No pain, no gain – or not when playing classical guitar


At no point ever, ever should there be any pain involved in the playing of classical guitar – not when first learning, not when progressing up through your grades, not when performing at the highest level, not ever.


If you experience pain creeping in at any point, either during practice/ playing or immediately following, then this is a sure signal that something aint quite right. The body is a smart thing and the message that pain is giving us is telling us something loud and clear – “you’re not doing this correctly and if you carry on doing this in this way you’re going to bugger me up. Then you’ll be stuffed.” Or something like that anyway.


So, it’s a hackneyed old saying, but you really should listen to your body.


Unlike marathon runners or kickboxers or any sporting person-type analogies we may care to use from time to time when talking about learning and playing guitar, if we experience pain whilst playing this isn’t “weakness leaving the body” (or some other similar macho or “brave in the face of adversity” type saying), we should not push through it and it’s most definitely not about how much more you can take, pushing, pushing and pushing just a little bit more. This is most definitely where the analogy between the pursuit of sporting excellence and classical guitar mastery ends.


Pain, be it muscular, skeletal, tenderness, soreness, sharp or dull, when playing or practicing guitar should never ever be ignored. I can’t stress this enough!


All manner of causes


The cause of a pain could be all manner of things – poor seated posture, habitual and unconscious muscle tension, “trying” too hard and straining muscles, excess pressure, conscious excess muscle tension, poor left and/ or right hand technique, focus on fingers and hands over and above how the whole body is involved in playing, poor physical condition, even psychosomatic responses to feelings of inadequacy and nervousness and so on.


As pain can be the result can be the result of all manner of things, it can also present itself in numerous different ways in different places from one person to the next – we’re all made up slightly differently after all. We may experience pain in that big, fat juicy muscle in our thumbs, our fingers, our hand or wrist – those are common ones where poor posture and excess tension and pressure can combine to cause problems. Then, of course, as guitarists we may also experience pain in the neck, shoulders, jaw, head, upper back, lower back, hips, knees….. the list could probably continue!


So, as you probably may guess I can’t help you cure your specific aches and pains and so on in all these places in the space of 500 word blog (I can help you explore each of these areas in greater detail if of interest though?). What I do invite you to take away from this though is:


If it hurts, stop playing right away!


Believe me – it’s more trouble than it’s worth to continue down the path of pain. Your body is giving you a signal that you need to change something with your posture, technique and/ or approach.


Take a really good hard look at how you’re playing and ask yourself what needs to be done to rectify the situation. Well in fact this may be difficult for you to do, as it may not be obvious to you as to the cause. An objective outsider view may be required – it may be easier to talk in greater detail with your teacher about the issue if you have a teacher. If you don’t have a teacher, this may be a good time to get one. If you have a teacher perhaps seek additional advice too – other teachers, other guitarists, or physical therapists such as Alexander Technique teachers or physiotherapists.


In other news….


In other (if somewhat slightly random) news, a website by the name of Coupon Audit (a new one to me, I’ll admit) has been putting together a series of “Top 100 Blogs” under various topics – gardening, craft, health and so on. The folks there have put together one for guitar and, lo! Classical Guitar n Stuff made it in there, to the lofty heights of number 37! Check out the list here:


Ooh and some other news….


There will be a very exciting announcement headed this way shortly about some plans for the blog coming up in the near future. Watch this space!


Avoiding hand and wrist injury when playing guitar – part two

Following on from my post last week about developing and maintaining a somewhat straight line most of the time between hand and forearm when playing to minimise risk of injury to the wrist and hand I thought I’d follow on with another important factor in avoiding and minimising risk of injury. Well, this is something that has worked fantastically well for me, so I’d like to share.

As Frankie said back in 1984 – relax! And when I say relax I mean this both physically and mentally. Usually addressing the latter first considerably helps with the former.

Often easier said than done though, right?

So how do I go about relaxing? Well, here are my top three things I do to make me mentally relaxed and at my most physically accessible for playing:

  • I approach my practice with a relaxed state of mind – I don’t rush into the practice room, it doesn’t matter if I’m late this time, it matters that I’m there. I lay aside the day’s “busyness” for 30 minutes or an hour, none of that matters during this time whilst coming to play. Whatever is or has been going on can certainly wait for an hour. And I use this same approach when coming to perform – by approaching our practice in this way, we’re training in not just the notes, and the physical movements, and the music and so on, we’re also training in the mental approach and the feeling associated with coming to play.
  • If I’m finding that challenging then there are a couple of physical exercises I do to help get relaxed (i) take four or five deep breaths, breathing in for a count of three and out for a count of three. This acts as a reset button for you system, gets oxygen right into the deeper parts of the lungs and cleans out the carbon dioxide from the deeper parts of the lungs too and (ii) I get doing some of my Alexander Technique semi-supine on the floor.
  • When sitting with the guitar I draw attention to where I’m holding unnecessary tension in my body, checking in with my various body parts and release if necessary – neck, jaw, shoulders, upper arms, lower arms, hands, fingers, upper back, lower back, chest, abdomen, hips, thighs, calves, feet and toes.

So yes, these things help to prepare me to be physically accessible for playing in two ways:

(1) Less tension and rigidity = greater ease of movement, a more fluid and legato feel, a less “heavy” and laboured sounding right hand; you can ask more of you body when it has less rigidity in it.

(2) As the instrument is touching your body part of its resonance moves through you – the more relaxed you are, the easier the vibrations pass through you, and the more beautiful, resnonant and full the sound you can make.

And back to the main point of this post – how does relaxing prevent injury? Well, think about it like this – what happens to any material, when stressed, be it wood, plastic, whatever, that is rigid and unbending? It won’t yield, and ends up cracking and breaking? What happens to more flexible material such as bamboo, tall grass, or other material with more “give” in it? It moves with the applied stress and the movement; it goes with it, it doesn’t try to resist and as such can return to it’s normal position unscathed. (I’m in no way a materials scientist – in case you couldn’t tell! hah hah! – but you get where I’m going here….)

So it can help to think of our muscles, tendons and ligaments as working at the optimum when they’re working like bamboo – stront, but working at their best when we’re asking them to work with a bit of “give”. And awareness of tension in parts of the body seemingly unrelated to the wrists and hands is key in avoiding injury to the wrist and hands – playing the guitar is as much about the rest of your body as it is about hands and fingers. By learning to relax, or firstly learning to be aware of where tension lies (as with observance and awareness brings change), we can minimise tension, aid more fluid and musical playing and importantly, trouble, pain and injury-free playing.