Tempo and tension

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twang
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Tempo and tension

Post by twang » Wed Jun 06, 2018 1:23 pm

So...

The less tension I have when I play, the better I play. The faster the tempo, the more tension I tend to build.

Aside from the general tempo building exercises, does anyone have any specific practices or exercises that address this issue?
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Re: Tempo and tension

Post by Rick Beauregard » Wed Jun 06, 2018 3:33 pm

What a great question. I would also add playing forte also increases tension for me. Anxious for the answer!
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Re: Tempo and tension

Post by Rasputin » Wed Jun 06, 2018 4:17 pm

This is a big one for me too - my trigger is not the tempo so much as a difficult bit that is coming up, which means I make every difficult bit much more difficult than it needs to be.

I have not solved this problem yet but I can tell you what I have found out so far.

Visualisations seem to help. One that comes from Tai Chi (I think) is to imagine water flowing freely from your shoulder down through your arm and out of your fingertips, or to imagine an energy or warmth going down one arm, up the other and round in a circle. Sounds crazy but it does seem to work.

I will occasionally try to play while allowing a joint - shoulder or wrist - to rotate a bit. Obviously you can't do that when playing for real, but if the joint is free to rotate then there isn't much tension across it, so this exercise helps in terms of getting to know what it feels like when that joint is free, and making you more aware of tension. In the same vein, if there's no one else around (or even if there is - who am I to judge) you can let your mouth hang open, or your tongue loll out, or just say ahhhhh.

That last one is kind of from the Alexander Technique, which I looked into a while back. If you make it part of your life I think it can help you use your body more efficiently, but it is not a quick fix by any means. One mini-discovery was that we hold on to our limbs even though they are attached the rest of our skeleton and - assuming you're clear of leprosy - are at zero risk of falling off. Relaxation happens when you let your skeleton do its job and support them, rather than clinging on to them with your muscles.

Speed bursts encourage you to tense up. One possible countermeasure, bearing in mind that for most of us, the level of tension in one hand influences the level of tension in the other, is to do LH and RH bursts separately, letting the resting hand / arm hang loose.

The other thing to be aware of is that very often tension does not originate where you might think. In AT, the neck is basically regarded as the source of bodily tension - the master settting, if you like - so don't focus on the hands to the exclusion of everything else.

You can also get botox injections or give yourself dead arms, but those solutions are a bit extreme...

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guitarrista
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Re: Tempo and tension

Post by guitarrista » Wed Jun 06, 2018 7:03 pm

I think the perception of tension comes from tensing muscles we do NOT need for tone production as well as from using the muscles we do need for tone production inefficiently - most typically by continuing to tense after the string has been released.

From piano studies, which we can use to get some insight, both issues occur much more with amateur players than expert pianists. So we can deduce that minimizing both issues is necessary and desirable. From here on I will focus on the second issue.

You mention tempo, but another variable which brings up these issues is dynamics - playing louder requires more force, and that makes even expert pianists be a bit less efficient in their strokes.

Anyway, let's look at this figure from a 2007 paper on piano key strokes; just read "string" in all instances of "key":
striking_a_key_or_string.jpg

Let's say string release occurs at the moment of maximum string displacement (I am oversimplifying things but I think the concepts apply well and can give us insight). The idea is that the finger force should be turned off as soon as this occurs, thus minimizing unneeded tension per stroke. That impulse area (finger force with time) is very focused and precision-timed in expert pianists, with immediate relaxation after it is not needed.

This also works in our favour when a sequence of fast successive strokes is needed (i.e. when we need to play at fast speed): imagine several of these shapes next to each other, getting closer and closer as speed is increased. At some point they will start to overlap, especially if the trailing branch after string release is wide. But the more we can play like experts with immediate release after the force is not needed, for each stroke, the closer the successive strokes can get without overlapping force production.

The perception of this, if done with time precision and efficiency, is that you can play very fast scales while still feeling like your hand is not doing much at all and has virtually no tension in it - even at loud volumes. (The perception of tension is probably some time-average or cumulative measure of the finger forces).

