By Rena Urso
Early in the morning on January 1st, I was enjoying my tea, scrolling through Instagram, and noticed this Lao Tzu quote: “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” It made such an impact on me in that moment that I grabbed a pencil and wrote it on the wall of my practice studio. I was recovering from a nasty bout of Influenza A, so in the days that followed, I would walk into my little room, take out my instrument, and begin my practice with these words resonating in my head. Sitting with this quote week after week got me thinking about all I do as a musician, Body Mapping educator, and yogi and how they are deeply connected.
Over the past several months, I’ve been reexamining many things in my playing. Hand injuries in Fall 2021, along with a 6-month recovery/rebuilding period, followed by COVID in Summer 2022, and then a difficult bout with the flu during the holiday season, have all given me pause to be more reflective, patient, and curious in my daily practice. It is in times like this that I am especially grateful for Body Mapping and yoga. Body Mapping encourages us to expand our awareness, always peeling away another layer of the proverbial onion and taking our work to a deeper level. It helps us understand our bodies better, make refinements and corrections to how we do what we do, and ask ourselves what we can do better. This process cannot be rushed; it unfolds in the time that it unfolds; we take in what we need when we need it most. Paired with the practice of yoga and meditation, which invites us to become less reactive and more present, both continue to pay dividends for me and for my students.
As a Body Mapping educator, I work with musicians all over the world who are currently experiencing limitation, tension, or pain and are concerned for the future of their musical careers. Others seek Body Mapping either to stay ahead of these maladies preemptively or to educate themselves so that they can help their students. We don’t have to currently be in pain or working through an injury to benefit from this essential work.
Such is the case for me right now; I am continually asking myself how I can do what I do with more ease and where are my opportunities for growth. Working my way through each of these situations, I worried about what toll they might take on my playing. A lot of patience on my part was necessary. I quickly learned that trying to push through any of these circumstances would not be helpful. In the case of my hands, forcing would only create compensatory tension elsewhere. It might work in the immediate, but further down the road, I would be dealing with a new problem. We can’t speed up the timeline for illness or injury recovery or the rebuilding process in times like these, and forcing or pushing is the last thing we want to do.
If you read the columns I wrote for The Flute View during the recovery process of my hand injuries, you may recall it took much longer than my doctors or I imagined. It also ended up being a big opportunity for growth because it required me to creatively break things down into smaller pieces, and work more slowly, methodically, and mindfully. Rebuilding my focus and stamina post-COVID and again post Influenza A would become another opportunity for reflection and growth. Brain fog, focus or lack thereof in my practice room, vocabulary recall, and physical stamina have all been issues.
I was in Italy during the time of my COVID recovery, getting back into shape at what felt like a snail’s pace, and preparing for a weekend of Body Mapping workshops and a recital in Serbia just a few weeks later. I felt pressed for time and even though I knew I couldn’t rush the process, I pushed a little too hard too soon, which quickly brought me to a place of diminishing returns. With feelings of limitation and frustration, I began not to trust myself or what I knew, deep down, I was capable of. I knew I had to put my energy into what I could do instead of focusing on what I could not. Meditation and gentle/yin yoga allowed me to slow things down, regain focus, and find a greater sense of calm which I could bring back to my playing. This helped me connect the dots with other challenging times, including my recent hand issues. It also served as another reminder of the importance of lightening up and letting things unfold naturally. I didn’t know at the time that this experience would help me through yet another rebuilding period after the flu in December.
There are sneaky places in our day-to-day lives where forcing, pushing, or fighting nature often rear its unhelpful heads and get in the way of growth and progress. Here are a few that come to mind:
Room acoustics. Rooms with tons of reverb can be fun to practice in, but they can also mask details in our playing that can go unnoticed. The solution: we head into a room with less reverb, sometimes a very dry/dead room. Rooms with zero reverb can also be problematic; since the room isn’t giving us much in return, we respond by forcing, overblowing, squeezing the keys, or gripping the instrument. You can imagine how this affects our tone and technique. What can we do? Try wearing earplugs. Doing this allows us to turn our awareness inward, observe how we feel, and listen more internally. Toggle back and forth with and without earplugs and notice how naturally you can let go of old habits and replace them with something better, improved critical listening skills and overall ease.
Be aware of your body in the space you are in so that you notice the moments when unwanted tension creeps in. When we force or push, it creates limitation and tension – we know this. However, it can go unnoticed because, over time, it colors our habits, literally changing how we play and becoming the new normal. Seemingly unrelated habits include a constant furrowed brow/facial tension, locked knees, overworking our arms when we hold our up instruments, or squeezing our arms inward and trying to make ourselves small (piccolo players, I’m talking to you), all become second nature. How do we slowly unravel these habits? Begin by becoming more present in your practice rooms. Take up all the space you can in and around your body. Keep bringing yourself back to balance and allow your muscles to be long and free so movement becomes more natural. As we become greater observers of ourselves, we discover places where we habitually hold unnecessary tension, which helps us to stop forcing and get out of our own way. Living in the moment on stage can sometimes be easier than in our practice rooms because our minds tend to wander in our practice with our ongoing to-do lists. You might keep a note pad nearby and jot things down as they pop into your head so you can get back to work without the unnecessary minutiae clouding your mind. This leads me to the next tip…
Reorganize your practice into shorter intervals of time. Gone are the days of parking ourselves in our practice rooms for hours on end, stumbling out tired, hungry, thirsty, and completely wiped out. When we are fatigued, it is common for us to push because we aren’t getting the results we want. Stay ahead of fatigue, tension, and lack of focus by practicing in shorter blocks of time. Taking small breaks will help us stay mentally and physically fresh and will help widen that net of inclusive attention and intention. If you regularly read my columns, you have heard me speak of the value of constructive/active rest. It’s like a reset button for your body and mind. Try it!
Imagine the positive impact this can have on your artistry? Rehearsals and concerts will begin to look and feel a lot different:
- Improved energy, stamina, and focus.
- Greater enjoyment and ease.
- More resonance in your sound and availability to a wider palette of colors.
- Confidence and a deeper level of trust in yourself.
To keep growing as artists it is essential to lead a well examined life and be willing to do the work. Challenging experiences will continue to happen throughout our lives, how we choose to react and respond is key. In those moments, remind yourself that it's going to be fine because it always is fine, and trust that you already have the tools to do what is necessary to get yourself where you need to be. And then, scribble this quote on your practice room wall: “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”
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 – returning in June 2023 in Mondovì, Italy! 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 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.