A Tip for the Anxious Musician: Relax

Easier said than done. This tip is for any musician, and it will affect how you play. It makes sense that if athletes warm up before they exercise to loosen their muscles, musicians should too. After all, both require the player to control their muscles well in order to play well.

It is important that musicians learn which areas of their bodies tend to tense up more than others. For me, it’s my shoulders. When I get stressed out and anxious, my shoulders raise. Recognize that it is a skill to even sense this. Many often do not notice the change.

If you can learn to notice when your muscles tense up, you can learn to relax them. Here are some common areas that tense up:

  • shoulders and neck
  • hands
  • forehead
  • lower back

One way to relax is to focus your attention on the spot that is tense and intentionally relax it. Because it’s like flexing on purpose, one way to relax it is to first make it as tight as possible, and then letting it loosen up as much as possible, relaxing the area as much as possible.

There are many ways people work on relaxing, and beyond the mental and spiritual elements, I’ve seen this method of physically relaxing to be effective.

So if you play piano, for instance, and your hands are tense, a young player might tend to stick their fingers in the air. There are many possible reasons for this, but this exercise of tightening and then loosening is a start.

If you are a musician, what helps you relax?

Less is More

Less is More

This principle is very important in music. Truth be told, this is a principle important in life, since it is easy to over-work, over-plan, over-stress, and over-think.

Have you ever wondered why the lives of many elderly get simpler, and less cluttered? Could it be that it has less to do with their out-of-touch-ness and more to do with wisdom?

I believe that many, in their years, have learned this principle in their life.

The principle “less is more” reveals how important it is to do a few things well. It means living among other human beings without hogging all the attention. It means listening well to others and contributing to society in a significant way rather than just a noisy, clanging kind of way (I think 1 Corinthians 13:1 might have something to say about that). It means being patient to add your two cents at the right time. After all, if you live by this principle, you are humble enough to recognize that you only have two cents.

In music, it’s the same.

(This, incidentally, is one reason I love teaching music. There are inherent life-lessons involved.)

So what does this “less is more” principle look like in music? Well, I’ll break down the above paragraph:

  1. Do a few things well
  2. Live as others are more important than you (don’t hog all the attention)
  3. Listen well
  4. Contribute in a significant way (don’t just be noisy)
  5. Remember you are only one part of a whole

While you can apply these things to life, I’ll note how I believe they apply to music specifically.

1. Do a few things well

As a student, it is so easy to move on before it is time. It is better to learn a few things well than learn a whole bunch of things without getting any of them down. The reason is because it’s hard to remember that it takes many more repetitions of a skill than you think. Students feel that after they’ve done the skill correctly once or twice, they have mastered it. To put it another way, they believe it is “easy” before it is truly done with ease.

Practice a few things. It will lead to even greater artistry in the future. Less now will mean more later.

2. Live as if others are more important than you (don’t hog all the attention)

This one is especially huge for those playing with others. I believe the goal in learning music is for the benefit of others, so even if you are a soloist, it should not be about you. People watch you and can read pretty quickly if you couldn’t care less if they were there, or if the only reason you want them there is to applaud how awesome you are.

As a band, considering others as more important than yourself is an important concept. Think of it – what would it sound like if everyone played a solo at the same time?

Answer: mass chaos.

Likewise, what would happen if a car had two steering wheels?

Answer: mass chaos (and death).

What happens when there are too many “cooks in the kitchen?”

Answer: mass chaos.

If you are playing with others, it is crucial that you don’t try to hog all the attention. Playing more and louder will only lead to mass chaos. Instead, how can you support those around you in what you play? What is your role? The more players, the less you should be compelled to play. I often think of a classic band like the Eagles with this. They were extremely good at this principle, and their music reflected it.

3. Listen well

Don’t try to be heard. Try and listen. This one is related to the above. If you are considering the other players as more important than yourself, you will be listening to what they are doing. Besides what they are playing, you will notice how they are playing, and will be able to adjust if they change. The beauty is that communication begins only when all are listening well to one another, and the team can then adjust simultaneously. Some bands are so good at this that very little body language or facial expression is needed to communicate effectively.

Play less for the sake of better communication, and a better sound as a band.

4. Contribute in a significant way (don’t just be noisy)

No one wants to listen to flat-out noise, and every band should remember that they are on a continuum between chaotic, cacophonous noise and beautiful ordered music.

One potential problem with #3 above is that a tentative, nervous player will play so little that he barely contributes at all. Now, this might not be all bad, for obvious reasons, but he should push himself to contribute meaningfully even if he is not a great player.

On other hand, some players don’t realize they need a lot of work on their technical skills and will play loud and proud without consideration of the whole sound (he’s already blown the first three above).

This item is included so that neither claiming “minimalist” as a musical philosophy nor claiming irresistible “Animal” tendencies are an option. If the goal is to contribute in a significant way, you will find balance in between. This item is also placed where it is because doing this well is somewhat dependent on the first three.

Less means more significant, not necessarily fewer notes.

5. Remember you are only one part of a whole

I hope this one is fairly self-explanatory. As a musician, you cannot and will not make the same kind of sound by yourself as with a group.

I think of the kind of sound all the saints will make in heaven as they worship the Savior (an enormous thought).

As you play with others, remember that part of the reason you play “less” is because you are not the whole.

You are not a band any more than a soldier is an army.

Summary

The “less is more” principle means practicing and mastering a few things at a time, listening well and considering others as more important than you, and then contributing meaningfully to the overall sound as you play with the team.

How have you seen this principle in action?

 

lessismore

Getting over the Blank Canvas

Getting over the Blank Canvas

Sometimes playing music can start with as much of a blank canvas as painting. Even if there is a sheet of paper with notes or chords on it in front of you, players or groups still get this familiar sense: “Where do I start?”

