Sarah Lewis: On Gratitude, Thinking Useful Thoughts, and the Challenge of Juggling Auditions and a 3-Month Old

Sarah Lewis: On Thinking Useful Thoughts, Gratitude, and the Challenge of Auditioning with a Newborn

We went to the store the other day, looking to buy some cake flour for a recipe we hadn’t made in years. And to our surprise, not only was there no cake flour, there was almost no flour at all!

In hindsight, I suppose the scarcity of flour (at least in our neighborhood) makes sense. Not just because flour is a key ingredient in making yummy treats to eat. But because there’s something kind of comforting about the predictability of baking. Of knowing that if you follow the steps in a recipe, you get something pretty predictable at the end of it.

Which is why I think “recipes” for dieting or getting in shape – i.e. all of the “5 essential exercises you should do every day-type videos” – are so popular. Because with so many things we could do, but only so much time and energy to spare, it’s nice to know what’s truly important or essential, and what is less so.

So in the interest of exploring the various commonalities and idiosyncrasies of musicians’ audition preparation “recipes,” we started a 3-part mini-series last week, in which three different musicians from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra shared their approach to audition day and the week leading up to auditions. As you might expect, there were some strategies that overlapped, as well as a few that seemed to be unique to that particular musician – but were essential, nonetheless.

If you missed either Caroline Coade’s or Amanda Blaikie’s episodes, you can listen to them here and here. But today, guest co-host Rob Knopper (percussion, Met Opera) and I will be chatting with oboist Sarah Lewis, who has been a member of the DSO since 2017.

In this episode, we’ll explore:

-Sarah’s backstage routine, and how being a brand-new mom threw a wrinkle into her normal routine.
-Negative thoughts vs useful thoughts.
-What are “useful thoughts,” exactly? Sarah describes the 3 things she wants to think about in auditions.
-A few things Sarah wants to have optimized on the day of the audition.
-Sarah talks more about gratitude, and how she uses this as an exercise to stay in a better headspace even during the audition process.
-How she gets her mind more into the zone during warmups, and balances getting connected with her instrument and staying warmed up, with avoiding overplaying.
-Advice her teacher gave her on how to deal with other people around her sounding great before she plays.
-A breathing trick to use between excerpts that she found really helpful in staying more physically calm during the audition.
-How Sarah combines recording, runthroughs, and fundamentals in the last week – and what she focuses a lot on in the last couple days.
-An exercise Sarah found really helpful for combatting nerves in her most recent audition.
-The story of how Sarah ruined her good reed right before she had to play, and how this actually ended up maybe helping her – and why her practice of recording herself may have been a big part of why she was able to respond as effectively as she did.
-One thing Sarah wishes she would have done more for auditions.
-Sarah’s daughter makes a guest appearance, as she describes the experience of preparing for her most recent audition, when her daughter was just three months old.

Amanda Blaikie: On Believing in Yourself, Letting Go of Attachments, and Giving Yourself Permission to Be Kind to Yourself

Amanda Blaikie: On believing in yourself, letting go of attachments to winning, and giving yourself permission to take a break

From reading the newspaper, to napping, to journaling, to meditation apps, to eating lots and lots and lots of beets, many NBA players have pretty well-established game day routines.

The question, of course, is which of these strategies represent genuinely important and useful performance-enhancing principles that we can all benefit from? And which are just those quirky, personal idiosyncrasies that might absolutely be helpful to some, but aren’t things that we all necessarily need to copy?

A few days ago, we began a 3-part mini-series on exploring the various ways in which three different musicians from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra approach audition day and the week leading up to auditions. Like the NBA players in this article, the sample of musicians we spoke to described some strategies that were shared – but also, some that weren’t.

If you haven’t yet listened to Caroline Coade’s episode, you can do that right here. But today, guest co-host Rob Knopper (percussion, Met Opera) and I will be chatting with flutist Amanda Blaikie, who has been a member of the DSO since 2016, and is also on the faculty at Oakland University.

In this episode, we’ll explore:

-How Amanda’s backstage process, and how she spends her time at the hall (slow practice, score study, watching The Office), varies depending on the audition (i.e. the warmup arrangements, the time of day, etc.).
-Achieving the ideal balance of knowing she was good enough to win – but also releasing attachments to winning the audition.
-How there are also benefits of being really attached to outcomes – but the timing of knowing when to let go is super critical.
-How she stays in a good headspace if she hears other flutists around her sounding great in their warmups.
-Amanda’s day-of routine – from how much sleep and warming up she’ll do before going to the hall, to what she eats (and the specific relationship she’s identified between food and her experience of nerves).
-How she works mocks and run-throughs into her routine, and how she deals with the problem of caring too much about the feedback she gets from teachers and respected colleagues.
-Cue words, and the practice strategy that helps her stop thinking too analytically and enjoy the music again.
-But what if a technical issue pops up in the last week? Rob asks how she would address this.
-Emphasizing positivity in the last week, how she gave herself permission to be good to herself as she gets nearer an audition, and what she’s learned about over-practicing and physical tension in the last week before auditions.
-I ask about perfection in auditions, and whether auditions really need to be perfect, or if that’s simply not realistic. Amanda talks about the importance of being flexible and making instant adjustments (as Caroline did in Episode 1!), as well as being patient with herself in the moment.

