Getting Back into Playing After a Break – My Recent Approach

 

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Well, I’m writing this post a little later in the year than I had perhaps first anticipated, first planning it back in July, and mentioning in my “She’s Back!” post that I’d like to talk about my approach to getting back into playing after a break.

However, the couple of additional months (OK, more than a couple – a couple of couple) has meant that I’ve also been able to reflect on my approach more and provide more information here about the sustainability of the approach and benefits to my practice and playing.

So as I mentioned back in July, I had a complete break away from the guitar for about 6 weeks (which I found to be really beneficial overall for a number of reasons) from mid may to late June or thereabouts. And come end June it was time to get back into playing again, which I was really excited to do after having a mental and physical refresh and reset.

First and foremost I think the most important thing to do is to just do it! Don’t prevaricate, or agonise over this, that or the other in terms of what you’re playing. Just pick up the guitar and play something, get back into the feel of it. If it has been a break of few weeks you will likely feel totally ham-fisted, like your right hand is a massive clump of barely moving tissues and your left hand like a bunch of sausages with fingernails on the end (oh yes, definitely make sure your nails are in good shape before cracking into any playing after a break. Or anytime really!). This feeling will pass after a few practice sessions as the fine-tuning and tone in your hand and finger muscles returns.

I should say at this point that I caveat this “just do it” initial approach quite heavily. Pick two or three easy pieces that you know are very accessible for you to get back into the swing of things with. For example, I launched back in with a couple of good ol’ “classics” – the good ol’ Spanish Romance by Anon. You know the one, quite hopelessly cheesy, all arpeggios and relatively simple left hand movements. It is actually these relatively simple right and left hand movements and lack of any complexity in the rhythm that make it quite an ideal “getting back into it” and/ or warm up piece. To start mixing things back up with some slightly more complex left and right hand movements and rhythmic variation I picked up Classical Gas by Mason Williams (yes, I know. Cheese central). I also picked a couple of South American pieces for the same.

And picking up the guitar again with these pieces I didn’t sit there for an hour at a time to play (and it was playing and not practicing I hasten to add). Initially it was just 15 or 20 minutes of really relaxed, gentle playing. I repeated that on a more or less daily basis (as work and other things permitted) for a good 3 or 4 weeks until I felt that I was really comfortably on top of things again. Now I’ve been playing for over two decades so my muscle memory is pretty strong, as you may imagine, for those of you who’ve been playing for less time (or even those of you who’ve been playing for similar lengths of time or longer) you may find you need to go the slow and steady route for a week or two longer. Be sure to listen to and be guided by your body. Just don’t try to push it too much too soon.

Then after those 3 or 4 weeks, I then took a look at what repertoire I wanted to start working on, both new repertoire, revisiting repertoire that hadn’t been played in a couple of years or so, or building on and polishing up “nearly there” repertoire.

Taking this approach meant I was in a really good space, physically with my body and my technique and mentally in terms of “yeah, let’s do this!”, to start hitting up some more challenging items (Bach Lute Suite BWV 997 and Domeniconi’s Koyunbaba are a couple of pieces, or rather collections of pieces, in the works now for example).

And hitting up the repertoire, I’m making sure I’m interspersing the more challenging new material with revisiting some of the older material (and getting some really great results with a new perspective, new fingerings, different sound qualities, smoother lines and so on) and still some of the easier stuff for a bit of fun and warming up with.

Now I’m fully back into the swing of things again, and properly practicing in a very focussed way rather than playing, I’ll be spending no more than an hour with the guitar. On average probably around 45 – 60 mins per session, most days (when work travel permits!).

So, my top 5 tips in a nutshell, in terms of how I approach getting back into playing after a break are:

  1. Just do it. Get back into the feel of it. Play something, but…..
  2. …..Select two or three very accessible pieces. Throw some scales in there for good measure too.
  3. Take it nice and easy. 10 – 20 minutes per day, on a more or les daily basis if you’re able, building up slowly. A little and often is key.
  4. And take it nice and slowly for 3 to 4 weeks. There’s no hurry here. We’re looking for longevity and sustainability of playing and getting solid technique rocking and rolling again.
  5. Get your repertoire lined up – some exciting new stuff, revisit some old stuff with some fresh eyes and hands, work up some “nearly there” stuff. Don’t be tempted to overdo it. Have fun with it.

