Last year during yoga teacher training, I found myself saying more than once; “I’m super flexible and pretty good at balance poses, I just have zero strength.” Turns out, that the old adage of how we speak to ourselves repeatedly and how that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, is true. Take a moment and ask yourself; what does strength and flexibility mean to you? The value of these words and how they resonate for you in this moment may be entirely different next week or next month.
I am grateful for the awareness and appreciation of what I do well, knowing where my attention needs to be and where my work lies as a musician, as a yogi, and as a human being. I can do a forward fold any day, anytime, nose to knee. This shape feels good for my body, I do it with ease, and I know it’s good for me: flexibility. I cannot however, do more than one “real” push-up, hand stands, or hang out in a plank pose for very long; I lack the core strength necessary right now to be able to do these things well: strength. So, does this mean I am weak? No, it simply means I need to build this part of myself to balance out the other things I do with ease.
How does this all loop around to what we do as musicians?
- Playing with a natural, unfettered ease and fluidity throughout the range of our instruments, at any dynamic, with the sound we choose.
- Having the ability to zip through fast, challenging technical pieces, with stores of unlimited technique.
- Being able to sit in any chair of a section, Principal, Second, or Piccolo, with joy and confidence.
For me, these are all examples of flexibility and strength.
My physical therapist says that it is essential to have both; they work together, and not being balanced with both strength and flexibility is what often leads to injury. This was a big “ah-ha” moment for me. In a way, they are two sides of the same coin. Being flexible and strong helps us to manage challenging situations and people. It helps us to weather the storms in life – like a pandemic, for example. And, is vital to our growth as artists and musicians.
Sometimes we get this notion that we’re invincible in our practice rooms. We know what we are capable of, or have been capable of in the past anyway, so we push ourselves past the point of comfort. This might mean practicing for long stretches without breaks, or feeling the need to practice hours and hours of technical studies to “warm up” before moving on to all the other things we have on our music stand. Some may spin the narrative of being “strong” or “having to get through ____.” The truth is, shorter practice sessions will help to keep us fresh, focused, and injury free. Less is more, friends. Even strong people can injure themselves.
Once again, it all comes back to awareness and dynamic, whole body balance – the very thing with which we begin every Body Mapping course, lesson, or workshop.
- Start your practice day with some gentle movement. If you have a yoga mat, roll it out and explore a few seated yoga shapes. Consider implementing a short meditation to begin your day. This will help you to become more aware of your space and connect with your breath. Warm up your whole Self first.
- Expand your awareness outward as you begin your long tones. Really take in the space all around you - in front of you, behind you, to the sides of you, and above and below you. This is an excellent tool to add to your tool kit and can really help you in high pressure performance situations.
- Bring your awareness to six key places of dynamic balance; your head balancing on top of your spine; your arm structures suspended over your ribs; the core of your lumbar spine; and your hip, knee and ankle joints. Return to these frequently until it becomes second nature.
- Mix it up. Don’t just go through the motions, do something different than you did yesterday so you’re always listening. Our senses are vital to our awareness, especially auditory, visual, tactile, and kinesthetic, less so of our gustatory and olfactory, but you can work to develop more awareness with these senses elsewhere.
- Take frequent breaks for Constructive/Active Rest and/or stretching. Parking it in front of your music stand for long periods of time is never a good idea. Take a quick walk outside and enjoy the fresh air (a great opportunity to hone in on your olfactory sense!), make a cup of tea (and, your gustatory sense, too!). Short breaks will pay dividends when you step back into your practice room, refreshed and ready to continue.
Strive for more flexibility with your expectations, and strengthen your enthusiasm, dedication and desire to improve.
Examine your practice routine and ask yourself what, if anything, could be streamlined. Then, explore all the creative ways you can use your time, more efficiently. Remember, the flute doesn’t need to be on your face to be productive – mental practice, score study, and listening are immensely beneficial.
While I continue to luxuriate daily in forward folds, Yin Yoga, and yummy lyrical pieces for piccolo and flute, I am also working diligently every day to strengthen my core, do things that nudge me ever so slightly outside my comfort zone, and learn pieces that scare me a little. And 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 – 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.