Tension or Relaxation? The Relaxation Principle

The word “relaxation”, like many of our most significant words (for example “god”, “love”, “freedom”, and even “music“), is often seriously misinterpreted. We are at our most relaxed when we are asleep (or dead!), however we don’t want our music to be either. While playing music, our objective is not to go to sleep nor to put people to sleep, but rather for us all – performers and listeners alike – to be absolutely as awake and alive as possible. Being in this heightened state of activity and alertness without any muscular or psychological tension is impossible.

Our objective is therefore not to play our instrument with zero tension, but rather with the minimum possible tension with which we can still achieve all our “in-tense” (yes, intensity does involve a certain tension) musical and technical goals. Even the word “attention” also contains the word “tension” (the slightly different spelling is irrelevant). Good music-making requires great attention: not just to our musical line and to everything that the other musicians (including conductors) might be doing, but also to what is going on inside us. This need for great attention to so many things at the same time can easily create excessive, harmful tension levels, especially when we are doing this complex activity in front of people whose full attention is on us.

Being a musician is often like being a tightrope walker, from both the rope’s and the walker’s points of view. Finding just the right tension level for the rope is not easy: too tight and it might break, too loose and it doesn’t give enough support. For the tightrope walker, both too much and too little tension (both psychological and muscular) will increase the chances of falling. Learning to play intensely and attentively, but with just the minimal tension necessary to achieve this, is perhaps the ultimate step in any musician’s evolution.


Many people who require a supremely high level of calm concentration in order to enjoy (and survive) potentially terrifying activities such as free-climbing and tightrope-walking, speak much more about the importance of “focus” for achieving their desired mental state rather than “relaxation”. But while “focus” seems to be the vital psychological element while hanging over a precipice, deep relaxation seems to have a supremely important role to play in the preparation phase, which is everything we do in the minutes, hours, days and months before walking out on our tightrope, cliff, or stage.


Learning a new skill almost always involves tension and discomfort at first (remember how it was, learning how to ride a bicycle, swim, or drive a car). This only becomes a problem if the tension continues indefinitely and if we get so used to ignoring these sensations of strain that we no longer notice them. With bicycles, cars, and swimming, the tension level falls off rapidly once we have acquired (and sufficiently reinforced) the basic skills, as we don’t need to take those skills any further. Once we know how to ride, swim and drive etc then we can just relax and enjoy doing it.

With a musical instrument however, the basic skills are not enough. There is always more to learn, new skills and new pieces, so it takes much much longer (if ever) for us to arrive at a level where we can “just do it” – all of it – in a relaxed and easy manner. To make matters worse, as soon as we can even vaguely play our instrument we normally start directing all of our attention to the interpretation of the music we are playing and forget entirely about our bodies.

And then, in addition to all the physical tensions produced as a response to the technical demands of the instrument, we have additional sources of tension that can be produced by psychological states which have nothing to do with the instrument (general anxiety, performance anxiety, sadness, over-excitement, stress etc)


So we really need, periodically, to forget about the music and turn our attention back to our poor martyred bodies and souls. We, more than our cello, are our real instrument. Good body-use and good psychology can make a “bad” instrument sound like a fantastic one, whereas tension and strain will definitely make even a wonderful cello sound awful.


Relaxation allows for (and encourages) smooth fluid organic transitions (for example in dynamics and/or tempi) whereas excessive muscular tension tends to make our transitions jerky, uneven and machine-like. The fine NZ/USA cellist and teacher James Tennant compares Artur Rubinstein’s smooth, graded transitions with Horowitz’s more abrupt ones. This probably has nothing to do with their respective skill as instrumentalists but has everything to do with their basic psychological state: Rubinstein was a very relaxed, good-humoured person, while Horowitz was a much more highly-strung (perhaps the word should be “tightly-strung”) person. Playing music is a lot like driving a car: a tense nervous driver will tend to accelerate and brake more abruptly than a relaxed confident one. This is probably the origin of the insulting word “jerk”, and the fact that this insult is almost exclusively applied to males perhaps reflects the observation that females have much less tendency to tense, machine-like attitudes and movements.


One of the funniest, saddest, and most curious things about excessive tension is that it is highly contagious, not just from one person to another but also from one muscle to the others, spreading immediately and affecting our whole body. Even if it is only our little toe that is very tense, this will create excessive tension elsewhere in the body and may be the reason why our bow is not bouncing properly in spiccato passages.

Human contagion of tension can be seen very clearly in orchestras because all the players must watch the conductor carefully at all times. A conductor’s body language, facial expressions and voice timbre can make a whole orchestra become very quickly tense or can put them at ease in a very short time. While watching a concert once I was struck by the young cello-section leader who was so intensely glued to every gesture of the conductor that by the end of the concert he had even adopted the conductor’s facial tic!

