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“Oh, My Aching Shoulder”: Classical Guitar and Pain

Let me say upfront, that if you are searching for a quick-fix and easy answer for the pain issue, you’ve come to the wrong place. However, if you are curious to explore the nefarious nature of this issue a little deeper, please read on. gremlin_on_beth

The culprit is crafty, insidious, and breathing down your neck even as you read this.  Victory over this plague can only be won by constant diligence and determination.  But victory we must win, though a long and hard road it may be, for without victory, there is no comfort.

This plague, shared by classical guitarists, has to do with the left arm and shoulder.
Often times, when practicing, our upper arm and shoulder become invaded by stiffness and pain.

Other people experience back pain and find it difficult to play guitar comfortably. The perpetrator is one and the same.  I have experienced these maladies, and have been asked about them by numerous students.

Wherever it strikes, it threatens to end our practice session prematurely, distract us from our music, and leach the vitality and beauty from our artform.  

While I am no medical expert, I do have quite a bit of experience with this issue in my own practice, especially as informed by my personal practice of the “Alexander Technique”.

What I’ve learned is this: our body parts do not exist in isolation. The muscles in our neck and back attach to the muscles in our shoulder, which attach to the muscles in our arm, and eventually our hands. Our front, legs and butt also connect to our back, and therefore by extension, our arms and hands.

So the issue with a painful arm, shoulder or back is not an issue solely with that part, but concerns the entire use of our body.

 

This is what happens:

We hold some amount of excess tension in our eyes, tongue, face and neck. We arch our back, or we slump and collapse our front.  We use the muscles in our legs more than we need to.  And all this creates a situation where our  neck and back muscles are “holding onto” our shoulder muscles.  Then when we most need our shoulders to be free, they are in a bind.  It is like driving with both the gas and brake pedals depressed.  We work against ourselves. When the shoulder gets tired, as it will because it is being forced to work against the neck and back muscles, we get the whole “painful shoulder” scenario.

It is not to say that we are aware of this excess tension. Some tension is essential, but we frequently and unwittingly use too much exertion for the task at hand. It’s an issue of appropriate tension.

Many times we are not even aware that we are exerting inappropriate tension until we realize that some particular muscle or muscle group is burning or hurting and in a locked position.

There is no need, while playing the classical guitar, to exert enough muscle force to lift heavy furniture. But this is what happens.  This is what we unknowingly do.

Many people are prone to deny excess muscle tension. The assumption is that if they were doing something with their body, they would know about it. They assume, quite wrongly, that their perception of what happens with their body is indeed reality. And this could not be further from the truth. In fact our sensory perception is very frequently completely skewed.  We may not be comfortable admitting it, but the truth is that we cannot be entirely trusted when it comes to interpreting our sensory input (or, as we call it, “reality”).

As a side note, I recently saw a bumper sticker on the back of a car that would be fitting here.  It read, “Don’t believe everything you think.”  I agree.  If you do believe everything you think, you will very often simply be wrong.

We can witness this in people who walk stooped over, hunched. They are obviously crooked. However, they do not feel crooked. They feel normal. And if you were to straighten them out, then they would feel crooked. Their perception is not aligned with reality.

A very large portion of the population amble around with uneven shoulders (but don’t take my word for it; start checking this out).  You may want to check the mirror for this yourself. Is one shoulder lower than the other? If so, ask yourself if it feels crooked. Because clearly it is.

So the way in which we use our bodies is not entirely in our conscious control. We can temporarily adjust ourselves (i.e. level out our shoulders in the mirror), but as soon as our mind goes to something else, whatever we have habituated (uneven shoulders) will take over.

This can be a good thing.  Some amount of “autopilot” is essential (thank heavens we can still drive somewhat safely while our mind is elsewhere!). It is when the “autopilot” is steering us the wrong direction that we have cause for alarm.  Renegade Autopilots can steer us into danger without us even knowing (until it’s too late….{cue Beethoven’s Fifth here}).

 

The Classical Guitar Conundrum

The classical guitar is a large, asymmetrically shaped instrument. It demands that we both support it, and play it. It demands that we sit asymmetrically, and distribute our weight asymmetrically. It demands that we use our left and right sides of our body in different ways. It demands that we support (raise) our arms for long periods of time and hold them relatively still. It demands that we use both very large muscle groups, and very small muscle groups. It demands that we are simultaneously athletic while also demonstrating intricately delicate and nimble facility.

In addition to the physical demands of simply holding and creating sound on the classical guitar, we are faced with the necessity to balance complex musical issues, memorize left and right hand scales and fingerings, control subtle shades of balance (multiple lines of music happening at the same time) and dynamics (the volume of each note or phrase) and numerous other details.

