Robert Frost on Ease and Freedom in Guitar Playing

Tuesday Quotes are short explorations of music, life, and the daily endeavor of practicing classical guitar. Find more here. Enjoy!

“You have freedom when you are easy in your harness.” 

Robert Frost

A common goal among classical guitarists is to play with ease and grace.  We want to be comfortable and relaxed, so playing feels effortless.  

We may sense this state just around the next bend.  As if nearing the crest of a hill, we anticipate the view into the next valley and beyond.  

But like the horizon before us, it may not seem to get any closer as we run.  As we continue to work at it, it continues to move further away.  

Ease and freedom on the guitar are benchmarks of a high level of competence.  When we first begin playing, we do not yet know how much tension is needed.  So we use too much or not enough.  

With time and intentional practice, we come to better know appropriate tension.  

We learn this in our bodies.  And like peeling the layers of an onion, we repeatedly progress, but not all the way.  There are always more layers.

In every moment of the day, we have patterns of muscle tension.  We learn these from watching our parents and other adults as children.  We mirror the people around us.  

We also train them with our daily habits.  For hours each day, we sit at a desk or bend over our work.  Our heads come forward and alter the natural curve of our spines.  And this requires more of some muscles and under-flexes others.  

And our emotions and thoughts also play a part.  Our thoughts affect the cranial nerves in our faces and necks.  We may unconsciously tense our jaw, eyes, or lips.  These, along with the small muscles in our upper necks, change the tilt of our upper vertebrae.  This in turn puts pressure on our nerves and arteries, affecting blood flow to our brains and constricting those same nerves.

The human body is complex, with all the different skeletal, nerve, muscle, and other systems.  But in real-time, in real life, it is even more complex.  

We add a complex task such as playing the classical guitar.  This takes most of our conscious thought and attention.  Just to play the right note at the right time takes enormous attention.

It is too much to ask that we also consciously change our habitual muscle tension while playing.  We can practice releasing excess tension while we play.  But it takes a high level of experience and practice to do this while playing a piece of music at our best.  

For this reason, it pays to spread the job of playing guitar with ease to other parts of our lives.

In the moments throughout our day, we can become more aware of excess tension.  We can notice how we use the muscles in our faces and tongues.  We can observe our resting hand tension.  

Everyday tasks can then become a practice in appropriate tension.  Holding a sponge at the kitchen sink, or a fork at mealtime can become a moment of intentional practice.  The set of our eyes and mouth, or hands and feet, are there to investigate around the clock.  Even laying in bed in bed before sleep, we use our bodies.  

We can become curious about what we do when we’re “not looking”.  We can become careful observers of ourselves and our habitual patterns.  

And the awareness we gain helps more than just guitar.  We come to know ourselves better.  We become more present and engaged in the current moment.  We come to see ourselves as bodies in motion, making decisions beneath the level of consciousness.  

In time, we can bring this awareness to our bodies when playing guitar.  And when we add this awareness to our daily practice, we can create new physical challenges.  A simple scale or right-hand pattern can become a full-body orchestration.  We may notice unnecessary tension and use our daily technique practice to release it.

This widens our view about what it is to play guitar, and what is possible.  It gives us constant fodder for curiosity and exploration.  And it adds new levels of enjoyment to practicing the guitar.  

Over time, with practice and attention, we come to ride more easily in our harnesses. We learn to release and let go.  We discover when to tighten control and when we can trust in our prior training.  And layer by layer, we come to know that which we are seeking.

Exercise: Hold your arms in a guitar-playing position.  Then release all excess tension.  Lightly wiggle your fingers. Feel the ease and freedom in your hands, arms, joints, face, body.  Close your eyes if you need to.  Feel what it feels like to play with complete ease.  Pretend it is completely effortless.  

Next, bring this feeling and musculature to whatever you are doing.  Holding your phone, brushing your teeth, sweeping the floor.  Do anything and everything with intentional freedom and ease.  Stay aware of your body and thoughts.  Notice how they change from moment to moment.

As you bring more ease to the simple tasks of life, you’ll be more able to bring it to your guitar-playing.

Allen Mathews

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 other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, 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.
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