Coming up in my next couple of posts (for real this time) –  my last album review for 2016 by fab USA guitarist Matthew Fish, and an exciting (well, I think it’s exciting. Hopefully you think it’s a little exciting too) announcement of a wee project of mine for early 2017 (or even late 2016 if I get my backside into gear!). Watch this space!

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Technique Tips For Avoiding Injury Whilst Playing Classical Guitar

Following on from my recent top tips for avoiding injury as a classical guitarist, which were based around things to do before and after practicing, I thought I’d some more technique-based tips into the mix.

Now, those who’ve been reading the blog for a while will know that a number of years ago I was struggling with a injury myself – pins and needle sensations in the left wrist and lower hand, tight and sore thumb muscle, sore, tense and quite painful neck and shoulder muscles, sore upper back and tension headaches. Not something I want to repeat!

And there was a decent amount of work in remediating my technique, my posture and so on to alleviate the causes of the issues. But alleviate the issues I did, as well as remediating my technique and going great guns for the last 5 or so years without so much as a twinge.

Having gone through what I did, it’s something that I think about a lot in my approach to practice and what I’m doing pretty much every single time I’m with the guitar. And I also reflect on what I’m doing and what I continue to learn about my body whilst playing.

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So here are my top technique tips, in no particular order, for avoiding injury whilst playing classical guitar!

1. Take your time

This one has many, many benefits – as well as allowing you to get to know and understand the music, ensuring that you’re learning the music and right and left hand finger placements correctly, slow and deliberate practice (especially in the early days of learning a new piece) will really help to avoid build up of tension in both left and right hands and minimise risk of strain and overuse injury.

So slow and steady does it for sustainable playing!

2. Don’t try to do everything at once

Case in point are seemingly tough, four, five, or six notes chords, with your fingers spread all over the finger board. And then leaping to another similar one with fingers in different places. Firstly, take your hand off the fingerboard! Stop – resist the urge to strain too hard and get it, like, right now. Look at how you can break it down. Look at which fingers go where and when they can be moved. And build it up over successive practice sessions. It’s not a race. Take the time to learn it slowly. It’ll “stick” better too, and without undue tension and strain and pain. Oh, and this goes well with the previous one 😉

3. Ensure that your left hand* and arm are in a nice straight line

You need to make sure that 99% of the time whilst playing your left hand and forearm are more or less in a straight line. This needs to be the case regardless of which fret position you’re playing in. To keep everything nice and straight, with that wrist and all the bones, cartilage, nerves, blood vessels, muscles and goodness know what else runs through that little space, you will need to move your arm from the shoulder. Imagine you’re a one-winged chicken, flapping your left wing – go on stick your left hand in your arm pit (arm and hand in a straight line thought) and pretend like you’re a chicken now. Now flap! OK, that’s enough of that…. Hah hah! Ok, so just move your hand out of your armpit and pretend you’re moving your hand up and down the neck of the guitar in that chicken flapping kind of manner. Your lower arm and hand should be in a nice straight line, not doing anything really, and all the movement coming from the shoulder

4. The one killer tip….

With all the above tips in mind, there is one thing that you can do to really improve your chances of either recovering and re-establishing your technique or minimising your chances of developing an over use injury. What is that? That is seek the advice of a good teacher.

Seriously, having a set of eyes (or even more than one set of eyes) that are not your own, that quite possibly even been there before to some extent, that know what to look for and how to correct or change your positioning and technique and work with you over time is the best thing you could do for your physical health as far as playing guitar goes. I know I bang on about this on the blog a bit (for those of you who are long time readers!), but its really important! It really worked for me and I dread to think where I would be had I need sought out some good, solid advice. The worst case scenario is that I wouldn’t be playing today, or would have succumbed to the idea of needing surgery. I shiver at the thought of both!!

So please folks, if you’re not currently with a teacher and are experiencing consistent, persistent pains associated with playing, firstly stop right there! And then seek out a good teacher in your area. Or if you’re already with a teacher then seek some advice from another experienced teacher, one that you can find who is clued up in particular about injury and/ or technique remediation. It’ll be the best thing you ever did I promise you.

* By left hand I mean your fretting hand. For left-handed guitarists, this will be your right hand.