Caroline Coade: On Being Flexible and “Practicing to Bulletproof”

With the exception of baseball caps and Snuggies, there are few things in life that are truly one-size-fits-all. Whether it’s training for a 5k or preparing for an audition, everyone begins in a slightly different place, with a diverse range of needs and priorities and strengths and weaknesses, so I don’t know that there’s a single approach that works equally well for everyone.

That said, while some of the details may look different from person to person, I do think there are probably some general principles or best practices that are shared in common by the various approaches musicians have used to prepare successfully big auditions or performances.

So what are these, exactly?

Well, I was curious about that too. And so a few months ago, percussionist Rob Knopper and I had a chance to sit down and chat with three musicians from the Detroit Symphony. We were curious to see how similar or different their answers would be to the same three questions about audition preparation.

Specifically, 

1. On the day of an audition, what do you do backstage to keep yourself in an optimal physical, mental, and emotional state?

2. From the time you wake up, to the moment you play, what does an ideal audition day routine look like for you?

3. What does your practice and preparation process look like in the final week leading up to audition day?

As expected, there was some overlap between their answers, but also some interesting differences, suggesting that there are indeed some universal principles in preparing optimally for performance, but also some personal idiosyncrasies that may be important to allow for as you figure out what works best for you.

Over the course of the next week, you’ll hear from flutist Amanda Blaikie (Wednesday, April 22nd), and oboist Sarah Lewis (Sunday, April 26th), but first up is third-chair violist Caroline Coade, who has been a member of the orchestra since 1996, and also serves as a member of the string faculty at the University of Michigan.

In this episode, we’ll explore:

-How being “physically exhausted” prior to performances actually works best for her.
-What kind of playing she does on audition day, and why she keeps her playing in the softer dynamic range in warmups.
-How she uses adjectives, and reminds herself of the contrast between excerpts
-The importance of asking yourself the question “Why is the committee asking for this excerpt?”
-The committee is looking for someone who can “Think on their feet” and demonstrate their ability to make “micro-adjustments” in the moment
-The “expect the unexpected” mindset, and the misconception of auditions needing to be perfect
-A few “competence indicators” or signs that the musician in front of the screen has either a “student” mindset or an “artist” mindset
-The four things committees will ask you to do
-What it means to practice “to bulletproof”
-Sticking with her regular daily routine on audition day, and what that looks like, from coffee yes/no, what to eat, social media, etc.
-How practice looks in the final leadup to the audition, with mocks, practicing everything “upside down and backwards,” how to make sure you’re “in the ballpark,” her three tempi strategy, and my favorite – her awesome 90-second recording rule.

A Mental Time Travel Technique That Could Reduce Anxiety and Enhance Performance

A Mental Time Travel Technique That Could Reduce Anxiety and Enhance Performance

Every kid has probably had that moment on the playground, where they imagine hitting a home run to win the World Series, making a shot at the buzzer to win the NBA Finals, or throwing the game-winning touchdown in overtime to win the Super Bowl.

These types of fantasies seem to be a pretty natural part of being a kid, but you’ve probably heard many athletes, coaches, and sport psychologists swear by this sort of thing too. 

Of course, the typical advice is to spend time imagining our best selves in the future.

But some have also suggested that we spend time visualizing our previous best selves in the past. Like a great lesson. Or a flawless audition round. Or the moment in your senior recital when you were totally in the zone.

And sure, that sounds like a reasonable thing to do. But is there any actual evidence that this has a positive effect on performance?

Molly Gebrian: On Efficient, Reliable, and Evidence-Based Memorization Strategies for Musicians

Molly Gebrian: On Efficient, Effective, and Reliable Memorization Strategies for Musicians

I have to confess that I don’t remember a whole lot from my freshman year Music History 101 class (in my defense, it’s been a few years). But there is one thing that stuck. Why this thing in particular? Who knows, but the one thing I do remember, is that Franz Liszt invented the piano recital. And that he was the first pianist to perform a full concert from memory.

Meaning, this playing from memory tradition that we’ve become accustomed to and assume is normal, was not always a thing.

So if playing from memory makes you break out in a cold sweat, now you know who to blame. =)

Of course, shaking your fist at the portrait of Liszt on your practice room wall isn’t going to change much. But lucky for us, there is quite a bit of research out there on learning and memory nowadays. And the evidence suggests that memorization is a skill. As in, something we can get better and more efficient at – with a little bit of know-how, and some practice.
Molly Gebrian is a viola professor at the University of Arizona. So she has had to play from memory on many an occasion, of course, but is also uniquely qualified to talk about the science of memory, as she was a neuroscience major in college and remains an enthusiast of all things brain-related.

In this episode, we’ll explore:

-The three stages of memory, and why we need to emphasize each one, for successful memorization and recall
-Strategies for effective memory encoding
-Strategies for effective memory consolidation
-Strategies for effective memory retrieval
-The one “magic bullet” for practicing (if there was such a thing)
-The biggest mistake people make when it comes to memorization
-How much retrieval practice we need to do to make sure our memory is secure under pressure
-Two ways to protect against choking
-Molly explains the science behind my mom’s genius strategy for helping me memorize as a kid
-The three “streams” we need to have going simultaneously when performing from memory
-Why it’s a good idea to pay attention in theory class (for memorization)
-When is the best time to begin memorizing a piece
-Whether slow practice helps memory or not
-And a whole lot more!