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Something Else That Matters

Consider the following scenario. Due to Covid protocols, student flutists have been practicing primarily in their dorm rooms. In this personal space, most have been wearing sweat pants or pajama bottoms and are rarely wearing shoes, although fuzzy slippers are popular. They experience some success with preparing their music for lessons and studio class performances. When the performance day comes, they find that it doesn’t go as well as it did in the practice room. We’ve all had this experience… it sounds great at home and not so good when you actually get to the stage. There are lots of reasons for this phenomenon, but I’d like to discuss something that sometimes flies under the radar. Ready? Fashion choices in terms of clothing and footwear can affect our performances. I know…hang with me, here.

Part of doing what we do as performing artists is getting dressed up for the gig. Sometimes, it’s concert black and other times, we get to choose. As musicians, we make lots of choices all the time—musical choices, movement choices, choices about repertoire, and choices about what we’re wearing when we show up to play our flutes. As a side note, please acknowledge that singers on stage in musical theater and opera are required to wear the costume that is provided. They do not have a choice and have to do the best they can with what they’ve been given. For the rest us, we can choose the clothing, the footwear, the jewelry, the hair style and the accessories.

The goal is to make sure that what we are wearing allows us to do everything we need to do as performing artists, without restrictions. As I have written in many of these articles, anything that prevents a moving body part from moving in the right direction at the right time is going to impact the quality of movement and music making. We are whole-body movers and everything is connected. Let’s go back to the opening scenario. In the practice room, the flutists are wearing stretchy, loose, baggy pants, and in performance, they are wearing high-waisted non-stretchy pants with a belt. These dress pants look great, but do they actually work for performance? If these flutists notice that their pants are too tight to allow the 3D movement of breathing, then they don’t work. If they notice their belly jamming up against the waistband at the end of their inhalations, then they do not work. If the pants are too tight to allow free, easy movement at the hip joints, then they do not work. Think of those super-tight, super-skinny jeans that are more like leggings than jeans. It’s pretty clear that they are on one end of the “How much movement do your pants allow” continuum with the baggy sweat pants on the other. Can we find options that still look professional and are more towards the middle of this continuum? Yes, they are out there, but it takes some looking.

Another item to consider is the amount of space available in the underarm region for shirts or blouses. After learning about whole arm movement involving the Sterno-clavicular joint (see this article for more info – in the front and full range of motion for both shoulder blades, many musicians find that some of their shirts are too tight in the arm pits. If your arm movement is compromised by this tightness, then it’s going to show up somehow in your playing. If you are a dedicated swimmer or weight lifter with a triangle-shaped torso, then you already know this. I see this often with flutists and string players, particularly in their bow arms. Tuxedo jackets and dress shirts are often too restrictive. Here’s a product created by artists for artists to solve this problem – Unfortunately, there is no women’s option available. Maybe that’s coming at some point! Tux jackets can be taken to a tailor to have some space added in to the underarm. There are many types of tops that have no sleeves at all and have plenty of room for movement.

Strapless gowns – not a fan for performance. If you’ve ever worn one of these, then you know that it has to be tight enough to keep it from falling down. This limits both rib and arm movement and impacts breathing mechanics. There are many choices of straps to choose from to allow yourself the space to move that music making requires.

Let’s talk about the shoes. I’m a passionate advocate for barefoot shoes for many reasons and I’ve just realized, to my dismay, that I haven’t written about feet very much at all for Flute Examiner. As much as 25% of the incoming sensory information in our bodies is coming to us from the bottoms of our feet. This is a high priority area for our brains—we need information about what type of surface we’re standing on, the temperature, the texture. The soles of our feet are literally our connection with the ground. Feet can do amazing things when they are allowed to move and function as intended. When we put our feet into restrictive, hard-soled shoes all day long, every day, our feet don’t need to work on sensing our environment and adapting to that environment because they can’t! The sole of the shoe doesn’t allow it. Lots of other compensations start happening when there’s any elevation of the heel. Most running shoes have at least an inch of heel. In my semester long class, we start on day 1 with working on feet to regain awareness and movement. Through this experience, my students start to notice that they cannot feel the floor in their dressy shoes as well as when they are barefoot or in the fuzzy slippers. They are convinced that it matters, however, they love their shoes. I understand. There are many options available for men’s style dress shoes – available for every person. For many, the high heels make the outfit and there’s really not a barefoot equivalent. There are some very nice ballet flats that can be fully customized here – Personally, I do not own any high heels anymore because I refuse to give up my connection to the ground. Not everyone is in a position to do that. What can you do? Choose a lower heel … 1.5 inches instead of 3 inches is a good start. Choose a wedge style heel instead of a stiletto type. Commit to learning how to manage the compensations that the footwear is requiring, as it is definitely possible.

Back to the opening scenario. The high-waisted, tight pants and the heavy, clunky, extremely rigid sole on the shoes combined to lead my students to say “I completely lost awareness of my lower body and feet.” This loss of connection to the bottom half of the body shows up in breathing mechanics and whole arm movement. Every little bit of restriction adds up. I’ve asked these students, if they are willing and comfortable, to go to studio class next wearing different pants and shoes that allow for more movement and see what happens.

Fortunately, there are so many choices in terms of what we show up wearing. There are so many opportunities for personal style and fashion choices—think of color, just by itself! It’s possible to find things that allow you to play and move well that also look great. As performing artists, we spend so much time mastering our craft. Take the extra time to make sure that your performance clothing choices allow you to do your thing without restriction. You’re worth it!

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