Classical guitar practice? Warm Up!
The short answer:
Perhaps the easiest and quickest warm-up is to simply soak your hands and wrists in hot water (ahhhh…). Play slowly at first and avoid any big stretches or bar chords for the first few moments.
The long answer:
Classical guitar practice can be a very strenuous endeavor. We ask our hands and fingers to do all sorts of stretches and acrobatics. We ask our fingers to move independently of each other, and often at great speeds.
And all of this we do sitting in a strange position holding a weirdly shaped box. It’s no wonder that
problems like tendonitis, carpal tunnel, repetitive stress injuries, and general muscle soreness are so common among those of us who choose to spend time practicing the classical guitar.
In order for us to safely develop our skills and musculature, and to avoid all the potential hazards that go along with a daily practice, we need to make sure that we are ready for the tasks ahead of us.
In addition to the strenuous physical demands that we place on ourselves, playing classical guitar also takes a great deal of focus, concentration and awareness. We have to also prepare ourselves mentally and emotionally, and make sure that we have the proper energy and stamina to make effective use of our time in the practice room.
And what are we practicing for? Performance.
This is true, whether you think it is or not
Even if you don’t consider yourself a performer, or are just starting out.
Even if you never want anyone to hear you play a single note.
Even if you live in a remote mountain cave and will never see another human being, ever.
Even if you are a hundred years old and are just beginning.
Even if deep down you cannot seriously believe that you will ever be good enough to share your music.
You (yes, you!) are still practicing for performance.
Our ultimate goal in this journey is to play the classical guitar beautifully (and hopefully enjoy the process).
And playing beautifully demands some degree of polish and musical intention. The amount of polish and intention depends on our level. But at any level, we are working towards some culmination. When we begin a piece of music, we generally want to “finish” it. (“finish” is a synonym for “polish”!)
Preparing for future guitar recitals or performances
The quality of our focus while practicing also determines the quality of our performances in front of people. While chances are you are not a professional performer, it is still valuable to note what goes into creating a successful performance.
Performance anxiety, or stage fright, often times occurs because of internal dialogue and an inability to maintain a razor sharp focus.
How we practice is how we play.
In truth, when we sit down to perform in front of people, be it just a couple of friends, or 100 people or million people, we largely go onto autopilot. Our body takes over and does whatever it is that it’s used to doing whenever we play the guitar.
If, when practicing, we are in a relaxed and focused state, and pay attention to specific details in what we are playing, then that is what happens when we perform. We focus and execute the musical choices we have decided on beforehand (dynamics, articulation, etc). Our autopilot has been properly trained to do what needs to be done to play beautifully for people.
However, more commonly, we allow our minds to wander in practice, we only half-focus on the fine points of what we are doing, and we fail to listen to the beginnings, middles and ending of our notes. We indulge in internal dialog that has nothing to do with what we are playing.
Then, when we get in front of people, we are made sharply aware of how scattershot our thinking is in that moment. We really hear ourselves playing for the first time, and become aware of what we really sound like. (This can also happen in lessons, sitting in front of our teacher.)
This can be absolutely terrifying, which leads to a mistake or two, which leads to more anxiety. The entire thing is a vicious and nasty cycle. Not so much fun. And all because we trained our auto-pilot haphazardly.
So, even if we are nervous before performing, we can trust that when we start playing our auto-pilot will take over. If our auto pilot is trained properly because of our focus in practice, our natural tendency will be to relax and focus. We have developed the habits of relaxation and focus!
This is a huge step towards successful performing. It also makes the entire process a whole lot more enjoyable and rewarding.
In essence, practice is more than just learning to play, it is rehearsal for performance (Whether performance is our goal or not).
Just as an athlete must properly warm-up before performing at their peak levels, so must we warm-up, physically and mentally. And that is what this article is about.
When thinking about warming up, it may be helpful to keep in mind the basic purpose of warming up.
