Building Up Endurance

Very frequently I have students tell me they have some problems with cramps, shaking, or just an uncomfortable tenseness in the arms and hands.

Let’s talk about it.

I remember getting those sensations as well as I was first learning to play Scruggs style banjo. Later, (weeks and months later, that is) as I kept after it, they subsided. I think there are two things going on here that cause your arms and / or hands to show this fatigue, and they are both normal conditions.

First is just the fact that you are asking your arms and hands to do something that is in many respects totally new. It’s also quite demanding in terms of the precision required. If you’ve not done any sort of similar muscular tasks,your muscles will need some time to build up. Just like when you start lifting weights, you can expect some new stress and strain on your muscular system; this is the same but on a smaller scale.

Secondly, quite apart from new muscle stresses, your are also getting your hands and arms accustomed to being in new and odd positions. Until your hands (and your brain) get used to this, it will be only too easy to let undue tension creep in. This results in the same symptoms as in the first case above.

The good news in all of this: unless it’s something way out of the ordinary due to something other than what we’ve talked about here, practice takes care of it all. Practice will build up your endurance and your strength, allowing you to play longer, make those at-first unwieldy contortions, and make those bars chords that require both strength and finesse. As you go along, you’ll see less of these symptoms.

Here’s a suggestion or two that will help you along the way.

As you’re practicing any of the more demanding techniques that may cause these stresses, remember to stop every few minutes for about a full minute. Start this minute by dropping your hands to your waist, tensing and then relaxing your shoulders and then shaking your arms and hands for a few seconds. Take a few deep breaths. This is really the same relaxation techniques people use elsewhere; nothing different here in that regard.

Remember this also is important when building up speed and when playing full length songs that are either fast or otherwise have demanding techniques in them.

Lastly, make sure that you aren’t doing something that is unnecessarily awkward. Getting used to something that’s not needed in the first place would be not only counterproductive, but a tragedy as well. If you have a banjo instructor or know an experienced player, get their opinion on your technique. I’ve also got a series of blogs here that go into pretty minute detail on many of the various considerations for both right and left hand techniques. Check them out as well.

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About Phill Gibson

I'm from Huntsville, Alabama where I work as a Systems Engineer and part-time banjo and mandolin instructor. I've been playing various instruments since my teen years. I started mandolin at about age 17 and banjo at 20. I love just about all kinds of music. In terms of banjo styles, I play Scruggs and melodic and am working on becoming more advanced with single string. I'm also working on 4-finger banjo, which is way off the beaten path. I would like to see more jazz techniques integrated into bluegrass situations; counterpoint, especially. So long-term, that's what I'm doing. I'm also very keen on astronomy, ATM (amateur telescope making), birding, christian homeschooling, martial arts, organic gardening and about 30 other distracting hobbies to a (mercifully) lesser extent.
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