Leaning into Discomfort
by Rena Urso
Summer is the ideal time to expand your curiosity in daily practice. I have always enjoyed using this time to explore new things in my practice room and take an honest look at my playing, often things that I didn’t have time to address during the rest of the year amidst academia and a full schedule of travel and performing. This summer is no exception, I am sharpening the saw so to speak, and playing through new pieces simply for the sake of learning them. My beautiful Keefe piccolo has made this process especially fun and exciting.
Back in the summer of 2017 at the NFA convention in Minneapolis, at the encouragement of my husband John, I added my name to the waiting list for a new Keefe. At the time I really didn’t think a new piccolo was in the cards for me, nor was I really looking. As much as I loved Keefe piccolos, I was perfectly happy and comfortable with my beautiful vintage Powell. I knew my Powell inside and out and appreciated the comfort that gave me. Fast forward to the summer of 2019 at the International Piccolo Festival in Grado, Italy where Jim and Jan let me know that I was next, and they would soon begin building my new piccolo. Still not quite ready, I gave up my spot to the next person on the list and opted to wait. To make a long story short, this magnificent instrument finally arrived in mid-February, right around the time that I was making my way back to playing after having injured my hands in the fall of 2021. (You can read more about my injury recovery and rehabilitation process in my previous Flute View columns.)
Finding my way around my new Keefe is a unique experience compared to 18 years with my Powell. It’s a chance to reprogram my brain to play what is so essentially different, but I am joyfully embracing this process. I loved so many things about my old setup – a vintage Powell with two different Eldred Spell heads - yet there were limitations and challenges which I adjusted for and ultimately accepted. I am discovering newfound ease and joy with the Keefe – some days I literally lose track of time in the practice room.
I have pondered the comfort differences between familiarity and unfamiliarity as they relate to both my musical expression as well as my yoga practice. It was in yoga class that I began to connect the dots, by creating themes for my individual classes. I begin each class by inviting my students to get quiet, connect with their breath, notice their thoughts, and slowly become better observers of themselves. Often there are moments of unfamiliarity or slight discomfort, but instead of avoiding those sensations, I encourage students to reconnect with their breath, find their edge, and soften around the uncomfortable spaces. In yin yoga, it’s all about time, patience, gravity, and breath to help us achieve our desired results. Of course, we can squirm out of a tricky yoga pose or long-held yin shape, but there is much to be gained if we remember everything is temporary, including the discomfort or uncertainty we may briefly feel.
How does this translate to what we do as musicians?
I try to always begin my practice with breath work, a widened net of awareness, long tones, and slow, steady technical studies. This routine is like an old friend. I change what I play each day so that there is always variety and something new combined with the familiarity of mindful attention and intention.
My Powell is as familiar to me as the back of my hand, and I know that the only way to build this same level of ease and fluency with my new Keefe is to play it. Sure, we can find a certain level of comfort and familiarity in our practice rooms, but the real test is when we take it out into the world and play with others. This process forces us to find ease in those moments of doubt, and to trust ourselves, our excellent musicianship, good ears, and intuition. I always tell my yoga students to “take what they need” in their practice; they live in their bodies and know themselves better than anyone else. This same advice can be offered to musicians, especially in moments of unease and uncertainty.
Several months ago in a heated yoga flow class, a format not typically in my comfort zone, I decided to just go for it. I did this in the spirit of doing things that make me uncomfortable. In this class, my teacher Lisa spoke about awareness and acknowledgment of our vulnerabilities, and of not being afraid to go there. She encouraged us to stay on our mats, not give up, and accept and embrace the unknown. All of this also ties into the theme of “facing our fears,” acknowledging our weaknesses, and, in the case of yoga, literally falling on our faces. What do we do in these moments? We pick ourselves up and get back to it. This process helps us to build a deep well of resilience and trust in our abilities and is a reminder that we can do whatever to which we set our minds to, regardless of how unfamiliar or uncomfortable that thing might be; such as a difficult yoga class, learning a new piece of music that is completely unfamiliar or scares us, or playing a brand-new instrument that we are still learning in a very exposed piccolo heavy concert. I encourage you to follow your fear and discover and build familiarity and comfort – you will be immensely better for it.
Happy practicing, friends.
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, Po, and Girl. 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.