The sheer number of separate things that we are required to track at any given moment makes it near impossible to micromanage our muscular state. The idea that we can simply play with more relaxation in our arms, or less tension in our face, neck, back, legs, etc., is utterly ridiculous. We may manage it for a moment, but the overwhelming majority of the time, we will be using our body in its habituated fashion.

So as it turns out, a painful arm, shoulder or back while playing the classical guitar is simply a symptom and manifestation of an overall pattern of misuse of ourself.  It is a hideous Medusa: it cannot be defeated by focusing directly on it.  We must catch it by surprise, when we have the time and mental RAM for the job.

 

So what is there to do about it?

In truth, there is little to do about the shoulder. We may examine some common points of overexertion (like bar chords) and work on the efficiency of our technique. But this is akin to thwacking at branches. Some other manifestation of our misuse will come to light soon enough. Or remain present without our knowing it, nevertheless undermining our playing (like the dastardly gremlin it is).

In my mind, the best option is to find an Alexander Technique teacher, and start seeing them regularly. There are some things that we simply cannot learn from books or the internet, and the Alexander Technique is one of them. (Some musicians balk at the price of Alexander Technique lessons, which are, ironically, similar in price to classical guitar lessons (both in person and via Skype or Facetime). However, the overall improvement to daily quality-of-life, and the health issues avoided throughout life and the savings associated with them, make AT lessons one of the best investments you could make.)

Alexander Technique lessons or not, there are some things that you can do away from the guitar that can, over time, help to bring muscular tension levels closer to what is appropriate.  The following options pertain to increasing bodily awareness and creating a beneficial environment (read as: chair).

 

Choose a Good Chair and Sit Up

The first involves choice of chair.  Choose a flat, hard bottomed chair. Ideally there is little or no padding, and the seat is completely parallel with the floor, with no slant or contours.  Also ideally, your knees are very close to straight out from the chair, so that the top of your thighs are also fairly close to parallel with the floor.

Sit on the edge of the chair, with both feet flat on the floor. Now, rock side to side. You will feel your “sits bones”. These are the two knobby bones in your bum. If you arch your back severely, you can feel yourself roll to the front of these. If you slouch, you can feel yourself roll to the back of your “sit bones”. Ideally, these are squarely under us so that they can support the spine.

If our spine is properly supported, we do not have to rely on our musculature to keep us upright. This means that the muscles of the back can release. As they are attached to the shouldes, the shoulders are also allowed to release to some extent.

As you sit this way, it may feel that you’re using more muscular effort than before. You’re actually using less, but you are using your back differently. Take frequent breaks, but resist the urge to slouch or arch.  If the chair is too hard, use a folded towel or thin pad.  In time, this becomes the most comfortable way to sit.

Related: How to Sit and Hold a Guitar

Basic bodily check-ins

Another thing you can do that will, in time, help to reduce tension, is to practice releasing the muscles around your eyes and face, Including the back of the tongue. This may sound counter-intuitive. What does the face have to do with the shoulder? The facial muscles very much Inform the muscles of the neck, which directly affect the shoulders.  It’s all tied together.

Another benefit of practicing relaxing the muscles around your eyes and face, is that it lessens overall stress and feels good.  It even makes you look better!  (As someone once said, “A smile is a facelift.”)

You can also practice releasing your legs as you sit or stand, or any other muscle group.

 

More Daily Practices in Awareness

Ultimately, if you wish to play your classical guitar more comfortably and with less pain, one of the best things you can do is to develop the habit (away from the guitar) of actively noticing and releasing tension throughout your body, throughout the day.  Develop a habit of constantly keeping in mind an overall desire to move freely and to use only the appropriate tension for whatever task you are currently performing.  Take notice of and consciously choose how you are sitting (even away from the instrument), and seek to find comfort and reduced effort throughout your day by using your skeleton to support your frame, and allowing your muscles to help balance.

You see, all day long, we perform tasks exactly the way that we performed them yesterday (and the day before, and the day before that).  Oftentimes, we can go weeks (or, for some, years!) without doing anything new at all.  We wake up to the same routine, go to the same places, do the same things in the same way, see the same people and environments, close the day with a routine, wake up and do it all over again.

Our minds are wired to recognize patterns, and then “fill-in-the-blank” so that our conscious awareness can be used for something else.  As I said above, this is great.  For musicians, this translates to how we move, our technique and abilities, speed, memorization, etc.

Playing the classical guitar is a repetitive task.  We sit the same way, hold the instrument the same way, and largely play the same way for years.  We often even think the same way for years (unless we are actively studying with a good teacher or otherwise expanding our musical boundaries).

