Have you ever experienced a time when you tried to execute a certain action and your body or muscles failed you? Perhaps it was due to a moment of inattention or clumsiness, or perhaps your muscles instinctively tensed or turned to mush under pressure. Whatever the reason, we’ve all had times where we expected our bodies to react or perform in a certain way, but they didn’t. Sometimes it can be quite surprising, can’t it? Now think about this occurring in a musical setting, maybe during a performance. And finally, take it step further and imagine this occurring to you as a young student in your first musical performance or in one of your lessons. It might be pretty disorienting and frustrating! As overwhelming as it might seem, this issue is common and there are a number of helpful ways to address it. The one I will discuss here is progressive relaxation.
Remember that deep breathing exercise we did earlier (if you haven’t tried it, you can find the note here)? As a part of that, I mentioned doing a quick head-to-toe scan of your physical space, identifying any areas of excess or insufficient tension. For the purpose of that exercise, I only wanted you to observe those areas, not address them. Here, we’ll dive in and specifically deal with the issue of tension.
First, let’s go back to that idea of making physical observations. Find a comfortable place to sit or lie still and take a moment to do a quick head-to-toe muscular scan. Where are you sensing an imbalance? Perhaps in your neck or shoulders or lower back? Pinpoint the exact area of tension and label the feeling. Is it painful, hard? Is it limp, loose? How would you describe it? Be as creative as you like, but come up with only one word or image. Now, scrunch up that muscle (and only that muscle, don’t involve secondary muscles in this exercise) as tight as you can and hold it for 10 seconds. How does that feel? Give it a name, something different than the first word you used to describe the original tension. Finally, fully and completely release that muscle. Again, focus only on that muscle, no others. How does THAT feel? Give it a name. You can perform this exercise with each muscle group that is uncomfortable either due to excess or insufficient tension. You can also take a methodical approach and perform this exercise on every muscle group in your body, whether there are issues present or not, in order to train each group to respond as desired. As you create and release tension and you give these feelings names, you manifest a connection between your body and mind that will become easier and quicker to access the more times you do it.
This practice, developed by Dr. Edmund Jacobson, is known as progressive relaxation. Progressive relaxation is the intentional creation and release of muscular tension, moving from one muscle group to another throughout the body.(footnote 1) The goal of this skill is to train the mind to recognize when and where tension is present in the body, and how to release it. Our bodies and minds can do strange things when we’re under pressure and if we are not prepared, this can be surprising or difficult to know how to handle. As teachers, we can use this skill for ourselves to develop more mind-body awareness, but we can also introduce it to our students at their first lesson. Most adults are skilled at managing tension because over time we have learned what our bodies do under stress and have developed ways to cope, but children do not yet have that depth of experience to draw on when they’re in a new situation. For them, unexpected muscular rigidity or the feeling of their arms or legs turning to jelly can be startling, however the good news, as you can see, is it can easily be overcome with just a little bit of practice! Knowing there is a way to address tension in performance and incorporating the practice of this technique on a regular basis can bring comfort to many young students and teachers.
For audio files of real-time guided progressive relaxation exercises to use with your students, download Strategies for Successful Musicianship.
For more information and worksheets on progressive relaxation, including teacher discussions, student discussions, activity pages, observation worksheets, step-by-step exercises, reflection pages, and daily practice charts, download the download the Relaxed Concentration Workbook for Musicians (for yourself) or the Mindfulness for Musicians: Workbook for Teachers and Students (for your students).
Also, check out the free progressive relaxation worksheets if you'd like an additional hands-on resource to use with students to help you get started.
1 Edmund Jacobson, Progressive Relaxation: A Physiological & Clinical Investigation of Muscular States & Their Significance in Psychology & Medical Practice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1931).