Joe's Blog

Pinning down the moment of the onset of physical tension

September 17, 2021

A.B. plays the Grieg Holberg Suite with a lot of tension.

At what instant in time, down to tenths of seconds or less, does tension first  enter your hand? If nothing else, we can assume it is before, even long before, we consciously aware of the tension. The longer it remains, the longer one becomes inured to it, until pain results and then one notices it.

The tense state is usually preceded in time by a less tense state. It seems logical that, at some previous point in time, the body was not as tense as it is now.

It is not so much a matter of not letting tension arise, but to become aware of it sooner, which will make dispelling it easier.

We want to become aware of the moment of transition from a state of minimal tension, to a state of having at least of some tension, but before it grows to a state of greater tension. We want this moment to come sooner into consciousness.

It is the best if can capture the moment when this transition first begins to occur. Among other things, this is the moment that yields the most information about the why and how of your tension. Tension has away of compounding and growing. Before the tension is too great, and involves too much body area, at the earliest detectable moment of the inception of the tension, your awareness may be able to uncover what the cause of the tension is, I.E. what the initial cause is.  We want to spot the tension while it is still low on the horizon and and ‘far enough away’ for us to have time to take counter measures.

Was the initial trigger of the tension in the mind rather than the body? A moment of worry, or of uncertainty about what lies ahead? This moment often remains hidden because it is largely unconscious. We want to make of it something more conscious.

It is usually our “re”-action to something that has not happened yet, but which we believe will happen soon, once we are on the treadmill of the flow of time which eventually brings all the way to the end of time, with no exit ramps. Do we really not have the power to just stop in the middle of piece? Should we not have at least the state of mind that accepts the latter as a possibility – even if we don’t use it.

To find and bring to light this moment in consciousness so we see its content, is a challenge. Although it is not as difficult as a physicist to know just when a particular electron in an atom is going to jump from one energy state to another.

Sometimes the tension sneaks up on us so suddenly, that we don’t have ‘time’ to become aware of it. For instance during the brief moment when we ‘prepare’ to play the next note in the score though the current note is still sounding. Somewhere in that small interval of time, our consciousness has drifted off of the current note and is now concerned about successfully getting to the next note. This is a span of time that can be so short that we can figuratively blink an eye and go from a state of minimal tension to a state of maximal tension.

Can you track such fine distinctions in muscular feeling through such fine distinctions of time? Is it worthwhile to interrogate your body over and over on this question, until by happenstance you may start noticing a sort of pattern as to when exactly it happens and what it’s immediate antecedents are. Bear in mind that the next note doesn’t remain the ‘next’ note when you play it: an obvious but easily overlooked distinction.

So tension often lies in the anticipation, no matter how brief, of going on to something that hasn’t happened yet. This could even include the moments before you play the first notes of the piece. Somewhere in this stew of emotions that lie beneath the surface of consciousness, may lie feelings such as: a reluctance to abandon the safety of the present for the uncertainty of the future; the fear of how one is going to be able find the correct next note(s) in the “allotted” amount of time the music allows us.*

* An amount of time that actually we control, because without us no note will sound; regardless of what the score says, and what the audience expects. Even if we control this amount of time by just a few fractions of a second, that may be enough time during which to restore our security about how. and if. we will get to the next note(s).


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