Monday, October 12, 2015

Sharp, Shrill & Forced: Flutists & The Upside Down Duck Syndrome

One of my favorite sayings goes something like this, 

"Always behave like a duck.  
Stay calm and smooth on the surface, 
but paddle like crazy underneath!"

I think this is a brilliant concept for flutists.  By breathing deeply, feeling grounded (both literally and figuratively), and engaging our core muscles, we can "support" our way toward an effortlessly smooth, singing upper register, doing our best to sound like the "super sopranos" we are! 

Unfortunately, there are countless flutists in the world who suffer from what I call... 

The Upside Down Duck Syndrome

Are you wondering if you have the The Upside Down Duck Syndrome? Answer the following questions to find out!

Does your high register often sound sharp, shrill, or forced?

Instead of breathing deeply, does your breath get caught in your throat?

Instead of feeling grounded, do you brace your neck and shoulders, causing ripple effects of tension?

Instead of engaging your core muscles, do you squeeze your flute, jam your headjoint into your face, and "muscle" your way through your music?

If you had a saying, would it sound something like this?

"Always behave like an upside down duck.  
Do as little as possible under the surface, 
and paddle like crazy up top!"

If you have The Upside Down Duck Syndrome you probably fall into one of the following three categories:

1) you are unaware of your symptoms
2) you are painfully aware of your symptoms but not sure how to find relief
3) you are painfully aware of your symptoms and feel you have "tried everything," but nothing really works

One of the most frustrating aspects of The Upside Down Duck Syndrome is the tendency for both flutists and their teachers to reduce the course of treatment to a simple checklist.  The checklist usually looks something like this:

1) Relax your shoulders
2) Balance your head
3) Drop your jaw
4) Breathe deeply
5) Be aware of your body
6) Use your core muscles
7) Line yourself up (shoulders over hips over knees over ankles)
8) Plant both feet on the ground in a balanced way

Oh, and while you're at it... 

9) Release your neck
10) Release your back
11) Soften your face
12) Listen for pitch
13) "Don't force!"

One of the reasons this checklist can be so frustrating is that flutists with The Upside Down Duck Syndrome are already "trying" so hard to do everything "perfectly!"  

If each idea on the list was taken into consideration one at a time, and used for patient and thoughtful experimentation during practice, the results could be transformative.  When the entire list feels like a "should," however, The Upside Down Duck Flutist will often use it to put more pressure on themselves and simply grip their flute more tightly, "blow harder," and continue trying to force their way toward the beautiful music they want so desperately to play. 

If you are suffering from symptoms of The Upside Down Duck Syndrome, you might have found temporary solutions in lessons and masterclasses when prompted by a teacher, but quickly fall back into old patterns when you practice on your own.  The following suggestions can lead to permanent solutions for The Upside Down Duck Syndrome, but it will be up to YOU to invest the necessary time, care, and patient kindness to truly find permanent relief.

1) Immerse yourself in one project at a time.

If you are a perfectionist, determined to play your flute "perfectly," it can be a true challenge to let go of the long list of shoulds, so that you can work on one body mapping or sound concept at a time. Remember that physical tension and mental stress are more related than you might think! Start learning to let go of the "gotta get it right now" symptom of The Upside Down Duck Syndrome by focusing on one relaxation project at a time, trusting that patience can bring surprising relief!

2) Get curious about feelings.

Instead of judging sensations of physical tension as good or bad, simply get curious!  Are you gripping your flute as tightly as you would grip the edge of a cliff to save your life, as lightly as you would a delicate piece of jewelry, or somewhere in between?  Is your neck as tight as when you are watching a scary movie, as relaxed as it is when you are getting a massage, or somewhere in between?  Are there triggers that cause you to brace your muscles?  What prompts you to relax your muscles?  How deeply can you breathe and how does that effect your ability to "sing" through your flute versus "force" your way through your music?

3) Experiment with extremes to find sweet spots. 

Trying to find the ultimate sweet spots for body awareness, balance, muscle engagement, breathing, sound quality and intonation can feel a bit overwhelming if you only allow yourself the two options of "good" or "bad."  If you feel there are a million ways to achieve "bad" and only one way to achieve "good," no wonder you often feel frustrated!

Instead of either finding the sweet spot or suffering, try experimenting with extremes.  For example, to find a balanced position for your head, allow your head and neck to jut forward, collapsing your chest and sticking your chin out.  Then, with your index finger, press your chin toward your neck until your head is way too far back, causing a "double chin."  By establishing the two extremes, you now have better references for finding a comfy balance somewhere in the middle!  

4) Be willing to sound awful for a little while.

If you've been given a good piece of advice in a lesson or masterclass, but feel that you "sound awful" when you try it, consider the possibility that you may not have given it a fair enough chance.  When shifting from The Upside Down Duck Syndrome to a more grounded, singing approach, it can take time to adjust to more relaxed shoulders, relaxed neck, deeper breathing, and lower support.  Because you are not used to finding control "below the surface" your sound may be a bit rough as you experiment in the practice room.  Stay open minded and focus on sensations of freedom and balance instead of the "perfect" sound instantly.  It may be a little delayed, but gratification is on its way! 

5) Celebrate little victories.

As you've probably deduced from the rest of this post, Perfectionism is a disease closely related to The Upside Down Duck Syndrome.  A common symptom of both afflictions is a tendency toward "all or nothing."  In your mind, you're either playing your flute completely tight or completely relaxed.  Your high register is either "good" or "bad."  Your habit of judging almost everything you're doing while you're doing it is about as effective as trying to fix your car while you're driving it!  

Instead, learn to celebrate little victories.  If yesterday you were a 10 on the 1-10 tension scale and today you felt more like a 7, that is cause for celebration!  Remember that little steps add up to big journeys over time.  Be patient and kind with yourself so that your body and mind get the message that you are safe and that practicing can be a beautiful and comforting activity. 

My experience teaching flutists of all ages, levels, sizes, and shapes has taught me that The Upside Down Duck Syndrome is not only related to Perfectionism, but also to a profound disconnection between playing the flute and feeling present in your body.  Short or tall, fat or thin, athletic or not, be willing to try any activity that helps you learn about your body and make empowering connections with breathing, movement, and flute playing (swimming, Pilates, Yoga, walking... anything!).  

The wonderful news about The Upside Down Duck Syndrome is that, more often than not, it is 100% treatable with wonderful odds of a complete recovery. 

Happy Practicing!

Terri Sánchez

If you want to read more about the kind of breathing that helps with patience AND great flute playing, click on the post below!

My Best Breathing Advice Ever, or... How I Learned About Breathing from a Chocolate Bar