Flute practice: dealing with burnout and injury

Franklin's left hand

Yesterday, I attended yet another rehearsal of the Carnegie Mellon All-University Orchestra.

I did this while feeling burned out and injured.

Burnout and injury

In the past couple of days, I have experienced decreased desire to practice flute, although by changing up my material, I did manage to get some decent sessions in. Still, I could tell that I was beginning to risk burnout.

In addition to mental fatigue, my left forefinger soreness got worse in the past couple of days, such that yesterday, I didn’t practice before rehearsal. I started experiencing tingling and numbness.

Sometimes it’s best to call it a day. So I decided yesterday that today, I would take a day completely off from practicing my flute, the first break I have given myself since January 19.


Clearly I need a real strategy to take care of the side of my left finger.

It is pretty easy to get injured playing music. There are many unnatural positions and movements to work with to make as relaxed as possible. My favorite book for musicians, “The Musician’s Way” has two entire chapters on injury prevention.

The next time I pick up my flute, I will focus on what I might be doing that causes particular stress on my left finger, and try to adjust. Earlier in my practice, I had problems with my right pinkie finger and solved them, so I have hope of treating my left finger better also. I have read about balance points, using the chin, etc.

My instrument

One problem that I definitely have is that the instrument I have is not optimal for me, and I know it. My main fundamental problem (and this has been a problem for me with piano, guitar, ukulele) is that I have a small hand and short fingers. There are solutions to this problem for the flute. One very common option that would immediately solve some of my problems is the offset G.

Offset G flute

I’ve always thought that I would like to get an offset G flute when I “upgrade” from my intermediate student flute. Now I’m thinking I should do this sooner rather than later.

No excuse

Another book on music practice that I enjoy, Madeline Bruser’s “The Art of Practicing”, has an anecdote (page 107) about a flutist, Janet Weiss, who found that the traditional flute did not fit her hand, and became a pioneer in redesigning it. Weiss was quoted as saying, “The instrument we’re playing is incorrect for many people… it’s like trying to dance in a pair of shoes that don’t fit.”

Indeed! If we love music enough, we should take the initiative to make sure that we are not hampered by our instruments. Just as, I love running and hiking, and struggled with bad footwear for years, decades, until I solved most of my problems, by moving toward Vibram FiveFingers shoes that do not cramp my very wide feet and do not introduce cushioning that causes me to mess up my knees and shins and ankles.

We have to do what we have to do. We can’t just complain that other people are lucky and mass-produced clothing and tools work for them.

The orchestra rehearsal last night

I was still struggling at rehearsal last night. I still cannot play all of the music at full speed. If it were entirely up to me, I would improve at my own pace, rather than feel forced to tackle material that is currently more beyond me than I’d like. But in real life, we often have to cut corners. The question is, which corners?

One option is to just bumble through everything in an equally mediocre way. I don’t see how that would help the orchestra’s concert performance or my own long-term development. So I have chosen to refine what is easiest, and get that working fully, while “giving up”, at least temporarily, on what is most out of reach. I’ve been closing the gap, and believe that I can close it within another three weeks. That would mean I will feel fully ready probably two weeks before the actual concert.

Everyone else is also still improving. We don’t sound very good right now, even at slowish speeds. But we are sounding better every week! That’s what matters. It’s exciting to feel us coming together more and more.


I’m dealing with a temporary setback in motivation and physical condition right now, but hope to bounce back tomorrow. The show must go on.

(Update of 2012-03-12)

I ended up quitting the CMU AUO.

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