How to Release Tension While Playing the Harp

There is always an element of tension when playing music. We have to tense our fingers to pluck the string after all! This is the necessary kind of tension. The unnecessary tension crops up when we aren’t paying attention: tensing our hands through a passage, not releasing tension as we raise away from the harp, holding onto tension in our forearms even after we pluck.
Prolonged tension can cause pain which can manifest as Tendonitis, Repetitive Stress Injury, and can cause some to stop playing altogether. These issues can be fixed with diligent, thorough, slow, mindful practice.
(For a PDF of the bullet points of this blog: click HERE. Print these notes to keep on your music stand for a daily reminder)


Stress can be a result of two things:
  • Mental stress, or negative thought processes. So many have said, and it is important to remember, how our thoughts can affect our physical body. If our self-speak is constantly negative, it puts unwanted stress on our physical body. Just like eating right, exercising, and getting good sleep is important for a healthy physical body, positive self-speak is important for our mental state. Some refer to this as our inner-voice. We aren’t nearly as critical or harsh with others as we are with ourselves. I emphasize to my students every week “Be kind to yourself!” This isn’t just mumbo-jumbo. This is an effort to get them to be aware of their mental state, which can impact their playing. I also liken it to daily affirmations. If we speak kindly about and to ourselves, affirmations of strength and confidence, it flows over into our lives in other beneficial ways. Recognize your inner voice and make a mental effort to change it. Just today I had a student playing through her piece in our lesson. As she got to a certain measure, she said out lout “I always mess up here”. I told her that if you think that way, then you will mess up. Change your narrative, allow yourself the room to improve by deleting negative thoughts and you will be amazed at your progress!
  • The second result of stress is physical tension, which are caused by technical issues. Technical issues can keep the player from playing successfully. Solving these technical issues requires professional guidance, or regular coaching. This tension is more common than the formerly mentioned mental tension. It is highly likely a result of poor instruction or learning an instrument on one’s own without proper guidance. Sloppy practice may also be a culprit. Good teachers will teach a student HOW to practice, not just what to practice. Another reason for this type of tension may be learning a piece that is way outside the technical ability of the current player, a piece that is too challenging. This tension is seen in students of any level: beginner to advanced. It is much harder to fix in a student who has been practicing bad habits.
Good harp playing begins with proper posture and flexible movement, with great focus on relaxation. As you sit, always focus on keeping your body, arms, wrists, hands, and fingers flexible and loose. Often the focus on this task falls by the wayside when we are focused on learning notes, fingering, pedals, etc. If your body is not flexible and relaxed, tension builds and causes problems.
Let us begin releasing tension by approaching these tasks:
  • Sit comfortably behind the harp in a relaxed state
  • Keep your shoulders lowered, never raised
  • Release tension in forearms. If this feeling isn’t realized, drop your hands by your side
    and encourage the feeling of “heavy arms” (almost like a dead arm, in which they feel
    heavy). Get used to this feeling as the normal state of relaxation, and strive for that
    every time the hands are on the harp.
  • Strive for strong, curved knuckles. If you’re knuckles aren’t rounded, or you’re fingers are still weak, tension will be a result of trying to counteract this deficiency. Weak fingers can lead to stiff, tense wrists. Strong, curved joints will help your fingers attain complete independence. The following exercises focus on releasing tension, however they can also be used to work on strengthening your finger muscles and maintaining curved knuckles.
  • Breathe through every pluck of the strings.
  • I can’t emphasize this next part enough: SLOW practice is more important than
    anything. The slower you go, the more time you have to focus on all these aspects for
    proper technique and tension-free playing.
Instead of thinking about what you’re playing, think about how you feel while you’re
  • Relax before you strike a note. Place yourself in a state of mental and physical relaxation while sitting behind the harp, before you even put your hands on the strings. Sit up straight and exercise continued deep breathing. Go through the checklist of releasing tension:
    • Relax shoulders
    • Relax forearms
    • Relax wrists
    • Relax hands
    • Relax fingers
  • Start your practice session with something that requires no demand on your technical ability or mental capacity. Choose something incredibly easy.
I have chosen two exercises to get us started.
The first is a simple pluck with only second
finger on middle C, with rhythmic raising. See the following exercise. You may also print up a PDF HERE to follow along with the blog, or the video.
The second exercise I chose to help us work on releasing tension is one of my very favorites! It is called the Seventh Chord Exercise. After a decade of playing harp I went to high school at Interlochen Arts Academy. My teacher, Joan Raeburn Holland, gave me this exercise, and nothing else, for weeks on end to re-establish proper technique and release all the tension I had been holding onto. This is my go-to exercise for all my students for a myriad of reasons.
Print up a PDF of this exercise HERE. As you play through it, keep your focus on all of these bullet points:
  • Level arms
  • Wrists slightly bent inwards
  • High thumbs
  • Space between thumb and second finger
  • Rounded, curved knuckles
  • Closing completely into the palm
  • Relaxing after each pluck
  • Play on the tips of the fingers (don’t hook your finger around the string)
  • Focus on equal, good tone quality among the fingers
  • Breathe through each and every pluck
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