To say the same thing using other words (important subjects deserve this): tension is very sneaky. A tense little toe can contaminate and infect the rest of the body at the speed of a nuclear reaction. A tense teacher, conductor, or musical partner can have the same effect. And like a nuclear reaction, once a little bit of tension gets its foot (or toe) in the door it will often multiply exponentially at the slightest excuse. So, when making music, not only is it a good idea to keep our geiger counter and radiation protection (tension detectors and shields) always switched on, but also we have to pay attention to the ringing of their alarm bells.


The good side of this curious phenomenon is that it works both ways: relaxation (not just tension) is also highly contagious. Relaxing any one part of the body (even just the little toe) has the effect of relaxing all the body. And, in the same “positive contagious” way, relaxing the muscles of the body invariably causes the mind to relax. This is why slow, sustained, gentle stretches (as in yoga) are so extraordinarily useful to achieve and maintain not only physical but also mental relaxation. Even such a seemingly simple thing as breathing – consciously, slowly and deeply, with special emphasis on the exhale – opens the door wide for relaxation and is in fact the basic element of most meditation methods.

The first step to reducing unnecessarily high tension levels is to realise that we have them! We need to be very aware of our levels of bodily tension (neck, mouth, face, shoulders, lower back,  legs etc.) while playing the cello – but also when we are not with our cello. This awareness of tension, with and without the instrument, is a fundamental element of “good” playing and of “good” body use. Unfortunately, it is often neglected in instrumental pedagogy.

It’s normal that learning a new skill involves tension and discomfort, so at first, we just ignore these sensations of strain. Later, we ignore these sensations because we are directing all of our attention to the playing of more and more notes, then later we ignore the physical tension because all our attention is concentrated on the interpretation of the music. But we are creatures of habit, and eventually, we get so used to playing with tensions that we no longer notice if (or where) there is excess, unnecessary tension in our bodies. How then can we then increase our “body-awareness” before pain – the ultimate recourse that our body has – tells us that we have been ignoring our body and that we are doing something wrong!?

The origin of excessive tension can be 100% psychological (Trying Too Hard, Stagefright, etc), 100% physical (doing movements that we have not mastered), or any combination of the two. The tension that accompanies any physical activity that is beyond our skill level is best reduced by technical practice and intellectual understanding. These two remedies (see Technique) allow us to master the skills necessary in order to make the passage physically comfortable.

The psychological origin of physical tension is however a much more complex world and needs to be separated into:

To quote the wonderful cellist Johannes Möser: when we are in a performance situation, telling our muscles to “relax” is not usually very helpful. If we are psychologically tense and simply allow our muscles to “relax and do what they want”, then they will naturally tighten up, just like a rabbit frozen with fear in the glare of car headlights. Rather than telling our muscles to “relax” we need actually to actively force the muscles to move, and thus get into the dynamic “fight-flight” response mode, and out of the “frozen rabbit” mode.

Here below are some suggestions for activities to reduce our tension level, firstly while away from the instrument and secondly while at (with) the instrument.



When we lie down all of our muscles can relax. Lying down is the perfect position for finding total muscular relaxation. After a sustained period of action, stress and activity (both mental and physical) sometimes a long lie-in can have magical results. If we are having trouble getting out of bed, there is usually a good reason for our inertia (our body and/or mind need a rest) and, in fact, being confined to bed for a few days by illness can have a wonderful effect on both our health and our sound!


Being submerged in water is similar to lying down, in the sense that our muscles no longer have to work to hold us upright. In water, we are basically in zero-gravity conditions but the advantage of water with respect to bed is that, when we swim slowly (which is perhaps easier with breaststroke and backstroke rather than freestyle [crawl]), we are using our muscles in a very therapeutic way: with large, gentle, flowing, rhythmic movements. Gentle swimming is a little like aquatic yoga in that sense. The greater resistance of water as compared to air also helps to make our gestures smoother and is in some ways comparable to the resistance of the bow on the string. The ultimate therapeutic swimming would be in a warm liquid of the consistency of oil (or a thick soup) in which the viscosity of the liquid would more or less match the resistance of the string against the bow. This is why many teachers say “play as if you are bowing in honey”!!!

Our “practice” works principally on our smaller muscles (fingers and hands) and this can lead to a lot of tension in the large muscle groups, which we often ignore. Swimming however does the exact opposite: the small delicate muscles of the hands are allowed to rest while the big muscle groups are finally allowed to do what they do best: large, open movements against a resistance stronger than air.


