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relax your eyes

How to Use Your Eyes to Play (and Feel) Better

As crazy as it may sound at first, the way you use your eyes can have a dramatic effect on how well you play, how quickly you learn, and how much you enjoy the process.

It’s well-documented that the way we use our bodies has powerful effects on our states, feelings and attitudes.

But let’s focus in on the eyes for a moment (excuse the pun).

The Short Version

In short, if you relax the muscles around your eyes and become more aware of your periphery vision, your face, neck, shoulder, back and arms also release a bit.

You become more relaxed, and more able to see the “whole picture” of your guitar playing and the music.

End results:

  • You play more gracefully and beautifully
  • Your memory works better
  • You’re more comfortable
  • You have a better experience.
  • The Eyes Create Your Reality

While I first came to the realizations that prompt this article by experimentation, there is solid science behind it.

Further down the page, I’ll share with you how to “game the system” and get some great benefits from simple adjustments you can make anytime.

But first…..

Quick Anatomy Lesson

Not to get too deep in the weeds with a science lesson, but it’s worthwhile to know what we’re talking about.

While this may be review for you, you may learn something new as well!

(note: This is, of course, a very basic and incomplete anatomy lesson.  Take no offense at the simplicity!)

In our eyes, we have rods and cones, which absorb light and send information down the line. Each have separate functions, and effect the brain in different ways.

Cones

To start with, the Cones in the eyes are primarily used for pinspot vision. This means focusing on a single point.

Where this get interesting is that in using primarily the cones, the “left brain” is more highly activated than the right. The left hemisphere is commonly associated with linear thinking, logic, numbers, and language.

When we are reading a book, or looking at notes on a page, we are using primarily cones, and the “left brain”.

The overall vibe of cone vision is one of concentration.

Rods

Rods, on the other hand, are more predominant when taking in the periphery. If you take a moment right now, look away from your screen, defocus your gaze just a bit and notice everything at the very edges of your vision on all sides (keeping your eyes forward), you will be switching to a rod-heavy vision.

Rods activate the “right brain”, which is more responsible for spatial capabilities, facial recognition, and (here it is…) processing music.

The overall vibe of rod vision is one of contemplation.

For a fascinating read, and more on this, including the evolutionary implications on society, read this excerpt

What This Means

While we need both to function in the world, one has us concentrating and logically solving problems, while the other has up more contemplative, noticing relationships and connections.

In our music, we’re faced with the need for both. When we’re learning a piece, we have to look at the notes on the page and figure out what needs to happen (cones, linear thinking, concentration).

But if we memorize our music (which I am a huge proponent of), we can allow our eyes to de-focus a bit, and bring to bear countless other inner resources (rods, big picture, contemplation).

We can connect more emotionally with the music, and also gain a deeper understanding of larger structures and forms.

And the greatest bonus?  When we bring our attention to the periphery of our vision, we relax.

Muscles Are Connected

We all want to play with freedom in our joints, and with grace and powerful ease in our hands. But most of us play with great “concentration”. This means that even though our goal is to be supple and lithe, we are setting ourselves up for tension and stiffness.

When we relax our eyes, a chain reaction starts that eases tension throughout the body.

We relax the muscles around the eyes, which releases the forehead, which eases tension on the neck, which releases the shoulders and back, which free the arms, which release the hands.

Unsolicited Life-Altering Tip:

If you want to do one thing to drastically improve your daily quality of life, create a habit of taking a moment, several times per day (especially in moments of high stress), and de-focus your eyes, notice the periphery, and release the muscles around your eyes.

Not only does this feel good, but it can also help with problem-solving, communication, and creativity.

Gaming The System

When we know how our systems work, we can “game the system”. This means we can get the results we want intentionally, from a system that works automatically.

When we know how our systems work, we can “game the system”.

My Own Performance Experience and Observations

On a personal note, I have repeatedly noticed that in my best performances my eyes are slightly de-focused. Nothing major, simply nothing is in absolute focus.

My internal dialog (cones/left brain/logic) is quiet(er). And I seem to be operating from a “level up”, overseeing all the details and movements, but somehow detached from them and more connected to the music as a whole.

Therefore, one of my goals prior to performing is to activate my right brain as much as possible by becoming more aware of my periphery vision. I do this by keeping my gaze forward, and taking stock of what lies at the edges of my vision on all sides.

As you do this yourself, you may also notice that when you de-focus and notice the periphery, many of the muscles in your face also release. The overall effect is very relaxing.

