Back for more? Read on for the thrilling conclusion (?) of this two-parter on TMJ, part of a larger series on performance anxiety.
While the night guard, pills, physical therapy, and massages did help immensely, they did not cure me of my pain. Months later, the most I could practice in a day would be about 3 hours, max. I couldn’t play more than 5 hours a day, that’s including practicing and rehearsals. I was taking ibuprofen before long rehearsals to ease the inflammation (looking back, thank GOD I didn’t ruin my stomach with the amount of ibuprofen I was taking). I had two rounds of physical therapy, plus weekly TMJ massages with the massage therapist for the Chicago Fire for months after insurance stopped covering physical therapy. Was my teacher right? Was this going to be a thing I had to live with for the rest of my life? Is it worth it? Is it literally worth all the money my family has already put into this music degree of mine?
With the petition to major a year in the past, and my jaw slowly making its way back to some semblance of normalcy, I left for a flute class overseas. Before embarking on this adventure, my teacher at the time (a different teacher, here) impressed upon me that I was not to tell ANYONE at this class about my jaw. We couldn’t have word getting out that I was “damaged goods,” or else I wouldn’t get into grad school the following year. I’m not going to get specific with names here, but the people who were at the class know what I’m talking about. While at this class, I learned that one of my flute idols suffered with a serious case of TMJ right at the start of their career. They had just won a job, and were obviously feeling those pressures intensely enough to develop an injury. This person went on to have a remarkable career as a performer and teacher. I saw this light and I all-out sprinted towards it with everything I had. It is possible! If they can do it, I can too! All is not lost for me! I felt relieved, again, that I could talk to a real-life professional about this without being made to feel like my life was over. I disobeyed my teacher, but it felt right to do so. (I ended up not getting to study with this flute idol for grad school. Was it because they knew too much? Was my teacher right? *Shrug* What’s done is done.)
Even though I was able to get that ten-ton weight off my chest, I wore my teacher’s words like a wet wool coat for years (check that alliteration right there!!!). Damaged goods, the epithet of my college career. That one phrase did enough damage to the goods in my head to take me down a few more pegs. I didn’t even tell my teacher in grad school about my TMJ, half because it was slowly but surely becoming a non-issue, and half out of fear of the judgement that may have ensued. Maybe another half out of the fear of having to start my playing over from scratch as a grad student.
It has taken a long time and a lot of courage to write these words. Now, over half a year removed from academia, I can say with some degree of certainty that my TMJ was caused not just by over-use and anxiety, but also by poor technique. To be honest, I was never taught technique as a young flutist. I had a decent sound and fingers for days, so no one ever tried to rip me down and rebuild me from scratch. Now that I’ve had time to be my own teacher for almost two semesters (already!), I’ve finally been able to synthesize all the information my various instructors have been filling my brains with over the years. Now that I’m getting ready to teach a lot of youngsters how to play the flute, I’ve had to be very honest with myself about my technique. You can’t teach good technique unless you have good technique. Its been a lot of taking it slow, and stopping when it doesn’t feel good. Its been not practicing when I don’t want to practice. Its been a lot of practicing in the mirror, a lot of listening to the auditory mirror of the recording device. Its been body awareness, mental awareness, self-care and empathy, and gratitude for the journey. Whether its 30 minutes or 5 hours, at the end of the day, I’m still here playing my flute. Somehow, despite it all, I do still love it. TMJ didn’t get me, but that marvelous joint got me to where I am today. And I’m grateful for all the learning experiences it has given me.
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.