Since I was young, I have always been told that physical tension while playing is not good: That it could ruin your playing or hurt your body in the long run. Many teachers have recommended that I approach the instrument in the most natural way possible. Lately, I have been thinking about that and wondering if tension really does have a negative affect on the development of healthy playing.
A good starting point in order to understand tension is asking the question “is tension natural?” Is tension present in our daily lives? It is indeed! Tension is relaxation’s counterpart: Just think, when tension and relaxation alternate, movement occurs. Every single movement, even the smallest one, requires some degree of tension and relaxation from opposing muscles. Without tension no one would be able to move, or even breathe.
So what is so bad about having some tension? There are two things related to tension that can lead to trouble while approaching the instrument: The amount of tension used while performing, and the misplacement of tension while playing.
I’ve observed there are two zones in the body where tension is located and necessary in order to perform in an effective and efficient way: The embouchure and the middle section of the body (abdominal, rib cage and lower back).
During the breathing process, the diaphragm lowers creating room for the lungs to expand while taking in air: This is the vacuum created by the diaphragm. In order to exhale the air, the abdominal, rib cage, and lower pelvic muscles tense, pushing air out of the lungs. If tension in these muscles is present during inhalation, pulling air in would be impossible. The same applies to exhaling without the use of any tension.
The muscles located in the cheek and chin tense in order to create a frame where the mouthpiece will be placed. The lips that remain inside the mouthpiece’s rim produce vibrations when the air is released from the lungs through the lips’ aperture. In order to produce this vibration, the lips must be in contact with one another while the air stream is going through: In order to ensure this, the lips must tense against each other, so they are not pulled apart by the air’s pressure on its way out.
The amount of tension used in both processes determines the outcome of the product: During the breathing process, too much tension during exhalation can result in a tone that sounds forced, while an absence of tension can result in a tone that sounds big but lazy. Any excessive pressure between the lips can undermine the lips’ vibration, resulting in narrow, nasal sounds that often pitch higher on intonation. On the other hand, a loose embouchure can result in unfocused, airy sounds, and (in the long run) a weak, trembly embouchure, due to under-development of the lip muscles, failing to respond to the requirements demanded to produce sound.
So far, I have only discussed tension applied to performing. Tension that has little or nothing to do with the playing process, often located in the arms, chest, shoulders and neck, is not only useless, but also negatively affects the sound quality, the efficiency of sound production, and (in the long run) the musician’s health.
The proper level and appropriate placement of tension is everything. Keep in mind that the level varies from player to player, and the level requirement differs at each register and dynamic. Experimenting in order to determine the right amount of tension for each pitch and dynamic is highly recommended.