So of course, our mind creates shortcuts and fills in the details for us.  The problem arises when we are unconsciously re-creating actions that we “programmed in” years ago, when we were just beginners.  Unless we consciously “program” our physiology (entire body) to work in unison and to the greatest agility and efficiency, it simply will make do with whatever works (which is seldom the most desirable or efficient).

You can prove this phenomenon to yourself by mentally playing through a difficult piece of music.  If it is one with which you have struggled in practice, chances are that your hands, arms, and body will tense up at exactly the places that give you trouble.  You have “programmed” your neurology to play it this way, with excess tension in those spots (or perhaps throughout)-

To open the doors to awareness and greater ease of movement in our bodies, we can practice becoming more aware of the daily mundane tasks that allow us the time and mental capacity to observe them.  These are the easy things we do every day.

Note: Playing the guitar requires way too much of our mental facilities to spare some for this type of exploration.  Stick with the mundane for now.

So start paying attention to how you are carrying out the small actions.  You don’t have to change anything, just observe what is happening.  That is how we build awareness.

Here are some ideas:

  1. How tightly are you holding your toothbrush?  Does this make for the best brushing you can muster?  How are you standing/sitting while you brush?  Are your joints free, or locked?  Is the tension in your jaw appropriate for the task at hand?
  2. The same questions could be asked of your eating habits, and how you use your body when eating.  Are you sitting up, or slouching, or arching?  Are you eating consciously, or just gobbling your food?  Do you grit your teeth when you squeeze a slice of lemon?
  3. How much tension is in your arm and shoulder when using a pencil or pen to write?  Are you over-squeezing the pencil?  What is your face doing?  What are your legs doing?
  4. How are you using yourself at the computer?  Could it be more natural and free in the joints?  Would a world-class dancer do it differently than you?  How would they do it?  How hard do you type?  How much tension is in your arms, shoulders, wrist, etc. while you are typing?
  5. How do you get in and out of the carseat?  Could you be more graceful?
  6. When standing, sitting or laying between physical actions (like waiting, lying in bed, relaxing on a couch or chair, etc) how much are you tensing your wrists and hands?  How about the back of your tongue?
  7. What other daily activities can you think of that allow you a moment to observe everything going on?

Talk the Talk (to yourself)

Also, instead of saying things in a passive way, try owning up to your actions and take the active role.  For instance, instead of, “My shoulder hurts.”, say to yourself, “I am hurting my shoulder.” (It’s true, whether you like it or not.)

Or instead of saying, “My back is stiff.” say “I am stiffening my back.”  (or even, instead of, “I don’t have enough time to practice like I’d like to.”, you could say, “I haven’t been taking as much time to practice as I would like.)

By taking back responsibility for our daily constant little actions, we empower ourselves to make different choices that are healthier, more graceful, and more conducive to playing the classical guitar effortlessly and powerfully.  Just by framing the situation actively (that we are doing it and in control) reminds us that we have a choice in the matter.  (The choice you make at that point is the ultimate daily battle.  This is the path of the warrior, the artist’s call-to-arms {pun intended}.)

 

The Enemy Within

If you decide to start noticing more the way you use your body, and seek to make it more efficient, you will be up against the most powerful adversary.  Our powers of habit and our subconscious desire for the safety of homeostasis (the same-old-same-old) will work overtime to keep things exactly as they are right now, even to our peril.  This is the true gremlin in the machine.

At first you may be excited for change and full of zeal.  After a few days to a few weeks you will start to tell yourself that bodily awareness is pointless, or that you don’t have the time, that you can do that “later” (Wormtongue whispering in your ear, crumbling your will)  Then after a couple of days, you will forget all about it.  Soon, your shoulder can go back to hurting, just like before, and the forces of old habit have defeated the conscious will.   This is how our inner goons operate to keep the status quo.  This is why you are as you are and your life is as it is, for better or for worse.

If you are diligent, persistent and mindful, you will begin to change habits.  You will develop new habits of awareness.  Those same goons that before protected your inner villans will now become noble defenders of your growing grace, efficiency and poise.  Your body will feel better, and you will be more actively engaged with the current moment.  Your quality of awareness will steadily increase and your work and use (on the guitar and off) will improve.  You will taste victory and enjoy a well-earned freedom of mobility.  You can now practice comfortably with high dynamic energy and create beautiful flowing music, and your guitar practice can leave you feeling refreshed and peaceful, invigorated and satisfied.

 

Now, Over to You

If you like, please share your successes, trials, observations and thoughts in the comments section

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8 Responses to “Oh, My Aching Shoulder”: Classical Guitar and Pain

  1. Mark Darling June 16, 2017 at 10:17 am #

    I have been noticing tension ache in my shoulder blade after about an hour of practice. Out of curiosity I looked up the Alexander Technique which took me to American Society for the Alexander Technique and found they have books there reasonably priced. I also seen that they have a reprint Mr Alexander’s book available. The title is “Man’s Supreme Inheritance” originally written around 1910 by Mr F Mathias Alexander.

