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A very big obstacle for me in learning to play music has beem tensing and I haven't been able to figure it out for a long time.

Whenever I increase the speed of a small repetitive movement, or need to do something precisely, I hit a wall and the muscles in my limbs become a rock and no amount of mental focus and journeying to the edge of my body's ability does anything. I've practiced enough.

Please share if you've experienced this and if you found what was the root of the problem. Thanks

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    What instrument, which limb(s), and which part(s) of the limb(s)?
    – Aaron
    Jul 28 '21 at 20:43
  • @Aaron guitar (pick), drums. well, all parts. in particular would be feet, wrists, fingers i suppose
    – Ivan
    Jul 28 '21 at 21:16
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    In that case, this needs to be broken out into separate questions for each instrument, body part, and specific context in which the tightness occurs. There can be different answers for each, as tension doesn't have one single global cause (short of a disease process). Also, consider whether these tensions also occur in activities outside of music. For any that do, you'll need to consult with a doctor or physical therapist. Those broader problems aren't one's that can be addressed on this site.
    – Aaron
    Jul 28 '21 at 21:33
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    Mind over matter. The muscle memory (whatever that is!) hasn't had enough time to sink in. You're still trying to use conscious brain to control movements, and it just doesn't work. Keep practising at a speed that's comfortable, and eventually - may take days, or years - it'll happen. But only when you relax the muscles, and let the brain have a rest.
    – Tim
    Jul 29 '21 at 8:22
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Aaron is right, this question would benefit from narrowing down. However, the fact that you encounter the same issue in multiple disciplines points to some issues in the way you approach what you're doing, and a few of your phrases offer clues that you might want to shift your assumptions and philosophy in ways that can impact your body.

First of all, you mention "increasing the speed of a small repetitive movement." Sure, we often have to do that (a drummer practicing rolls, a guitarist practicing tremolo, or simply increasing the tempo of scales). But I would encourage you not to make speed the only, or even the primary, measurement of progress. There are limits to our ability, and we have to increase them gradually. As a runner, if I try to train too hard too quickly, I'll injure myself. As a musician, if I set myself to play a scale over and over a little faster each time, I will encounter my limit, and must accept that limit today, be willing to move it only slightly each day, and make peace with the fact that at some point I will encounter my permanent limit. Also, there are more ways to grow as a musician than by doing something faster. Besides working on expressivity, creativity, etc., even if we're just talking about technique, sometimes it's important to slow down to work on precision, nuance, and accuracy.

Next, you mention that you've tried addressing this tension with "mental focus" and "journeying to the edge of your body's ability." You know best what you're actually doing, but these phrases suggest to me "trying harder"; increasing physical exertion to find your "body's ability" and increasing mental exertion by "focusing" or concentrating harder. This might explain why you've had negative results. There is almost (almost) never a situation in musical practice where the answer is "increase exertion." Try to find places where you can address the physical challenge by working less rather than more.

First of all, in many of these situations, you might find that you're engaging muscles that are not actually contributing to the motion. As a violinist, this reminds me of working on tremolo (I imagine it presents a similar challenge for guitar/mandolin—I'm talking about picking one note rapidly). As I move my arm backward and forward, I wind up just tensing both sets of muscles and staying in stasis. Think of the muscles you would engage if someone were trying to move your arm all over the place and you wanted to resist them: You'd have to engage opposing sets; biceps vs triceps, etc. You'd "lock up" your arm and wind up going nowhere. To get out of that pattern, first ask yourself if you're engaging any muscles that aren't part of the process. What are the smallest muscles you can accomplish the movement with? Do you even have to move your arm, or will your fingers do? Can you move at the wrist? If someone did come along and bump your arm while you're executing this motion, would your wrist bend, or are you using opposing forearm muscles to lock it in place? It can be helpful to use a mirror to actually observe your body, or to get a friend to actually try moving your body. Also, remember that as you increase the speed of a movement you can decrease its size. If a violinist plays a scale at 60 bpm their bow travels a certain number of inches per note; at 120 bpm it ought to be able to travel half the distance. As you increase speed, try to shrink your motion.

Next, as has been mentioned, the mental part of the process is at least 50%, more like 80%. Here as well, try to "work less" rather than "work harder." Any yogi will tell you that physical flexibility and relaxation is impossible without mental relaxation. Instead of increasing "mental focus," thinking fiercely and focusing your awareness on one muscle group, broaden your mental focus. Relax your mind as well as your body. Stay aware of those irrelevant muscle groups. As you practice your picking, what are your legs doing? Is there tension in your thighs? Your torso? Your back? As you increase the speed of an exercise, try to reduce your excitement rather than increase it; tell yourself "it's easier" and you might find yourself changing the physical motion in ways that are in fact easier.

And finally you say "I've practiced enough." I'm sure you have, and it's important to be able to say that long before your mind or body have reached their limits. Know when you've practiced enough for one day, and when you've simply practiced that particular movement or passage enough and should try something different. I used to walk through the hallways of practice rooms and hear a pianist practicing one measure, over and over, 10 times, 20 times, 30. Then I'd leave for dinner and come back 2 hours later and they're still on the same measure—what is that, the hundredth time? 200th? They're accomplishing nothing but injury. At some point, it's time to practice smarter, not harder. If you missed a note or messed something up, don't just try again until you've asked yourself why and what you can change.

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There are three problems that cause strain:

1. Undeveloped physical condition If your muscles are weak and tire easily, then you will have to engage support muscles more, which will cause the joints to lock. This can be improved with general upper-body exercise (weight training, squeezing a tennis ball, etc.) as well as with technical exercises for your instrument. WARNING!!! If you feel strained while doing technical exercises, you must either practice relaxing, or just stop.

2. Lack of control Sometimes support muscles are used to "cock the trigger," so that you get strength and timing by releasing muscles, rather than flexing muscles at the moment of play. This is due to lack of timing. This is improved by practice.

3. Overly strong focus on the body When you learn, your subconscious develops a skill and eventually should take over the playing. If you have the habit of consciously focusing on the hands, then you will enter a struggle with your subconscious, causing "tendinitis claw," where the harder you try, the more your muscles tighten.

This can be improved by shifting your conscious focus away from the hands. You can cycle through other muscles to check if they are relaxed (start with the neck!), look out the window, or just daydream.

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