• I am only Unreasonably Persistent •
In my first blog post of the year, I briefly mentioned my flute story, which deals with an injury I suffered in my freshman year of college. I’d like to elaborate and provide my full story in this post. Perhaps it seems self-serving to bring my story out publicly, but it has made me the flutist and human that I am today, and I hope that I can encourage other musicians out there, who are dealing with injury or self-doubt, that they are not alone! This is going to be a long post, so for those of you that read all of it, I thank you!
I have played flute since age 10 and decided in high school that I wanted to play flute in college and major in performance. I found a serious teacher, took lessons, and worked my butt off. My private teacher and family were hugely supportive, but one of my teachers at school was not. I was told that if I entered college as a performance major, I would end up homeless and starving. Being a stubborn teenager, I used that comment as fuel and worked even harder. The college audition process was incredibly difficult! I auditioned at 7 schools and was accepted at 3. I was pretty disappointed, but the final school where I auditioned was the perfect place for me. I entered my freshman year there as a Flute Performance major.
I was so excited to be at college. I was ready to go and ready to study music. In one of my first courses, the professor (whom I love!) had everyone in the class stand up. Then, he asked certain people to sit down until just a few were left standing. He concluded this exercise by saying that only those few people standing would actually graduate as music majors and everyone else would drop out. I remember being so angry at that exercise and thinking that there was no way that I was going to drop out! I was going to be one of the ones who stayed! Well…the best laid plans…
My second semester, I had started dating someone and was invited to go skiing with him and his family. I went despite the fact that I had never skied before. (Oh the decisions we make because of who we like..) During that skiing trip, I wiped out really bad on a run I shouldn’t have been on! I was 19, thought I was invincible, and was able to get up and move around afterwards, so I thought I was fine. The next day I had pain shooting down my left leg. I assumed it was just some pain from falling that would go away in a few days.
Shortly after this trip, I started experiencing pain in my left hand. Shooting pain. Pain so bad that I would drop whatever I was holding. Pain almost constantly every time I played flute. It was terrifying. My first semester of my sophomore year was just filled with trying to figure out how to play through the pain. At the end of that semester, the band took a trip to Taiwan where we played many concerts, and I was just in pain the whole time. There are parts of that trip that I don’t even remember. All I remember is the pain. By the second semester of sophomore year, I knew I couldn’t do it anymore. I talked to some advisors and decided I had to change my major. I couldn’t play without intense pain. I would never be able to fulfill the requirements of a performance degree. I switched my major to History and started taking those courses. I stopped playing flute completely. (Side note: I LOVED my history professors and courses and am incredibly grateful for having that degree!)
In the meantime, my mom made sure that I saw every doctor possible. My primary care physician said I had tendonitis and prescribed massive amounts of ibuprofen to relieve the pain. I found no relief. Then he sent me to a sports medicine doctor who prescribed physical therapy. The pain got WORSE. Then he sent me to a bone surgeon. He found some cysts in my wrist bones, but I was probably born with them and they don’t seem to be doing anything. At this point, my mom started asking if the problem could be occurring somewhere other than in my wrist or hand. This particular doctor treated my mother as though she were stupid and we STORMED out of that office. (Don’t mess with my momma. She’s not having any of your shenanigans.) Finally, I was sent to a neurologist. He did some pretty painful tests (they have to use some electric shocks to test nerves) and found a pinched nerve in my neck. At last! They found the problem! What is the solution?? He prescribed physical therapy and come back in 6 months. Um, I already did that and it made everything hurt worse.
So, at least a year or 18 months had gone by at this point and, though I knew the problem, there was still no solution! My mom encouraged me to start massage therapy as a way to control some of the pain. While lying face up on a table, my massage therapist looked at me very seriously and said, “your head isn’t on straight.” I laughed and replied, “yeah I know, my dad tells me that all the time!” But she was serious and recommended that I see a specific chiropractor. Now, I’m all about science-based medicine and chiropractic work makes me suspicious, so I can only speak to my own experience with this specific type of chiropractic. I saw this chiropractor, he took x-rays of my neck, and concluded that my atlas bone was incorrectly positioned and pinching a nerve that runs down the left side of my body. Since his conclusion matched the information that I had received from the neurologist, I was really hopeful that this was it! This was my solution! I received an adjustment, which did not involve any cracking or twisting, just small pressure applied by hand behind my ear. When I stood up, I felt immediate relief from the pain that had been plaguing me for years. I couldn’t believe it!
