Waiting to Exhale: How to Reduce Tension While Playing

How to practice playing tension free.

Ultimate Guitar

You're on stage and the band starts "that song" - the song full of tough changes that is always difficult for you to play.

Tonight you are extra-determined to nail all the parts, digging in a little deeper with all the focus you can muster.

The song starts off great, you're nailing every section and it feels easier than usual - but as you go through the song you start to feel yourself falling behind. As you get to the most critical part of the song, it gets difficult to keep up and panic rises when you think about getting through the remaining parts. Then, your worst fear comes true and you mess up the most critical moment of the song.

We've all been there at one point or another while playing.

Sometimes we get so super-focused on playing, that we forget to breathe and thereby get so tensed up that we end up falling flat on our face. The exact thing we didn't want to happen! Why is this?

Tension is the reason. Ever watch Guthrie Govan, Paul Gilbert, Eric Clapton or Steve Vai play live? They always seem to be so relaxed while they're playing, even if they are playing something that is challenging, they sure don't look like they are. The reason they seem to be so relaxed is this: They are relaxed! There is no excess tension in their bodies!

Releasing all excess tension might seem like a tough call at first, but once you start taking steps to correct the issue, it becomes easier and easier. At some point you don't even realize that you've corrected the issue and playing seems easier than ever.

Practice, Practice, Practice...

The truth is - if there is a section of music that makes you tense up - you are not ready to play that part at that speed yet. This is where the practice part comes in. that's right, you're going to practice reducing your level of tension!

The first thing you need to be aware of is the exact moment you feel yourself start to tense up. Play through the song until you feel tension building and you have identified the area that needs the most work.

Once you found this part, isolate it and ignore the rest of the song for now. Use a metronome, start off at half speed and play through the section of the song. Take note of how you feel when you're playing at this speed. Does it feel easy? Are you as relaxed as you would be when holding a conversation with a friend? If yes, move the speed of the metronome up a little more (ten percent or so) and play again. If no, go back and play through the section again - but this time focus on breathing and staying relaxed while playing.

This might seem weird at first but will get easier with time.

As you work your way up to playing at full speed, keep track of how you are feeling as you play faster. Anytime you feel tension rising - Stop. Remember to watch your breathing and stay relaxed. Don't rush through the process, trying to convince yourself that you're not tensing up.

If you normally practice while sitting, try doing this while standing up to simulate a rehearsal or live gig situation. If you normally practice by yourself, practice in front of family member or friend and see if you feel more tense. If you do, repeat all the above steps while having someone watch you do it. If you can play and stay relaxed the entire time, you won't have any problem playing on stage.

If you own multiple guitars, practice on all of them and make sure that you are able to execute your parts easily while staying relaxed.

In Conclusion...

Freeing your mind of negative thoughts is key. You should never have to worry about an upcoming part that you've practiced thousands of times, in the right way, because you've developed the confidence that you'll nail it - Tonight and every night.

Thanks for reading and happy practicing, Byron Marks

About the Author: Byron Marks is a professional musician and instructor from Manchester, NH. He can be seen playing out locally with his band Soundtrack To Monday as well as doing fill in work for a variety of local area cover and original bands.

10 comments sorted by best / new / date

    You did a great job of describing how playing an instrument SHOULD feel to a musician. Doing this can be difficult because tension is also needed during practice. This is because your fingers and wrist and/or arm must first be strong and dexterous enough to easily play full and even notes on the guitar. So, I like to think of it like the difference between endurance running at a fast pace where its hard to breath and your movements become jerky, to running at a slower pace where you can run more efficiently, and slowly building up to the harder run. tl;dr: If you make running seem like walking, then you can run with EXPRESSION. lol
    Absolutely. Some tension is required in order for you to play anything at all. The tough part is finding the right balance between necessary and excessive tension.
    Another way to do this is to really have your parts clear... I loved what you said about practicing in front of other people...you know, ultimately it's you who is giving them music, they are just receiving so why would you feel bad, why would you need their approval?
    I have such a bad breathing problem lately, never used to have any issue with playing the guitar but even easy parts I can't play anymore.I've tried to record a song and I started failing after about 1 to 1 minute and 30 seconds. next day I'd have a terrible headache for the whole day. this made me try to control my breath and now I can't even sleep without hyperventilating before falling asleep. I can't play guitar anymore and this sucks really bad. I'd give the metronome and half speed a try and work my way up trying to control my breathing, if I could control my breathing. when I focus on my breathing it goes wrong and I lose the connection with my body, I stop feeling hungry,tired or the room temperature. eventually I get angry (which I never am) and I get frustrated and I've broken my previous computer mouse because of that. I never been angry and I never had the urge to break things. I just change completely as a person when my breathing ****s up.. so it's coming to a point that I can't play guitar, I can't go outside and I can't go to friends.. because all those situations mess with my breathing, and I become an angry anti social tit when that happens. does anyone know what I could do with this? Is there some kind of exercise or therapy that I could give a try?