I was asked by a student why their shoulder hurts so much when they practice. Great question!
Here are some of my answers:
Sometimes it just means you need to take a break. You might be new at holding your flute up for that amount of time. Just put your arms down for a few seconds and then you can start again. You’ll get stronger within practice and time.
But, if your shoulder hurts when you are practicing it usually means you are extra tight in your neck. Your neck muscles are connected to the muscles of the back, and they overlap the shoulders. It’s almost like a cape that drapes or falls over the shoulders and down the back. All the muscles are interconnected, and much of the time where it hurts the most is not where the tension started.
We don’t want to be distracted by body aches and flute playing. We have to focus on our music and tone. There are two places to look if your back is hurting.
Learn to look closely at your body position
First: Is one shoulder higher than the other? Take a look in the mirror, what is going on there? Unless you have a pre-existing condition, your shoulders should be even, otherwise you’re causing pain and tension to your shoulders, and believe it or not, that will weaken your flute sound. This is because if you compress your shoulders in front too far, you constrict or diminish the amount of space in your lungs, and that traps your resonance and doesn’t let the frequency of your sound vibrate freely. It’s like if you go to a grand piano and hold down the strings and then try to play a note, nothing comes out!
Second: What is your neck doing? Especially as flute players, we like to kind of crinkle inward towards our neck. There are so many things to think about when we are playing, that it’s easy to freeze, and the body likes to put that tension in the neck. How to relax your neck? It doesn’t really happen when you just tell your neck to relax. In general, you need pay attention to how you’re holding your flute. You don’t want to pull your left arm across your chest, as if it were in a sling or something.
Try holding your arms up as if you have your flute in hand and are ready to play. Look in the mirror. How does it look? Now, have someone carefully place your flute in your hands (without you moving a muscle). Does it fit? Did you have to adjust to get your flute balanced?
It’s possible that you think you are holding your flute with good, natural positioning until you start to play… and then the ‘shifting’ happens. Play a little bit of something tricky and then have your assistant take the flute from you (without you moving a muscle). Now how do you look? Is it starting to hurt? Discomfort anywhere?
If it hurts, you’re trying too hard. Remember that relaxed positioning is the best positioning. It’s ok if it takes some time to get to use to. Over-trying is hard to get rid of.
Nice, relaxed body position allows you to get a really deep tone which helps you project. And, all performers want to project more.
One more thing, you want some space between your body and your flute. I always tell my students to ‘air out their arm-pits’ more instead of hugging them tightly to their body. But, you don’t want to be stiff or have our elbows cocked out like chicken wings. You want to actually feel as if you have ‘dropped the weight of your elbows’. This is very relaxing feeling, and noticeable right away.
Playing the flute should feel good. Your body is fully equipped to play the flute, the more you trust that, the more your body will respond naturally, and you’ll be able to play without worry or pain!