Using the weight of the left arm

Ergonomics and Posture for Classical Guitarists, Aches and Pains, Injuries, etc...
Aaron Elkins

Using the weight of the left arm

Post by Aaron Elkins » Wed Jun 11, 2008 7:26 pm

I've always had trouble grasping just how to use gravity-the weight of the left arm--to apply pressure to the fretboard. The usual advice says something like "Take your proper hand position on the fretboard and just let your arm hang naturally down." But if I let my arm hang naturally down, gravity "naturally" takes it to a position that is straight down; that is, perpendicular to the floor. And obviously, while this may work when one is at the twelfth fret, it won't do in the first position, when the elbow has to be out a little from the body. I recently watched William Kanengiser's video, "Effortless Classical Guitar"--far from effortless, of course, but interesting and worth watching--and he throws a different light on things. Kanengiser says that the weight that is used is not the straight-down weight of gravity that pulls everything toward the earth (straight down, in other words), but the weight that comes from the rocking-back motion of the shoulder.

This made a lot of sense to me, except that I then came across a post by Asturias (whom I trust at least as much as Kanengiser) that said one should imagine a little weight hanging directly from the elbow. That would seem to be quite a different proposition. Would anyone care to address the issue?

LFP

Re: Using the weight of the left arm

Post by LFP » Thu Jun 12, 2008 6:24 am

acelkins wrote: "Take your proper hand position on the fretboard and just let your arm hang naturally down." But if I let my arm hang naturally down, gravity "naturally" takes it to a position that is straight down; that is, perpendicular to the floor.
If you were hanging from a bar above your head, your hands would be tensely gripping the bar but much of your body has no tension at all. In effect your body is a hanging weight. So although you are gripping the bar, most of the pressure you are applying to the bar comes from your weight, not from your grip. When you play in any LH position there needs to be a little tension within the fingers to maintain the "finger hook" to hook the hand on the fret board and the weight of your Left arm can supply the actual pressure. Thinking about the actual force and where it is coming from does not make it any easier to comprehend. A number of exercises can make this easily understood.

You are aware of how your dropped hand feels, in particular the level of relaxation that you feel all the way down your arm. Using your Right hand reach over and grasp your Left sleeve cuff and lift that dead weight up. (Probably more easily done standing up.) You should be able to do that without any movement or support from your left arm. The test: let your arm go, does it fall as a dead weight? When you do that with no tension at any stage of the lift in your Left arm, imagine the same sensations but with a left hand finger providing the supporting hook from the fret board. You will need to do this repeatedly to properly understand it. A way to check whether you are succeeding is to jelly all your left arm and hand except you hooked finger and feel your arm weight just hanging there. To illustrate from another activity, as you walk along your body weight moves from one leg to the other. So although your weight remains constant your point of support changes constantly. That weight transfer is the same process that should apply to your Left Hand on guitar.

Aaron Elkins

Re: Using the weight of the left arm

Post by Aaron Elkins » Thu Jun 12, 2008 5:24 pm

LFP, thank you for that cogent and knowledgeable response. I tried your exercise--which probably gave me the clearest notion yet of what the idea is, but I'm still confused.

You used the example of hanging from a bar to demonstrate the primary role of the body in applying pressure to the bar, and that makes eminent sense. But:

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When you play in any LH position there needs to be a little tension within the fingers to maintain the "finger hook" to hook the hand on the fret board and the weight of your Left arm can supply the actual pressure.
That would work if the fretboard were turned up to the sky, but one can't "hook" onto a surface that is closer to vertical than it is to horizontal. So I just don't see how the weight of the arm can be more important than the pressure of the fingers. Don't get me wrong...I WANT to see a way to use my arm to ease the necessary finger pressure and the strain on the associated muscles (my left forearm starts aching anytime I play for as little as half-an-hour), but I just seem unable to grasp to concept.

I'm sure this seems like a very trivial matter to many members, but for me--and I suspect, for quite a few others--getting it wrong is a cause of tension at the least, and, as in my case, pain.

I'm fairly well-trained in the basics, by the way, although it was a long time ago. My first two years of lessons were from Frederick Noad, way back in the Sixties.

Again, thank you--I hope you have more to say.

Aaron

LFP

Re: Using the weight of the left arm

Post by LFP » Thu Jun 12, 2008 9:50 pm

acelkins wrote:
That would work if the fretboard were turned up to the sky, but one can't "hook" onto a surface that is closer to vertical than it is to horizontal. So I just don't see how the weight of the arm can be more important than the pressure of the fingers. Don't get me wrong...I WANT to see a way to use my arm to ease the necessary finger pressure and the strain on the associated muscles (my left forearm starts aching anytime I play for as little as half-an-hour), but I just seem unable to grasp to concept.

Aaron
Your observation is correct except for one point. The pivot point for your arm at the shoulder is actually behind and "approximately'" above the guitar. Although a "straight" fall would mean your arm hitting the ground directly below it's support point on the guitar, because the arms actual support and fall point is some distance "behind". Your arm weight is "tangentially" applied to the neck and that more approximates the vertical connection you describe as ideal. Not perfect agreed, but better than perhaps one imagines. Add to that the fact that the fingers "grip" the strings by the grooving that forms in their tips which also increases the degree of support that allows your arm weight to be the effective "pressure" when playing notes. I do not want to create the impression that no supporting of the left arm takes place when playing, rather that we should use as much left arm weight as possible and the left arm support will provide the balance.

