by Rena Urso
The word authentic seems to be popping up all over the place lately. Even the recent winner of the Kentucky Derby was named Authentic, who by the way, I bet $2.00 on and won big! So, this will obviously be my last column for a while, because I’m taking off to the tropics with my winnings. OK, seriously, I chose Authentic on a hunch. I didn’t overthink it, just trusted my gut instinct and went with it. This got me thinking about authenticity in a broader sense, and what it means to honor our most authentic selves as artists.
From an early age, we musicians turn to our teachers for guidance, asking how to interpret a piece, where to breathe, how to phrase something, always asking if it is OK to do this or that. We wait for someone else’s permission to do something their way. During those formative years, that type of musical direction and inspiration from our teachers is essential. Then, somewhere along the way, usually around the time we finish graduate school, we start to lay the foundation, albeit with some uncertainty and dig into the deep well of wisdom our master teachers have imparted. Eager and poised on our own two feet, we dip our toes into the murky waters of navigating new repertoire all by ourselves. Hours are spent listening to various recordings, dissecting each performance, and searching for answers to all of our musical questions. Our interpretation gradually takes shape, with a nod to “what everyone else does” and also with the seeds of our own authentic spin. The journey begins.
Authenticity is defined simply as “the quality of being authentic.” Years ago, I was working with performance anxiety coach Helen Spielman before a big audition and she said something that has stayed with me ever since – I’ll paraphrase, since it has been a long time and I can’t recall her exact words: “When our actions are congruent with our deepest desires and beliefs and we act accordingly, all is well, we’re in harmony with ourselves – it’s when we don’t listen to that voice inside of us we begin to feel anxious and out of sorts.” This brings me to another favorite quote by Ram Dass: “The quieter you become, the more you can hear.”
Digging deep to discover your authentic self as an artist takes time and patience for honest reflection. This can be challenging work because it requires us to become greater observers of ourselves and develop inclusive awareness which will help us to better understand how and what we do, in and out of the practice room. As I have said in many of my previous columns, it comes down to awareness without judgment. It’s essential to treat ourselves with compassion, with a willingness to patiently change what’s not working well. The quieter we become, working with minimal effort and micro-movements, instead of forcing, will help us to notice our habits with greater clarity. In those moments, stop and ask yourself; does this habit serve me well? This self-examined practice is as valuable as it is empowering.
How does all of this apply to our playing and authenticity?
This topic has sparked some conversations with friends lately. We are each our own amazing selves. Only you can be you and only I can be me. Fellow flutist and super inspiring friend Shivhan Dohse, put it beautifully, “Allow yourself to be vulnerable. Allow yourself to show your imperfections in music and life. Allow yourself to be you.”
Another good friend, fellow yogi, and remarkable violinist Hannah Murray added, “The most difficult part of authenticity is figuring out what your core values actually are. In the music world, we are often distracted and potentially misguided by input and feedback from mentors, peers, the industry, what we think we want … it’s easy to get lost and chase goals that are inharmonious with oneself. When music-making comes from an authentic place it feels free and fulfilling.”
Years ago, my teacher, former Principal Flutists of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and sage, Anne Diener Zentner said to me in a lesson, “You’ll win a job someday, as soon as you start believing in yourself!” Years later, she continues to be a key source of inspiration. Lessons with Anne weren’t about playing something the way she wanted me to play it, they were about encouraging me to find my voice, reminding me that I already instinctively knew what to do, and supporting my choices.
You are extraordinary exactly as you are. Yes, there are things that could use more practice; making a technical passage more fluid, intonation more impeccable, or rhythm more accurate. We all can continue to refine our playing. That is precisely what keeps us going as performing artists.
My Dad, Santo Urso, was one of the Assistant Concertmasters of the Detroit Symphony. He was a child prodigy, leaving his family in Detroit at age 14, moving to NYC alone to attend Juilliard. He was my greatest teacher, inspiration, cheerleader, and barometer for what was/is real. A friend asked him one day toward the end of his life, “Santo, why are you still practicing every day? You’re retired and going through lung cancer, why spend your time and energy playing? His response; “I don’t know how not to. It’s what I’ve done my whole life.” His work ethic was second to none, he’d tirelessly tune double stops in Paganini Caprices and methodically practice passages from all of the major concerti and their cadenzas. My Dad provided me with a genuine example of what it looked like to maintain the integrity and a deeply authentic self, especially in the face of adversity and illness. He showed me what it meant to keep it real.
This is the time to become quieter, more introspective, turn inward, dig deep, and uncover our most authentic selves. Students, it is a perfect opportunity to deepen your well of confidence and discover your unique voice as artists. Continue to seek out a variety of interpretations of the solo pieces you’re learning, utilizing, and building upon while you continue to color outside the lines and explore all the ways you can make it your own. When you give yourself permission to take an honest look within, you’ll begin to notice that the tension or limitation in your playing starts to diminish. It is in these magical moments that you’ll also find your truest voice while honoring your most sincere authenticity.
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 – home to her popular biennial summer flute course, The Complete 21st Century Flutist at CSU Summer Arts. As a Licensed Body Mapping educator, she presents Body Mapping workshops and masterclasses all over the world. An active freelance musician in the San Francisco Bay Area, she is a member of the Oakland Symphony, the Oregon Coast Music Festival Orchestra, and Alcyone Ensemble. Rena lives in the Chicago area with her husband John and their dogs Lillie and Po. For more information about Rena and Body Mapping tips, please visit www.renaurso.com.