A warm-up should prepare us, physically and mentally, to perform at our highest levels.
Your brain on Guitar:
If we are to begin with the end in mind, let’s start with an exploration of the ideal state of mind and body for our guitar practice.
When we are moving throughout our day, speaking with people, doing our work in the world, taking care of business, we are in a particular state of mind. If we look at the dominant brainwaves that accompany this state, they are marked by a particular frequency.
This frequency is called “beta”. It is a very fast moving frequency, that is associated with fast thinking. Beta brain waves are great when we are taking care of business, but if we have too much beta we get stress, anxiety, and scattered thinking.
Many poor performances and stage fright are due to an excess of beta waves (monkey mind).
The state most conducive to learning quickly and deeply, are marked by a good healthy dose of alpha brain waves. These brain waves move at a slower frequency.
When we are experiencing mostly alpha waves, we are relaxed yet focused, aware yet slightly detached. Our chattering voices in our heads are quieted down, and time tends to disappear.
We learn very easily and quickly in alpha states: relaxed and focused.
Whenever you have been immersed in something and suddenly realize that a couple of hours of gone by, you have been in a primarily alpha brainwave state. This is the best state for learning and performing as well.
There are other brainwave frequencies as well (gamma, theta, and delta), and all are present in some degree throughout our waking day. But if we want to get the most out of our learning experiences, we should learn how to access the learning state, which is a lot of alpha and a little bit of beta.
As a sidenote, kids show primarily slow brainwave states most of the time (learning states). This is one of the reasons that kids often learn so much easier than adults. They are constantly primed for it!
Do It: How to enter into a “Learning State”
So how do we enter into the state most conducive for learning? Here are some suggestions, in no particular order:
- Take a moment, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Cueing yourself to relax will allow you to transition more easily into a an effective learning state.
- Soften the muscles around your eyes. Let your eyes defocus. Pin-spot vision triggers beta. (interestingly, I have noticed in performances that when I am playing at my best on stage my eyes are slightly defocused.)
- Similar to above, relax your face and become very aware of the objects in your peripheral vision. Can you keep track of all the objects on both size above and below, all the way out to the edge of your vision in all directions?
- Relaxing the tongue can help to quiet internal dialogue, which is one of the obstacles for a relaxed and focused learning state. You may be aware of a slight tugging on the back of your tongue. This is associated with speaking to yourself in words. Here’s the thing: if you tell yourself to “relax the tongue”, you won’t be able to. You have to just relax it without making words in your head. This can be tricky for some people. But it’s highly effective at triggering an enhanced learning state.
- Some people find it much easier to calm down the chattering mind and enter into a more aware and detached frame of mind when they close their eyes for a couple of moments.
- With eyes open or closed, keeping a soft gaze, looking slightly upward also triggers more alpha brain waves.
- Making pictures in your mind is also advantageous to get us there. You may have noticed when daydreaming that there is less talking going on in your mind and more images. It is actually quite healthy to stare out the window and daydream a bit! Visualizing yourself playing at a high-level in the perfect frame of mind is a great mental image to conjure prior to your practice. See your self moving gracefully and securely. Hear yourself playing with beautiful and consist tone.
- Become very aware of all the feelings in your physical body. Notice the muscle tone it’s in your hands, feet, neck, back, face, all over. Move from one area to the next of your body and just notice what that part of the body is feeling at that moment. Bringing our attention to our body, breath, and physical sensations bring us more into the present moment, and into an enhanced learning state.
Notice that all these methods involve relaxing. This is no coincidence. Relaxation is crucial to effective learning (and good living!).
Note: What we are talking about here is basic science and biology. While many religious practices also may use relaxed states, such as meditation or prayer, that is not what we are talking about here. Unless you want to be.
We all enter into different states of mind all day long (think: work state vs. go to bed state vs play with children state, etc). It is perfectly natural and normal. The difference is that we are now choosing the state most beneficial for the task at hand (classical guitar practice).
