Classical Guitar and Pain: “Oh, My Aching Shoulder”

Often times, when practicing guitar, our upper arms and shoulders may hurt. Or we experience back pain and find it difficult to play guitar comfortably.

When we have body pain during our musical practice, it can deplete our enthusiasm and motivation, leading to less progress and general enjoyment. Click here for finger pain on guitar.

Quick Fixes: Try These First

First, if you’re sitting on a couch or very soft chair, this may be the cause of your pain.  Sit on a hard chair, with a thin cushion or towel.  This will provide better support.  A common kitchen or dining chair is a good option.

Next, Gary Crowley’s website has many useful and effective strategies to relieve pain.

Read on below to learn more and to reduce pain in your guitar practice for the long term.

Muscles Work Together

Our body parts do not exist in isolation. The muscles in our neck and back attach to the muscles in our shoulders, which attach to the muscles in our arms, and eventually our hands. Our front, legs and behind also connect to our back, and therefore by extension, our arms and hands.

So the issue with a painful arm, shoulder or back is not an issue solely with that part, but concerns the entire use of our body.

How Muscle Soreness and Pain Happens in Classical Guitar Practice

We hold some amount of excess tension in our eyes, tongue, face and neck. We arch our back, or we slump and collapse our front. We use the muscles in our legs more than we need to. And all this creates a situation where our neck and back muscles are “holding onto” our shoulder muscles.

Then when we most need our shoulders to be free, they are in a bind. It is like driving with both the gas and brake pedals depressed. We work against ourselves. When the shoulder gets tired, as it will because it is being forced to work against the neck and back muscles, we get the whole “painful shoulder” scenario.

We may not be aware of this excess tension. Some tension is essential, but we frequently and unwittingly use too much exertion for the task at hand. It’s an issue of appropriate tension.

Many times we are not even aware that we are exerting inappropriate tension until we realize that some particular muscle or muscle group is burning or hurting and in a locked position.

There is no need, while playing the classical guitar, to exert enough muscle force to lift heavy furniture. But this is what happens. This is what we unknowingly do.

Faulty Sensory Perception

Many people are prone to deny excess muscle tension. The assumption is that if they were doing something with their body, they would know about it. They assume, quite wrongly, that their perception of what happens with their body is indeed reality. And this could not be further from the truth. In fact our sensory perception is very frequently completely skewed. We may not be comfortable admitting it, but the truth is that we cannot be entirely trusted when it comes to interpreting our sensory input (or, as we call it, “reality“).

We can witness this in people who walk stooped over, hunched. They are obviously crooked. However, they do not feel crooked. They feel normal. And if you were to straighten them out, then they would feel crooked. Their perception is not aligned with reality.

A very large portion of the population amble around with uneven shoulders. You may want to check the mirror for this yourself. Is one shoulder lower than the other? If so, ask yourself if it feels crooked. Because clearly it is.

So the way in which we use our bodies is not entirely in our conscious control. We can temporarily adjust ourselves (i.e. level out our shoulders in the mirror), but as soon as our mind goes to something else, whatever we have habituated (uneven shoulders) will take over.

This can be a good thing. Some amount of “autopilot” is essential (thank heavens we can still drive somewhat safely while our mind is elsewhere!). It is when the “autopilot” is steering us the wrong direction that we have cause for alarm.

The Classical Guitar and the Body

The classical guitar is a large, asymmetrically shaped instrument. It demands that we both support it, and play it. It demands that we sit asymmetrically, and distribute our weight asymmetrically.

It demands that we use our left and right sides of our body in different ways. It demands that we support (raise) our arms for long periods of time and hold them relatively still. It demands that we use both very large muscle groups, and very small muscle groups. It demands that we are simultaneously athletic while also demonstrating intricately delicate and nimble facility.

In addition to the physical demands of simply holding and creating sound on the classical guitar, we are faced with the necessity to balance complex musical issues, left hand position, right hand scales and fingerings, control subtle shades of balance (multiple lines of music happening at the same time) and dynamics (the volume of each note or phrase), and numerous other details.

The number of separate things that we are required to track at any given moment makes it near impossible to micromanage our muscular state. The idea that we can simply play with more relaxation in our arms, or less tension in our face, neck, back, legs, etc., may well be unrealistic. We may manage it for a moment, but the overwhelming majority of the time, we will be using our body in its habituated fashion.

