In the practice of yoga asanas (poses), instructors routinely offer options to modify poses that, for a variety of reasons, may either be just outside our reach, or not yet in our practice. These modifications are every bit as beneficial, providing us with another way to do whatever it is we are trying to do. And, the beauty with this style of approach is that in time we build strength, refine our skills, and arrive at that very “thing” we’ve been aiming for. I follow several yogis on Instagram, who post helpful tips every day, and offer a variety of alternate options for just about every yoga posture out there.
Musicians, however; can be resistant when it comes to making modifications in our practice rooms. Some see it as an admission of weakness or limitation, but it is anything but. Perhaps we are working through an injury, or an illness, and need to take it easy or back off on the heavy lifting. On those days, long tones and slow scales are an excellent choice. Let’s face it, when aren’t long tones and slow scales an excellent choice?! Still, I wonder; why the hesitation? Fully accepting where you are and trusting the process, however slow it may be, is vital to our growth.
There have been countless times when I have needed to accept where I was and modify my practice:
Early on in my undergraduate studies, I developed a severe case of TMJ (temporal mandibular joint) Syndrome. The pain and limitation were almost unbearable at times – not only when playing, but in day-to-day activities. I had to change the way I did most things, including eating a soft and liquid diet for about a year. Though I enjoyed the fact that I could justify daily Blizzards from Dairy Queen, flute playing was another story. When it came time to plan the repertoire for my senior recital, my teacher Clem Barone and I had to carefully consider pacing and stamina, because I could barely make it through a Bach Sonata without pain. Together we curated a meaningful, sophisticated program, heavy on chamber music and lighter on lengthy solo repertoire. It would take years for me to finally get on the other side of the TMJ issue, but at the end of my graduate studies at CSULB, I finally did. The lessons learned during those years of dealing with adversity were invaluable. Shakespeare wrote, “Sweet are the uses of adversity, which, like the toad ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in its head.”
One night about 10 years ago, I tripped over my dog, breaking my fall with my right hand and arm. Besides deep muscular pain, I tore the tendon in my right pinky finger. Resistant and unwilling to admit I really hurt myself, I didn’t see a doctor right away and kept playing on it, making it worse. As you can imagine, treating a tendon tear and ultimately recovering from it took a long time and required a lot of patience and acceptance on my part. I remember one of my doctors saying “this is going to take a long time, you’ll heal, you just need to give it time and be patient.” I had to immediately adjust my expectations and explore new and creative ways to modify my routine.
More recently, I injured my left knee. Initially, I attributed it to a lot of time sitting in half lotus and practicing the same yoga poses every day over the past year. Though that is likely a part of the story, the other part is that with cold winter weather in Chicago and COVID, I’m not walking nearly as much as usual, and not swimming at all, because we halted our gym membership. Having learned my lesson with the pinky injury, I called my physical therapist right away. After two months of PT, I’m not quite 100% but I’m getting there. Fortunately, I’ve been here before, and all of the previous challenges are helping me to know what I need to do; accept where I am in this moment, adjust my expectations, take what I need, and modify my practice.
A few personal takeaways from experiences like this:
* The need to continually expand one’s awareness in these moments, and instead of lamenting what you can’t do, ask yourself what is possible.
* Letting go of expectations and being open and curious to find another way. This is a big Clem Barone-ism!
* Celebrating your resiliency. I think we can agree, this past year has shown us that we are all stronger and more resilient than we ever imagined.
* Be honest and accept where you are in the moment, understanding that you will continue to grow and refine your craft from wherever you begin if you so choose.
Above all, keep showing up; keep rolling out the mat, taking out your instrument(s), pulling out new or forgotten technical studies…whatever it is. You never know what you might discover in these weeks/days/moments of introspection and thoughtful practice. In the times when my multitude of repetitive stress injuries were at their worst, there were days when lifting my flute was simply too much. On those days, I did a lot of listening, score study, journaling, visits to museums, and mental practice. And then, I discovered that while flute playing wasn’t possible, piccolo playing was. Turns out, all of that piccolo playing during those years really paid off! As a friend says, “a happy accident…”
Be well and happy practicing!
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, taking place again this July (https://www2.calstate.edu/SummerArts/Courses/Pages/the-complete-21st-century-flutist.aspx). As a Licensed Body Mapping Educator, she presents Body Mapping workshops and masterclasses all over the world. Rena is also a part of the newly launched International Piccolo Flute Academy. 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. Additionally, she is a certified yoga and meditation instructor and member of the NFA Performance Health Committee. Rena lives in the Chicago area with her husband John and their dogs Lillie and Po. She is available for personal or group Zoom Body-Mapping sessions. For more information about Rena and Body Mapping tips, please visit www.renaurso.com.