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.

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Developing Your Technique – Left Hand

Hello dear readers!

I thought over the next few weeks I’d take a look at some aspects of classical guitar technique development and today we start with a look at the left hand. I’ll caveat this post, as I generally do with all my others, in that this is a refelection of my own thoughts and experiences, what I have to say is not the be all and end all and may not work for everyone. I think  it’s also important, at this stage, to recognise that technical development can be quite a personal thing – we’re all made slightly differently and we all have our own particular inherent strengths and weaknesses.

It’s also important to realise that  technical development is a continually evolving thing – one is and should always striving to develop and improve technique. It’s just that as we progress the increments of change get smaller and smaller! Rest assured that I’m still very much exploring and developing my own technique folks!

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Looking at the two hands separately

Whilst it’s correct to say that the right and left hand working effectively together is where classical guitar technique comes into its own with regard to production of sound in a musical fashion, it oftentimes helps to isolate or look at more closely, the technique of one hand over the other. Doing this allows us to hone in on a particular aspect of the technique with limited distraction from elsewhere. That’s not to say we don’t play with the right hand whilst looking at left hand perhaps, it just that our focus is shifted.

Doing this can also allow us to identify the source of a technical hurdle – sometimes what you thought was a right hand* issue can in fact be a left hand issue, and what you thought was a left hand issue could in fact be something to do with your right hand technique.

Left hand technical elements

There are a number of elements involved in left hand technique on the classical guitar:

  • chords and chord changes
  • barres and applying appropriate left hand pressure
  • rapid left hand movement and changes
  • legato playing
  • staccato
  • fretboard geography
  • slurs
  • development of the typically weaker fingers (i.e. 3rd and 4th fingers)
  • finger strength and flexibility
  • finger independence

This is not an exhaustive list and I’m sure there are probably others that you will come across, but these are some of the key ones.

There are a number of “watch its” that go along with each of these individual techniques, not to mention that it would make it an enormously loooong post to go through each and everyone of them for the various techniques (perhaps they are subjects for individual topics in themselves – watch this space…..)!

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To get you started though in developing your left hand technique here are some pointers:

(1) Yes you do need to look at left hand technique. You can travel ahead and get on kind of reasonably well without delving into examining and improving your left hand technique, but if you’re wanting to progress beyond thwacking out a so-so rendition of your favourite tune the sooner you start looking at your left hand and the part it plays in how you’re playing and the music you’re making, the sooner your development will begin to skyrocket.

(2) All the above-mentioned techniques are important in a guitarist’s arsenal, but there are some which support the others. Technical development is something that should be built over time, and certain aspects you should consider as your foundation upon which to build everything else. In my opinion it’s key to work on finger independence, your finger strength and flexibility and particularly the development of the weaker fingers (3rd and 4th fingers). If you’re playing on a daily basis this will begin to inherently occur over time until over time you can do all sorts of weird and wonderful things with your left hand fingers without batting an eyelid.

Great exercises for this include:

  • the humble, yet wonderful, diatonic and chromatic scales. Practice these daily and your fingers will grow in strength, and seemingly take on a memory of their own too
  • scales in thirds, sixths and octaves
  • opposing motion and finger independence exercises – there are some great ones (along with other left hand exercises) in Scott Tennant’s Pumping Nylon book.

Working on developing these, particularly in the early and intermediate stages of your development (heck, even at an advanced stage as I still touch on finger independence exercises from time to time) will help you develop other techniques, such as slurs (hammer ons or pull offs) in a much more efficient and effective way. Make sure you’re building (and continuing to check in and maintain) your strong foundations.

(3) Pick your known weaknesses and work on those. If you’re a gun at pull off slurs there’s not too much point in practicing them extensively. Yes, touch base with them form time to time, but you’ll develop ina quicker and much more rounded fashion if you look at working on those elements that actually do need work. Or if there’s something in a piece you’re working on and it’s a little shaky isolate that and work on it away from the piece.

(4) Don’t over do it! Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was a fantastic barre technique. Work on things in small bite-size chunks. 10 – 15 minutes per session is all I recommend working on something for, particularly initially. Make sure those are a focused 10-15 minutes and keep relaxed. Don’t stress if it doesn’t happen as quickly as you like. Keep chipping away, focusing on what you’re doing and analysing what needs to be done differently (if anything) and you’ll get there eventually. And ease into it in your practice session – don’t smash your hand at full speed straight off the bat. Allow your hands and fingers time to warm up into it.

 

 

* When I say right hand here I mean the plucking hand, and when I say left hand I mean the fretting hand. Swap around if you’re left handed.