Tension Cross-Talk: Hand Tension on Classical Guitar

Playing guitar, sometimes things go wrong. We miss notes. We fatigue. We lose focus.

Bumps in the road are common on classical guitar. There is so much going on it can be hard to tell where the problem starts. And even harder to know how to solve it.

One of the usual suspects is excess tension. But where does this tension come from? And what can we do about it? Here’s one facet of the tension dilemma.

Problem #1: Missed Notes

As we play through a passage of music, we may find that a particular spot in the music consistently trips us. We stumble every time we play it.

This is not unusual. Most of us who play classical guitar pieces experience this daily.

But why are we missing the notes in that spot? What is going on?

We look closely at our movements. We check the notes. We give it a few slow repetitions

Problem #2: Hands Getting Tired

Another issue – our hands grow tired as we play. We start to feel the lactic acid building. We lose the crispness of movement. Our fingers begin to feel leaden and dull.

This could be either hand. Or both.

And the music doesn’t have to be fast or difficult. No strenuous chords or wide stretches are required. It can happen for no obvious reason.

One Possible Cause: Tension Cross-Talk

One sly culprit of missed notes and tuckered fingers is “tension cross-talk.”

In everyday life, our hands rarely need to act completely independently of each other. Most often we single-task. And everyday tasks are nowhere near as exacting and intricate as playing guitar.

Tension cross-talk is where the tension from one hand “infects” the other.

For example, if we are holding a barre chord in the left hand, we may use more force and strength than we’re used to. The right hand may also engage to mirror this tension.

Likewise, the right-hand fingers may be highly active, playing a fast or complex pattern. Here, tension may enter the left hand, mirroring the right.

This often happens below our level of awareness, so we don’t notice it.

But we can counteract the tension cross-talk and play more easily. We can bring more independence to the hands. We can recognize when tension may be causing problems,

How to Gain Independence Between Hands

Becoming aware of this cross-talk, how do we train more independence between hands?

This takes attention and focus. We can practice engaging one hand while keeping the other completely at rest. Doing this, we can learn to recognize the point of activation in the passive hand.

For example, we can slowly squeeze one knee while our other hand rests gently on the other knee. We can feel closely for any tension in the passive hand or arm. (The upper arm often flexes more obviously than do the fingers.)

Next, we can practice transitioning tension between hands.

Here, one hand squeezes while the other hand releases. Then vice versa, back and forth. It helps to do this slowly, so we have time to notice when tension rises.

These exercises can build our awareness and control of the tension cross-talk.

Insert Cues to Build Awareness in Music

Once we identify a place in our music that may be triggering tension cross-talk, we can prevent it. We can put cues in our music to release excess tension.

We can train ourselves to “clear the slate.” And we can do this just before, during, and after a strenuous or complex movement. This way, we stay as close to neutral tension-levels as possible.

We reduce the load on both hands. And we reduce the amount of tension carried forward after the tricky bit.

With practice, these cues and releases become part of the choreography of the piece. Just as we play a certain note here, and get louder there, we avoid cross-talk here and release tension there.

Over time, we do this more instinctively. We build more awareness and cross-hand independence. And this in turn allows us to make more adventurous musical decisions. A good deal all around!

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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