Headaches, Neck Tension and Guitar Playing

I’ve gone through a significant journey personally over the last two or three years in really examining why I was getting headaches, neck, shoulder and back pains – and boy, did I suffer with these things! I was doing a fateful combination of sitting and typing at a computer several hours a day, riding a bicycle, driving a car and of course practicing and playing my guitar for long periods and pretty intensely. All of that kind-of-hunched over, “forward” activity, along with what I would discover to be learned muscular habits, were all contributing to some extreme levels of tension in my back, shoulders, neck and head.

So began my journey of discovering what was going on with my body during playing (which then I could translate into other activities), getting a better understanding of my muscular habits, noticing them sooner and learning to let go of them (without judging them as “bad” or otherwise). Taking a series of Alexander Technique lessons really helped with that. ** As a consequence I’ve found that my approach to playing is a lot more relaxed generally, my sound has improved and the aches and pains have subsided.

What a pain in the neck
What a pain in the neck

That was until I was struck by a massive headache earlier this week! It totally knocked me out. And this was in spite of having had a 60 minute Thai massage the previous weekend. This is something that I like to get from time to time, around every 6 weeks or so, to help me keep ache-free, stretched and “un-knotty” (I highly recommend it for guitarists – someone not only to crack your back, but also to massage your upper and lower arms, hands and fingers. It’s delicious!)

Well, it had probably been about twice my usual length of time between massages. More importantly though I think I’d forgotten, or at least lost touch with to a degree, what is going on with my muscular habits during practice and then letting my semi-supine practice slip over the last few months (see one of my previous posts on Alexander Technique below for more info on semi-supine position). That and allowing myself to get too tired – sleep is a wonderful thing for productive practice and a healthy approach to guitar playing.

Possibly not the sole factor (there rarely is just one straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back), but certainly a key contributing factor when looking closely at what I’ve been up to is my tackling of a new piece (Granados’ La Maja de Goya) -which is not an easy piece by any stretch of the imagination – and undoubtedly putting expectations on myself for it to sound in such-and-such a way already (after only a couple of weeks of looking at the piece). Looking back there has certainly been tension in my upper body in making my initial forays into the piece (and probably holding myself back slightly because of it, I’ll admit!). I have to take my own advice in that these things take time and patience to learn!!

Anyway, after the blinding headache I knew I had to get back into my Alexander Technique (AT) semi-supine position. And lie down on the floor I did for a good 15-20 minutes, observing where I was  “holding on”, and all the twitches, flutters and quivers as I allowed my body to give up holding on to those things again. Pure bliss!

So, the past few days during my practice I have been acutely aware of how I’m sitting with the guitar, not sitting for too long and intensely concentrating on the brand new work in one position and reminding myself to let go. I’ve also been getting back into my favourite stretches (I told you I pay the price if I don’t do them) and of course, my semi-supine to practice “letting go” and enjoying the relaxing sensation.

Motto of the story to you, dear reader, is do you really know what your body is up to when you’re playing? As well, as listening to your sound try listening in to your body and the feedback it’s giving you whilst practicing and playing. Observe and really tune in (pardon the pun) to save yourself from a world of pain!


**If you’re new to the blog, or want to recap, check out some of these past posts:

Top Three Stretches for Guitarists

Stretches for Guitarists

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Guitarist

Giving Pain In The Neck The Cold Shoulder – Guitarist’s Shoulder

Alexander Technique – My First Lesson

Alexander Technique – My Progress So Far

Alexander The Great: My Continuing Journey with Alexander Technique

Alexander Technique and Guitar: Taking It To The Next Level


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