Getting Back into Playing After a Break – My Recent Approach


Soundhole B&W

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!


Giving pain in the neck the cold shoulder – Guitarist’s Shoulder *

Mylohyoid muscle visible right under jaw
What a pain in the neck (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I wrote a piece earlier on in the year about neck and shoulder issues and my journey in dealing with neck and shoulder pain. The piece outlined how I was revising my playing position, technique and looking at exercises…..Well, guess what folks. The neck and shoulder gremlins have returned. The little buggers!

I know it’s an issue that affects guitarists in all parts of the spectrum – beginners through to pros and everyone in between, so I thought I’d write a little piece on this today. You may have experienced or are experiencing something similar, and so in writing this I hope I can help in some way or start a bit of a discussion. This will also start a series of blog posts about treating and ultimately preventing soreness and overuse injuries of this nature.

So what’s the dealio? What’s going on?

Well, the pain and soreness in my right (and only my right) shoulder back and front (or posterior and anterior, if you want to get all anatomical and stuff) and the right side of my neck has been really building up again over the past couple of weeks. And naughty me for not paying attention to the first little warning signs and nipping it in the bud then. Smack hands!

The particular symptoms of “Guitarist’s Shoulder” that I’ve had going on are:

  • Serious amounts of clicking, particularly across the front of the shoulder joint, where apparently there are some very tight bands of muscle catching and popping across the clavicle (collarbone) – nice.
  • A continuous dull aching sensation in both the front and back of the shoulder joint, leading me to want to punch myself in the shoulder to relieve it!
  • A dull aching sensation sometimes travelling up into the back of my head, jaw and eye and down into my upper arm.
  • Sharp pain in right shoulder-blade, especially when turning my head to the right.
  • Tightness in right side of my neck – a real pain in the neck. Boom boom!

As you can tell from the delightful mix of symptoms it’s not really all that pleasant and can become quite restrictive in terms of playing – very annoying.

Ouch! How does that happen?

I think it’s likely a combination of a few things going on here:

  1. Me being very naughty and lazy and not (a) warming up my shoulder neck and arm muscles before playing, doing a few range of motion exercises (b) giving my muscles a good stretch post playing and (c) being rigorous with stretching between playing sessions
  2. Me being very naughty and lazy and not giving mindful due care and attention to my posture whilst playing.
  3. Not being fully mindful and observant of the little twitches, ticks, reflexes and other seemingly involuntary and often unnecessary movements one makes when practicing and playing. For example, does raising ones toes off the ground and hunching ones shoulders really help you in playing that pianissimo line up of the tenth fret? I’ll let you answer that one…..
  4. Possibly some physical weakness in the back and shoulders that I can address with some strengthening exercises.
  5. Overworked, tired and stressed shoulder, neck and back muscles from too much of one activity without an opposing kind of activity to balance things out.

So what’s next then? How do we go about remedying the situation?

Time for some myotherapy

l cracked it this week, and got really fed up of the constant dull aching sensation and sore neck and decided to I needed to get some immediate physical relief.  Time to get it sorted out properly.

Not in the form of painkillers; I don’t really like to take them unless I really have to because they can mask what your body is trying to tell you. So in this instance I’m sucking it up and listening in carefully to the messages my body has been yelling at me for a while. Immediate physical relief in the form of massage. And not just any massage. Awesomely seriously targeted and condition specific Myotherapy manual manipulation and a bit of dry needling to boot.

Myotherapists are experts in this kind of myofasical pain, its treatment and prevention. My lovely therapist’s diagnosis transliterated into my layperson’s terms is that my neck, shoulder and upper back muscles are really overworked, constantly “switched on” over stretched in one direction and super fatigued. As a result they’re not working properly, they’re all bunched up. To add insult to the injury this bunching also results in the reduction of blood flow to the area meaning the waste products generated by the constantly “switched on” muscles is not being flushed away which adds to the pain, tenderness and tendency to spasm.

The myotherapist tells me that the poor afflicted muscles are the levator scapula, sternocleidomastoid (or SCM for short), the upper trapezius, supraspinatus, and infraspinatus.

The human shoulder joint
The human shoulder joint (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My neck, shoulder and upper back muscles basically need releasing from the prison I’ve trapped them in, they need a good stretch and strengthening up.

After the myo session the next 12 hours or so I felt like been beaten up (which I kind of had!), but that seriously frustrating dull ache and pinching sensation in the back of the shoulder-blade were gone. Wooo! Still a bit of work to do though, as the ol’ chicken wing is still feeling a bit unstable, a bit tight, as is the neck.

I have another myotherapy appointment early next week, so I’ll you posted about the next step in my treatment and the strengthening exercises the myotherapy proposes I do.

To remedy the point about it doing enough stretching, I’m going to try some yoga classes in this first instance (going to give Bikram or hot yoga a whirl) and then follow that later in the year with some Alexander Technique lessons. I’m getting onto the yoga this very weekend so I’ll let you know how that goes.

In terms of my technique, over this next few days I’m going to set the movements radar to high alert. I’m also aiming to observe in greater detail all the movements I make whist playing. I’ll also be doing some stretches and range of motion exercises before and after playing (which I’ll outline for you in a future blog post).

* I’m not actually sure there’s a condition called Guitarist’s Shoulder, like Tennis Elbow or Policeman’s Foot (I shall do some research around that and follow-up….), but that’s what I’m going to call it for now.