I don't have a lot of time off from my job, but when I take it it is usually to a music festival or family visits. This week I am at the Milwaukee Irishfest , the largest Irish cultural event in the world (because it is run by Germans), and I attended the Irishfest summer school learning from the best..
If you have ever taken lessons at these weekend offerings, you know that there is a lot of information offered in each class. Because the classes are so concentrated, the amount of information can't be assimilated very well, in fact if you don't record them you will lose a lot of what was given to you.
This week I took classes from Martin Howley and Enda Scahill. Each class was small, a good thing, and each class was aimed at the intermediate to advanced student which meant that there were concepts that I had never considered before and they seemed to pass by me at lightning speed. I video a lot of these classes so I can review them later (and often I do) but I also look for a unifying theme which in this case was learning the value of relaxation.
Both Martin and Enda talked about how important relaxation was to their playing and how they actively searched out methods of relaxation in order to not only enhance their playing, but to preserve their health. Their new band, WeBanjo3, is a show band. In other words, they stand and move around expending a lot of energy on stage all while carrying a heavy banjo. Any extra tension ends up as back, shoulder, and arm pain. Enda has been using the Alexander Technique which focuses on (among other things) posture and relaxation. Martin has been exploring various methods of relaxation and he finds that he can invoke a relaxation response before playing that helps him be more productive and imaginative in his playing because he doesn't worry about his technique.
"Well", you might say, "these are the professionals, what do they have to worry about?"
The answer is "everything." They are professionals because they consider every factor in their playing and have found that in order to play well, or in this case fantastically, they have to have the ability to be efficient, accurate and precise. If you are tense, it means that not only are the muscles that you use to play are activated, but that the opposing flexor muscles are too. As a result there is a tug of war going on in your body that results in slower weaker movement that is imprecise and inaccurate. Triplets suffer and you start sounding harsh and have poor timing.
I've been involved in a mental training effort for sports shooters for the past thirty plus years and write extensively on the subject. The same principles of relaxation apply to shooting and other sports, the more you are able to relax, the more efficient and precise you are. Just look at world class sprinters, when they are at their best they relax every muscle that is not in use for running (you can see their jaws flapping, for example) and as a result there is no tension opposing those muscles used for running so they go faster. This is a trained response and is one that you can use too.
In my banjo class, Enda pointed out that I was raising my shoulder, tensing my neck and otherwise squinching down while I played. Classes like this are anxiety provoking, especially when you are called on to perform, but they also give you an opportunity to see how you do under pressure. Enda suggested I lower the shoulder, sit straighter, relax my elbow and grip, all while trying to enjoy the music. He also pointed out that if you play in front of a mirror and/or video yourself while playing, you can see when you tense up.
This is the same advice that coaches give world class athletes. No matter who you are, you will have a tendency to tense up in performance situations so you have to train to relax until it becomes part of your system. If you don't, then those little tense moments will sneak up on you when you need them the least. Martin composes himself before going on stage with a deliberate relaxation ritual that keeps him going throughout the gig. If he starts to get tense, his little alarms go off and the automatically relaxes. This takes practice, practice, practice, just like any other aspect of learning to play an instrument.
So the main thing I learned was to start a program of relaxation. I've done it in the past for other things so I am confident I can do it for the banjo. Knowing and doing something are two different things, however, so I will have to come back to this column every so often just to remind myself what to do.
I'll put a video here later when I get home showing Enda lecturing on the subject. In the mean time you can find it on my youtube channel michaelkeyes12.