Meditation is miraculous but Yoga is possibly even better in the sense that it combines smooth gentle muscular stretching with the techniques of meditation (breathing, focus, mental stillness). With Yoga, it is as though we get “two for the price of one”. Many people find Alexander Technique and Feldenkreis highly therapeutic. Dancing will also encourage us to loosen up in association with music, which is normally a good thing for tense people. A great, relaxed player with open, communicative body language, is basically dancing with their instrument.



Observing ourselves in a mirror (while playing!) is helpful: but making a video of our playing is even more so, especially of a performance situation because it is here that normally (hopefully) almost all of our attention is going into the music rather than into our body-awareness. Usually, we will be horrified by what we see, but this pain is HIGHLY instructive.


We need to be especially aware of the tension levels at all the points of contact between our body and our instrument but most especially at two particular points: the right leg and the neck. Both of these contact points are not only unnecessary for holding the cello: they are real danger zones. Pressing with either on the cello is not only unnecessary, it is completely counterproductive (see Seating Posture).


Deliberately moving and loosening up every part of our body that can be moved while playing is also helpful. It will often be necessary to do this in an extreme, exaggerated manner in order for some of that increased mobility to become incorporated and automatised into our everyday playing.


A lot of classical music – especially of the Romantic period – is emotionally intense. If we find we are getting tense even while playing pieces that we don’t find technically difficult, and in non-threatening situations, then it’s probably time to change our repertoire and play some music that doesn’t need or want such high emotional tension. Folk music, dance music, a lot of jazz and most “popular” music in general normally has a more friendly, informal, laid-back feel to it which can help us to get out of the habit of permanent intensity. Often, the music of Beethoven can feel like a life-and-death affair, but Bossa Nova and Irish folk music never should feel like this.

Even Baroque/Pre-Baroque music and the music of Fritz Kreisler come from completely different emotional worlds to that of the tormented Romantic epoch. The word “Bach” in German means “little stream”. Often his music is played as though it was written for a powerful church organ. If however, we play it like a bubbling brook rather than a mighty river, we not only can relax and enjoy it more, but it also might sound a lot better (see Style and Epoch). Kreisler’s music – and much Viennese music in general – is impregnated with charm, lightness, delicacy, grace and warmth. To find these musical qualities we need to relax and become more gentle. Our choice of repertoire can help us to relax, eliminate angst and can teach us a lot about the lighter side of music and life.


For all of our young lives (at least) we are encouraged to concentrate, be serious, focus, work hard etc. For learning new tricks this is great, but there comes a time when we need to do absolutely the contrary. We will know that “that time” has come when we find ourselves focusing so much energy on a task that we are not only no longer progressing but are even starting to do it (whatever it is) worse. This happens often in our build-up to a concert, audition, or exam. This excess attention is now, by definition, interfering with and obstructing our natural and acquired abilities.

Sure signs of having reached this state are: involuntary noises from the throat and mouth, facial contortions and tics, stopping breathing, muscular and psychological exhaustion, excessive sweating, physical tightness and rigidity, difficulty playing fast passages, difficulty in controlling tricky rhythms. This then is the moment in which we need to stop trying so hard. We need instead, to practice playing our pieces automatically, half-asleep as it were. We can simulate this dopey mental state by distracting our mind’s attention away from the music and the instrument, at the same time as we continue playing. Aldo Parisot would tell his students to play their pieces while watching the TV. Talking, counting aloud, singing, looking out the window, and moving the body in expansive ways are all great therapeutic activities to relax while playing. Even the simple fact of playing with a metronome can diffuse the excessively-focused laser beam of our attention, getting us out of our little bubble, and thus reducing our tension level.

Here below are some simple, well-known, popular songs in which we can sing the melody while accompanying ourselves with the attached sheet music. We will start off playing only the most elementary bassline but gradually add improvements (complications). We can do this very easily for any song that we like and know: we just need to find the chord chart (or work it out by trial and error) and off we go. Singing without the words is fine, but the real test of our physical mastery is to sing them with words: if we can do that, then we can do anything! As with many folk songs however, there exist a great variety of possible lyrics for each of these songs, and we can even invent our own lyrics.

    Oh Susannah    Shortnin’ Bread      Shenandoah     Tis a Gift

We can also try singing another voice while simultaneously playing our own cello part in any music that we are practising that is not for unaccompanied cello. The most obvious voice to sing would be a melody line, while we are playing an accompaniment voice. This is surprisingly difficult, but is also surprisingly useful. But the opposite is also very useful. Try singing the bass line of Bach’s “Air on the G-String” while playing the melody. The absolute height of achievement in this category would be to play the melody of Bach-Gounod’s “Ave Maria” while singing the accompaniment: Bobby McFerrin can do it (but he has Yo Yo Ma playing the tune)!!