Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Question about Neck Tension

Click on picture to enlarge

Question about Neck Tension from flute playing.

Dear Jen
I'm currently meeting with yet another orthodontist for a 3rd opinion for my jaw problem, which is likely TMJ.

(Jen's note: Read: What should a flutist with TMJ do? half way down article here.)

I have another question. I've read your article about neck pain.

I've just realizing that after two years of having back and neck pains. They both reached a climax a few weeks ago. And now I have to go for physical therapy for a week .

It's likely by my use of the flute, said the doctor.
 The proper way to hold the flute is straight and perpendicular.
But I've seen Denis Bouriakov, Emmanuel Pahud, and James Galway, all of whom are playing in the very wrong non-ergonomic posture. Yet they don't have neck pain and back pain.
Can you explain about this phenomenon?

Since playing in a straight and perpendicular position I notice that that seems to make a brighter sound, whereas playing at certain flute-angles produces a darker tone.  ( I like darker tone colours). 

It's really hard to change my habits and play the flute in a perpendicular position, and also it gives pain in my arms (triceps). Thank you, in advance, and sorry for the long question
Dear K.
This is indeed the exact problem with the flute. Many people who play several hours a day end up with jaw pain, neck pain and arm pain, but not all.  And of course, those with pain do not perform for a living, so you rarely see them or hear from them. And then, as you say, there are professionals who play (on a slant as you mention) who by luck and by genetics, never have experienced any pain at all.
So far there is no clear explanation, and it all needs further research and study, but here is my advice:

Neck tension from playing the flute?

1. Check your feet when you stand to practice; if you are playing with unequal weight on your feet, your neck will be the most leaning of the leaning tower of Pisa.

2. Check your hips and knees when you stand to practice, if either are locked backward, the neck will strain more to hold the head's weight.

3. MOST likely cause: check that you are bringing the flute to you, not holding it in front of you and then poking your head forward to meet the flute.
This is the number one cause of neck discomfort.

4. Check that you are not creating a pushing tug of war between pressing the flute into your chin, and jutting your chin back to fight that pressure. This is the second most common reason for neck tension.
The flute must be held up from underneathe, not from being braced and pushed horizontally between the left forefinger and the chin.

5. Check your music stand; do you have enough light on the music? are you wearing the right reading glasses for that distance? is your music stand at eye-level when practicing?
The third most common reason for neck ache is eyes straining to see and the neck bending forward to get the eyes closer to hard-to-read-music.

6. Check your flute's headjoint line-up. 75% of players need to line up the FAR side of the blowing edge with the center of the keys.
   See: www.jennifercluff.com/lineup.htm
Read more:

Posture information can be found here:

Video: Easy Posture

General flute posture article.

Steps to recovery from flute-related pain:

1. Firstly, when you're recovering, you may find you must rest the sore areas, and therefore NOT play the flute at all. Yes, this can mean several months off flute playing. You have to accept this, and turn your attention to other musical issues. You can play a second instrument. You can play piano. You can still practice singing for tone, rhythm and pitch. You can sing your parts with a metronome, and sing all knids of excerpts and solos with the tuning CD for tuning (just sing low octaves), and you can be learning all your flute parts and piano parts/orchestral parts by score reading and listening.
Now is your chance to do all the other musical things you never had time for. And the time you spend singing will also really open up your tone when you get back to the flute, and allow your voice-ear connection to really develop.
So rest the sore muscles and use your brain to continue your musical involvement during recovery.

2. The best therapy I found for permanent relief from muscular aches and pain was Rolfing. This is a deep massage technique that unlocks bound ligaments and bound muscles in the center of the body.
They start with the lower half of the body, and move sequentially through different sections. Therfore Rolfing requires ten sessions and can cost $100 a session.
When you're in pain, and you are considering spending $1000 on a new flute, or on masterclasses or flute event airfare, consider instead that it's much more worth spending on getting rid of tight twists in your muscles. You will feel 12 years old again after only three sessions. My experience is that the body will right itself under the hands of an experienced Rolfing practitioner (this massage technique is named for inventor Ida Rolf.  Read more here). I hope you can afford this.

