Playing Pain Free,or Why I Hold My Flute Straight

by Laurel Ann Maurer

Laurel-horiz-fluteI often receive comments or questions concerning the position of my flute when I play. For those of you who do not know me, I hold my flute very close to a horizontal position. Over the past few years, I have noticed more and more performers adopting this posture.

The NFA Flutist Quarterly has had various articles relating to posture, position of the body and hands and other related topics. Of particular note was an informal survey conducted at the 1991 NFA convention. Dr. Richard Norris, a doctor and amateur flutist and members of the NFA Performance Health Care Committee investigated the prevelance of pain of performing flutists. The most common complaint was pain in the upper back and neck area. The Miller Institute in New York City (a medical facility dedicated to helping performers with work-related pain or injuries) has coined the phrase “flutists neck” in relation to this common complaint.

I find this information interesting but not surprising. I, too, once suffered through this pain, which is why I am writing this article. What I experienced may be of interest to you and your students, and I hope this may help if you or any of your students are having physical discomfort.

The Start of the Problem

I was a very serious student. In fact I often tell my students that my mother never had to remind me to practice. I actually thought it was fun, and I practiced as soon as I came home from school. Of course, my love of music developed and I entered college as a music major. By this time, I was averaging 4 hours of practice every day. Never once did any teacher work with me on posture or flute position, and I had no problems, so I was unaware of a growing difficulty.

In my junior year, I began to experience pain in my upper back when I would practice. At first, it would happen only after a long practice session. But soon, I could not practice for more than 20 minutes without having to stop! Needless to say, I was quite upset.

Learning the Alexander Technique

I didn’t have a clue as to what to do until I talked with a friend who had recently started studying a method called the Alexander Technique for help with a back problem. He suggested that I take a lesson. Well, I was ready to try anything, so I set up a lesson with the teacher. All I knew about the Alexander Technique was that it was a method where the student learns proper alignment of the body so that any activity can be performed correctly, without injury or pain.

I went to my first Alexander lesson and met my teacher, Oded Levy. I explained my problem to Oded, took out my flute and played for him. I held my flute in my usual manner: flute at a downward angle, neck cocked over to the right and rounded sloping shoulders. After a few minutes, he stopped me and asked “why not hold the flute higher, keep your neck straight, turn your neck to the left at about a 45 degree angle and then bring the flute up to your lips?”

I tried it and it worked. I never had that pain again. I couldn’t believe it. In one lesson my problem was solved. Obviously, it took quite a lot of constant reinforcement to change my posture. But I was highly motivated. I found over the following months that my tone and breath support were better, too, and my shoulders started to straighten out. I was convinced that this method was the answer for me and I continued studying it for three years. I by no means consider myself an expert, but I have developed an awareness of posture and flute position for myself and my students. I will always be indebted to Oded for his valuable teachings.

Suzuki Training and Posture

When I completed my degrees and began Suzuki teacher training, I was very pleasantly surprised to learn that the posture that I had learned from Oded was the posture that the Suzuki method advocated. If you are not familiar with this, let me attempt to describe it in words. Stand with your feet about shoulder width apart. Make sure that your knees are free — not locked. Next, check that your spine is straight from your back up to your neck. Rotate your neck to the left to about a 45 degree angle in relation to the rest of your body. Take care not to cock your neck over to one side. Now, bring your flute up to your embouchure, making sure that you do not reach out to the flute with your face. For most people, if their body is aligned, their flute ends up being horizontal.

In closing, I would like to say that we live in great times as flutists. There is more information now than ever before, and we can take advantage of this knowledge and assist ourselves and our students in having a wonderful lifelong musical experience. There are many fine players who do not adopt this posture and they feel just fine. Everybody is different, and as teachers we need to be educated and aware of ways to help the student who does have pain. In my experience, most students play better using this posture.

Why wait until there is a problem and then make a change? It is much easier to teach optimal posture from the beginning. I am reminded of a conversation I had with one of my teachers, during one of my lessons. The teacher asked me, “why do you hold your flute so straight?” I answered, “if I don’t hold my flute straight, my back hurts.” The teacher paused for a few seconds and said thoughtfully, “maybe that’s why my back hurts.”