Helping students with tension, pain and anxiety. Part 2

by Lea Pearson

In my September 2021 Babel article, I shared 3 powerful tools to help your students reduce tension, worry and pain while playing: 

  • Inclusive Awareness 
  • Startle Recovery, and 
  • Grounding.

I hope you’ve enjoyed sharing them with your students (and exploring them yourself). In this article, we’ll learn about how to prevent injury by teaching students to use their WHOLE body.

The Studio Crisis

Music Education, and especially studio teaching, is in crisis, and has been for a while.  For decades, research has shown that 3 out of 4 musicians stop playing because of pain. Think about that. 

  • If you teach, that means 3 of every 4 of your students will have some kind of pain.
  • If you play in an ensemble, 3/4 of your colleagues will experience pain. 

Some will figure out how to deal with the symptoms, some will actually address the cause, and others, sadly, will give up playing.

WHY is this happening?

We have created a toxic culture. Without intending to, we have created a culture that is largely responsible for the 75% injury rate among professional musicians.

  • A culture of debilitating self-criticism and self-doubt, where students mostly focus on what is wrong and rarely get validated for what they do well.
  • A culture that fosters anxiety, worry, tension, with the accompanying pain – PainXiety.
  • A culture that has dealt ineffectively with sexual harassment, leaving many students feeling unsafe. 
  • A culture that has perpetuated the master/student relationship, where the teacher is the source of all information and the student accepts it without question. (Teacher-Centered instruction.)
  • And, contrary to 100 years of research on best practices in teaching and learning, we have created a culture where students primarily receive information and techniques, instead of learning how to think for themselves.

On the hopeful side –  

  • More teachers are committed to a collaborative approach with students. 
  • More and more are exploring the mind-body connection. 
  • And we have more tools than ever before to help us deal with PainXiety. 

The Possibility of Prevention

But what if we could prevent it in the first place? What if all those hours spent in massage, physical therapy, doctors’ offices, chiropractic, alternative medicine, and other treatments could instead be spent enriching our artistry?

The most essential aspect of injury prevention is to ground our students in understanding how their bodies work. We must help them get curious about how they experience and use their own bodies.  

We need a model of teaching that centers two things: 

    1. The BODY, our primary instrument, and


This is exactly how the pedagogy of Body Mapping successfully helps musicians learn to play with joy & ease. Today I’ll teach you one of our powerful techniques that will transform your lessons. 

The Old System Has Failed Us   

Think back to your experience as a student. I’m guessing you spent most of your time working on embouchure, breathing, repertoire, technique, tone, etc? 

  • Did anyone talk with you about the importance of your hip joints; how movement at the hip joints provides support for everything above?
  • Did you learn how the body is balanced through its center, and how “standing up straight” limits every aspect of your playing?
  • Did they teach you that there is no right way to hold the flute, but every individual must find a way that suits their own body?

Here’s what I learned in my decades of teacher-centered instruction:

  • What the teacher thinks is right.
  • Most of what I’ve done is wrong, and I’m only semi-successful at fixing it.
  • My opinion and experience aren’t important.
  • My teachers have experience and wisdom; I should do what they say even if it hurts.

Here’s what I DIDN’T learn

  • How to think for myself.
  • How the way I feel and think affects breathing, technique, and how I hold my flute.
  • How to teach myself and solve my own problems.
  • How to be curious.

The above system is called the Master-Apprentice model. It has been around for hundreds of years, with very little change.

It failed me, and generations of students. I never thought to question it because that’s THE WAY we were all taught. I played in pain for 30 years because not only was I NOT taught how to use my body, but also because I was actually TRAINED to do things that caused tension and pain.

In looking back, I can see that this system never addressed the needs of a growing musician. How do you imagine a culture of constant correction impacts the psyche of a 10-year-old student? They grow and develop as a musician embodied with the self-concept “I can never be good enough.” I’ve helped hundreds of musicians whose confidence was shredded and whose careers were derailed. They often need a lifetime to heal.

The Missing Pieces

The biggest missing pieces in our traditional pedagogy are the importance of the whole body in creating sound, and how our thoughts, emotions, and experiences affect the way we play.

Thanks to science, we know a lot more about how people learn than we did 300 years ago. We know that people learn and retain better when they care about what they are learning and are curious. We know how important it is to address the whole of a student’s experience: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.

What would it have been like if even one teacher had noticed my extreme physical tension, and helped me get curious about what was causing it? (I had a complete lack of understanding how my body worked.)

What if they had actually asked me where I thought the diaphragm was and how it worked?(Instead of punching me in the belly and telling me to “support.”)

What if, when exploring a solo – say Syrinx – they had invited me to create a multi-sensory environment in my imagination: a way to feel the music in my whole body, hear the woodland stream, smell the trees and grasses, move like Pan, and feel the love that went into creating it?(Instead of telling me exactly how to play every note and rhythm.)

Many others like me have had the ability to fully express their artistry decimated.  What an incredible waste!  The world needs all the heartfelt music it can get. It’s time to revolutionize our traditional approach to studio teaching! But how? 

Seek First to Understand

Begin by paying more attention to what the student is doing than what you think they should do. 

As Stephen Covey says, 

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” 

In other words: ‘Let go of what YOU want to say, and get curious about what THEY are doing, thinking, and feeling.’

This is hard! More than anything you want to help your students do better. The desire to “fix” is natural. After all, that’s how our teachers taught us.

How much do we actually know about our students’ experience? Do you really know what they are thinking and feeling and understanding? Sometimes it’s a mystery, especially when you’ve explained the same thing five times over, they still don’t get it, and you have no idea why!

