Whether it’s about feeling comfortable playing in first position, a tool to sustain your beautiful melody, defining a particularly polyphonic passage or about finally nailing that stretch in Choro da Saudade, training flexibility on the guitar is ultimately all about freedom on your fretboard. Even if you are just starting out, or you aren’t playing pieces that feel particularly vertically or horizontally demanding, it is never too early to train flexibility as it is best done, as with many technical facilities, intentionally, gradually and over an extended period of time.
When we think about flexibility, we most often envision a stretched-out hand, reaching the tip of the pinky and the tip of the index finger as far as possible away from each other; an extension in terms of hand span. Perhaps we think this way because music is often an achievement-based industry, and our education tends to lead us to calculating the extent of our progress in extrinsic measurements. But it is important to remember, especially at the outset of flexibility practice, that whilst stretching and extending are elements of flexibility, they do not encompass everything that flexibility is useful for.
What is Flexibility?
In the same way that training flexibility in the hip flexors allows ease of walking (especially as we get older!) for guitarists, training flexibility in the hands is all about ease of playing, be it in a challenging passage that requires many different complex movements or in a simple one that requires very little movement at all. Flexibility is defined as “the ability of a joint or series of joints to move through an unrestricted, pain-free range of motion” and for guitarists specifically looking at range of motion in the hands, flexibility lies in ease of extension and flexion and in ease of abduction and adduction in the hand.
I think it would be safe to say that as busy individuals, most musicians spend very little time warming up their bodies away from the instrument before beginning to practice. As we grow to know more about the enormity in the numbers of musicians who undergo serious extended periods of injury and pain in their playing, it is more important than ever that we understand that a healthy practice involves warming up the body that you are about to use for very intense physical training.
1. Blood Flow; ‘warming up’ the muscles is so called because of the feeling of warmth that extends to the trained muscle when performing said exercise. Blood flow to the small muscles we encounter during technical practice on the instrument is so important as it increases the availability of oxygen in the muscles which allows them to contract and relax more easily.
2. Mind-muscle Connection; ultimately, technical practice is about involving the mind in such a way that the movement we require is performed physically by the body. When we spend our time focusing on sound production and phrasing it can be easy to forget that what we are repeating and training is the physical process that produces the result we desire, and the mental process that produces that physical process. Warm up is a fantastic way to really connect our mind with the muscles we are engaging and hope to engage in a soft and intentional way.
3. Habit Creation; whilst warm up itself is a habit we should all take seriously, taking 5 minutes to warm up the body is a powerful example of creation of a habit of not just physical warm up, but preparation of mental readiness, preparation for focus and for returning to the current moment, which helps immeasurably in streamlining and making more effective the practice that you subsequently engage in.
1. Softly; warm up should always start with small movements, as if stirring a baby out of sleep. Be gentle and patient with the movements you make, gradually making motions larger and larger.
2. Intentionally; warm up should not just be a random shake of the hand from the wrist, you actually risk injuring yourself from this kind of rapid, random movement! If you are performing any kind of warm up exercise, however small, give your full concentration to it and to the relaxation of the other muscles that may try to engage to help the muscle in question wake up!
Start by warming up the palm of the hand - an often overlooked part of the hand.
Next warm up each finger in the following ways (as shown with my index finger here, but repeat with all fingers and the thumb of each hand)