    • Allen June 16, 2017 at 10:43 am #

      Hi Mark,
      AMSAT is great. The best in the US for sure (I’m told).
      The books are not a substitute for lessons with a teacher, but good for the cerebral side of it. Alexander himself was not a great writer, and his books don’t flow very well, in my opinion. I very much like Body Learning, by Michael Gelb, and Indirect Procedures, by Pedro de Alcantara. Both are great for those with no prior AT experience. I would start with Body Learning.
      Cheers,
      Allen

  2. Graham Fisher May 9, 2015 at 11:41 am #

    Hi Allen

    I get pain in the very base of my left thumb, just above the wrist. Can you suggest any exercises or changes in technique to remedy that?

    Thanks for another informative article.

    Graham

    • Allen May 9, 2015 at 11:56 am #

      Hi Graham,
      Sorry to hear about your thumb/wrist pain.
      I am no expert, and certainly no doctor, so I can only conjecture.
      But that said, I would start by making sure that your guitar neck is high enough so that you can get “under it” when you play. Any extreme wrist angles can lead to pain like this.
      Also, notice the other activities throughout your day that may add to stress on it. Driving, typing, mouse use (usually right hand, but different strokes and all), yoga, work tasks, all these types of things could tire it out, then guitar could be pushing it over the edge.
      You could google “carpal tunnel stretches” and find a routine that could help. Also, this post is on stretching and warming up.
      If you send me a short video of you playing, I would be happy to see if anything jumps out at me.
      Good luck!
      Allen

  3. Linda Shepherd January 1, 2015 at 7:48 am #

    Hi Allan,
    First may I wish you a happy New Year! Thank you for the notes above. As I have taken my guitar playing more and more seriously, I have become increasingly aware of bodily tension as you describe it. It is generally in my left shoulder and now it is apearing in my right shoulder. (Having bronchitis isn’t helping!)
    I know I must release the tension, but no one seems to explain HOW to do this. Perhaps recognising when it happens is a start! As I become aware of the tension, I stop and let my arms hang down and take a couple of deep breaths. Any other suggestions? Perhaps a video showing some basic releasing movements might be useful?
    Looking forward to more tips through the year.
    Linda

    • Allen January 3, 2015 at 2:50 pm #

      Thanks for the comment and question, Linda!
      You are right: becoming more aware of the tension is a good direction to go. And when you notice it, stop. Give yourself a second or three to release, then start again.

      One thing that I have found helpful (not that I have completely slayed the “excess tension beast”) is noticing tension in other activities throughout the day, and releasing the extra tension there. In everyday activities, we can often spare more brainpower than we can when we are playing (which is a very complex task).

      Thanks again, and have a great year,
      Allen

  4. debbie July 28, 2013 at 7:14 am #

    Just some thoughts on the topic. I think muscle imbalance is a big contributing factor to injury from what I’ve seen in practice as well as personally. I’m currently recovering from a torn hamstring tendon resulting from a muscle imbalance between my hamstring and quads resulting from years of long distance running. I didn’t crosstrain or do anything to correct for this. Sitting triggers discomfort but interestingly I never experience discomfort while playing the guitar no matter how long, while sitting in the car for 10mins or at work will trigger it. My physical therapist has no answer for this. Another mystery surrounding the guitar! 🙂
    Regarding shoulder pain, the position the guitarist is in while holding the guitar leads to stronger pectorals and weaker opposing muscles of the upper back. Particularly the rhomboids. There is going to be muscle tension if there is muscle imbalance because the body is trying to compensate. To correct this, one needs to strengthen the opposing muscles. Also proper body mechanics is impo. & keeping our joints in neutral position most of the time to minimize injury. i.e. wrist should neither be in acute flexion or extension. Of course being aware of certain concepts doesn’t mean I always practice it…..

    • Allen July 29, 2013 at 7:43 am #

      Thanks for the comment, Debbie,
      I appreciate your thoughts, and am glad that you are free of the pain described above.

      And thank you for pointing out another common (and attractive) idea, that increased muscle training will get rid of an imbalance, which in turn gets rid of pain. As attractive as this is in theory, in practice it does not generally work. The reason is, as you said, the compensation. The culprit is HOW we use our bodies, and all the muscle strength in the world cannot substitute for (or inherently lead to) good bodily use. Most of us are plenty strong to play the guitar. But we use ourselves in inefficient and imbalanced ways.

      Pain or not, I believe that Alexander Technique lessons and/or practicing some of the awareness exercises above would benefit anyone’s playing and experience.

      Have fun,
      Allen

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