I was ready to jump back into playing the flute! Except, it doesn’t work that way. My muscles had been trained to pull that bone out of its proper alignment. When I played flute, the pain began coming back. So, I did continue to play my senior year of college, albeit carefully and hesitantly. I had a fabulous teacher who worked with me slowly and encouraged me to play in any way that felt comfortable. I was able to put on a short recital during my senior year of college, and I completed the music theory and history sequences. To go from being unable to play at all to a recital was a dream come true. But, graduation loomed and I had to figure out what I was going to do with my life. I tried entering another school to get certified to teach history at the high school level, but that was just not my thing. So, I tried to study flute again and started studying Alexander Technique to try to keep the pain at bay and allow me to practice for longer periods.
Alexander Technique was probably the single BEST thing I ever chose to do for my study of music and the flute. My body map was insane. While working with a teacher to become aware of my shoulders, it became very apparent that I was having trouble with awareness. This teacher worked with me patiently for a very long time until a moment came where I became aware of my left shoulder being in TWO DIFFERENT PLACES! Yes, I could feel where my shoulder ACTUALLY was and where my brain had been thinking it was. Slowly, the phantom shoulder awareness left, and I had a new awareness of how my shoulders actually worked. Working with Alexander Technique teachers showed me how I was holding my body in strange positions while I played and how this contributed to my pain while playing flute. Once I became aware of these issues and could begin to let go of them and allow myself to play freely with a more accurate body map, the pain began to disappear. My chiropractor noticed that my spinal alignment was staying in place better after working with an AT teacher.
I ran into yet another road block despite these great leaps forward. The idea of being an injured flutist was sometimes an immediate wall. I was told, that because I had been injured, I would never be able to play well enough to “make it” professionally and that I should find something else to do. That completely shattered me. I remember going home after having that conversation, crawling into bed, and not leaving for an extended period of time. I fell into a depression for a pretty long time after that. Looking back, I should have sought out some professional help, but I didn’t recognize the value of it at 22 years old.
So, after being shattered, I sought out a full-time job being someone’s assistant because I needed to pay the bills. I answered phones, typed memos, completed payroll, etc. I did work as a secretary/receptionist for the next four years. Looking back, those four years were good! Working in jobs that you don’t like, can really propel you to find work that you DO like! But, at the time, I was pretty miserable. I remember waking up one day to go to work and deciding that I was sick and tired of being miserable and I was going to make some sort of change. That day, I saw an email that advertised the Rhonda Larson flute masterclass in Italy. I was intrigued and looked for the application requirements. All I had to do was write an essay about my flute journey. No recording. No pressure. Just tell your story. So, I did and I received my acceptance a few weeks later.
That trip to Italy changed my life. I learned that the only person standing in my way of being a flutist, was me. It had been me the whole time! It was not the people telling me no, because I don’t have to listen to those people. That trip was a game-changer, but it wasn’t really the trip. I was finally open to hearing that I had been my own problem the whole time. Am I cured of my self-doubt now? No way. Am I better at recognizing it and taking risks even if I feel like I may fail? Absolutely.
So that is my flute story. In retrospect, I wouldn’t change any of it. I learned so much about myself through these challenges that I may not have learned if everything had been smooth sailing. I feel better equipped to help students who may experience pain or injury, or who are experiencing crippling self-doubt. I get it. I was there. I bet you’ve been there too. This brings me back to the main theme of my first post, be unreasonably persistent. Was it reasonable that I left a full-time job with benefits to go to graduate school for flute? No, it wasn’t. I still miss those regular paychecks and having a 401K. But if you know in your heart that you need to chase a dream, do it. Do it now. Get in that line. Be unreasonably persistent.
Thank you for reading this whole essay. I know it was a long one, but I want to be really transparent about the challenges that I’ve faced. Sometimes it seems like we try to hide the darker, unpleasant times in our lives. But those times make up our character and help establish who we are! Let’s embrace the process of learning from failures, facing challenges, and celebrating all of our wins. I’m happy to answer questions if you have them, you can leave them in a comment below or send me an email.
Until next week,
Here are some links to items that I found helpful in my process to find relief from pain.
Find a AmSAT Certified teacher of the Alexander Technique here:
Body Mapping for Flutists by Lea Pearson (please check out her website!)
How To Learn the Alexander Technique (I find myself looking at this book a lot!)