Reduce Tension and Improve Your Touch, with Buzzed Notes
Some of the most common dilemmas we classical guitarists have to overcome deal with issues of tension and muscle power.
Luckily there’s an easy method of reversing habits of tension, and making everything we do a bit more graceful and fluid.
We’ll get into the solution in a minute, but first, let’s explore the problem.
The Challenges We Face as Classical Guitarists
Besides the obvious challenges of simply getting our fingers to play the right notes at the right time, we also have to manage the machine we call the body.
Our bodies, with practice, will do whatever they’re told. However, until we know what to tell them, and in what quantities, they just does their best in the moment.
Over time, as we improve, we learn that there are easier or different ways of doing things, but by this time, we have a strong habitual use that we’ll default to (aka “The Autopilot”).
How much is enough? How much garlic does this dish need? How long should those steaks stay on the grill? How hard should I push this child/employee/student/client?
The answers to each of these questions is, “Well, it depends.”
And it takes time and experience to get these consistently right.
At first, there’s no way of really knowing, and we just guess.
We use a shovel where a spoon would work.
Over time, we gain awareness of all the factors involved and can work to introduce nuance and subtlety.
But until that time, we use a shovel where a spoon would work. We expend more energy than is necessary.
Every action requires a certain amount of muscle tension and energy. The goal is to use that amount, and no more.
Job one is recognizing inappropriate tension, and realizing that we may not yet know just what “appropriate” is in any given situation.
Then you can look at tension in each hand, and as wonderful as it would be for our hands to be completely independent of each other, in real life, we typically find….
Crosstalk Between Hands
Because we use both hands to play each note on the guitar (for the most part), we work hard to synchronize our hands.
The shadow side of this is that all this connecting of good parts (placement of notes, rhythm, touch, etc.) also comes with some bad.
Often, when we have large amounts of tension in one hand, the other hand also increases tension. I call this “crosstalk“.
Sometimes, this is good. For instance, if we’re strumming a loud chord with the right hand, we want the left hand to make sure that all the frets are fully pressed so that the sound is clean and strong.
However, most times, when the left hand is playing a bar chord, or a large stretch, the right hand takes on this same tension level.
When the right hand tenses and uses inappropriate tension, the tone quality suffers, and the music often sounds “difficult” to the listener. The fluidity lessens, and the playing sounds stiff and wooden.
Muscle Memory Cuts Both Ways
And as we practice day in and day out, we naturally form habits. That’s just how the mind and body work. (And thank goodness! We’d never advance much otherwise.)
Our muscle memory is the collections of movements we default to when we’re not consciously controlling our hands (again, the autopilot).
Muscle memory doesn’t know right from wrong.
We train our muscle memory effortlessly. If we do something repeatedly, the mind notices the pattern and wires the synapses to include every little aspect. It doesn’t differentiate between what we intend or don’t intend, or what we know is right or wrong.
It just ingrains whatever we actually do. (This is why slowing down is so important in general: So that we can be more intentional.)
A Simple Exercise to Reduce Tension and Build Awareness: Buzzed Notes
Luckily, there is a simple left hand exercise we can use to build more awareness of how much tension is necessary.
With a couple of minutes per practice, we learn (at a deep, unconscious, unthinking level), how much tension is needed for any specific moment of music.
How To Buzz Notes on Guitar
There is a point between fully depressing a fret with the left hand, and just touching the string (creating a muted thump). This small window creates a buzzing sound.
It takes great focus and intention to play with this specific amount of tension. Just a bit too much or too little will tip the scales to one side or the other.
Fortunately, we get immediate feedback by closely listening, and can adjust accordingly.
There are a couple of tips that will make your buzzed note practice more enjoyable and effective.
Speed creates the illusion of perfection. If you play fast, you’ll think you’re doing great.
Speed creates the illusion of perfection.
If you truly want to know what is going on in your playing, you have to be able to hear and evaluate each note. (Yes, every single one!)
That means you have to slow down.
If you your goal is to just do the exercise, you’ll end up frustrated and wasting time. The goal should be to hear each note, evaluate how close it was to the perfect buzz, and then play the next with that input in mind.
Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
Listen Very, Very Closely
Of course, going slow isn’t enough by itself. You also have to actively listen to how your guitar is actually sounding.
We have an internal notion of what we want to hear, and we have the actual sound waves that come from the instrument.
It seems obvious, but it’s amazing how many players only (or mainly) hear what they want to hear, and not what they’re playing in the moment.
It takes a full and focused attention in the moment to practice these well.
This can be tiring, so you may find that one or two minutes of intense focus are what you can realistically do. Great, do that. Then move on to playing some music.
Play the Right Hand with Gusto
You’ll find that buzzing notes is much easier when your right hand plays strong and loud.
Another benefit to this is that it trains your hand to work independently of one another.
Create Exercises Using Buzzed Notes
While just buzzing some random notes will be beneficial, it isn’t very fun, and it takes your attention off of the “how” and puts it on the “what”.
Just like practicing I and M alternation in the right hand (scale technique), it helps to memorize some patterns. This way minimal brain-power is used for choosing notes, and more is used for actually working on the skill at hand.
One of the simplest left hand patterns is playing 1234 on each string. Up and down. Nothing fancy.
The beauty of this pattern is that all the left hand fingers get equal chance to buzz.
You can also use your basic scales shapes to practice your buzzing.
This increases the mental load a bit. Just be sure not to put the cart ahead of the horse.
The important thing when buzzing notes is to buzz notes. If you find yourself giving more attention to remembering or choosing what note comes next, take that as a cue to simplify and come back to the main goal of the exercise. (You can improvise and practice your scales later.)
Reducing Tension in Your Pieces
In addition to buzzing notes as an exercise, you can also use this technique as a way to have new experiences of your music.
Of course, we generally want to avoid buzzing notes when playing pieces.
But we can use buzzed notes as a practice technique with specific goals.
Solving Problems and Tricky Spots
Just about every piece has at least one tricky spot – that spot that doesn’t want to cooperate or come out right.
Most guitarists, to work on these spots, take the strategy of just playing them over and over.
That might work, eventually.
A better approach is to remove the troublesome section from the music, and take it over to the proverbial workbench, and tinker with it.
Practicing a spot doesn’t have to directly relate to what the finished product will sound like. Often, exploring a section from different angles, and genuinely “playing with it” (as opposed to “playing it”) will somehow solve the problem (which can seem quite mysterious!).
Buzzing notes is one way to play “with” it.
This also leads to easier memorization!
You can give your muscles a different experience of the same notes, and interrupt the patterns that they’ve created during the learning process.
Muscles get a new idea of how much effort is needed, and how they need to move to get from one place to another.
In the process, you slow down enough that you’ll find yourself better understanding the moment-by-moment issues involved in the tricky spot.
“Takin’ ’Er Out for a spin”
You can also modify your beliefs concerning your abilities and the speed of the piece (at performance level).
As you begin to get comfortable with the notes and fingerings, you’ll become very aware of the chasm between you current ability, and where you ultimately want it to be.
Just as walking is different than running, you may find that to play a piece quickly, something has to change.
Just as walking is different than running, you may find that to play a piece quickly, something has to change.
If you can’t play it slowly, you’ll never be solid at speed. So slow deliberate practice is a given. But assuming that you’re also doing that:
You can also use buzzed notes (less precisely than above) as a way to take your piece out “for a spin”. A “test drive”, just to get the experience of what it will feel like when it’s ready and up to speed.
Of course, you won’t be able to sound good at high speeds yet, but that’s not the point.
In this exercise, you can miss notes, make strange sounds, stumble around and flail at will. The goal is to have the bodily experience of playing fluidly with ease, grace and speed (even if it sounds bad).
In other words, this is pretending to play better than you can!
This gives you the experience of playing at a high level, even if it’s “make believe”. Your unconscious takes this and creates new stories and possibilities for you, and sets to work to bridge the gap between the dream and the reality.
Go Forth and Buzz
Buzzing notes is one of many tools we can use to help our playing, feel better in our hands and bodies, and solve musical problems. Keep it in mind when you notice inappropriate tension, crosstalk, or want to work differently with a piece you’re working on.
Have you used this technique? What are your thoughts? Please share in the comments!
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.
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