The Caffeinated Flutist, Vol. 9: Injury Relapse by Mary Hales

Hey there, flute-trepreneurs!

As some of you may know, my first full Nutcracker ballet took place this past December with the Southside Philharmonic and Dancer’s Alley in Jefferson City, MO! Our three performances Saturday and Sunday went beautifully, and I had a wonderful time in the orchestra. However, what should have been a fun weekend performing a musicians’ rite of passage was marred for me by a horrible tendonitis flare-up at the end of the first performance on Saturday night. About three pages from the end of the ballet, I started getting a strong pain in my forearm, and a pins and needles sensation in my right wrist, right index finger, and right thumb. I immediately put my flute down and quit playing for the rest of the night. This was my first flareup in a long time, and I was not about to sign the death warrant for my career at age 23. Even with the help of compression gloves for both Sunday performances, I still sat out many of the large tutti sections of the ballet. If my notes were covered in any of the other parts (though I mainly listened for third flute and violin), I stopped playing until they weren’t.

While I am not sure that I’ll ever be certain of every single cause of this problem, the reason for this incident was almost certainly because of poor positioning in the pit at the venue. It was very cramped, even for the small orchestra we had, resulting in poor posture on my part to get by.

So when you find yourself on the road to recovery and encounter a setback, here are a few things to keep in mind, especially if you happen to be in the middle of a gig like I was:


  1. If your part is covered, it’s okay to stop playing. In the last couple movements of The Nutcracker, I knew that everything I was playing was either in unison or octaves with the principal flute. While the full effect of the music wasn’t making its way to the audience, the harmonies that needed to be heard were there, which was part of the reason I knew it was okay to stop playing until the end of the piece.
  2. If your part is not covered, play only the essential notes, and drop out when you can. Don’t think that you have to be the hero and play through the pain, because it’s never a good idea. In fact, if you make a habit of it, it’s one of the best ways to ensure that you’ll never play again. You can’t let a repetitive motion injury get better by continuing the repetitive motion that injured you in the first place. As I’ve said time and time again, the only cures to injuries like tendinitis are rest and time.
  3. Talk to your colleagues, and see what they can do to help. I’m forever thankful that my colleagues in the Southside Philharmonic were understanding of my plight, and did what they could to help me in our cramped space. Our third flutist was incredibly kind and accommodating in adjusting her seating position to let me extend my flute comfortably for our Sunday performances, which helped immensely.

I also cannot say enough good things about our conductor, Dr. Patrick Clark. When he saw me wrangling with a large bag of ice from a gas station between performances on Sunday, he hurried off to find cold packs and Ziplocs for me to use. He recognized the importance of taking care of my injury first and supported my decision to drop out of large sections of the piece. Most career instrumentalists have endured or will endure a performance-related injury at some point. There’s no shame or stigma in asking for help or accommodation from your colleagues; they’ll be sure to understand.

It was incredibly disappointing and anti-climactic to play big harmonies leading up to climaxes in movements like the Waltz of the Flowers, and then immediately put my flute down for the big musical moments that I really wanted to play. However, I had to keep in mind the seriousness of my situation, and the effect my actions would have on my future career. I want to be able to play my Masters recital in the spring, and I want to be able to play all of The Nutcracker next year. As such, I had to make some immediate sacrifices in only playing major harmonies, and dropping out of tutti sections of the ballet.

The most important thing for me to stress to anyone else dealing with an injury - especially a relapse - is to be kind to yourself. Chronic injuries are hard enough on their own, and you shouldn’t make it harder for yourself by allowing your negative thoughts to flourish. Whether you feel personally responsible for your relapse or not, you have to take responsibility for your own recovery. Attitude is half the battle in these situations; if you can do your best to stay positive and take the steps you know you need to take for your recovery, things will go much smoother. Not to say that the road to full recovery won’t be bumpy, because it most certainly will be, but a positive attitude can lighten the load a great deal.

Until next time, folks!


Flutist Mary Hales is a native of Conway, Arkansas, currently studying under Alice K. Dade at the University of Missouri School of Music for her Masters in Flute Performance. Follow more of her writing at; find her on social media with the handle @maryhalesflute.

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