by Rena Urso
We tend to frame injuries in a negative light rather than find the silver lining. A perfect example of experiencing the positive side of an injury is that of my husband John. In March 2018 John had a debilitating lower back issue, specifically a herniated disc with floating disc fragments. He was in constant pain and unable to walk for several weeks. His slow but steady treatment and recovery process required tremendous patience. By following the care plan of his doctors and Physical Therapist (PT), now nearly 2 years later, he is back to feeling great and is much stronger than before. I wrote a blog post on this topic during that time. Visit my website (renaurso.com) to read the entire post, as well other helpful blogs that you may find interesting.
Here is an edited version of that original post.
Early in my undergrad, I was diagnosed with Temporomandibular Joint Disorder (TMJ). My Dad spent a lot of money on medical specialists to get me the best care possible. Unfortunately, all were met with limited results. Back then, there weren’t too many options available for this sort of thing. Ultimately, I had to do the real work and make changes in the ways I went about doing even the most routine and simplest things, not only with my approach to flute playing, but in day to day life. No more corn on the cob, super crusty bread, bagels, or apples for me. Even visits to the dentist were a challenge. One TMJ “specialist” put me on a liquid diet for the better part of a year, prescribing regular use of anti-inflammatories and muscle relaxers for the pain, and a strong recommendation to take the summer off from playing flute or piccolo. His opinion was that the pain I was experiencing was rooted in my playing. He wasn’t entirely right but he wasn’t entirely wrong.
I did everything the specialist asked me to do, including a three month break from playing. Returning to the flute and addressing habitual playing related patterns would be a big step that would take years to relearn and refine. I wasn’t consistent with that part of my progress and within a year or so, more injuries would present themselves, both from outside forces and from overuse.
Fast forward a couple of decades; I lacked the strength for everyday activities such as pulling things out of the oven and lifting them to the stove top, taking dishes from the dishwasher and placing them up in a cupboard, or lifting a small suitcase to put it in the overhead bin on an airplane. Each of these actions required the strength and coordination of specific muscles, muscles that also worked to move me in the habitual way necessary for flute playing. Suffice to say, a combination of years of untreated injuries compounded by overuse and a lack of education about how to use my body well is what exacerbated these issues.
How did I get from playing (and living) in pain every day to pain-free practice and performance?
I assembled a team of professionals to help me to discover and address the roots of my injuries.
Committing to a regimen of PT and daily exercises – even when I didn’t want to, or worse, when I thought I was better and therefore didn’t need to do the work anymore. Sort of like daily practice; sometimes we don’t want to do it but the payoff is totally worth it. If we want to keep doing what we do into our twilight years, maintenance is essential. Develop a daily exercise routine that includes stretching, swimming, walking, or whatever favorite activity you’ll stick to. A good PT will help you find the appropriate exercises to address your specific needs. Stop telling yourself you don’t have time for it. Make time for it! Pain and injury aren’t exclusively for old people; it can happen to anyone at any time. Self-care is vital for all of us, all the time.
I took an honest look at my practice routine and explored new ways to use my time.
Several short practice sessions vs one enormously long session was the best change of all with my daily practice. It changed everything. This style of practice helps us to stay mentally sharp and take breaks before tension and pain set in. Say goodbye to epic marathon practice sessions and mindlessly playing until things hurt. There is a solution to getting all that music under your fingers; shorter, focused, well organized practice sessions which will ultimately be more thoughtful and productive because you’ll stay engaged the entire time.
Maybe you’re reluctant to try something new, even a new practice regime, for fear of how you’ll sound during the process. When we’re working to affect a change - an embouchure change, new hand position, addressing breathing misconceptions - we might feel as though we don’t sound our best. And, then what do we do? We slip back into the pattern of what we’ve been doing. We’re afraid of sounding bad, this new thing we’re trying to implement feels awkward and unnatural, and the old way, even if limiting or painful, is reliable, so we revert back to what we know. Let go of your ego and allow yourself to sound however you sound as you slowly work through the process. Find new ways to use your practice time for other activities away from your instrument: score study with recordings, mental practice or visualization exercises, with or without your music, or simply going for a walk and working on developing a greater inclusive awareness of the space you’re in and all of your senses.
Adjusting expectations and not being so hard on ourselves.
Recovering from an injury and rebuilding strength takes time. Be patient with the process and celebrate your victories. You’ll soon begin to relearn how to do what you do, better, and without pain. Reframe the way you think about this period of time; instead of feeling discouraged, think of it as an opportunity for growth. Each of the times my PT’s and doctors have insisted on a break from flute playing, the process and return to playing has been eye-opening and immensely valuable.
Breaking things down into smaller cells.
Be creative as you work smaller sections, always with your ears leading your practice, and always aware of your body and the space you’re in. The key word is trust; trust those whose wisdom you are heeding, and most importantly, trust yourself and the process. It may not happen as quickly as you’d like, but you’ll get there. You still sound good. Probably better.
Several years ago, I began exploring alternative ways to fix my recurring issues. Body Mapping appeared in my life at the perfect time and learning how to properly use my body saved my career. It’s really that simple. I needed to figure out how I was doing what I was doing and Body Mapping made all the difference.
As I have said many times before: It’s not about working harder, it’s about working smarter. Strive for practice time that is efficient and well balanced. It’s not about the quantity of time logged in the practice room, it’s about the quality of time. I never thought I’d look back at the injuries and hurdles I’ve experienced in my career and feel grateful for them, but I do. Every time I’ve had to rebuild, the process has been informative and empowering. Each injury has made me a stronger person, a better player and teacher, and more informed Body Mapping specialist.
Rena Urso is a member of the faculties at California State University Long Beach and California State University Stanislaus and the Course Coordinator for The Complete 21st Century Flutist at CSU Summer Arts, a biennial summer flute course. As a licensed Body Mapping 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 about Rena and Body Mapping tips, please visit www.renaurso.com