On tension

July 27, 2010 at 1:47 pm | Posted in Long Blogs | 3 Comments
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I figured something out.  It took awhile, but they say it takes whatever it takes.  Last year I was taking a violin lesson from a very wonderful and insightful teacher while studying at a workshop at Oberlin Conservatory.  He was helping me with a section of a piece that put my hand into an uncomfortable stretch, and I commented that I couldn’t find a way to play that combination of notes without my hand being tense. 

He looked at me – he has a way of really looking at you – and said, somewhat off-handedly, “Tension is okay.”  I was dumbfounded.   We had just spent several days in technique class working on how to hold the baroque violin and baroque bow, exploring our breath as we made big counter-clockwise circles in the air with our right arms, allowing gravity to assist us with an organically heavier beat on the down-bows and the resulting inhale and lighter touch to our up-bow and pick-up notes.  The object, I had been led to believe, was to learn to use the structure of the bow and the inherent qualities of the gut strings to our advantage so that our playing would be graceful and flowing, free of the bad and undesirable T-word.  Tension is our enemy, isn’t it? 

I have spent a lifetime trying to let go of the tension in my body.  I wake up every morning with my jaw and tongue – not my teeth – clenched.  Since my childhood I have walked through my days bracing myself, my gut held tight as if I am about to be punched, bearing down from my head into my throat into my neck and shoulders and from there into my middle.  I was utterly unconscious of all of this until it began to cause pain in my early adult years and then gradually I woke up to these patterns.   The more aware I became, the more I worked to rid myself of them.  And with the help of several therapies and practices, I have released many layers of them over three decades.

As I tended to these habits, I held highest the goal of being entirely free of them.  Drawing from another habit, I saw the picture as black and white, categorizing as follows:  being tense (read “the way I do it”) is bad and wrong, and being relaxed (read “the opposite of how I do it”) is perfect and right.  Corollary:  I should be doing it the right way. 

As I sit here writing this, I am almost laughing, but not quite.  Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that what I said in the previous paragraph is sadly laughable, but I’m not much beyond a wry smile yet.  I still fall into that way of thinking countless times a day without noticing I have returned to familiar territory in the blink of an eye.  Here’s the paradox:  I am still trying to be perfect, even though I have identified perfectionism as one of my greatest faults.  I am even trying to be perfect at not being perfect.  I just slip right back into the echoes of the very thing I think I am overcoming!  At that I can laugh whole-guttedly.  It reminds me of a woman (someone I don’t know) I once heard talking about how very hard she was on herself.  “I need to be MUCH MORE GENTLE ON MYSELF!” she hammered out fiercely.  Those of us listening to her were torn between the humor and the pathos.

That moment from my violin lesson stayed with me, perplexing me for months.  Then recently one day I was explaining a fine point to one of my students.  “There is a difference,” I pointed out patiently (I have patience with my students, just not much with myself), “between tension and rigidity.  It’s not that we want to be limp!  A musician needs to play with strength and firmness, and that’s not about being relaxed, it’s about…”  And then I realized I was on the edge of the issue myself.  What is it about?

Some moments in our lives simply call for us to rise to something.  We work hard to climb a mountain, to learn something difficult, to execute an excruciatingly fine act with grace, precision, care, etc.  It’s just important that we do not stay there!  Nobody can live every moment to the intensity that those moments demand of us.  We all need to breathe out after we achieve them.  Astoundingly, we even need to breathe out while we are working the hardest, right in the thick of the act itself.  The challenge is to continue to focus while we are in motion and then let go of the physical tension and keep breathing and moving.

So I tried it the next time I was practicing violin.  Could I climb the peak of even the most dramatic and gripping phrases with strength and vitality – even with tension – and then release it and let myself back down?  It did not come easily, but it was thrilling to experience it to even a small degree.  I did my best to stay with it all the way through the phrase, ascending the notes as I breathed in and out, moving forward, not grabbing onto anything along the way, so that the momentum could lead all the way to the climax.  Then I experimented with the sensation of letting go – to some degree – of what it took to get there, while still maintaining the musicality of the diminishing line.  Wow!  I could only begin to integrate it all, and no doubt a bunch of other fine points went out the window in the process, but it was exhilarating!

It provided a new touchpoint for me.  In recent days, without consciously thinking about it, it suddenly dawns on me to seize the opportunity to release the effort that I habitually exert throughout my day.  For a few seconds, I am free from that pattern of bearing down.  I experience a lightness and sense of flow almost instantly.  It allows me to breathe more deeply, and then the breathing out brings an even greater release.  I am instantly more gentle with myself (I hope somewhere, somehow, that nameless woman can read this!) and even the black and white thinking vanishes.  I do not expect it to make a permanent departure, but for those moments it is inconsequential.  It misses the point.  This moment, whenever it happens, is utterly filled with life.  And with practice, I am hopeful that it will become easier to integrate it into my violin playing as well.

Thank you, Teacher.  And thank you to the Muse for helping me to understand a little more along the way.

3 Comments »

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  1. Hi Carla,
    WOW!!! I really found this interesting from all kinds of perspectives. Thanks so much for letting me know about your blog!!!
    Marcia

  2. Hi Carla-
    Boy, can I relate to the whole trying to do music perfectly concept. I’ve been so busy striving for ease and lack of tension at the harp, that I’d not thought about the necessary tension required to pluck a string. You’ve helped me rethink what I’m striving for: to have just the needed tension to produce a clear beautiful tone, and then the release of that same tension when the string has been plucked. Thanks!

    I’ve just started reading your blog, and I’m enjoying all your entries. You helped me decide that blogging about learning harp would be something I’d like to do. So thanks for the inspiration.
    Janet

    • Hi Janet,
      I’m so happy to hear that something I wrote was helpful to someone else! Thanks so much — and best of luck on your journey–
      Carla


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