David Motto’s Practice Tip of the Week:
Making Music Can Feel Unnatural
The physical positions used to play musical instruments, and the stress put on the vocal cords when singing, can be unnatural and occasionally uncomfortable. Because of this, it’s important to:
- Remain as comfortable as possible while you’re making music
- Make your playing and singing stress-free so you’re not over-exerting yourself or causing yourself any physical damage
Every instrument has its physical challenges, and many of the motions we make playing instruments are repetitive. These repetitive motions of small muscle groups are like lifting tiny weights over and over again.
This means you need to be comfortable while you’re playing. Otherwise, your muscles won’t have the stamina needed to get through a performance.
Singers face unique challenges too. The angle of your head and neck, where you place your microphone, and the positioning of your torso (which affects breathing) can slowly and insidiously cause damage you’re not aware of until it’s too late.
Three Strategies to Remain Comfortable While Making Music
Here are three simple ideas to try in the practice room, during rehearsals, and on stage:
1. Focus on Your Posture
If you stand while you play or sing, make sure your legs feel loose and your knees are not locked. Balance your weight over both feet and be aware if you are always putting your weight on just your heels or just the balls of your feet. Make adjustments as needed to maximize your stamina and comfort.
If you sit while practicing or performing, use a comfortable chair or stool. Be sure the height of your chair is adjusted to be comfortable for you. You may need to use a pad to help with your posture or to support your back.
All of these steps will help you reach every note with a minimum of tension. With this awareness of your posture you can learn to stop yourself from tensing up just when you need extra effort from your muscles.
2. Bend Your Joints Naturally
FOR INSTRUMENTALISTS: Your shoulders, elbows, wrists, and fingers all need to be used naturally for your playing to be tension-free. If you find yourself unable to play something, check all four of these joint areas for tension. Don’t let any of these joints get locked into a position that will immobilize you.
Your fingers and the gripping muscles in your hands are areas of special concern. If your knuckles collapse while you’re playing, or if you’re gripping too hard with your hand(s), you will slow down your playing. This means it will be impossible to learn any fast notes. Pay special attention to your hands when you’re trying to learn something really fast or difficult.
FOR SINGERS: There are two important ideas about paying attention to your joints to keep your singing stress-free, with full tone and accurate pitch. First, the positioning of your neck and shoulders will directly affect your air flow and your ability to inhale deeply. Any positioning that affects your vocal apparatus and your lungs needs to be watched. Second, even the joints in your body that have nothing to do with singing can affect your sound output. Tension in your hips, knees, or hands can cause you to tighten your shoulders, neck, or jaw. (Yes, somehow or other, the leg bone really is connected to the jaw bone!!) You need control of your whole body to create the vocal tone of your dreams.
3. Pay Attention to Your Breathing
Okay, if you’re a singer or a wind player, you know you need to pay attention to your breathing. You definitely don’t need me to tell you that! Shallow breathing and lack of control for exhaling will wreak havoc on every aspect of your sound.
If you don’t push air to create your music (guitarists, pianists, drummers, string players – I’m talking to you!) your breathing still has a huge effect on your sound and your ability to play well. Many musicians stop breathing or begin taking shallow breaths right when they encounter a difficult musical section.
Cutting off oxygen to your brain and muscles will not make the music easier to play! Make sure you take full breaths and position your torso to make breathing as easy as possible.
Do Whatever It Takes
These three ideas are just a few of the many areas of focus for remaining comfortable when you make music. This is not an exhaustive list. Instead, it’s a realistic list that you can try immediately.
Basically, you need to do whatever it takes to feel good physically as you go through the intricate steps needed to play your instrument accurately and precisely, sing accurately with the tone you desire, and – for you rockers – jump around the stage without doing any physical damage.
And, while I said above that these strategies are “simple,” this does not mean that they are automatic! You will need to be constantly vigilant, reminding yourself over and over to pay attention to how you are using (or abusing!) your body when making music.
Respect what you ask of your muscles and your body. Every time you practice, rehearse, or perform, you are creating habits and building muscle memory. It’s best to form habits that are good for your body over the long haul.
To Your Musical Success!