Why is it, when faced with a tricky passage in music, we grip our instruments tighter? Or, how about when we want/need to project and soar over the orchestra: why do we tighten our abdominals/glutes or other muscles? Gripping our flutes, pressing down harder on the keys, and overusing our muscles won’t help us craft a rich, resonant sound or get us through a page of fast notes; yet still, we brace ourselves, squeeze like mad, and hope for the best. Then there’s breathing; loading up with air as if we’re getting ready to swim the English Channel. This too results in even more tension throughout our bodies. Here’s the sad truth: playing with this type of forcefulness leads to limitation, pain and in some cases, injury.
Have you found yourself thinking: “Maybe that’s why this passage isn’t improving?” It’s true, you could actually be making it more difficult for yourself by gripping your flute, engaging your left arm or torso muscles in an unhelpful way, or by taking a much larger breath than necessary. This may also explain the tension you often experience in your jaw and neck.
How do we replace this common and sometimes automatic tendency to over grip with a natural ease, and carry it from our practice rooms to the stage? First of all, we flutists could all stand to lighten up a little bit. We don’t need to take ourselves so seriously; the technical spots will get ironed out and squeezing your flute like mad isn’t the way to make it happen. The next thing to understand is there is no short cut for this kind of work; you’re not cramming for an exam. Mindful, patient, well-paced practice, replacing old habits with new, healthier habits, will ultimately enable you to develop a deeper understanding of the music, play with greater ease, get the notes under your fingers and most importantly, avoid pain or injury.
You may recall from the January column, it all comes down to awareness. Once I became aware of these habitual patterns in my own playing, I was able to address each one. Honestly, I became fascinated by it all, and my curiosity for the how, when, where, and why of this tension fueled my desire to get to the bottom of things and fix them once and for all. Offering simple instructions like let go, free, and allow for space were far better than telling myself what not to do. Even telling yourself to ‘drop this’ or ‘open that’ can quickly turn into overcorrections, creating a new set of not-so-good issues. Here are a few things to ponder as you head into your practice rooms:
It's as simple as …
* Giving ourselves permission to let go when we feel tension creep in.
* Unlocking our knees, hips and ankle joints and rediscovering balance over the arches of our feet and ankles, with soft, unbent, unlocked knees.
* If seated, finding balance over our sit bones.
* Bringing our heads back to balance on top of our spine and always bringing the flute to you, not you to the flute.
* Freeing our neck muscles and allowing for space at our jaw joints.
* Taking breaths that are appropriate for the phrase we’re about to play.
* Allowing our arms to remain suspended over our ribs.
* Resisting the temptation to grip our flutes tighter or squeeze our arms closer into our bodies as we approach a challenging technical passage.
The more often you experience the joy and comfort of playing your instrument with ease and balance, the more you’re going to want to return there.
In body mapping, one of the pearls of wisdom we all share is this:
The integrity of any movement depends on the integrity of the body map that governs it; if your body map is adequate and accurate, your movement will be good. If it’s a little off, your movement will be a little off, which can create tension, pain, and/or injury.
With practice, you’ll begin to make these refinements and create an adequate and accurate body map, permitting free and fluid movement, with appropriate effort, minus the unwanted tension.
So, lighten up, friends. Take your patience and curiosity with you into the practice room and have fun learning how to play with more ease.
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. 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 San Francisco Opera Center Orchestra. She enjoys balancing her time between her homes in the Chicago area and California’s Central Valley with her fiancé John and their beagle Lillie. For more information and Body Mapping tips, please visit www.renaurso.com.