We are also preparing to be able to enter into the most beneficial state for performing when that time comes!
The Act of Limbering Up
What most people think of as warming up before playing is the physical side of it. Getting the muscles limbered up, and the joints properly lubricated so that we can meet the demands of our music and exercises safely and comfortably.
That’s what we’ll talk about now.
One of the main causes of tendinitis for guitar players is playing too quickly too early in their practice. I have to admit that I am guilty of this one at times. If I get excited and jump into strenuous practice too quickly, I get some pretty severe aches and pains in my hands and wrists. This serves as a great reminder to slow down and properly warm-up.
As I said above at the start of this article, one great way to get the blood flowing into your hands this is simply immerse them in hot water. Ideally, submerge your hands and arms up to the elbow. But even submerging just the hands is great.
Make it as hot as you can comfortably stand.
Another benefit of submerging the hands of hot water is that it feels really good. It’s a great time to calm the mind and relax, as we talked about earlier. I almost always do this before performing, and I find it really enjoyable.
Another malady that some guitarists experience is called carpal tunnel syndrome. It is one of a number of repetitive stress injuries that can wreak havoc on our playing, and make life generally less comfortable.
There are a few stretches that are commonly recommended to lower your chances of incurring any sort of repetitive stress injury.
As you are performing any of the following warm-up or stretching actions, you could simultaneously be entering into your most beneficial learning state by relaxing your face and paying attention to your body.
As before, and always, the quality of attention, relaxation, and focus will benefit not only your stretches, but also serve to bring your mind into a better state for practicing. While performing the stretches, also perform some of the facial relaxations or bodily awareness routines described above.
Note: Our time on the guitar is very limited each day, but we have numerous little windows of opportunity throughout the day. Any time we have a moment or two of waiting or sitting time, we can take advantage of these practices throughout our day.
The more we can do throughout our day away from the guitar, the faster we progress on the guitar.
Guitar can make you healthy!
In any case, gentle stretching and increasing our alpha brainwave states reduces stress. Stress has been shown to either cause or increase most diseases and discomforts we may have. So doing something that lowers stress throughout the day simply makes life better.
I am no M.D., but close to 75-90% of patients who walk into hospitals and doctors offices do so with stress-related illnesses. It is truly the plague of our time. So getting into habits that reduce stress can only do us well.
What to Play for Warming Up on the Guitar
So after all this, we are finally getting to the part where we talk about actually warming up on the instrument.
Well, I wish I could say that there is a perfect warm-up routine or exercise that is better than any other, laid out in three easy steps right here. But that simply is not the case.
The truth is, it doesn’t really matter what you play while you are warming up. What matters is how you play while you are warming up.
Ideally, you want to ease into playing gently. Allow the first few notes to be quiet and gentle. Focus on your tone quality. Be very aware of your bodily position, and how you’re using your entire musculature, head to toe. Notice the amount of strength it takes to lift your arms to the instrument, and the way your weight shifts on the chair when you do so. Notice everything.
Take this time to really embrace everything you know about the fundamentals of music and movement on the guitar. Take as long as you need to get your form exactly like you want. Take all the time you need to find the most beautiful tone. Take all the time you need to find the use of your body that allows for the most ease and freedom in all of your joints. Take your time. It’s worth it.
When you begin to practice in earnest, your attention will be directed to specific areas. During your warm-up, focus on the basic fundamentals that hope to carry into everything that you play throughout your practice.
Ensure that you are in a relaxed and focused state of awareness.
Ensure that your warm-up has all of the same qualities that you would ultimately like to have when performing for others.
This is the time to program your body and mind for the future. Even if you are just a beginner, experience the comfort, security, focus, confidence, patience, and general state of being that you would ultimately like to exhibit in all of your playing.
Even if you are not yet comfortable on the guitar, or cannot imagine yourself playing with these qualities, simply pretend. You have absolutely nothing to lose, and it feels good!