3. As you use your body during and after recovery, you will have to re-learn how not to over-tense your muscles. A good easy method is to imagine a scale of 1-10 where 1 is almost completely relaxed (zero
would equal lying on the floor and falling asleep) and 10 is as tense as a muscle can be.
Make a fist and tighten it as hard as you can; that's a ten.
Now go backwards, relaxing the hand from ten down to zero.
Notice how easy it is to gain control over relaxing.
Flute playing needs to take place on a 2 or 3 on the scale of muscle tension.
Lots more on this topic here; http://www.jennifercluff.com/whonepara.pdf

4. Jaw tension can be caused by holding your head in a strange way because your posture is misaligned. An Alexander Technique class can help you find out what it is that you're doing with your head and neck (all day long, in all your standing and sitting) that may be adding to stress at the jaw hinge.
Read more: http://alexandertechnique.com/articles/ATFlutists.pdf

5. When you return to the flute, do not attempt to play hard and fast
ever again. Injuries are usually directly related to practicing too hard and for too long without awareness, and without a proper slow warmup.

Be sure and develop a slow warmup that allows:

- letting the voice and ear lead ( see 1 above)
- letting the body feel springy and youthful (2)
- letting all muscles function at a 2 or 3 on the tension scale of 1-10. (3)
- letting your head balance flexibly at the top of your spine. (4)

6. All the arm involvement in flute playing is reliant on the torso being a balanced center to the body. The head lifts, the neck floats, there are constant minute adjustments. You can see the video of Alexander Technique trained flutists here. Both do not try to stay still, nor do they hold the flute parallel to the ground: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XXQLNAjmYHk

What many people don't realize is that the arms actually HANG from the shoulder area, and are not attached except by hanging tissue.  If you can order Lea Pearson's book ' Body Mapping for Flutists - Lea Pearson' from the library, you will see this.
 Book - http://www.giamusic.com/products/P-6745.cfm
 (video of Lea Pearson Flute Class: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dFch8rnAjms )

When you return to flute playing, hang your arm bones from the relaxed shoulders and let the arms feel free,  make their easiest, low tension
method of placing the flute in the playing position.
I have a video on this called "easy posture" on my blog.


7.  Very important; height of music stand should be eye-level.

click on picture to enlarge

Also read "how to stand using a music stand" when practicing at home. This also helps necks stay loose and flexible.

Many people go to concerts and see the performers playing with very low music stands, and think that having a very low music stand height is normal. Not so. It is only normal in concerts.

 Music stands should be eye-level for daily practice. That means if you are standing to practice (which I recommend for easy-access-to-the-lungs) your stand has to be able to go high enough.

Music stands being lowered for concerts means that the player has practised having a low stand, after weeks of practising with the music at eye-level.

The music stand are set low when the piece of music  is practically memorized, and the player needs to watch the other musicians and/or the conductor.

The stand is also purposely set low in a performance so that the audience can see and hear the performer clearly; not to be blocked by the music stand in front of the performer's face.

This is a common misconception; lots of people don't seem to know this.
So check this in your own practising for sure. Music stand; eye-level.

So, good luck and I hope this turns out well after a rest and re-training.

Sorry there's not more info. on this. I wrote all I know in my "deathgrip" article.
I still have to conscientiously perform all the exercises for slow warmup to avoid re-injuring myself.

Comments welcome from folks who are more up-to-date than I. :>)

Also; dark and bright tones are both required of any performing flutist.
Don't let yourself get too narrow about your preferences; you'll need all tone colours from bright to dark and everything in between. Try getting a bright or dark sound in all positions.
Then choose the position that gives the most comfort, and continue to experiment with bright and dark.