So as it turns out, a painful arm, shoulder or back while playing the classical guitar is simply a symptom and manifestation of an overall pattern of misuse of our body.

How to Reduce Shoulder and Body Pain in Guitar Practice

Alexander Technique Lessons

In truth, there is little to do about the shoulder. We may examine some common points of over-exertion (like bar chords) and work on the efficiency of our technique. But this is akin to thwacking at branches. Some other manifestation of our misuse will come to light soon enough (or remain present without our knowing it, nevertheless undermining our playing).

One great option is to find an Alexander Technique teacher, and start seeing them regularly. There are some things that we simply cannot learn from books or the internet, and the Alexander Technique is one of them. (Some musicians balk at the price of Alexander Technique lessons, which are, ironically, similar in price to classical guitar lessons. However, the overall improvement to daily quality-of-life, and the health issues avoided throughout life and the savings associated with them, make AT lessons an excellent investment.

Alexander Technique lessons or not, there are some things that you can do away from the guitar that can, over time, help to bring muscular tension levels closer to what is appropriate. The following options pertain to increasing bodily awareness and creating a beneficial environment (read as: chair).

Choose a Good Chair and Sit Up

The first involves choice of chair. Choose a flat, hard bottomed chair. Ideally there is little or no padding, and the seat is completely parallel with the floor, with no slant or contours. Also ideally, your knees are very close to straight out from the chair, so that the top of your thighs are also fairly close to parallel with the floor.

Sit on the edge of the chair, with both feet flat on the floor. Now, rock side to side. You will feel your “sits bones”. These are the two knobby bones in your bum. If you arch your back severely, you can feel yourself roll to the front of these. If you slouch, you can feel yourself roll to the back of your “sit bones”. Ideally, these are squarely under us so that they can support the spine.

If our spine is properly supported, we do not have to rely on our musculature to keep us upright. This means that the muscles of the back can release. As they are attached to the shoulders, the shoulders are also allowed to release to some extent.

As you sit this way, it may feel that you’re using more muscular effort than before. You’re actually using less, but you are using your back differently. Take frequent breaks, but resist the urge to slouch or arch. If the chair is too hard, use a folded towel or thin pad. In time, this becomes the most comfortable way to sit.

Related: How to Sit and Hold a Guitar

Practice in Short Bursts – Take Breaks

Sitting in any position for a long time can lead to cramping or soreness. So one easy way to stay more comfortable is to take frequent breaks.

Every few minutes, stand up and move your body. Move through the whole range of movement for shoulders, hips, neck, back etc.

This can be very short (even a few seconds) or it may be longer. To maintain focus, it helps to know what you’ll do as soon as you start practicing again. A timer can also help.

Frequent Body Check-ins

Another thing that will, in time, help to reduce tension, is to practice releasing the muscles around your eyes and face, including the back of the tongue. This may sound counter-intuitive. What does the face have to do with the shoulder? The facial muscles very much Inform the muscles of the neck, which directly affect the shoulders. It’s all tied together.

Another benefit of practicing relaxing the muscles around your eyes and face, is that it lessens overall stress and feels good. It even makes you look better! (As someone once said, “A smile is a facelift.”)

You can also practice releasing your legs as you sit or stand, or any other muscle group.

More Daily Practices in Awareness

Ultimately, if you wish to play your classical guitar more comfortably and with less pain, one of the best things you can do is to develop the habit (away from the guitar) of actively noticing and releasing tension throughout your body, throughout the day.

Develop a habit of constantly keeping in mind an overall desire to move freely and to use only the appropriate tension for whatever task you are currently performing. Take notice of and consciously choose how you are sitting (even away from the instrument), and seek to find comfort and reduced effort throughout your day by using your skeleton to support your frame, and allowing your muscles to help balance.

All day long, we perform tasks exactly the way that we performed them yesterday (and the day before, and the day before that). Oftentimes, we can go weeks (or, for some, years!) without doing anything new at all. We wake up to the same routine, go to the same places, do the same things in the same way, see the same people and environments, close the day with a routine, wake up and do it all over again.

