Discovering and Maintaining a Floating Ease in Our Arms

I’m improving as a swimmer.  I’ve been applying a similarly disciplined work ethic to swimming that I do to music; quality vs quantity of time, remaining inclusively aware, and integrity of movement.  Body Mapping is making me a better swimmer and swimming is making me a better flutist.

Last week, I was feeling fatigue in my arms while swimming.  Everything else, including my use of air, was good, but each stroke felt laborious.  Being the ever-curious body mapper I am, I directed my attention to my arm structures as a whole; clavicle (collar bones), scapulae (shoulder blades), humerus, radius, ulna, and hand.  As a professional flutist, being keenly aware of the arm structure is second nature, but as a novice swimmer, less so.  You may recall my column a few months ago about swimming: I was biting the snorkel and once I let go, things instantly improved including my airflow and the freedom in my neck muscles.  Back to this past week;  I focused on my clavicles, their joints at the sternum, and the natural gliding motion of the scapulae with each stroke.  Was I really only thinking about the three main arm bones and leaving out two super important components; the collar bones and shoulder blades?

In Body Mapping, it’s all about the quality of our movements and specifically in this case, good humero-scapular rhythm.  Simply put, the scapulae and clavicles should follow along in the same direction as the movement of the humerus.  Remembering this made a big difference and I was able to finish my swim with ease.  And the arm fatigue, gone.

Another fun exercise to try in the pool is to let your arms float, much like the fins on a fancy goldfish.  While standing, treading water, or floating, just let go of your arms and allow them to float.  That’s it.  Explore the amazing fluidity and how free and easy your arms can be.

You might wondering: how can this transfer to flute playing?

This past winter, my husband John and I were in Costa Rica and stayed at the Planet Hollywood resort which to our delight, had an amazing indoor spa.  Their cold-water jet pool had three big jets on pedestals at the sides of the pool that rained down on you like a powerful waterfall.  I positioned myself underneath the jets, letting them pin point the flutist’s favorite area on their backs - above, between, and along the bottoms of the scapulae.  A week of this luxuriating and my arms and back never felt better.  It was as if I had a new pair of shoulder blades.  Each evening, after the spa, I’d run back up to our room to practice, eager to experience playing the flute with this new-found ease.

How can you find this freedom and ease in your arms?

We move according to how we imagine we are built, right or wrong.  Good movement, arm or otherwise, requires an accurate body map.

Some favorite resources that will help you are the DVD Move Well, Avoid Injury and the book The Trail Guide to the Body.  Of course you can also Google “images of upper body physiology,” and map the bones and joints in your arms and hands simply by palpating.

Next, ask yourself the following:

Where do you imagine your arms meet your body?  Where do your collar bones meet your breast bone and what does that look like? 

Find your breast bone (sternum) and where the two collar bones meet it.  Roll your arms forward and back to locate these joints and feel this movement.  Have you been including your collar bones when mapping your arm structure?

Where is your humerus joint located?

This is a ball and socket joint located in your arm pit.  For some, this is a major body mapping epiphany because many people don’t imagine this joint to be as inward as it is.

Where are your elbows and what motions do they do?  Where are your wrist joints?

The elbow joints are much easier to locate than the humerus joints and an important fact about both of these joints is that they move in many directions.  Take them through their natural range of motion, acknowledging the freedom of rotation and how that makes lifting your instrument possible.  Your wrist joints, however, are flex joints and are not designed to rotate like your two previously mentioned arm joints, so be especially mindful that you remain as neutral and un-bent as possible.  I invite you to re-read my March column.

Note where you are right now in this moment.

Explore movement of your arms and take them through their range of motion; roll your shoulders forward and then back, bring your shoulder blades together on your backside, then back to neutral.  As you’re doing this, notice if you are breathing freely or holding your breath.

Bring the tops of your arms (what many call their shoulders) to your ears, and then back to neutral.

Let’s call this neutral place a place of “no work,”  a place where you aren’t holding your arms in any way, rather just allowing them to be where they are, free to hang, to swing, to float, to suspend.  Be aware of the space that exists between the tops of your arms (shouldes) and ears.

Begin to play by bringing your flute to you.

Start with whatever long tones you most enjoy.  Be aware of your arms, your air, and whole body.  The moment you notice that you are no longer able to maintain this feeling of balance and ease, or that your breathing has been affected, stop playing, take down your flute, reset and begin again.  Allow your arms to be suspended from above and supported from below.

Everything relates to everything else; the relationship of your head and spine, arms, hip joints and knee joints, feet, breathing – all of it.  Continue to rediscover your dynamic balance, always aware and mindful of the space you’re in.  Correcting a faulty body map takes time and patience; you’re training your brain to fully comprehend your body’s structure, function, and size.  Through the study of anatomical images, watching athletes and great musicians exhibiting excellent use, and drawing what you imagine your body to look like, you’ll find these exercises helpful in making the necessary and essential refinements to your body maps.

Happy practicing!

Rena Urso is a member of the faculties at California State University Long Beach and California State University Stanislaus and a Course Coordinator for California State University Summer Arts. Additionally, Rena is the course coordinator for The Complete 21st Century Flutist at CSU Summer Arts, a biennial summer flute course.  As a licensed Andover Educator, she presents Body Mapping workshops all over the world.  An active California based freelance musician, Rena is also a member of the Oakland Symphony and the  Oregon Coast Music Festival Orchestra.  She enjoys balancing her time between her homes in the Chicago area and California’s Central Valley with her husband John and their beagle Lillie.  For more information and Body Mapping tips, please visit www.renaurso.com.

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