Follow up:

Hello Jen, 

Once again thank you for the advice.
Just sharing my experience:
I've have successfully relieved my pain by taking physiotherapy for a week previously.
At the climax of my previous neck pain I would say that using the scale from 1-10 is typically, probably 9/10.  Whenever I played, the pain occured again and again.

So I guess what you're saying is that this does happen to many flautists.
 I've been thinking it is probably not because of my actual flute, because my friends don't have any injuries at all.

My flute is Yamaha YFL 221.
I had pad leaks repaired 3-4 months ago. 
Then one month ago I switched to a Muramatsu EX.
So maybe the problem is the flute has never been repaired, but the Yamaha is more light-weight than the Muramatsu,  and I was thinking now, that perhaps there are leaks here too.

I've seen my self in a flute-playing photo. I play by bending neck downward and tend to put my head to the right  (so the flute can have some angle to play darker)

My conclusion?
1. I really need to stop playing for a few months, don't  I ? This is my last year in university orchestra
It is really heartbreaking, since I usually play it almost everyday haha..

2. When I play flute again, probably I will follow Jasmine Choi's posture, since she looks very perpendicular when holding the flute.

3. I do play with muscle tension sometimes. especially when playing the open hole Muramatsu, since it is new and it's really hard to play an open hole. 

4. I will try an alternative Rolfing therapy, since there is none here. And I think it costs too much for a student's pocket haha. But, probably I will try it if I can find a practitioner.

Thank you very much for your help,,
best wishes, K.

Dear K.
The neck poking forward like a turtle is a common problem.
One of the comment writers put a photo; have a look: neck jutting forward photo.
Put hole-plugs in your open hole flute. It might reduce hand/arm tension which will allow the neck to relax more. Adjusting to a new flute takes slow, well-paced warmups where you re-adjust everything.
Lack of tension and posture openness is key to making tiny new adjustments.

It's not surprising to here that tension is getting to you right at this juncture of your life.
I didn't have all this information from your first letter.

Having a new flute that requires you to place your fingers much more precisely, and trying to practice fast music, when you're tired from your other book work and paper writing,  are both components to injury. Your neck is tense already, and then you add arm tension and finger tension, and poke your head forward, and lean......

All this is very common; and it does directly lead to injury.
The muscles complain!

It also sounds like you don't have a flute teacher right now.
So your posture problems haven't had the benefit of an observer who can help notice them for you.

What a flute teacher can do for you is be a live "coach" who can spot posture problems and tension problems and teach you how to undo them.

You've probably had tension problems (you say a 9 out of 10) for a long time, but it's catching up with you just as you try and practice HARD and FAST for a concert with your ensemble.
That's what happened to me.
That's what happens to at least one student a year out of twenty; just around exam time, or fourth year paper-writing, or whatever other study-stressor that is taking a toll on their tension habits and muscle health.

This is exactly the typical time when students injure themselves.
(see my "Deathgrip" article, and also "Why do my muscles hurt during exam time?")

Finally, your new flute:
Have you had it checked for leaks? Leaks appear every three months if you play for three hours a day.
The flute pads naturally form leaks over time; that's what repair technicians are for; fixing leaks twice a year or more on the same flute.

Have you had a repair person go over it and tweak it into top playing condition?
Whenever you have a new flute, this is the first thing you should do.
Every flute needs "tweaking". It is not expensive. It prevents injury.

When the flute comes back from repair play it with a feather light touch and don't go back to your "deathgrip" tension level; keep fingers light light light.

What you should do right now is have your current flute checked.
Ask a professional flute performer, or a professional flute-teacher to play-test your flute. You need to know for sure that the flute is working properly. (no pad leaks, no mechanical problems). Don't just guess. Have it checked by someone who really knows. Usually this would be your private teacher.

A substitute for Rolfing is "deep tissue massage".
It's possible that there are student massage people at your school who could give free massage or low-cost massage.
Good luck and try to play at a 2-3 on the tension scale.

If you can play without pain, of course you don't have to quit.
You only have to stop playing long enough to let the pain and inflamation (sore muscles) go away.