If you are an experienced player, you may find that you have developed habits, such as excess tension, that are in opposition to the qualities we are experiencing here.
That is alright. You are welcome to play with terrible form and as many bad habits as you like, later. But for now, as a completely different part of your practice, you can simply focus on entering into a highly effective learning state and general sense of ease and comfort in your playing.
This can be a highly enjoyable part of your daily practice. You can make yourself feel incredibly good. It may become the most peaceful and nourishing part of your day. You may be tempted to linger here and skip other parts of your practice.
My advice, should this happen, is to just go with it! If it feels good, do it.
However, I must also give a caveat. There are many technical and musical challenges to be dealt with in our daily practices. You can’t ignore them forever. Eventually we must come back and spend time on whatever it is that you were avoiding. But in the meantime, developing appropriate levels of tension and ease on the instrument is an incredibly valuable investment of your time.
The Dark Side of Relaxation on the Guitar
To share a personal story, I spent close to a year focusing primarily on this part of practice. I spent my time focusing exclusively on form and ease of motion. I developed my abilities to breathe naturally while playing and reminding myself to stay aware of the level of tension throughout my body. I changed many bad habits of excess tension in my legs, back, shoulders, and especially my neck and face.
As a result, my playing sounded terrible. I was distracted during my pieces by various muscle tensions. I confused physical relaxation with musical relaxation. And I confused physical tension with musical tension. As a result, I felt good and sounded bad. My goal was not to play beautifully, but to remain aware of how I was using my body.
My poor teacher at the time was not convinced of the value of my endeavors and was quite exasperated with me. (Looking back, I perhaps should’ve stopped lessons for that period.)
Over time I came to refocus on the music I was playing and the art of playing compellingly.
Balancing the Yin and Yang
Just as it is with martial arts, there has to be a balance between ease of motion and exerting great force. Sometimes music demands that we perform acrobatic acts of great strength.Emotional gestures and attitudes can switch rapidly in a piece of music. We may need to portray sweetness one moment and anger or violence the next, and then instantly back again.
We need to be able to meet any challenge in the moment it arises. This means being able to activate and deactivate muscles very quickly and easily.
It is crucial to realize that our goal is not to be relaxed all the time.
Our goal is to use the appropriate amount of tension for whatever we are doing.
The problem is that as beginners, and throughout our musical lives, it’s very easy to develop deep habits of exerting far too much tension all the time. Even most of the top players use more tension than is necessary for the task they are performing.
In my experience, we can only adjust something that we are consciously aware of.
By definition, a habit is something that we do automatically, without full consciousness.
If we want to change a habit of excess tension, we must start from the beginning, with great awareness and minimal tension. From there, we can add tension and muscle tone in appropriate places and in appropriate levels. We can only change things that we are consciously aware of, so gaining awareness is of massive benefit.
Our daily warm-up is a time when we can develop the habit of increasing our awareness of how we use ourselves, both on the guitar and off.
The effects, over time, of becoming more deliberate with our mental states and bodily tension levels can bring about amazing changes in our quality of life and practice.
We can simultaneously learn faster, play better, reduce our stress levels, and become more aware of ourselves in general. We feel better, are healthier, and enjoy our guitar practice even more.
And all this, just in a warm-up! Who knew?
The Daily Warm-up Recap:
So, as a quick review, the goals of warming up are:
1. To quiet our mind and enter into an effective learning state, of relaxed and focused awareness.
2. To prepare the muscles and joints of our bodies (including the hands) for strenuous acrobatic activity.
3. To rehearse the state of being (mind and body) on the guitar that we would ultimately like to embody throughout our practice and performance.
4. To remind ourselves of the fundamentals of movement and tone production on the guitar.
(Or you could just put your hands in hot water.)
And there you have it. I hope this helps and encourages you to run some new experiments with the first moments of your practice. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!