Playing Effortlessly for Guitar Players & Other String Players by Physical Therapist Fred Onufryk, November 16, 2009

♫ The twenty or so attendees at Rochester Guitar Club’s November meeting experienced for themselves a unique series of stretching techniques designed to let us practice, play, and breathe more easily, without pain or injuries, and with better playing posture.

Fred Onufryk began by noting that we as guitarists should have our body (skeleton) properly support what we’re doing by having our large muscles and large bones hold us upright. Our small muscles (shoulder, neck, wrist, forearm) are for fine motor coordination, not for support and endurance. Those of us who practice/play for 2, 3, 4, even 5 hours at a time are asking our muscles to do a lot. Therefore, we should help ourselves utilize our large muscles and bones more efficiently.

After his brief explanation of this session’s objectives, Fred O engaged two eager participants, Fred Vine and Jerry Carter, to help demonstrate examples of their playing the same musical selection before and after going through a set of simple exercises.


Fred Vine learns to Adjust Posture from Fred Onufryk

Fred Vine, the first volunteer and a local bluesman, noted that he plays a lot, sometimes sitting, sometimes standing, sometimes taking breaks, sometimes not. The one common thread is the pain he experiences from his shoulder into his neck, especially when tensing up during difficult passages. He also noted his discomfort switching between reading music and looking at the guitar neck while wearing bifocals.
Fred O stood behind Fred V, and with his hands on Fred V’s shoulders pressed down a bit, then tipped them from side to side, asking Fred V to note how those movements felt. Then he had Fred V play a song, asking the group what they noticed about Fred V’s posture and playing.

Then, it was Jerry Carter’s turn. After taking his seat up front, he confessed to multiple violations of good posture laws while playing at home, usually in a soft chair with his feet up. And being circumferentially challenged often leads to problems finding a comfortable playing position. Often the result is that Jerry’s left hand, particularly three of his fingers, tend to go numb very easily, often at the most inopportune time—on stage in the middle of a song! As before, Fred O stood behind Jerry, and repeated the shoulder press experiment. Then Jerry played a song, with Fred O asking the group what they noticed about Jerry’s posture and playing.


Doing the Feldenkrais Exercises

Next, Fred led the group, sitting in their chairs, through some Feldenkrais-based exercises. There were two types of exercises, both designed to relax the participants as well as to educate them about their short and long term benefits.

In the final part of the program Fred Vine and Jerry in turn came back up front and played the same selections they did before. Fred said he felt more relaxed, was sitting much differently (head up, back against the chair), and that he had a decreased attack on the strings of his guitar. Jerry noticed he felt “sleepy”, his heart rate was lower, and was now aware of how tense he could be and not realize it.

Fred O also had the group try some breathing exercises to raise our awareness level of what normally is/is not going on while we breathe during practice and performing. They tend to help us focus on what is going on “in the moment, rather than what we did three minutes ago, or the last time we played a selection.

To summarize, Fred O’s techniques won’t fix our playing/performance problems overnight, but do offer a means to gradual process improvements. We should, by using these methods, enjoy increased fluidity and extended range of motion, and be able to pay more attention to what is going on while we’re playing. Fred had handouts outlining some of the exercises we did, as well as a flier describing his weekly group sessions. He also offers individual coaching for those interested in a customized exploration of these methods.

—John Williamson
Photos: R. Taglieri

Fred can be contacted at and at (585) 467-4451.

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