For instance, a guitar player, bassist, drummer and a singer get together to play. If there is no set songs to play, it’s worse, but even if there are songs that have been chosen, they still must decide how to start.

Or, when a beginning guitar player picks up his or her guitar to play, they play around on chords, but how do you put them together? How should they strum?

A large part of this blog is to help get over this hurdle. I hope to offer tips that help get over this “blank canvas” feeling.

I enjoy the visual arts as well and have felt this many times. It comes with the territory…and you don’t realize how tall that mountain is until you get right up next to it. In other words, until you pick up your pencil, brush, guitar pick, drum sticks or get together as a band and begin to play, you don’t realize that the squatty thing in the distance was Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Every artist must learn to overcome this feeling. And you can too.

So here’s the first tip: Imitate

One of the best principles I’ve found for learning anything is to try to copy what someone else has done.

This is called “mimesis” in classical education circles. It’s why God wanted Moses to write the song in Deuteronomy 31-32. It’s why Jesus asked those men to follow Him. It’s why Paul and the other apostles told the churches to imitate God and Christ in love (cf. Eph 5:1-2). It’s why the apostles not only told the churches to imitate them (2 Thess 3:7-9), but to also consider the outcome of the way of life of their leaders and imitate them (Heb 13:7).

Back to music. This is fairly easy to do these days with guitar. Find a song. Find the chords. Play along.

(Simply type in the name of the song in google with “lyrics and chords” next to it and you should find something.)

I have led worship music for much of my life and these types of songs are wonderful to use.

Number two: Consistent and Simple is Best

Secondly, remember that it is more important to be consistent with something simple than to try to do too much. If you’re by yourself, it’s better to work yourself up to the more complex thing. If you’re with a band, the same applies – it’s better to work up to the more complex thing than try something too complicated…even if one person can do it so easily.

It’s a trap.

Just work on being consistent with something simple – on your skill level – first.

For instance, as a band, try this. Strip the chords to their bare bones by only playing the chords shown at major places (like the down beats – or maybe even just the 1 count).

As a beginner guitarist, try this: play a D chord until you have mastered it, and don’t move on until you can close your eyes and put your hand in the right place. Or if you’ve mastered the D chord, try using the D to practice switching to a chord you don’t know as well, and go back and forth. Master that.

Work on being consistent with something simple.

I know there are many things going on that can cause a musician to freeze up, quit in frustration, or simply get bored. Remember you are training yourself (even as a band), to hear well and play well. It’s ear training as well as muscle memory training.

Stay the course!

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Feel the rhythm: A tip for drummers

Feel the rhythm: A tip for drummers

Drumming is an amazing and satisfying activity, but it can have its challenging side, too. One of the challenges to playing the trap set (for instance) is getting all your limbs to do something different, but work together.

Now, there are several things to figure out at once: tempo (speed), dynamics (loudness), syncopation (playing notes and accents at different times), and four limbs to use. This feels a bit daunting, and students can quickly send all their mental energy to the tips of their fingers and toes.

This doesn’t sound at all bad – after all, isn’t that what they’re using to play?

True, but rhythm doesn’t start at the fingers and toes. It doesn’t start in your brain or on your lips either. Counting is necessary (even out loud), but counting with your mind or with your lips does not necessarily unify your limbs. They can still be a little bit off (in drummer language, every note is more like a flam), and it sounds very choppy.

So my tip is really for any musician, but it happens to be especially crucial for a drummer: Feel the rhythm.

What? Right – feel it, but not in your fingers and toes, and not in your mind or off your lips.

No. Feel it in your core. Your torso. Your center.

Sound strange?

When you “count” using your center mast – your chest – all your limbs follow. Relax and let your body feel the rhythm.

Try practicing this while listening to music. Don’t play. Just listen and try to feel the rhythm in your chest. No, you won’t feel it physically (unless the volume and bass is turned up really loud), but try and allow yourself to naturally move to it. Go ahead and dance, but let it start at your core.

The more you can train yourself to feel the rhythm in your chest, the more free your limbs will be to follow. Otherwise, they will try and lead, but that works about as well as one sibling trying to manipulate another by using a parent.

Unify your limbs by feeling the rhythm in the center of your body.

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Strength of hand: Finger Presses

Playing music is an amazing experience. I believe most people know that, but feel actual playing is an impossibility, and remain content to simply “appreciate” the ones who do. While all should recognize God’s purposes and giftings for and in their life, I believe everyone is an artist.

But the artistry involved with music must start somewhere, right? Part of the hurdle many face as they begin the journey of playing music is a weak hand.

Everyone is in a different place. Everyone has different natural and learned skills, but even those with natural skill and interest need strength of hand. Almost any instrument requires it.

There are many ways to strengthen the hand. Even if you don’t have a hand exerciser, you can work on strengthening your hand.

I call them:

 
A finger press is simply this: Press the index finger (pointer) on the thumb as hard as possible for 3 seconds. Move to the middle finger, and then do the same for your ring finger and pinky. Continue rotating from finger to finger for about 3-5 minutes. Be sure to continue and not stop right when it starts to hurt.

If you would like to purchase something, here are a couple suggestions (both found on Amazon.com here, but can be found other places)

Standard Hand Grips

std hand grips

GripMaster (designed for individual finger exercises)

gripmaster

These are both great options, but may be a little harder to press at younger ages. I actually have the first one in my car, but my kids cannot use it very well. 

That’s why finger presses are a great choice for anyone. They are useful for strengthening the left-hand for a guitar player, or both hands for a pianist. In fact, there is an added benefit. The shape of the fingers in a proper finger press is identical to the proper hand positioning on both guitar and piano.

Try it out!