Aaron Elkins

Re: Using the weight of the left arm

Post by Aaron Elkins » Thu Jun 12, 2008 10:54 pm

LFP, you have no idea how helpful you've been. The scales have been lifted. Thank you!

Aaron

Clay

Re: Using the weight of the left arm

Post by Clay » Sun Jun 15, 2008 8:47 pm

Excellent question and answer regarding the left arm. I have wrestled with this for awhile. When I first learned to play I had a death grip on the fret board with my left hand. It has taken a long time to resolve & I still haven't done it completely. And like you, it wasn't until I watched Kanengiser's DVD that it really started to come together. I remember him describing the action coming more from the shoulder in a natural pulling motion that keeps the finger pressure on the frets. And I believe I took that message to heart, for now I have muscle tension under my shoulder blade & to my spine (I'm obviously over compensating the pulling motion - a new hurdle to jump!). LFP's answer sheds new light on where the weight is and how it functions. This has been very helpful. Thanks!

Aaron Elkins

Re: Using the weight of the left arm

Post by Aaron Elkins » Sun Jun 15, 2008 9:15 pm

Clay wrote:Excellent question and answer regarding the left arm. LFP's answer sheds new light on where the weight is and how it functions. This has been very helpful. Thanks!
Very glad to hear that, Clay. Nice to know this has helped someone besides me. And your right, LFP's explanation of the physics makes Kanengiser's comments much more cogent.

Ain't Delcamp great? I have never come across a site like it, in or out of the guitar area. No "Yo's," no "Dudes," no mean or malicious input--just a terrific community of people with a shared interest in an instrument and in helping one another. Three cheers for the moderators! :bravo:

Clay

Re: Using the weight of the left arm

Post by Clay » Tue Jun 17, 2008 12:09 am

Hip! Hip! Hooray!

tremolo_jones

Re: Using the weight of the left arm

Post by tremolo_jones » Mon Jun 23, 2008 11:04 pm

The "theory" is that you relax the shoulder joint which holds the arm a bit out and in front of you. You do NOT relax the elbow joint. Thus the bent arm will want to swing like a pendulum to its rest position with it's center of gravity below the shoulder joint. The direction that the finger tips move when the arm does this is the exact same direction that the strings are pushed against their frets when playing. Thus in stead of squeezing the fingers against the thumb you let the weight of the arm (pivoting at the shoulder) supply the force to push the strings.

Now you don't have conscious control over shoulder muscles but you do have control over feelings and pressures etc. The way to let the arm weight work is to let go of the pressure of the left thumb. Let the thumb touch the back of the neck (giving the hand a "reference point") but not putting any pressure on the guitar neck. This "feather touch" of the thumb will quit the squeezing of thumb against finger and leave only arm weight left as a source of pressure for the fingers.

Often in videos of various guitarists you can see them actually let the left thumb leave the guitar neck for a moment as they play or produce a vibrato etc. They are, at that moment at least, using arm weight.

If you are getting a cramp in the webbing between your thumb and fingers of the left hand then you are NOT using arm weight enough. Try playing WITHOUT letting the left thumb touch the neck at all to get the idea (a radical measure for sure!) although when playing the thumb touches for reference BUT NOT TO COUNTER THE PRESSURE OF THE FINGERS.

cheers,

t_j

AsturiasFan

Re: Using the weight of the left arm

Post by AsturiasFan » Tue Jun 24, 2008 1:56 am

Yes! That’s what I did to finally get barring down. I practiced without the thumb on the neck. There are lots of opinions, so please keep in mind that I realize what I'm about to express is just an opinion. The description of arm weight is actually very simple. No matter what the description, mechanically there has to be a single effective line of force and once this direction is described the muscles will do the correct job on their own.

Arm weight is simply pulling the hand in more or less along the line of the forearm from wrist to elbow.

This is what I do without difficulty. I see this as being exactly the same as leveraging arm weight. According to Niedt a lot of players don’t even notice the backward pull necessary for leveraging the downward arm weight. IMHO the pullback and downward weight resolves into an effective force that for mechanical reasons must align more or less along the line of the forearm.

Aaron Elkins

Re: Using the weight of the left arm

Post by Aaron Elkins » Tue Jun 24, 2008 6:59 pm

AsturiasFan wrote:Arm weight is simply pulling the hand in more or less along the line of the forearm from wrist to elbow..
I like that! Talk about distilling something complex down to one essential concept. Along with everything else that's been said here, this really clarifies the issue as it was first raised. We should write a book! (At least you guys should.)
Aaron

gregsmithlaw

Re: Using the weight of the left arm

Post by gregsmithlaw » Thu Jun 26, 2008 1:39 am

Thank you for the question and the great answers. I had never heard any of this! Great to learn so much.

RiverGnome

Re: Using the weight of the left arm

Post by RiverGnome » Fri Jun 27, 2008 2:49 pm

I love to learn new things and I did today

cprovinse

Re: Using the weight of the left arm

Post by cprovinse » Sat Sep 13, 2008 5:50 pm

tremolo-jones, I do have fatigue in the webbing between the left thumb and finger. I better take a look and lighten up on the death grip.

yavannildi

Re: Using the weight of the left arm

Post by yavannildi » Tue Sep 16, 2008 6:04 pm

OH MY! I think i'll never be too grateful too you after reading this thread. This has been my nightmare for years. I got the stupid notion that everyone that plays the guitar would have much stronger fingers than i have. I felt a bit "weak" :wink:

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