The Relaxation Myth
February 6, 2018
Growing up, a lot of people told me that I should stay relaxed when I played. According to them, regardless of how physically demanding a part might be, the key to playing smoothly is to stay relaxed, avoid stressing and straining the body. I absorbed that information and tried to apply it to everything I played, and the more I tried, the less sense it seemed to make. It appeared absolutely impossible (not to mention illogical) that someone could actually be relaxed while playing. As it turned out, I was onto something.

Think about it for a second. Do you think that Olympic athletes are relaxed when they’re going for the gold during the 100-meter sprint? Is a top Boxer relaxed while defending his title in the ring against a tough opponent? The answer is no. Their bodies are under severe stress, their muscles are performing at the edge of their capabilities, the respiratory system is going on full whack, and their minds are also being put to the test.

So how could musicians possibly stay relaxed during physically demanding moments, while top athletes couldn’t? The truth is, they couldn’t, nobody could. Staying relaxed under such circumstances is impossible, it goes against the way the body works. Have you seen a band right after a concert? They are drenched in sweat and out of breath, those are signs of stress, not relaxation. I wanted to understand why everybody keeps talking about “playing relaxed”, even to this day, and nobody seems to point out the impossibility of such feat.

The Problem Is in the Semantics

I believe that the word “relaxed” is misleading in this context because it implies that you should aim to completely get rid of tension and stress while playing, which is impossible. Better terms to use would be “tension management”, or “stress management”. These terms imply the need to manage tension or stress, not to entirely eliminate it. That is a very important distinction, because what makes a musician “smooth” is not the absence of stress, but its management.

This small, but crucial semantic issue, frustrated me to no end when I was trying to apply this concept to my playing. My favorite musicians seemed to play so effortlessly, and I kept being told that they played “relaxed”, but I couldn’t replicate it, no matter how much work I put into it. Many years later it came to me that those musicians I liked so much were not playing effortlessly, they had actually practiced to the point that their bodies knew how to react to the stress. In other words, the stress and tension were still there, but the impact was drastically reduced by practicing, making it look effortless to the audience.

Next time you are working on a difficult song, keep in mind that the more you practice, the better you’ll be able to deal with the stress that accompanies it. You can’t eliminate stress, but you can learn to manage it and make it feel and look easy.
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