Follow the Yellow Brick Road to a More Enjoyable Warm-up

By Rena Urso

Right now, in March of 2019, I’m playing in the pit with the National Tour of WICKED for shows in Fresno, CA.  I love reflecting back upon specific experiences and measuring growth and I’m having that opportunity now, because I have played the show three times before in 2011, 2014, and 2015.  Having played the show before, as well as other national tours, including Phantom of the Opera, it’s easy to track my personal progress both physically and mentally, now, against those prior experiences.

As a young professional musician, I toured with the New York City Opera National Company, and then later with the San Francisco Opera’s Western Opera Theatre.  These trips hold some of my favorite and joyful memories. I vividly remember how it felt to travel from city to city on a tour bus, eat marginally well, and perform eight shows a week, all while sitting in a mediocre chair in the pit.  I always worked hard to maintain my mental focus show after show. Though I was young and physically strong, by the end of each week, everything hurt and I was exhausted physically and mentally. The day off couldn’t come fast enough and I used every bit of that day to recover.  TGIM (Thank God Its Monday). It got to the point where my standard pre-show ibuprofen barely scratched the surface. Fast forward to present day and WICKED here in Fresno.  It’s Monday morning, and of course, I’m feeling tired from a full week of eleven services over six days, but I feel zero pain.  

What’s changed?  Body Mapping!

At all times, and especially situations like I am in right now that are extremely rigorous, it is imperative to stay in the present as much as I/we can.  Because, once we start to feel fatigued, it’s easy to lose focus and that’s when tension can creep in. I spend my short rests during WICKED checking in with various places in my body, offering myself helpful instruction, so I can avoid tension and remain inclusively aware in the present moment.

Here are a few favorites:

  • Balance over sit bones.  To locate your sit bones, sit on your hands and you’ll (hopefully) find them right away.  Once you do, take your hands out from underneath your glutes and see if you can explore balance over your sit bones, always organized around the front of your spine versus delivering the weight down the back side of your spine.
  • Allowing the head to lead the spine when bringing our instrument up to play.  The flute is not ergonomically friendly, so as you turn your head to the left, try to let this movement be natural and fluid.
  • Allowing arms to suspend from above and be supported from below.  There are a lot of muscles that move your arms, some suspend from the base of your skull and some run along the backside of your body, from the base of your spine and top of the pelvis. Think suspension from above and support from below, like a bridge.
  • Imagine the space inside your fluffy, moveable ribs – particularly between the back of the sternum to the front of the spine.  There’s a lot of breathing room for your lungs to take in the appropriate amount of air to get you through a long and sometimes unexpected fermata/vamp.  Try to breathe in a 360-degree fashion by utilizing the back and sides of your lungs.
  • Remember how much space exists at the joints.  You may recall this point from last month’s column, if not, I invite you to check it out!
  • Upon inhalation, give yourself permission to free the front of your neck.  Why, why, why do we do funny things with our neck muscles when we play the flute?  Very simply put, as you inhale, give yourself permission to free your neck muscles.  Notice what happens. You may even enjoy greater ease in your articulation!

 

We musicians don’t always commend ourselves for our progress.  Instead, we spend a lot of time telling ourselves what’s not good and what needs fixing.  In those moments when you notice that you’re actually improving, do yourself a favor and give yourself a gentle pat on the back.  There used to be spots in WICKED that were challenging the first couple dozen times I played the show.  Fortunately, they have magically improved over time. Why? Because I’ve gotten better.  Turns out, all of the Taffanel and Gaubert, Moyse, and various études have paid off. There’s also something to be said for the years of experience and hundreds of logged practice hours; however, having played the show with great frequency has gotten the music more fully “under my fingers.”   

I talked about this in a previous column but it bears repeating.  Sometimes we aren’t pleased with what we hear, we’re not feeling our best physically and so we squeeze/lock up, tell ourselves to work harder, and it creates tension.  Rather than adopting the work harder mindset, can we, in those moments,

trust ourselves and our preparation?  The fact is, we’ve played the show/symphony/concerto a number of times already so odds are, we sound fine.  

I’ve been chatting with my fellow WICKED colleagues about what we think we need to do to ready ourselves for a show.  I invite you to reevaluate your pre-show routines and ask yourself if they continue to serve you well.  Many of our routines were created years ago when we were much different players than we are today. Over time, we’ve improved, which means it might possibly be time to reconfigure and develop a new, more efficient routine. Just sit down, unpack your instrument(s), set up your space and play.  I’ve recently adopted this style of warm up; I take out my instruments and play whatever comes to mind that day, always covering the basics of tone, articulation, technique, etc. The unplanned creative process is enjoyable, incredibly freeing, and I actually feel like I listen to myself with greater intention.  Give it a try and celebrate your own path of growth and progress. Explore a routine-less routine without any preconceived plan for a little while and see where the Yellow Brick Road takes you.


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 Oregon Coast Music Festival 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.

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