Best, Jen

P.S. I went and watched Jasmine Choi on youtube, and I have to say that you don't have to copy ANYONE'S posture.
She plays tense when the piece is difficult, and she has the flute on a downward slant when she is more relaxed.
It is more useful to observe what her tension level is; when is she playing at a 9 out of 10?
When is she playing at a 3 out of 10?
That will really give you insights.

Just because "friends in your orchestra have no injuries" doesn't mean your flute is not needing repair.
It is unlikely that all flutists would all suffer the same injuries at the same time.
About 1 in 20 student or amateur flutists has a muscle pain at any one time, and all for different reasons.
About 1 in 10 serious flute students gets muscle pain around a big concert where they are stressed and over-practicing.

The reasons for the pain are, as you can see, individualistic and multifaceted.
We have to do our own personal assessment and find our own cures.

This is why more scientific studies are needed on muscular tension in the performing arts....we're all still guessing.

Again, good luck.
I hope to hear what the final solutions were.


Comments (6)
Blogger Saniakob said...

Hello Jen
My name is Santiago, I follow your blog from Argentina.

I had a problem with neck tension and pain.
i suffered from "forward neck" when playing (see the image: http://www.conciergemedicinemd.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/posture1.jpeg). I solved the problem by correcting my posture while playing. Without noticing, I leaned my neck forward while playing, that caused a lot of neck tension while blowing the instrument, and it also caused a bad flute tone and problems with tuning. That is an unconscious posture and sometimes we don't realise it is there. Once I was aware of my posture problem, I worked on it, and all problems were gone.

I hope this helps a litlle bit.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014 5:53:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

Thanks so much for your comment Santiago. I will take a look at the picture. Exactly right. This is quite a common problem. Glad you could fix it with posture awareness.
Best, Jen

Wednesday, July 16, 2014 12:09:00 AM

Blogger Unknown said...

Hi Jen,
I appreciate the various topics of your blog, this one in particular. I have a degree in music and I teach flute.
Two years ago, I was in a serious car accident. I was stopped and someone rear-ended me doing 50mph (80kph if that what is used in Canada). I had really bad whiplash among other things and was unable to move for 6 weeks after. I've gone through over a year of massage, chiropractic, and PT, and I'm still on the recouperating end of things. I did take some time off from playing, and then played only to teach (which really screwed up my technique!) and now I am playing in order to do small performances at local places. I'm sooo slowly getting better.
But when I play my flute, my neck hurts and I get headaches, and in general can't sleep from the pain. The thought of not being able to play anymore like I used to makes me really sad. Is there something else I can do to help with my neck issues now? I never had any before the accident. Is there a specialist that deals in treating musicians in my situation? Thanks. It just gets frustrating and slightly disturbing.


Wednesday, July 30, 2014 1:28:00 AM

Blogger jen said...

Dear Jean,
I feel for you. The only therapy I've had that did any good at all was "deep tissue massage" or "myofascial release" or "Rolfing".
Any and all of those techniques restructure the muscles and their signals to the brain about when they are relaxed. There are practitioners who specialize in musicians and dancers/actors. Perhaps you could inquire in your area? Hope to hear of an improvement for you!
Best, Jen

Wednesday, July 30, 2014 8:07:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I bend my neck to the right side whenever I play the flute. I also bring my head to my flute. It has been a habit ever since last year. Whenever I try to play my flute straight, it kinda feels weird. How can I play straight again?

Friday, March 06, 2020 4:37:00 PM

Blogger jen said...

Dear Unknown,
Everyone who has played the flute has faced the same situation: head bent over and poked forward. This problem is covered in articles about flute posture.
Just google flute posture; or ask your teacher; or read a book about flute playing, that includes posture info....or look here on my website for MY posture articles.
The main thing is that you have to do the change yourself and monitor the results yourself.
No one can do it but the fluteplayer, when it comes to changing their own posture. But advice can really help; so look into the topic. There's lots to know.

Friday, March 06, 2020 5:42:00 PM


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