By Rena Urso
How many of you perform barefoot?
In recent years I’ve become a big fan and honestly wonder how I ever performed any other way. As an orchestral and chamber musician, this is definitely not a thing; the dress code in a professional orchestra requires black shoes and black socks. So, when given the freedom to wear whatever we want, it’s interesting how we musicians feel as though we need to ask permissionto perform solo recitals or concerti sans shoes. No one thinks twice about a rock and roll, jazz, blues, or folk musician walking out on stage shoeless (and many of them do!) so why the formality in the classical music world?
Last week I was chatting with one of our flute students at CSU Long Beach who was preparing for her senior recital. She said, and I quote: “OMG, I really want to play barefoot, I loveplaying barefoot, but am I allowed to do that for my recital?” The answer is yes, you can wear what you like for your recitals, so long as it’s appropriate and tasteful. If playing without shoes will give you the added confidence you need to take the stage, feel like a million bucks, and play your best, do it.
A few years ago, I performed as a soloist with a band in the Los Angeles area. I chose my outfit months in advance and was excited about my fabulous dress and shoes. Naturally, I did what we all do when preparing for a big solo performance; wore the shoes around the house to break them in and practiced my solo in my concert outfit. The performance day arrived and my shoe situation was not good - they looked great and felt awful. My fiancé John suggested I go barefoot. I literally LOL’d. There’s no way I could go out on stage barefoot, I thought. Or could I? Turns out, I absolutely could. So I did. It was great; I felt free and completely grounded in a way I had never experienced in a solo performance before. Having a tactile sense of the floor beneath my feet made me feel stable, and I was able to explore whole body balance in a new way.
This experience reminded me of an audition I took several years prior for the Honolulu Symphony. The day before the audition, I went for a long walk in the absolute wrong shoes and returned to my hotel with a bunch of blisters. You can imagine the pain and suffering I experienced the next day when I tried to put my sore, bandaged feet into a pair of shoes. I managed to make my way over to the hall and asked the personnel manager if it would be OK if I played without shoes. She laughed and said, “this is Hawaii” and going barefoot was very “aloha” so “go for it!” I played one of my best auditions that day.
Teaching and presenting Body Mapping workshops around the world, I’m often asked by female musicians about how they can find balance and play their best while wearing high heels. Most share similar concerns: inability to find a natural stance, locked knees, tension and pain, difficulty getting a good breath, to name a few. For some, wearing high heels feels perfectly natural, so performing in them is really no big deal. But for others, including myself, standing and playing in heels has never felt comfortable.
Want to explore performing without shoes? Try this:
In your practice, if you typically sit, try standing and playing barefoot. How does this feel? Now have a seat and get to know your feet. Your feet are two of the most nerve-rich areas in your body, with thousands of sense receptors that enable you to literally connect to your environment. Palpate each foot including your ankle joints and toes, take your ankle joints through their full range of motion by making circles in each direction, wiggle your toes. Make a peace sign with your first two fingers, the width of that peace sign should be about the width of the ball of your foot. Place your two fingers at the base of the ball of your foot and think of that as the base of a narrow triangle with its top at the front of your heel. Trace that triangle over the main arch of your foot, from the ball of your foot to the front of your heel. If you are flat footed, this visual is especially helpful to understand where the arch of your foot is. Stand up and balance yourself over these main arches, striving for weight delivery down your front lower leg bone, with soft, balanced, unbent knees. Avoid becoming a marble statue, holding a pose only creates more tension. Instead, allow for micromovements to help you to discover and rediscover balance, especially if/when you find yourself gripping the ground with your toes, locking your knees, or delivering weight down into the backs of your heels. Note your habitual tendencies, literally. Journaling is an excellent practice tool.
Fluterscooter is also a fan of performing barefoot. Here’s her story:
A few years ago, after always having shooting pain in my left upper back after performing, I wondered what could be the cause. This pain only happened when I was standing up to perform, not in a seated position. I kept performing with the pain, but then something else started happening. Often when I performed, my knees started locking, which would cause my nerves and anxiety to skyrocket once my legs started shaking. I’ve never been comfortable wearing heels; if I had a choice, I’d wear flip flops or sneakers all the time. So why was I only wearing heels on stage if I knew I’d be uncomfortable? I felt that this blockage was not only affecting my artistry, but also my physical and mental states.
So one day, I just said screw it: I’m going to perform barefoot. I’ve heard of people doing it before, and my dresses were always long enough that no one could tell (and if they could, why does that even matter?) Why haven’t I ever done this before, I thought. For the first time, I felt free to move on stage (the whole stage), to actually bend my knees and not fear falling over, to be more expressive, and to have better control of my instrument. The nerves I experienced while wearing heels were suddenly gone, and I felt more connected to the audience. And that shooting pain in my back? GONE. I recommend everyone give this a try and see what you experience!
Like Fluterscooter, performing barefoot makes me feel more grounded, confident, and expressive. I’m no longer distracted with trying to find balance in a pair of shoes that I never wear and most importantly, feel as though I’m able to express myself freely without unwanted tension. As for our CSU Long Beach flute student, she played a beautiful recital, barefoot. What a joy to be able to tap into this level of freedom and joy in performance. Isn’t that how we all should feel when we perform?
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.