By Rena Urso
Do you consider yourself to be someone who prefers to have a plan, to map things out with every possible “if then” scenario covered? Or, are you someone who tends to go with the flow, allowing the road to take you where it will? If you’re like most people, you likely fall somewhere in the middle; a basic framework of a plan, with enough direction that still allows for plenty of flexibility. Sounds obvious, right? But, when we get our minds fixed on an idea that is set in stone, it can quickly shift and create rigidity and inflexibility. It is in these moments that we lose the possibility for spontaneity and miss out on the opportunity to discover something new.
We just returned from an epic five-week adventure in Italy. We enjoyed many of our favorite places and also took the road (somewhat) less traveled by renting a car and driving all around Italy for two weeks. There were a few key places on our itinerary, the hometowns of my grandparents in Calabria, for example. We allowed for plenty of freedom and ease in our travels and simply let the road take us. As a result, we experienced far more than we ever imagined; playing Bach in an empty 17th century church in my grandfather’s hometown of Mesoraca, tucked away in the mountains of Calabria; a special chance encounter running into a friend on the street in Torino because we spontaneously decided to turn in one direction vs another; visiting the hometowns of Monteverdi and Puccini (a complete coincidence for both), and the list goes on. We have had many similar unexpected surprises, including a few years ago when we stumbled upon the church in Venice where Vivaldi was baptized the day after spontaneously finding an amazing exhibit of his manuscripts in Torino! This is how we go through life, as much as possible. Unexpected and truly special things happen when we allow life to unfold naturally in this way and float along with a sense of ease and curiosity.
How does this translate to our playing? Sometimes when we are strongly attached to a set plan, or routine, it can rob us of the opportunity to uncover something magical. It can also create tension and limitation because it is in moments like these that we also tend to force instead of allowing for what comes naturally. Imagine stepping outside your daily routine and approaching your tone and technical study practice in a fresh new way. Now, consider how this approach can permeate everything else that comes next; etudes, solo repertoire, orchestral excerpts, etc. Choosing a different route on your walk and unexpectedly running into an old friend is a bit like accidentally discovering a new way to shape a phrase or the most perfect, subtle nuance that you had been looking for.
This past July I was delighted to have a roster of extraordinary guest artists at my course, The Complete 21st Century Flutist. Each brought something truly unique, encouraging our students to step outside their comfort zones and try new things. Among the variety of inspiring workshops and masterclasses, my friend Steve Kujala presented workshops on a unique pitch bending technique he discovered completely by accident; The Fretless Flute. Steve describes it as a sort of gateway to the study of ethnic flutes as well as a valuable tool in jazz and contemporary extended techniques. He has said many times; this happy accident has opened many doors for him as an artist over the years. You can learn more about it by reaching out to Steve directly, of course, or checking out his tutorials on YouTube (highly recommended!). The point being; when we approach life in this way, open to any and every possibility, amazing things can happen.
This was not always the case for me. After completing my Master’s degree, I felt this need to have everything mapped out perfectly in my practice. I was already working professionally, yet I continued to place an enormous amount of pressure on myself to practice what I felt like I was supposed to practice. I was constantly afraid of doing the wrong thing, playing incorrectly, and avoided sounding anything less than beautiful at all costs. This created a lot of tension and anxiety. I habitually set unrealistic goals and expectations in every area of my musical life: daily practice, performances, lessons, and auditions. It took years to unravel those unhealthy habits and address the deeply ingrained patterns that created tension, anxiety, limitation, and ultimately, repetitive stress injuries.
Here’s the thing friends: It is OK to not have it all figured out, to not sound awesome every day in the practice room or know how to decode a tricky new piece of music. Embrace all the possibilities of letting the path unfold in front of you without a set plan and see what beauty you stumble upon.
What we gain when we go through life and allow the road to unfold naturally without expectation and a blueprint, can be an essential tool in our music making. We can then learn more about ourselves, begin to trust the process, and actually begin to relish the moments of uncertainty that show us a new way to do the things we do.
One of the first assignments I give to my Body Mapping students at CSU Long Beach each semester is to go for a walk outside and begin to deepen their awareness, taking note of all of their senses; auditory/hearing, visual/sight, tactile/touch, gustatory/taste, olfactory/smell, and kinesthetic/movement awareness. Expanding your awareness offers more creativity in your playing with regards to sound, texture, color, dynamics, and so much more. These exact things will benefit us in our practice rooms, in performance, and in life; rooting us in the present moment, so that we are open to all the “happy accidents” and awesome coincidences. As we embark on the beginning of a new semester, I offer this same “assignment” to all of you. Allow the road to take you and see what new things you discover. You might be pleasantly surprised!
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. Rena is also a teaching artist at the 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.