TMJ: A three-letter hurdle (pt 1)

Remember when I said I was going to devote a whole blog post to the pressures of the sophomore year “petition to major,” or “barrier” jury? Well, lucky you– you’re getting two of them!  And they ain’t pretty.

So, if you’ve been following along, you now understand that performance anxiety is anxiety– it doesn’t matter what you label it, the physical manifestations are different for different people, but anxiety is anxiety. And it took me years to realize that what I was experiencing was not your normal, everyday case of the nerves. I’ve never taken beta blockers, I’ve never seen a therapist, I’ve never taken the prescribed shot of liquor before a performance. I also never took time away, never gave myself permission to take a step back and accept that I was struggling more than I wanted to admit. Until recently, anyways.

If there are any non-musicians out there reading this, allow me to fill you in on the fated “petition to major.” Each music school has its own name for the absolute most important exam of your undergraduate career, but the barrier jury as a concept is universal. Towards the end of sophomore year, you get one opportunity to prove to a jury of professors that you have what it takes to make it as a professional in the music business. I cannot emphasize enough HOW MUCH PRESSURE I FELT going into this jury. The pressure came not only from your applied professor– the one preparing you for the exam– but also other students. Rumors fly: “Last year, one of the clarinets didn’t pass their petition and it set their graduation date back by a whole year!” “I hear they only let you try twice, and after that they kick you out of the program.” “Did you hear about the trombone petition? So-and-so didn’t pass…” Talking about it like that only increased everyones nerves, which were already running as high as they could in our little, hormone-riddled 20 year old bodies.

If you know me, you know I’m a worrier. I worried longgggg and hard about my petition to major. The flute requirements were: Reichert exercise number 1 at the tempo dotted quarter-note= 116 (flat keys slurred, sharp keys double-tongued), Mozart Flute Concerto No. 1 or 2– exposition of first and second movements, Muczynski Sonata (two of the movements, I can’t remember which. Blocked that out…), one piece of your choosing, plus 5 of the major orchestral excerpts including Stravinsky’s Firebird, and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe. Reading this list now, I can say, “Yes, this is doable and an acceptable degree of difficulty for a petition to major.” You’re literally showing the panel of professors everything you’ve got. Also now, 6 years removed, I can say, “MAN, that was a lot!”

Overachieving, type-A personality me locked herself away and practiced more than I ever had in my life. And stressed. Worried (read: anxiety). More practice. Can’t sleep (anxiety). Practice some more. Worry. Until one day in choir rehearsal, I realized I couldn’t open my mouth tall enough to get a good vowel sound. And I heard crackling in my ears when I chewed, even soft foods. And my face felt super fatigued after practicing for only a half hour. And every time I yawned, my jaw popped out of place.

Obviously, I knew this wasn’t a good thing. One of my best friends (not a professional musician) had TMJ pretty bad, and I worried this was it. Made an appointment with my dentist only for my worst fear to be confirmed: moderate TMJ disorder.

Temporomandibular joint disorder. Its street name is Lock Jaw, or just TMJ for short. But, everyone who has a jaw has a temporomandibular joint, so you kind of have to add the “disorder,” “dysfunction,” or “syndrome” to the end of it. TMJD, or TMD, in musicians is often an over-use injury caused by muscles holding the jaw in a certain position for extended periods of time. I had never heard of a flutist with this issue before. Carpal tunnel is by far wayyyyy more common in the flute world, but that affects an entirely different part of the body. I knew I couldn’t tell anyone about it until I consulted with my teacher. I felt very alone in this struggle.

My wonderful dentist made me a hard plastic mouthguard to wear to bed at night. I complained about waking up with headaches, so he surmised I was grinding and clenching my teeth while I slept. He also prescribed muscle relaxers to take at bedtime to get my jaw to calm the F down. I didn’t wake up with headaches anymore. One small victory.

Armed with this ounce of confidence that I could lick this thing, a couple weeks before the scheduled petition to major, I told my teacher of my struggles. She treated the issue like it was the kiss of death, the dementor sent to suck all music out of a flutist’s dysfunctional body, a curse on my career as a professional– if I make it that far. But she did give me permission to take it easy, and NOT WORRY SO MUCH about the petition. I was simultaneously terrified and relieved. Terrified that my career may be over before it starts, washed with the relief that my teacher was understanding enough to not push me harder than I push myself.

My muscle relaxer prescription carried me until just after my petition– which I passed, the whole flute class did (despite our collective stress that could have given an elephant a heart attack). I remember being relieved again, but still questioning whether the panel went easy on me because of my injury.

After the muscle relaxers, my dentist was able to prescribe physical therapy to help regain full use of my jaw muscles. I know it sounds ridiculous, “What the heck does jaw physical therapy even look like?” I’ll tell you! It looks like massaging the scalp, face, neck, inner cheeks and jaw tissue. That’s right, your physical therapist sticks their gloved hand inside your mouth to massage your cheeks and press on the tissue that covers your jaw joint. And it feels, INCREDIBLE. The massages were the highlight of my twice-weekly visits, I can tell you that much. I was prescribed exercises to strengthen my upper body, specifically my shoulders and chest. I was told to not participate in any kind of strenuous physical activity that could cause me to clench my jaw, like running or lifting weights. Just the light exercises from my therapist that I was meant to do at home every day.

If you read between the lines, you can infer some very basic issues with my life as a classical musician thus far. 1) Playing my flute was obviously the most important thing in my life; more important than relaxation, exercise, mental health, or any self-care at all, for that matter. 2) I had some serious self-confidence issues that manifested as anxiety. 3) My flute technique was poor, and I practiced poor technique 5 hours a day for months leading up to this one exam. I was compensating for poor technique by using muscles too weak to do the job. I didn’t even have enough upper body strength to play with good posture and good technique at the same time.

Never fear, this story does have a happy ending! Stay tuned next week to find out how I coped and overcame this three-letter hurdle.

Thank you for reading to the end! If you know a performer who struggles with a performance injury, please share this with them. My aim is to bring honesty, transparency, and openness to the classical music world, and I hope others can find some comfort in the words of my personal journey.

If you have questions about TMJ, physical therapy, performance anxiety, self-love, being a human being in general, please leave a note in the comments! I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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