The flute is not the most ergonomic instrument. It’s played horizontally; where the instrument is mainly on the right side of the body. There is a lot of fine motor skill required for advanced flute playing which can lead to significant injury if done without they key element of balance. Not just of the flute – but taking regular breaks, stretching, etc. to maintain stamina and wellness.
Here I’ll be sharing some tips and resources I’ve worked with on the everlasting journey of maintaining health while playing the flute.
Taking 5-10 minute breaking during practice sessions is so important. No matter how long you plan to practice for: IF YOU FEEL STRAIN/FATIGUED… STOP, TAKE A BREAK!
One of the hardest things for me to accept as an undergraduate student was taking multiple breaks during practice sessions because I felt like I could better spend that time practicing – pushing through the strain – because my schedule was so hectic that I knew I wouldn’t be able to make up for lost time.
Now, I know that’s completely pointless. Pushing yourself is one thing, but when your hands are numb, tingling, or extremely sore you shouldn’t “push” yourself. And if the problem is consistent start tracking when (if a particular exercise/pattern triggers pain) and what (level of pain and where is it located).
TLDR; 5-10 minute breaks during practice sessions, especially when you become fatigued is #1!
Change your warm ups
Variety is good – coming up with creative exercises and ways to practice the same material is not only beneficial to your physical health, but it will also keep you engaged and active in the warm up process.
For example, if you were to warmup with Taffanel and Gaubert #1 (Major scale, spanning scale degrees 1-5) every single day at the same time: You do your TG #1, long tones, articulation, and etude in that order all day every day (or most days…). That can lead to issues down the line.
While, yes, you are building muscle memory. You are also only using the same muscles and can cause strain from the repetitive motion. How can you prevent this?
- Change the order of your warm up – or intersperse your warmup with short/easy pieces on occasion (like the Moyse 24 Petite Exercises)
- Section/chunk larger exercises and spread throughout the week – with TG #1, for example, practice the lower register one day, middle register the next, and high register the day after that. Then loop back to the lower register.
- Find different exercises that focus on the same area. Again, looking at TG #1, you could do Paula Robison’s the Singer’s Warmup.
Being aware of any tension while playing is worth noting.
Towards the end of my undergraduate degree, I developed (or became aware of) my cubital tunnel and carpal tendonitis. It started with soreness any time I played for more than 10 minutes. During that time I was under a lot of stress – student teaching, recording for graduate pre-screenings, making travel arrangements, etc. I had to take a break from playing (more so than if I had done preventative care) to go to a rheumatologist (aka a hand specialist) who referred me for occupational therapy after the 2 diagnoses. I’ll come back to that in the next section.
Preventative care is #1, it is ongoing, so being aware of your body’s needs is so vital. Taking time during those 5-10 minute breaks to breathe or just decompress.
Many of the wellness/tracking watches have a breathing reminder. Or there are apps to follow along with breathing exercises. You can even just watch a short video on your phone and breath/decompress while watching that.
The Paula Robison Flute Warmups Book even starts with several breathing/stretching exercises to do.
Stretching is necessary for any physical activity so playing an instrument shouldn’t be exempt from that.
Everyone will have a different area of fatigue that they will want to focus on maintaining. For me – back to the experience I had in occupational therapy with cubital tunnel and tendonitis – the strain was coming from the larger muscles in my shoulders (the serratus anterior) and causing issues in the small muscles up my forearm and in my hands (particularly numbing the pinky).
I did a full blog post on my OT experience right after I finished my therapy – it’s still an ongoing process and I still use many of those exercises to this day – check the link out if you’d like to see that full process (getting referrals, what occupational therapy entailed, and what modifications I needed).
If you are unsure if you need occupational therapy, you should consult your primary care doctor/family medicine doctor – even if they aren’t specialized in music medicine – the repetitive movements of flute playing can cause physical injury that shouldn’t be minimized.
Some of the stretches I do my own areas of fatigue include: tendon glides (obviously for the tendons – focusing on my forearms), cup stretches (for the upper traps in my shoulders), hip and back floor stretches for hyperextension, and wall exercises (in which I face a wall with my elbows flat against the wall – to focus on the serratus anterior or ‘wings’ area in my shoulder/back area).
Definitely seek out a referral for physical or occupational therapy if you believe you are suffering from injury (repetitive fatigue or strain while playing) to learn your own personalized stretches and modifications.
Do you have any wellness recommendations that I didn’t include here? How do you balance your physical and mental health especially during COVID? Share your ideas in the comments below.