasons why you are experiencing the pain. I would probably start off by pointing out how your left hand and individual fingers were simply not being used in the most effective manner as they play on the strings, causing you to use excessive effort during playing, so that you were pressing the strings with too much force.
I would probably point out many areas where the you are positioning your fingers as you play in a way that is causing strain and excess tension throughout your whole body. I would point out how this tension was going into your shoulders, and what that was doing to your right hand position, and ability to use the right hand fingers. Then, I would point out what was wrong in the individual movement of each finger.
Or, I may take it all in a different order, you never know. It depends on the particulars of each unique case. But there is a much greater point I am trying to make here, for your benefit and also the benefit of all my readers.
As often happens, your question itself shows a lack of a certain understanding concerning playing the guitar (no fault of yours, Chris, it is one of the things a student needs to be shown). Scientifically minded people use a certain word when they are trying to express the fact that something is not working correctly because the whole mechanism is flawed at its core. They will say “the problem is systemic”. This means that the problem cannot be solved by merely looking at the single thing that happened to go wrong. The problem can only be solved by looking at the whole “system” that is operating at the present time.
You might hear this, for instance, when people are trying to figure out what is wrong with their company, or a government agency, or something like the educational system. They might ask, “why can’t Johnny read”. Well, we can’t figure it out just by looking at Johnny, we have to look at the whole “system” in which Johnny is placed, and of which Johnny is an “effect”.
In your case, the question is “why can’t Johnny play without pain”, and your fingers are “Johnny”. But the answer is not in the fingers, the answer is in the whole “system”. In this case the system is comprised of these things: your whole physical body, your mind and what it is doing when you practice and play, your emotions when you practice and play, and your entire understanding of what it is to play or practice the guitar, which is generating the actions of body and mind taking place in each day of practice.
ALL of those things are really what I would look at to solve your problem, and as you can see, there is no way I can look at all those things from just your letter!
No Single Answer
I hope, Chris, that this will prompt you and other players to realize that there most often is no one single magic answer to the various problems that will arise in your playing. The “answer” is a complete overhaul of the entire “playing system”. This is why I often tell people who tell me they are dead serious about becoming professional guitarists to read everything on my site.
Everything there is the “real deal” in terms of the path of developing real mastery, real ability on the instrument. Most instructional material out there (most, not all) is trying to give you the quick fix. The reason they are doing that is because the primary motivation of most publishing companies is NOT to teach you to play, it is to make money. If you learn to play, that is probably at best considered a pleasant byproduct.
This being the case, they know what any smart marketer knows, sell to the biggest market there is, in order to make the most money. And in any market, the biggest segment is what I call “the stupid and lazy market”. This is the market that all “get rich quick” schemes are sold to. This is the market that made P.T. Barnum say “there’s a sucker born every minute”. Truer words were never spoken.
So, understand that if you want to play that Carcassi Caprice really well, and continue to develop unhampered by technical obstacles, it will take your fullest effort. Understand that it doesn’t happen completely overnight, but it can begin immediately, which should be your area of focus. To that end, I will tell you that the best way to get the full understanding of what learning and playing the guitar is really about is to study “The Principles Of Correct Practice For Guitar”.
“The Principles” will fix your playing system, from the bottom (which begins with sitting and holding the guitar correctly, in a way that is not already inherently out of balance), to touching the strings and applying force to them correctly (which is far different than what the usual guitar student is doing). The series of left hand exercises, which are far different than anything you will find anywhere else, will give your left hand the training it needs to play easily on the neck, without strain or pain.
Only when these essentials are in place, can you or anyone hope to begin the process of learning guitar with no pain, and no systemic playing problems. In fact, it will give you the necessary foundation to play the guitar well, get the most from every practice session, and keep getting better and better on guitar!