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Why practicing with tension makes you worse.

June 7, 2011
Learn why controlling tension is so important when learning music, and why practicing with tension can make you worse.


Founder & CEO | Sage Music

It might not seem so at the moment, but understanding this material is going to make you a much faster learner, and a much better musician, because controlling tension is a very important part of playing music.

In this article, I will show you why. You’ll learn about the three types of neural tissue – sensory, motor, and connective –  what they do, and how tension keeps them from doing their jobs.

  • Sensory neurons are found in your skin, and nearly everywhere else in your body. They detect pain, pressure, temperature, and report back to your brain on the motor neurons work.  They also sense muscular tension and sense the positioning of your joints.
  • Motor neurons receive impulses from the brain or spinal cord and transmit those signals to muscle cells causing them to contract and produce movement.
  • Connective neurons comprise the brain and spinal cord and connect them to the motor and sensory neurons.

When you make a conscious movement, that movement originates in the brain and the signal travels down the spinal cord to a motor neuron which then causes a muscle to contract. Then, the sensory neurons receive information which travels back to the spinal cord and brain so that you know what happened, and how well it happened.

When you have muscular tension, it makes it physically difficult to move because the muscles are tight.  Worse, the sensory neurons can only sense the muscular tension and cannot report back to the brain on how your joints are positioned or how well you did the movement.

Imagine that we are having a conversation. You can hear me. There is sound coming out of my mouth and the sensory neurons in your ears “hear” the sound and send a signal back to your brain.  Now imagine that as I am talking to you, someone turns on the jet engine of an airplane. If am still talking at a normal volume, would you hear me? Of course not.

Even though I am still producing sound, that signal is masked by the jet engine and that engine is all you would hear. Muscular tension works in the same way. When your muscles are tight, they are like the jet engine. Those signals mask the more delicate signals that tell our brains the information we need to monitor our bodies and our joints and our movements. Imagine trying to play to guitar or piano without knowing how your hands feel.  That’s exactly what your brain experiences when you are tense!

Keep in mind that as you practice you should stay relaxed.  The more relaxed you are the more your sensory neurons will help you do your job and the better you will feel.  It has also been my experience that most musicians who are tense when they practice are tense because they do not understand the movements they are going to do before they practice them.

  1. Study the music you are going to play and understand the movements before you make them. This will help you stay relaxed and properly evaluate your movements, since much tension comes from having an uncertain idea about how to move.
  2. Stay relaxed so that you can move freely and  receive complete feedback about your movements so you can evaluate your practice accurately. Always be aware of your tension levels as you practice.
  3. Keep in mind that tension can become a habit just like anything else. Don’t practice tension into your playing, it will be deavastating.

I’ll get to another article on eliminating tension at a later date.

In the mean time, waste no time and get to practice!

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