Pain can be a huge obstacle to getting in the practice time you need in order to grow as a musician. However, playing the flute is not inherently painful; the bad habits we develop over time are what can lead to discomfort and injury.
Let me tell you the story of my struggle with practice pain.
I have scoliosis which, although mild, causes my spine to curve away from my left shoulder. As we know, in order to put the flute in playing position we have to bring the left arm across our body toward our right. Due to my scoliosis, this action places extra strain on the muscles in my left shoulder region.
When I was a young student, I believed that "good posture" meant having the head facing forward and the flute parallel to the body, which cranked my left arm really far over to the right and also pulled my right arm way back, with my elbow behind me. This is best seen by looking at it from above:
Ouch! Obviously, this is an unhealthy posture, but I had never thought to stop and evaluate what I was doing when I played. I just did it. And for a while, that was fine.
Until it wasn't.
When I decided halfway through high school that I wanted to study music in college, I increased my practice time, and this habit of pulling my left arm tightly across my body began to cause strain in my left shoulder due to overuse of the muscles. I wound up with pain so intense that I found myself in physical therapy. Therapy decreased my discomfort enough to get me through college, but the pain remained. I began to question whether playing flute was a wise choice, given the health issues it was causing.
It wasn't until I started my graduate work that I found a surprisingly simple solution: awareness.
My teacher, Vanessa Mulvey, taught me about body mapping, which essentially means making sure that the way you think you're using your body matches up with the way you're actually using it. When the two are out of sync, painful and inefficient movement is usually the result. In my head, I thought that the twisted-up posture you saw above looked more like this:
Let's look at those two pictures side by side:
Big difference, right? A healthy, natural playing position should allow the flute to be at an angle to the body, with the head turning slightly to the left.
Vanessa taught me how the bones and musculature of the body work together and helped me to see how they move within my own body. This process took almost a year, but I went from the painful posture in the left image to a more open position that actually takes into account how the skeleton is put together. Taking pictures and video of myself helped me to be more aware of what I was doing as I played, and helped me figure out what needed to be adjusted. Eventually I arrived at the posture you see in the right image, which allows for space between the arms and the body and doesn't require unnatural twisting of the spine.
Although it took a year to achieve a complete body map (being able to picture correctly what your entire skeleton and musculature are doing as you play), my shoulder pain was gone after only two months of studying how my own body works. After years of suffering, this was astonishing.
Had I continued blindly, seeking ever more physical therapy--and possibly surgery--to alleviate the pain without stopping to look at how I was using my muscles, I might have had to stop playing flute entirely.
But now, thanks to mindfulness, I play pain-free.
NOTE: You should seek the advice of your physician if you are experiencing pain when you play.
Early intervention is key in preventing permanent injury.