One of my students has agreed to chronicle the progress in her battle with arm tension here on SRCB. A little preface: She has been playing for 2 years, has participated in every recital I have scheduled in that period, and has been one of the most dedicated students. She loves the cello. But as many of us have experienced, she has hit a barrier in forward momentum because of some meaningful tension in her hands, primarily her left. What I marvel at is that she continues to make lateral strides, learning new notes, clefs, and rhythms. Still, academics only go so far, and after attaining an intermediate level, what’s left is generally a matter of reliable technique and artistry. So I thought it would be useful to explore and document a week’s worth of real work on this issue. I gave her the decree on Saturday: working on tension means from here on out, you don’t allow yourself to tense up. At all. We’re talking huge amounts of patience and discipline, and few students ever tackle it as head-on as they need to. They bargain with the issue, or start looking for magic and alchemy as the solution. Instead, I ask my students to think of their habits in terms of money. You have a bank account labeled, “Amount of time I have spent playing without tension and with flawless technique” and one labeled, “Amount of time I play with tension and bockety technique”. The first account will make you wealthy with skill, the second one is actually a credit card that hits you with 29.99% interest at the end of every year, week, day, and practice session. What you want to do is only deposit money into the account that benefits you. Each time you set bow to string, you’re making a deposit. With everything you do. Transcending difficult issues like tension requires a singular commitment to invest only in what makes you a stronger player.

Here’s our gal’s first entry:

Well, the first challenge of course is locating the tension. These are the areas with the greatest problems.

1) Neck and shoulders- I notice that as I practice my posture shifts. I start out sitting correctly but as I practice I start to slouch and scoot backwards onto the seat. The cello shifts down my chest. This causes my shoulders to arch over the top of the cello and I end up raising my shoulders to compensate. Voila! Tension!

2)Left thumb- I notice that I am cultivating a squeezing motion with my left hand rather than pressing with my fingers. If the thumb is squeezing it produces tension. This is probably the worst area. I can’t play a single note without tension and this makes the shifts very difficult. I will have to re-learn this completely.

And my response:

Begin re-learning and don’t fight it. This is another lateral move, with the rest of your strengths still intact, just over there, ready to resume and benefit from the work you’re doing this week. Go ahead and feel like you don’t know where the notes are. As it turns out, this tension is making you miss the notes anyway, so might as well miss them some more with less pain. Be daring and have faith in your Trusty Cello Guide. I have been through this, and this is the way. In fact, I dismantle small elements of my technique to this day: if something doesn’t work or I’ve developed a habit, I undo the process a little and make sure everything I do is intentional. If it feels alien and scary but looks the part, I say follow that lead. Oh, and prop the back legs of your chair up with some books or blocks. This will tilt you forward and make it harder to do the chest sliding cave-in. Next lesson, I’ll have you sit on the wedge I sometimes use and see if that helps, too.