Smooth Eyebrows and Half Smile

This may sound a bit “woo-woo” or new-agey, but again, Mr. Science says….

The half-smile is another powerful tool in our chest of human resources.

When we release the muscles around our eyes, smooth our eyebrows (no “eagle glare”) and put on a gentle “half-smile”, the effects are pretty amazing.

(A “half-smile” is just what it sounds like: no teeth, face soft, tips of the mouth slightly raised. You can also think of the outside corners of your eyes rising slightly as well, one big peaceful half-smiling face. Thanks Tara!)

We immediately begin to feel more of a sense of well-being, and all the symptoms of adrenaline and anxiety start to fade.

When we do this, it sends a message to our brain saying that everything is fine. It triggers our parasympathetic nervous system (homeostasis, “everything is cool”).

And it turns off and suppresses our sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight, perceived threats, “everything is not cool”).

We immediately begin to feel more of a sense of well-being, and all the symptoms of adrenaline and anxiety start to fade.

As you can imagine, practicing this and being able to cause this effect on cue can be enormously helpful.

Performance Tip:  If you’re struggling in any way with performance anxiety, stage fright or nerves, this should be part of your plan (along with over-preparation of your pieces!).

Bonus Tip: The Tongue

While this post is about the eyes, I simply must mention the tongue.

I ran across this fun fact about the tongue in Anna Wise’s The High-Performance Mind.

Our internal vocalizations (talking to ourselves) is directly linked to the tongue. In fact, when we talk to ourselves, our tongue moves slightly.

What is fascinating (to me) is the the inverse is true as well: If you still the tongue, you quiet the internal voice.

This can be a game-changer.

Try this:

First, allow your tongue to spread widely over your back teeth. Let it relax as much as possible.  A soft exhale through the mouth may help.

Then notice that there may be a very slight “tugging” sensation at the very back of your tongue. This is the spot you’re looking for.  It’s subtle, so give it a minute.

If you use any “sub-vocalization” (if you talk to yourself), this tugging will increase. If you are fully wrapped up in mental dialog, your tongue will be full active and tense.

When you gently release this “tugging”, it quiets your internal voice. At first, you may only be able to stop it for a second at a time, but with practice, you can increase that time.

Note: If you have never experienced freedom from this internal voice, it can be uncomfortable, and you may feel the urgent need to use words.  Just start over and repeat as many times as you’re willing.

When our tongue stops moving, and our inner chatter (left brain) subsides, we are more apt to either think in images (right brain), or not think at all.

This momentary space that’s created by stilling the tongue, softening the eyes, and quieting the inner voice fosters feelings of calm, contentment and inner peace.  This is a wonderful state in which to practice guitar.

(And just in case you’re thinking it: None of this has anything to do with religion or belief. It’s simply the way your body and mind work. )

Takeaways

I hope that this has been some food for thought, and that you actually take the time to practice these techniques. They make life (and your guitar study) much better.

To recap:

  • Take a moment to bring your attention to the outside edges of your vision (with eyes remaining forward).
  • This activates more of your inner resources.
  • Release the muscles around your eyes, and let that relaxation spread.
  • Softening the eyes and putting on a half-smile sends a message to the brain that everything is alright.
  • Stilling the tongue (and the “tugging” at the very back of it) quiets the internal voice and creates mental space.

The Eyes Have It!

Do you play with the way you use your eyes? In what contexts? Does it help? How? Do you have other ways to “game your system”?  Leave your answers in the comments below!

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2 Responses to How to Use Your Eyes to Play (and Feel) Better

  1. Isaac August 8, 2015 at 3:41 am #

    That must be an amazingly embarrassed but funny experience^^ I’m not sure about the degree of your relaxation, but I’m guite sure your dress code of relaxed nature’s clothes was a hearty laughting stock and made you neighbors L.O.L.

    You’re right in that we should use our peripheral vision in guitar practice. Thanks for the tip, Allen~!

  2. Paul Prachun August 8, 2015 at 3:29 am #

    Good stuff Allen. I’m going to have a serious go at this, as I have had a terrible history with musical performances and memorization. I’m a type ‘A’ personality which thinks that everything can be conquered with left brain concentration – wrong! It proved very helpful with a career in medicine, but music is another neural world.

    — PS: I’m assuming that the last sentence under ‘Cones’ should read “The overall vibe of ‘cone’ vision…” rather than ‘rod’ vision.
    — PPS: Yes, I agree, it does appear on some of your videos that you might benefit from less coffee/caffeine; but then, I’m not so sure you’d project the same “caged animal” enthusiasm. ????

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