Based on this, a couple of things to try:
  • Decouple loudness from speed - muffle your strings (e.g. a sock) so that loudness is not a goal, and play a fast scale. This let's you learn to experience that tempo does not necessitate large or excessive tension (we are using loudness as a proxy for finger force magnitude since the two are coupled).
  • Play without a muffle but stop after every few strokes and be conscious that your muscles are not continuing to fire/be tense. This can start from just one stroke at a time; then two at a time, etc. However, for each stroke play them as if they are part of very fast scale and/or very loud. The idea is to learn to feel and diagnose if you continue to tense after it is not needed (i.e. after the string is released) and to teach yourself to turn the force off immediately after string release. Actually, I believe this is what 'speed bursts' are supposed to be like as an exercise; though their other purpose is to prime your CNS and yourself psychologically that you can move that fast.
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Re: Tempo and tension

Post by Nick Cutroneo » Wed Jun 06, 2018 7:16 pm

twang wrote:
Wed Jun 06, 2018 1:23 pm
Aside from the general tempo building exercises, does anyone have any specific practices or exercises that address this issue?
It's not about a specific exercise, but rather developing self awareness of the build up of tension and how to rid yourself of tension. Learning and understanding how the hand/arm/shoulder/neck/back interact with each other muscularly is important. Also understanding the proper motion of the fingers is another. A very loaded and long topic to get into.
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Re: Tempo and tension

Post by Guitar Maniac » Thu Jun 07, 2018 1:47 am

Interesting topic, I know that when executing a free stroke, pushing the string toward the sound hole (soundboard) 1st then plucking then releasing leads to a loud and full sound. However every time I try applying that to the piece I often play, I cannot even play at usual tempo and tension goes up...

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Re: Tempo and tension

Post by Rasputin » Thu Jun 07, 2018 2:11 am

Yes, I think playing through the string slows you down because in effect it makes the stroke longer. It relates to this:
guitarrista wrote:
Wed Jun 06, 2018 7:03 pm
Let's say string release occurs at the moment of maximum string displacement (I am oversimplifying things but I think the concepts apply well and can give us insight). The idea is that the finger force should be turned off as soon as this occurs, thus minimizing unneeded tension per stroke. That impulse area (finger force with time) is very focused and precision-timed in expert pianists, with immediate relaxation after it is not needed.
It's a shame there is no corresponding study for guitarists. Maybe the piano research does carry over, I don't know. I would also relate this to sport and the idea that you have to kick / hit through the ball. You get a better stroke when you hit through the ball, and you get better tone when you play through the string. This is just an image and doesn't necessarily reflect what is going on with the muscles - but to me it still suggests that the force does not come off until after contact with the ball or string has been lost. It could just be that you don't want it to happen any sooner so you err on the side of caution, don't know. Maybe there is some research - people have thrown so much money at golf over the years that there must be studies on pro golfers' swings and when the force comes off.

You could replace the image of playing through the string with the image of firing the finger over the string towards the soundboard, which might achieve the same thing without lengthening the stroke.

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Re: Tempo and tension

Post by jaan » Thu Jun 07, 2018 2:33 pm

I agree with guitarrista and Nick Cutroneo - it's about the quick release of tension. Tension unavoidably will occur in fast or difficult passages, but if you release it quickly and often, it does not tire you.

How to do that? Practice consciously relaxing quickly at the end of a passage. And, practice in general with as little tension as possible so that a low-tension state becomes "normal" and easier to return to. That means practicing slowly, perhaps with reduced left hand force (i.e., let strings buzz a bit), perhaps with a quieter dynamic, and perhaps with right hand preparation/planting.

I like to practice fast scales at pianissimo, as it forces me to focus on right hand relaxation. Can't do it if I'm holding tension.