Our minds are wired to recognize patterns, and then “fill-in-the-blank” so that our conscious awareness can be used for something else. As I said above, this is great. For musicians, this translates to how we move, our technique and abilities, speed, memorization, etc.

Playing the classical guitar is a repetitive task. We sit the same way, hold the instrument the same way, and largely play the same way for years. We often even think the same way for years (unless we are actively studying with a good teacher or otherwise expanding our musical boundaries).

Our mind creates shortcuts and fills in the details for us. The problem arises when we are unconsciously re-creating actions that we “programmed in” years ago, when we were just beginners. Unless we consciously “program” our physiology (entire body) to work in unison and to the greatest agility and efficiency, it simply will make do with whatever works (which is seldom the most desirable or efficient).

You can prove this phenomenon to yourself by mentally playing through a difficult piece of music. If it is one with which you have struggled in practice, chances are that your hands, arms, and body will tense up at exactly the places that give you trouble. You have “programmed” your neurology to play it this way, with excess tension in those spots (or perhaps throughout)-

To open the doors to awareness and greater ease of movement in our bodies, we can practice becoming more aware of the daily mundane tasks that allow us the time and mental capacity to observe them. These are the easy things we do every day.

Note: Playing the guitar requires too much of our mental facilities to spare some for this type of exploration. Stick with the mundane for now.

We can pay attention to how we carry out the small actions. We don’t have to change anything, but just observe what is happening. That is how we build awareness.

Here are some ideas:

  1. How tightly are you holding your toothbrush? Does this make for the best brushing you can muster? How are you standing/sitting while you brush? Are your joints free, or locked? Is the tension in your jaw appropriate for the task at hand?
  2. The same questions could be asked of your eating habits, and how you use your body when eating. Are you sitting up, or slouching, or arching? Are you eating consciously, or just gobbling your food? Do you grit your teeth when you squeeze a slice of lemon?
  3. How much tension is in your arm and shoulder when using a pencil or pen to write? Are you over-squeezing the pencil? What is your face doing? What are your legs doing?
  4. How are you using yourself at the computer? Could it be more natural and free in the joints? Would a world-class dancer do it differently than you? How would they do it? How hard do you type? How much tension is in your arms, shoulders, wrist, etc. while you are typing?
  5. How do you get in and out of the carseat? Could you be more graceful?
  6. When standing, sitting or laying between physical actions (like waiting, lying in bed, relaxing on a couch or chair, etc) how much are you tensing your wrists and hands? How about the back of your tongue?
  7. What other daily activities can you think of that allow you a moment to observe everything going on?

Talk the Talk (to yourself)

Also, instead of saying things in a passive way, try owning up to your actions and take the active role. For instance, instead of, “My shoulder hurts.”, say to yourself, “I am hurting my shoulder.” (It’s true, whether you like it or not.)

Or instead of saying, “My back is stiff.” say “I am stiffening my back.” (or even, instead of, “I don’t have enough time to practice like I’d like to.“, you could say, “I haven’t been taking as much time to practice as I would like.)

By taking back responsibility for our daily constant little actions, we empower ourselves to make different choices that are healthier, more graceful, and more conducive to playing the classical guitar effortlessly and powerfully. Just by framing the situation actively (that we are doing it and in control) reminds us that we have a choice in the matter. (The choice you make at that point is the ultimate daily battle. This is the path of the warrior, the artist’s call-to-arms {pun intended}.)

The Enemy Within

If you decide to start noticing more the way you use your body, and seek to make it more efficient, you will be up against the most powerful adversary. Our powers of habit and our subconscious desire for the safety of homeostasis (the same-old-same-old) will work overtime to keep things exactly as they are right now, even to our peril. This is the true “gremlin in the machine”.

At first you may be excited for change and full of zeal. After a few days to a few weeks you will start to tell yourself that bodily awareness is pointless, or that you don’t have the time, that you can do that “later” (like Wormtongue whispering in your ear, crumbling your will). Then after a couple of days, you will forget all about it. Soon, your shoulder can go back to hurting, just like before, and the forces of old habit have defeated the conscious will. This is how our inner goons operate to keep the status quo. This is why we are as we are and our lives are as they are, for better or for worse.

If we stay diligent, persistent and mindful, we begin to change habits. Then, the same mechanisms that kept us sore will keep us comfortable, mobile and free.

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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