If you grew up in the top-down teacher-centered model, you probably have a powerful instinct to “tell” students what’s not working, and how to make it better. That’s fantastic! You have so much to share!

BUT – and this is a big but:

by taking on the “telling” or “fixing” role, you actually deprive them of the ability to figure it out for themselves and thus become their own teacher.

Let me say that again:

by telling them what to do, you actually deprive your students of the ability to figure it out for themselves and thus become their own teacher.

You end up working against the very thing you want them to learn!

But,” you ask, “if I don’t ‘tell’ them what to do, and impart my knowledge, how will they learn?”

Through a process called INQUIRY.

Ask, Don’t Tell

Let me share an example of what INQUIRY might look like in a lesson.

Let’s say a student plays an etude, or a section of repertoire. There are probably 15 things you could tell them to correct. Where do you start?  Ask, Don’t Tell.

Instead of jumping immediately to what you think is the best solution, get curious! INQUIRE!

Start with the simplest kind of question: “What did you notice?”

Let’s assume they noticed something, even if they say “I don’t know.” 

You could reply, “Well if you did know, what would you say?”

    “I made a mistake.”

Instead of replying, “You’re right, in measure 35 you should have played a Bb,” you can say….

    “What do you think that mistake was?”


    “What do you think was going on when you missed that note?”

Then step back – breathe – WAIT – and give them time to process. They are not used to thinking for themselves! If they’ve worked with you for a while, they probably already have an answer. But when it comes from them they own it. They become invested in finding the solution.

Now you want to help them find this solution. You need to go deeper. Ask, Don’t Tell:

“Why do you think that happened?”

“What were you thinking about?” 

    or maybe

“How secure did you feel with that passage, on a scale of 1 to 5?” 

“What could you do to help it become more secure?”

    “Practice it.” they’ll say. 

Go deeper.

“Tell me more about that. In what way would you practice it?” 


    “If you could play this again and focus on one thing that would help the most, what

    would that be?” 

Then ask them to do it. Inquire again. 

“What did you notice this time?”

“What helped you?”

“What didn’t help you?”

Once you’ve worked through this process a few times, they will develop more discernment about what went well, what needs to change, and how to make it sound the way they want. And they will know how to apply it to everything they practice.

Do you see how much they are learning, without you having to “tell” them anything?

Do you see how this teaches self-sufficiency, body awareness, and problem-solving? Can you imagine how much more engaged and confident students feel, when they are responsible for figuring out how to make the changes they want?

In the Transformational Teacher Training Program, I work with a group of passionate teachers. One of them, Jenny, beautifully articulated the power of Inquiry: “When I started working with my students this way, they just lit up! I noticed that when I linger longer with them on these kinds of questions, their understanding lasts longer.”

Centering the BODY

By making a simple but radical change in perspective – from the old, Teacher-Centered lesson, to a new, Student-Focused lesson, you transform your students’ relationship with music. I call this “Centering the BODY. A student-focused model. Why? Because music-making happens with the whole body.

As Barbara Conable, my mentor and the Founder of Body Mapping, would often say:

“The quality of your sound is determined by the quality of your movement.” 

Movement creates sound. The way. you move is affected by your thoughts, emotions, and experiences. When all those are integrated, then you have that transcendent experience that musicians adore – that moment when you are in the flow of the music and everything feels unified.

Generational Shifts

Once or twice in a generation there are leading ideas that revolutionize our profession. 

  • We saw it in the 70’s with changes in the way flutes are made.
  • In the 80’s through the increasing popularity of extended techniques. 
  • And recently with the inclusion of composers from cultures and genders that have been left out of the tradition of European-centered classical music.
  • Now it is time to transform our teaching with methods based in our increased knowledge about how the body and brain work.

I’ve been teaching this way for more than 30 years and I know this for sure: this model is amazingly effective – it works with all ages and ability levels.

  • It works in all venues: whether you are teaching face-to-face, behind shower curtains or plexiglass partitions, with masks, instrument bags, on your porch, and especially, completely virtually.
  • You can even use it in a phone lesson if you don’t have a video hookup.
  • It expands asynchronous learning, with journaling and assignments for students to articulate what they are noticing.
  • It  increases students’ awareness of and engagement in what they’re doing when they play, so they can become their own teacher.
  • And my favorite – it’s joyful!!!

A Game-Changer

Using Inquiry to center the body & the student’s experience is a game-changer. It means you don’t have to exhaust yourself trying to come up with all the solutions! You can step back and empower your students to take charge of their own learning. 

Envision your students in 1, 5, 10 years’ time, transformed, with:

  • Fewer injuries.
  • More self-confidence.
  • Less debilitating self-criticism.
  • Less anxiety about performing.
  • A more individual artistic expression.
  • Knowledge of HOW to practice to achieve the results they want. 

That’s the future you and your students can look forward to

If you’re inspired by the process of Inquiry and other aspects of Body Mapping pedagogy, I want to invite you to my free Mini Course, Eliminate Pain & Anxiety in your Students.

Click on the image to read more about the course

Lea Pearson | 5 Day Mini Course | Facebook

Dr. Lea Pearson has been helping musicians find relief from pain and learn expressive ways to move and play since 1998. One of the country’s leading Body Mapping Educators, she works with professional and amateur musicians and trains teachers to fill in the missing piece – how to use our bodies to make beautiful music.

MA, Stanford University
DMA, The Ohio State University
Fulbright Scholar, The Sibelius Academy Helsinki
Teaching Artist, the Kennedy Center
Founder, Music Minus Pain
Founder, The Transformational Teacher Training Program
Author, Body Mapping for Flutists: What Every Flute Teacher Needs to Know About the Body. Chicago: GIA, 2006.