Free the Left Hand Wrist for Comfort and Mobility
Playing classical guitar is tricky enough without putting our hands in a straight-jacket. But that is exactly what we unwittingly do.
It’s very easy to lose track of the tension levels in our hands and wrists, and use more muscle and more stretching than is really necessary.
This article and video will show you some ways to free your left hand wrist, and enable you to increase your freedom of movement and your efficiency playing guitar. And as a bonus, it feels good!
Start With Good Left-hand Form
Before looking at anything else, it’s helpful to establish a baseline of a good neutral form or position. If everything was as easy as possible, what would your hand look like?
Of course, everything will be much easier if you sit well and use your body thoughtfully.
The C Shape
A strong basic use of the hand entails making a “C” shape with the thumb and middle (2) finger. The rest of the fingers are relaxed and poised.
The thumb (99.99% of the time) is best positioned behind the fingers as if holding a sandwich (or burrito from the bottom).
Play with the Left-hand Wrist in Space
With this nicely formed hand, put down your guitar and practice moving your wrist.
Holding this “C” shape, explore the full range of movement in your wrist.
- Go in circles.
- Go side to side.
- Go frontwards and backwards.
- Pivot (Miss America wave).
- Do Figure–8s.
- Make up your own smooth moves.
You may be stiffer than you realized. That’s alright. Just come back to this often until you can feel absolutely free moving your wrist through all motions.
Now Anchor the Hand
Now that you can maintain the “C” shape and move the wrist freely, it’s time to step it up a bit.
Using your right forearm to emulate a guitar neck, anchor your left hand to your right wrist or arm. The only parts that should be touching are the left hand middle finger, and the pad of the left hand thumb.
With these two points maintaining contact with the right arm, play with moving through those same movements with the left hand wrist.
You’ll notice that it is all quite different. By anchoring the left hand, you have limited your movement a bit.
You need enough pressure to keep the fingers in place, and no more. If you over-squeeze, you’ll feel it (though you won’t on the guitar, which is one of the reasons to use your arm).
Steady pressure. Not too much, not too little.
You’ll benefit from experimenting with over- and under-squeezing. Just like Goldilocks, you’ll find the middle ground.
What’s Actually Happening
What’s actually happening is this:
When you float in space and move your hand around, your arm is staying fairly steady and your hand is moving.
When you anchor the fingers, everything flip-flops. You are now moving from the other direction (the tail wagging the dog). Your middle fingertip and the pad of your thumb are staying put, while everything moves around them.
This means that you have to free your wrist and allow your arm and elbow to get in on the action as well.
This can take some getting used to. At first, you’ll likely be using far less motion than you have available. The trick is to watch yourself and insist on full range of movement from the wrist.
Roll on the Finger Tip
Now, when we move the wrist with the finger anchored, we are forced to roll around and back and forth on the fingertip.
If you are not rolling and pivoting on the fingertip, then you still have excess stiffness. Just keep playing with it.
Free the Finger Joints
Next, in order to truly explore the full range of movement around this “anchor” (the finger and thumb touching your arm, at this point), you have to allow your finger to extend and flex.
For instance, if you pull your wrist away, your finger will have to extend to maintain the same contact. If it doesn’t, it’s like a steel-toothed trap that has caught your right arm and refuses to let go.
Instead of locking down, our goal here is to increase flexibility and movement.
Let it straighten out. Let it compress down and cinch up.
Anything goes. Except the lock-down.
Do This With All Fingers and Combinations
To get the most out of this exercise, rotate through the fingers, exploring the similarities and differences when anchoring one finger vs. another.
Then try anchoring two fingers. Then a different two fingers. Then a different pair yet.
Finally, go for sets of three fingers anchored. Then for all four.
How is it different from one to the next? Are there any points where you start to apply excess tension? Can you keep mobility and release any excess tension at the same time?
Enter the Guitar
Once you’ve explored how this all works on your arm, it’s time to go back to the guitar.
Oddly, doing this on the guitar is very different than on your arm. It feels different. And you may carry some psychological baggage surrounding the guitar (not necessarily consciously, but through tension habits and/or lack of awareness of how much tension is the right amount).
Letting your fingers extend and contract, explore your full range of motion on the guitar. Allow your wrist to move with every bit as much flexibility and freedom as you had just floating in space.
Watch carefully (you may be able to see more than you can feel and register at this point). Look for full rotations at the wrist. Back and forth movements. Pivots and waves.
It may benefit you to repeat a few “directions” to yourself while doing this exercise. There’s nothing to “do” about these, but to just suggest them to yourself and release them.
You can come up with your own as well, but here are a few to get you started:
- “My wrist is completely free.”
- “My palm is soft.”
- “My hand is releasing.”
- “My wrist is quiet.”
- “My arm is easy.”
- “My fingers are lithe.”
Just repeat them, and notice if anything happens. Don’t “do” anything to try to make them happen.
You may experience something release that you hadn’t noticed before, or you may just become more aware of the feelings in your hand, wrist and arm.
These are just things that we want for ourselves. Little wishes, to put out there and let go of.
Troubleshooting Tricky Spots in Music
Because of our tendency to “lock down” and stiffen the left hand wrist, you may have spots in your pieces that are strenuous or difficult stretches.
If you find a spot that seems like a big stretch, here’s a way to troubleshoot it, to make sure that you are playing it as efficiently as possible.
- For the “arrival” (the landing point), play it outside of the context of the rest of the piece, removed from the notes leading to it and away from it.
- Play around with different wrist and hand positions to find the most comfortable way to play these notes, in isolation, away from other considerations.
- Note your hand, finger and wrist positions in this ideal scenario.
- Starting with the notes or chord prior, choreograph moving to this ideal position from the preceding notes. (You may have to make large movements with your arm or wrist.)
- Practice this new transition several times slowly, emphasizing ease and mobility, and finding the optimum landing position each time.
- Commit to using this choreography each time your play this spot.
Return to This Often
For the first few months of exploring your increased range of movement, it will help to periodically do the exercise away from the guitar and on your other arm.
You can also just take a second here and there to anchor a finger (or two, or a chord) on the guitar and explore your mobility options.
Master players make things look easy by making them easy. And using the most efficient positions and movements are one of the ways they do this.
Hi, I’m Allen Mathews.
I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two stellar teachers – one focused on the technical, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully. Click here for a sample formula.
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