What is "Body Tension" and how
does it effect our trumpet playing?
Opposing Muscle Groups
Body tension is caused when opposing muscle groups are
contracted simultaneously. An easy example to use to show this is the elbow.
There are muscles which bend the elbow closed and muscles which bend it open. If
you "flex" both sets of muscles equally, the elbow doesn't move at
all. The resulting firmness in the arm's muscles is body tension. And the harder
you flex those opposing muscles, the more tension you'll have.
Try it now. Try bending and straightening your arm, both at
the same time. Can you see and feel how the muscles become firm and
"tense"? Now try it with other various joints in your body. Try
tensing your fingers by opening and closing them at the same time (notice that
this creates more tension in your arm than it does in your fingers). Try it with
The reason I say to try it this way is because it helps to
recognize what "Body Tension" feels like. When I made this
discovery and experimented with creating this tension on my own, I was able to
recognize that feeling when it happened on its own. It helps when you can
But those were simple examples, involving only a few muscles
at a time. There are some kinds of tension which involve literally hundreds of
different muscles in your body. Think about it, every action our bodies are
capable of performing also has it's opposite action. We are capable of breathing
in and breathing out. We are capable of standing straight or bending over. These
are actions which require the use of hundreds of muscles and when we try to
perform those actions while also performing their opposites, we create tension
in hundreds of muscles.
Some tension is required for playing the trumpet. For example,
in order to produce an embouchure, the obicularis oris (the lip muscles) must
contract while it's surrounding, opposing muscles contract away from it. Without
this tension, we couldn't form an embouchure. Without it, we couldn't play the
The trick becomes one of using the right tension at the right
moments while not using other types of unnecessary body tension.
Dealing With It
I believe that the first step in combating body tension is in
learning how to recognize it. If you practice creating tension by flexing
opposing muscle groups, you will become more familiar with that feeling and will
eventually be able to recognize it in other, more trumpet related muscle groups.
But I also believe that this is one of those things that you can't just turn
off, consciously. You can't just say, "ok, I'll stop flexing those opposing
muscles". It really doesn't work like that. In a lot of cases, body tension
is a very complex combination of different opposing muscles. It's not as easy to
stop contracting those opposite muscles as it is when you do the elbow
And that's precisely why I do not categorize this topic under
a "Physical" heading. Even though the manifestations are entirely
physical, the subject itself is not a physical one. It's more of a mental
subject and really belongs under the heading of performance.
I believe that body tension is caused by contradicting
thoughts, which then cause contradicting signals being sent to the body from the
brain. It seems that most body tension is caused by emotions like fear and
Consider fear. Imagine trying to DO something that you are
afraid to do. I've never been afraid of the dark, but there have been a few
times when I was forced to walk in total darkness. This is scary because you
have no idea what you will step on, fall on or walk into. So the conscious part
of my mind told my body to walk forward while the subconscious part told it to
STOP walking. The mixed signals caused opposing muscle groups to contract. The
result is body tension.
Applying that same scenario to musical performances, we can
see that our conscious minds are telling our bodies to play the trumpet, but the
stage fright is telling the muscles in our bodies to stop playing.
There are two things that I do to reduce body tension when I'm
performing. The first is to unify my thoughts, rechanneling the energy and
excitement so that it enhances the performance instead of contradicting it. The
other solution is to train my body to play the trumpet in an almost mechanical
manner, thus rendering it immune to conflicting signals from my brain. I'll
discuss this second solution first because it's a long term solution that
requires changes in practice habits instead of performance habits.
I know what you're thinking, "The last thing I want is to
be a mechanical sounding player". I agree with you. But I'm not talking
about style or musicality. I'm talking about the physical process of REproducing
the notes. I place an emphasis on "RE" in "REproducing"
because everything we do in performance (from a physical perspective) is a REproduction
of what we've done in our practice sessions.
When I practice rudiments and technical studies, one of my
primary objectives is to play them with NO unnecessary body tension. The idea is
that, after countless hours of playing this way in the practice room, playing
without unnecessary body tension becomes part of your overall mechanical
process. Performing that way simply becomes a matter of "this is how I do
And I guess what I mean by "mechanical" is
"subconscious". Playing trumpet without unnecessary body tension
becomes a mechanical function of the body and doesn't require conscious thought
control. When you practice this way, it causes you to be more resistant to
"conflicting emotions". In fact, I'm going to go as far as to say
that, if you are not practicing this way, you probably will never be able to
perform without unnecessary body tension. How could you?
Unifying Your Thoughts In the Practice Room
Unfortunately, mechanical REproduction isn't enough for many
people. I'm one of those many. I remember the mid 1980's when I was a bundle of
nerves, even in the practice room. Playing the trumpet had become a huge head
game for me and I couldn't even relax while I was practicing.
One of the things that changed that for me was when I learned
how to rest while I practice. Before then, practicing always felt frantic. I
remember comparing it to a drowning sensation. I was always gasping for that
next breath of air, not literally, but emotionally. When I began resting
as long as I play, within the actual practice sessions, it helped me relax, step
back and approach the horn in a more positive light.
I also believe that the entire Physical Trumpet Pyramid
concept helped too. There's something about focusing on the air stream that
helps narrow your thoughts to exclude unnecessary thoughts and emotions. And
that's exactly what I'm talking about........unifying your thoughts into one,
positive thought - producing one unopposed physical action.
Try it! Pick up your horn and play a long note, but
concentrate on just the air stream and nothing else. When you do this, focus on
steadiness instead of volume. A steady air stream produces a steady tone. Now,
after you've done that, try applying that same feeling to a "flow
study". Think about it. Isn't that what the entire "flow study"
concept is all about? ........removing unnecessary body tension? The objective
is to play those studies with that uninhibited feeling.....THEN......retaining
that same feel, apply it to other music.
Unifying Your Thoughts In Performance
I wish it wasn't so, but sometimes, even with everything I've
covered here so far, it just isn't enough to combat the fierce emotions we
experience in performances. I think the tendency here is to reach more into the
abstract and spiritual for answers to this more severe problem. I've written two
essays which explain my feelings and ideals on this subject: Trumpet and
Religion and An Expression of Grace. But let me also say that this is a highly
personal thing. It has to do with concepts and ideology and stuff like that. The
objective is to focus all of your mental energy in one positive direction so
that you eliminate the "conflicting signals" from the brain.
I've heard of people who use mental imagery, zen,
affirmations, meditations, rituals.....you name it. You really have to find what
works best for you. The main point of even mentioning it here is to make it
clear to you what the objectives of these things really are (aside from
religious objectives). I hope you understand by now that it's the conflicting
messages, thoughts and emotions which we are trying to get rid of because those
are the source of body tension.
Conflicting thoughts and emotions cause the brain to send
conflicting signals to the muscles in your body. Unify those thoughts and
emotions and you remove the conflict, thereby curing the body tension.