Also, watch Marcin Dylla's right hand gesture where he lifts his hand away from the string and straightens his wrist. Looks artistic, but releases tension.
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Re: Tempo and tension

Post by guitarrista » Thu Jun 07, 2018 4:22 pm

Guitar Maniac wrote:
Thu Jun 07, 2018 1:47 am
Interesting topic, I know that when executing a free stroke, pushing the string toward the sound hole (soundboard) 1st then plucking then releasing leads to a loud and full sound. However every time I try applying that to the piece I often play, I cannot even play at usual tempo and tension goes up...
(I don't know if this applies to your case, but just a thought)

When guitar teacher say to push into the soundboard, this still does not mean purely a vertical, directly into the guitar, push. It just means to add a bit more of the into-the-guitar force component to the mixture of vertical (into the guitar) and horizontal (in the plane of the strings, toward the bases) force components that combine to push the string on a complex, sort of elliptical trajectory if looked from the side (along the length of the other strings). Also don't separate the complex motion into vertical first, then horizontal (sounds a bit from the above like you do) - it is all still one smooth natural trajectory for the string, just goes a bit deeper into the guitar.

Also, guitar teachers almost always make statements of focus, not of exclusion - they want you to correct by adding a bit more to the mix, not switching to using only a vertical motion (or if the instructions are "no no, main drive is from the knuckle joint", to switch completely to use only one that joint and freeze the other two).
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Re: Tempo and tension

Post by guitarrista » Thu Jun 07, 2018 4:33 pm

Rasputin wrote:
Thu Jun 07, 2018 2:11 am
Yes, I think playing through the string slows you down because in effect it makes the stroke longer. It relates to this:
guitarrista wrote:
Wed Jun 06, 2018 7:03 pm
Let's say string release occurs at the moment of maximum string displacement (I am oversimplifying things but I think the concepts apply well and can give us insight). The idea is that the finger force should be turned off as soon as this occurs, thus minimizing unneeded tension per stroke. That impulse area (finger force with time) is very focused and precision-timed in expert pianists, with immediate relaxation after it is not needed.
It's a shame there is no corresponding study for guitarists. Maybe the piano research does carry over, I don't know. I would also relate this to sport and the idea that you have to kick / hit through the ball. You get a better stroke when you hit through the ball, and you get better tone when you play through the string. This is just an image and doesn't necessarily reflect what is going on with the muscles - but to me it still suggests that the force does not come off until after contact with the ball or string has been lost. It could just be that you don't want it to happen any sooner so you err on the side of caution, don't know. Maybe there is some research - people have thrown so much money at golf over the years that there must be studies on pro golfers' swings and when the force comes off.

You could replace the image of playing through the string with the image of firing the finger over the string towards the soundboard, which might achieve the same thing without lengthening the stroke.
I think the soccerball and golf examples are not ideal in this context because the need for a quick release of tension is only there when you know you have multiple repetitions fairly quickly - which is not the case in soccer and golf. So in these two cases, they can afford to take much longer. Also, in the case of golf and likely soccer, the follow-through after the contact with the ball is over is likely to aid the player with his aiming and correct positioning when striking the ball (a bit akin to how when you drive a car you look tens of meters ahead when judging if you are keeping a straight line).

Having said that, I feel that when you talk about playing through the string, it is the same as what I was saying - which is the force is not needed after contact with the string is lost, i.e. after the moment of release of the string from the edge of your nail (but not before). So I think we agree there.

Also, I hope it is clear that turning off force production does not mean the finger stops dead - it can still travel inertly as it needs to in order to have a smooth natural motion.
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twang
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Re: Tempo and tension

Post by twang » Fri Jun 08, 2018 2:41 pm

Interesting turn. I was thinking about tension building anywhere in the body. I'd never given much though to the build up and release of tension when activating the strings. I hear some scales calling.
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Re: Tempo and tension

Post by Nick Cutroneo » Fri Jun 08, 2018 5:07 pm

twang wrote:
Fri Jun 08, 2018 2:41 pm
I'd never given much though to the build up and release of tension when activating the strings. I hear some scales calling.
Bill Kanengiser talks about this in his instructional videos, so does Scott Tennant in Pumping Nylon.
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