As the school year begins, children around the country are having their eyes and ears checked by school nurses. Being able to see the musical notation accurately is important for musicians, but when was the last time you had your eyes checked? Do you routinely ask your students about their ability to see?
Here’s the situation in my flute studio with one of my high school students, a glasses wearer for the whole time she’s been studying with me. She is in a position where she knows that her prescription has changed, but she has to wait another month before the insurance will cover the new glasses. I completely understand, as I’m in a similar position waiting for my appointment to get “music glasses” instead of my bifocals. She moves the music stand to where she can see it and then I have to scoot my chair back in order for me to see it clearly. Every piece of music seems to have different size notation, so this adjusting procedure happens frequently. We laugh about it, as we know it’s a temporary thing.
Back in my band director days, I knew it was time to get my eyes checked when I started calling out incorrect rehearsal numbers and reading the notes incorrectly from the score. My ninth graders were very quick to report any errors I made! I noticed music reading problems much sooner than reading words.
We all understand that you have to be able to see it clearly in order to play your best, but there’s a whole pattern of compensation that can affect your whole body when you’re struggling to see. What’s the first thing we tend to do when we can’t see as well as we like? We move our eyes and face closer to the “thing” or we move the “thing” closer to our face. For flutists, can we move the music physically closer? Yes, but we have to stop playing the flute to use at least one hand and move the stand closer. We tend to take the other option, moving our eyes and face closer to the music. This is faster and we can do it with flute in hand. Problem solved, or is it? The average head weighs between 10-12 pounds. Heads are heavy! When we keep our lower body still and stick our heads out towards the music stand, we are starting a pattern of compensation that goes all the way down to our feet. Our neck muscles are forced to be engaged all the time to keep our heads in this unbalanced, forward position. Try it right now as you’re reading this. Do you start to notice the tension and discomfort in the back of your neck and upper back? Bring your hands up to playing position and hold them there with your head stuck way out in front? Do you notice how much extra work you are doing? Remind yourself of where your AO joint is and bring your head back. Pause and read this article if you don’t know what your AO joint or if you simply need a refresher. An unbalanced head contributes to extra tension and overwork in your arm structure. A better solution to the vision problem is to move the stand closer to you—moving the “thing” to serve your needs as a human rather than contorting yourself to demands of the “thing.”
Forward head position also affects the resonance of your flute playing and even your speaking voice. When the head comes forward, there are changes in the shape inside your mouth, your oral cavity. You might notice that there are also changes in your breathing, both in air capacity and the ability to control your airstream over time. Your arm structure, which is connected to your head, also has the ability to impact the movement of your ribs underneath.
In my own playing recently, I’ve noticed that I’m locking my head (at my AO joint) into one position so that I can see clearly through the one spot in my bifocals.
I was sightreading some Anderson etudes and kept making mistakes. I was frustrated and sounded terrible. I thought, “Oh… wait, what am I choosing to do with my head?” I’ve encouraged many musicians to get a pair of music glasses that are set up for the usual distance between your eyes and the music. For several years, I’ve been able to get away with not having these, but not anymore. So, I’m taking my own advice and getting this taken care of in a few weeks.
With students, we are often correcting wrong notes, rhythms and articulations. This is part of our job as music teachers, but do we ever ask if they can see it clearly? Ask them! Watch them! You’re looking for lots of tension around their eyes and forehead, as well as watching for their heads coming forward, like a turtle sticking its head out of its shell. I remember watching a flutist play with extreme facial expressions and eyebrow movement, which was highly distracting to the audience. The teacher had tried everything. Finally, the student went for an eye exam, got the glasses, and the distracting eyebrow/facial movement problem was solved! First time glasses wearers often don’t even realize they haven’t been seeing clearly until they see the world for the first time though their corrective lenses. My daughter said, “Hey, Mom! I can actually see leaves on the trees instead of green blobs.” We all don’t know what we don’t know!
What do you do when you discover that there is a legitimate vision problem and the family circumstances are such that vision correction is not financially feasible? I don’t have a good suggestion for this, other than to enlarge the music on a copier. There are blind musicians who learn to navigate printed music through Braille or learning by rote. Again, I don’t have recommendations or tools about how to succeed in this environment. Access to music participation is not equal for those with visual impairments and I don’t currently have a solution. Hopefully, there are more knowledgable people than me out there working to develop strategies for dealing with issues like these. What we can do, though, is take care of our own eyes and simply get used to asking our students about how well they’re able to see the music.