I play flute and have a recital exam coming up in a few weeks. Although I am happy with how I am going in my preparation, I am finding that I am tensing up a lot, particularly across my shoulders and upper back, as I try really hard to perfect my pieces. I think I developed the tensing habit from not using my air properly, which I am in the process of changing, but in the short term leading up to my exam, do you have any ways you warm up your body before playing, and/or exercises/suggestions to help? Thanks!
You are certainly not alone in getting shoulder and back pain leading up to an important performance - every wind player I know spends time managing this problem either at some point in their lives or throughout. It's important to understand why this pain is occurring and without seeing you play in person that's tricky. However , there are some things to do that should help optimise how you feel physically and mentally .
Swimming is great for breathing and working/loosening your back muscles. Other exercise like running or cycling can sometimes be neglected during the lead up to a performance and this doesn't work for me personally - exercise relaxes the mind and usually helps you train your breathing to be better.
Expand the awareness you already have of the problem further. Is it the technical spots giving you stress? Play these passages many times slowly and really focus on staying loose and breathing fully and low. Alternate the technical passages with lyrical ones, repeat them all many times without thinking consciously about a result. Then play through your pieces 4 times - twice making yourself as tense physically as you can, exaggerating the stress, and then twice going to the polar opposite where you are totally relaxed. Now you have some awareness of how your playing alters and slightly more control over your state. Play them the next day angry, play them sad, play them happy - actively bring your emotions to each piece.
My last advice is to cut down on caffeine and eat some bananas on the day - these two suggestions should help you be calmer and hence more able to control your breathing!