by Francesca Leo

Attending the Art of Practicing Institute’s summer program last year was a completely transformative experience. Prior to this program, I had recently graduated with my master’s degree in classical flute performance during a global pandemic, I was entering a significant transitional period in my professional life, and I was continuing to manage flare-ups of a performance-related injury I sustained in 2013.

During the time of my injury, I thought I was the only person in the world to experience pain from playing an instrument. I felt isolated, angry, and scared about what I was experiencing daily. This pain began in high school when I received my first diagnosis of tendonitis in my forearm. At the time, I was advised to stop playing my flute, take painkillers, and apply ice and heat to the injured area. Not knowing I had any other options, I ignored this advice and continued to practice and play in ensembles for five to six hours each day. I would frequently play through burning sensations in my forearms, and I rarely took practice breaks.

A few years later, I began my undergraduate studies as a music performance major. Attending college was a huge adjustment for me, and I was practicing much more than I was used to. This sudden increase in playing time combined with low self-esteem, a rigorous performance schedule, perfectionistic behavior, and anxiety-related mental health issues significantly worsened my pain until I could not play for more than five minutes without experiencing shooting pain in both arms. I was constantly pushing myself past my physical and mental limits because I told myself that someone else was “practicing harder” when I was resting.

I finally began to open up to others about my injury after a wake-up call at a summer festival in 2017, when I realized that this injury could end my performance career if I didn’t seek help. It was terrifying to share my story, but I was met with an overwhelming amount of support from friends and colleagues who shared similar experiences. Upon encouragement from my private teacher, I conducted an IRB-reviewed study in the fall of 2017 on the prevalence of performance-related pain and general stress levels at my undergraduate, and my findings revealed that 88% of my peers were suffering from performance-related pain that affected their ability to play their instrument at the level to which they were accustomed.

These findings were deeply disturbing to me, and I compared my results to several other studies with hauntingly similar statistics conducted on a much larger scale. This research combined with my personal story fueled my motivation to help others, and I created as an interactive website and social media platform to educate and support musicians with performance-related pain, injuries, and mental health issues.

I tried many different methods of physical treatment for my injury including physical therapy, the Alexander Technique, massage therapy, chiropractic care, and body tuning. I was engaging in regular cardiovascular exercise and taking frequent breaks to stretch and rest during practice sessions. For several years, I maintained this regimen of managing pain symptoms but never completely healing from my injury because I was in music school and had to meet performance requirements. I continue to discover new information about my injury and continue to face challenges in advocacy for performing artists in a medical setting, having received a recent diagnosis of a shoulder impingement and being told by a medical professional that the only way to heal was to stop playing my instrument completely.

The mind-body connection is incredibly strong, and throughout the past year I discovered a significant emotional component to my injury that I was neglecting to look at. Around the time of my injury, I never felt like I was worthy of any of my achievements. I went through some traumatic experiences of being publicly humiliated for mistakes I made in rehearsals, which caused me to practice longer and “harder” because I believed that I wasn’t good enough. I repressed and avoided these emotions, and through working with Madeline Bruser I’ve since learned that that has been a lifelong pattern.

During the Art of Practicing Institute’s summer program I was immersed in mindfulness-awareness meditation practice in addition to several other techniques, including the Performing Beyond Fear exercise. I had never engaged in that amount of meditation and mindfulness work before, and I quickly discovered that it was exactly what I needed to begin addressing the mental component of my injury and learn to adopt a more mindful approach to practicing.

This experience allowed me to face the uncomfortable emotions and experiences I had been avoiding, begin to process them, and move forward. It was an incredibly emotional week, and I felt that I came out of it much stronger. I became more connected to my body through this work as well, noticing when physical sensations arose and their connection to my emotional responses to triggering situations. This led me to noticing that the pain in my injured left shoulder would typically worsen when I was under emotional distress.

I’m now continuing this work through Madeline’s Live Online Workshops, and I’ve noticed a significant amount of growth in my ability to manage and embrace my emotions since the summer program. I’m also learning how to practice and study music on a much deeper level. I learned that singing through a phrase as accurately as possible allows me to connect with my true inner musician. And I learned the importance of rhythm embodiment through child-like dancing, and that free and uninhibited movement is a key component of feeling at home in my body. My physical pain has also reduced significantly since I’ve learned to embrace my authentic self and be unapologetic about it. I hope to eventually become certified to teach the Art of Practicing so that I can help others with problems similar to the ones I’ve had.

It’s amazing to reflect back on my eight-year journey from being diagnosed with an injury at 16 and feeling completely isolated and scared, to now feeling much more joyful and confident about performing. I’m grateful for all I’ve learned and for new opportunities that have come my way to share what I’ve learned at musicians’ wellness conferences. I know now that transformation is truly possible, and I’m excited to be embarking on a career of helping others break free from their own frustrating and frightening limitations so that they can discover authentic confidence as performing artists. If we work on all aspects of making music – on freeing our body, mind, and spirit in practicing and performing – we can realize our calling to radiate joy and inspiration to our audience.

So I encourage you to believe in your own possibilities. Whether your challenge is physical tension and pain, mental health, or self-doubt, help is out there if you look for it. You can move past limitations to become the musician you’re meant to be.