By Eddie Lewis
What is “Body Tension” and how does it affect brass playing?
Opposing Muscle Groups
Body tension is caused when opposing muscle groups are contracted simultaneously. An easy example to use to show this is the elbow.
There are muscles which bend the elbow closed and muscles which bend it open. If you “flex” both sets of muscles equally, the elbow doesn’t move at all. The resulting firmness in the arm’s muscles is body tension. And the harder you flex those opposing muscles, the more tension you’ll have.
Try It Now
Try bending and straightening your arm, both at the same time. Can you see and feel how the muscles become firm and “tense”? Now try it with other various joints in your body. Try tensing your fingers by opening and closing them at the same time (notice that this creates more tension in your arm than it does in your fingers). Try it with your legs.
The reason I say to try it this way is because it helps to recognize what “Body Tension” feels like. When I made this discovery and experimented with creating this tension on my own, I was able to recognize that feeling when it happened on its own. It helps when you can recognize it.
But those were simple examples, involving only a few muscles at a time. There are some kinds of tension which involve literally hundreds of different muscles in your body. Think about it, every action our bodies are capable of performing also has its opposite action. We are capable of breathing in and breathing out. We are capable of standing straight or bending over. These are actions which require the use of hundreds of muscles and when we try to perform those actions while also performing their opposites, we create tension in hundreds of muscles.
Some tension is required for playing the trumpet. For example, in order to produce an embouchure, the orbicularis oris (the lip muscles) must contract while it’s surrounding, opposing muscles contract away from it. Without this tension, we couldn’t form an embouchure. Without it, we couldn’t play the trumpet.
The trick becomes one of using the right tension at the right moments while not using other types of unnecessary body tension.
Dealing With It
I believe that the first step in combating body tension is in learning how to recognize it. If you practice creating tension by flexing opposing muscle groups, you will become more familiar with that feeling and will eventually be able to recognize it in other, more trumpet related muscle groups. But I also believe that this is one of those things that you can’t just turn off, consciously. You can’t just say, “Ok, I’ll stop flexing those opposing muscles”. It really doesn’t work like that. In a lot of cases, body tension is a very complex combination of different opposing muscles. It’s not as easy to stop contracting those opposite muscles as it is when you do the elbow experiment.
And that’s precisely why I do not categorize this topic under a “Physical” heading. Even though the manifestations are entirely physical, the subject itself is not a physical one. It’s more of a mental subject and really belongs under the heading of performance.
I believe that body tension is caused by contradicting thoughts, which then cause contradicting signals being sent to the body from the brain. It seems that most body tension is caused by emotions like fear and worry.
Consider fear. Imagine trying to DO something that you are afraid to do. I’ve never been afraid of the dark, but there have been a few times when I was forced to walk in total darkness. This is scary because you have no idea what you will step on, fall on or walk into. So the conscious part of my mind told my body to walk forward while the subconscious part told it to STOP walking. The mixed signals caused opposing muscle groups to contract. The result is body tension.
Applying that same scenario to musical performances, we can see that our conscious minds are telling our bodies to play the trumpet, but the stage fright is telling the muscles in our bodies to stop playing.
There are two things that I do to reduce body tension when I’m performing. The first is to unify my thoughts, re-channelling the energy and excitement so that it enhances the performance instead of contradicting it. The other solution is to train my body to play the trumpet in an almost mechanical manner, thus rendering it immune to conflicting signals from my brain. I’ll discuss this second solution first because it’s a long term solution that requires changes in practice habits instead of performance habits.
I know what you’re thinking, “The last thing I want is to be a mechanical sounding player”. I agree with you. But I’m not talking about style or musicality. I’m talking about the physical process of REproducing the notes. I place an emphasis on “RE” in “REproducing” because everything we do in performance (from a physical perspective) is a REproduction of what we’ve done in our practice sessions.
When I practice rudiments and technical studies, one of my primary objectives is to play them with NO unnecessary body tension. The idea is that, after countless hours of playing this way in the practice room, playing without unnecessary body tension becomes part of your overall mechanical process. Performing that way simply becomes a matter of “this is how I do it”.
And I guess what I mean by “mechanical” is “subconscious”. Playing trumpet without unnecessary body tension becomes a mechanical function of the body and doesn’t require conscious thought control. When you practice this way, it causes you to be more resistant to “conflicting emotions”. In fact, I’m going to go as far as to say that, if you are not practicing this way, you probably will never be able to perform without unnecessary body tension. How could you?
Unifying Your Thoughts In the Practice Room
Unfortunately, mechanical REproduction isn’t enough for many people. I’m one of those many. I remember the mid 1980’s when I was a bundle of nerves, even in the practice room. Playing the trumpet had become a huge head game for me and I couldn’t even relax while I was practicing.
One of the things that changed that for me was when I learned how to rest while I practice. Before then, practicing always felt frantic. I remember comparing it to a drowning sensation. I was always gasping for that next breath of air, not literally, but emotionally. When I began resting as long as I play, within the actual practice sessions, it helped me relax, step back and approach the horn in a more positive light.
I also believe that the entire Physical Trumpet Pyramid concept helped too. There’s something about focusing on the air stream that helps narrow your thoughts to exclude unnecessary thoughts and emotions. And that’s exactly what I’m talking about……..unifying your thoughts into one, positive thought – producing one unopposed physical action.
Try it! Pick up your horn and play a long note, but concentrate on just the air stream and nothing else. When you do this, focus on steadiness instead of volume. A steady air stream produces a steady tone. Now, after you’ve done that, try applying that same feeling to a “flow study”. Think about it. Isn’t that what the entire “flow study” concept is all about? ……..removing unnecessary body tension? The objective is to play those studies with that uninhibited feeling…..THEN……retaining that same feel, apply it to other music.
Unifying Your Thoughts In Performance
I wish it wasn’t so, but sometimes, even with everything I’ve covered here so far, it just isn’t enough to combat the fierce emotions we experience in performances. I think the tendency here is to reach more into the abstract and spiritual for answers to this more severe problem. I’ve written two essays which explain my feelings and ideals on this subject: Trumpet and Religion and An Expression of Grace. But let me also say that this is a highly personal thing. It has to do with concepts and ideology and stuff like that. The objective is to focus all of your mental energy in one positive direction so that you eliminate the “conflicting signals” from the brain.
I’ve heard of people who use mental imagery, zen, affirmations, meditations, rituals…..you name it. You really have to find what works best for you. The main point of even mentioning it here is to make it clear to you what the objectives of these things really are (aside from religious objectives). I hope you understand by now that it’s the conflicting messages, thoughts and emotions which we are trying to get rid of because those are the source of body tension.
Conflicting thoughts and emotions cause the brain to send conflicting signals to the muscles in your body. Unify those thoughts and emotions and you remove the conflict, thereby curing the body tension.
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