Relaxation Overview

I asked Dr. Martin Norgaard, who has done significant work on how people play and improvise, if some people just cannot play in time. He said that everyone has good timing. I said how do you know that and he said “If you can walk then you can play in time because walking is a rhythmical process in which the brain sends impulses to the legs spaced so you walk at a constant rate.” When playing, the brain sends impulses to the hands and fingers in the same way it sends impulses to the legs when walking. So why do some people have problems playing a particular song? Here are some possibilities:

1. Unclear or Blurred Image of the music

The image of the measure you are playing is unclear in the brain as a result of the player not taking the time to learn each measure of the song exactly as written. Basically, as the student plays they have multiple variations of the measure in their mind and the brain hesitates as it tries to choose the correct one, causing delays in the signal that goes to the hands.

2. Distractions

The player is distracted or not focused on the measure at hand: thinking about problems at work, money issues, it’s starting to rain, are my windows down?

3. Fear

I never thought about fear as something associated with music, but when performing you could be worried about the performance. In some cases, this is called stage fright. A good example of fear interfering or getting in the way of the impulses going from your brain to your body would be if you were walking on a one foot wide steel beam 30 feet up in the air. Even though I can walk fine on the ground, put me up 30 feet and I can’t walk. Fear is a distraction.

4. Playing Too Fast or Trying to Progress too Quickly

This is simply a case where you are trying to play faster than your fingers will move. This can cause tension in the hands, wrists, and forearm. You might be trying to speed up in large chunks as opposed to gradually speeding up. This is the equivalent of working out in a gym and increasing the weight too soon or too much. You can actually wear yourself out. Relaxation Details & Check List Let’s see how to monitor yourself to determine your state of relaxation. For relaxation check the following:   Hands Is there any stiffness or pain in the hands?   Forearm Any stiffness of pain in the forearm?   Mouth and teeth Are you clenching your teeth as you play? Are you grinding your teeth?   Mental State Is your mind clear? What are you thinking as you play?   Self Talk That Promotes Relaxation I’m really enjoying this My fingers feel relaxed and smooth When I play my care goes away I am seeing progress as I play more This is for my own enjoyment. I am not comparing myself with others   Self Talk That Promotes Tension I’m tired and hungry I don’t seem to be playing as well today as I did yesterday My friend seems to be progressing faster than I am I should be learning one song per week I need to hurry up and increase my speed so I can play at the next jam  

Relaxation and Practicing

  Relaxation Procedure 1. Dangle arms to side, shake, and get body in a state of relaxation. 2. Clear your mind. As you hold the banjo, visualize your forearms and wrists being totally relaxed and calm. 3. Pay attention to your breath. When you inhale, feel the air coming into your nostrils. When you exhale, feel the air coming out of your nostrils. Notice that your lower abdomen is expanding slightly when you inhale and contracting when you exhale. If you take a short breath, notice that it is a short breath. If you take a long breath, notice that it is a long breath. 4. Now place your hand and fingers on the banjo and start to play the exercise or measure you are going to focus on. As you are playing try to think about nothing. If you think about the banjo, your wrists, or forearms and fingers, visualize total relaxation. Also pay attention to your jaw, make sure it is relaxed and you are not grinding your teeth. Exercise Procedure 1. Go through the above relaxation exercise. 2. Play the measure, drill or roll several times with the metronome about 20% slower than your comfortable speed. 3. Now play what you just played 10% slower than comfortable speed. 4. Now play at comfortable speed. 5. Go through the relaxation process again and then play 5 bpm faster than your comfortable speed. Pay special attention to your body. If you are having any tension, go through the relaxation procedure again. 6. Continue playing faster, increasing in 5 bpm intervals until you hit a wall. Then go back to the fastest speed that you can play comfortably and accurately and repeat several times. Note this speed in your practice log and next time you practice start 20% slower than this speed. Considerations 1. As you do these exercises you will start to get in touch with how your body reacts to trying to speed up and will be able to relax easier. 2. You will notice you have good and bad days. You may hit a particular speed one day and not be able to play it the next few days. You start your practice assuming that you will start at your fastest speed and increase from there and you can’t even play your former fast speed. You have two choices, either concentrate and relax or tense up. 3. As you hit walls, move backward, or have other problems, you can analyze what happened and make corrections. If you stick with it you will start to understand your body signals and become aware of when you are relaxed and when you are not. 4. Listen to your self talk. You will notice that what you are saying to yourself can dramatically affect your relaxation. 5. Once you have learned through trial and error what it feels like to relax and clear your mind, your speed and clarity will improve.

Improve Your Playing

Geoff Hohwald is Master Banjo Instructor who has been teaching and playing banjo for over 40 years. Geoff wants you to become the banjo player you have always wanted to be. He has written numerous banjo instructional books, teaches one-on-one banjo lessons, and even hold regular banjo camps at his mountain retreat in North Georgia.