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.
Meet Amanda Blaikie
If you missed Episode 1 with Caroline Coade (viola), you can check that out 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.) (1:32)
- Achieving the ideal balance of knowing she was good enough to win – but also releasing attachments to winning the audition. (4:52)
- How there are benefits of being really attached to outcomes – but the timing of knowing when to let go is super critical. (8:57)
- How she stays in a good headspace if she hears other flutists around her sounding great in their warmups. (10:21)
- 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) (11:34)
- How and when 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. (13:50)
- Cue words (which oboist Sarah Lewis will talk more about in Episode 3), and the practice strategy that helps her stop thinking too analytically about every little detail, and get back into that headspace where she can enjoy the music again. (14:36)
- But what if a technical issue pops up in the last week? Rob asks how she would address this. (15:25)
- 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. (16:30)
- 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. (19:06)
My kids started watching this YouTube channel called TwoSet Violin. I don’t know if you’ve seen… There was one video that was the “16 different kinds of people backstage.” Right? So there’s the person eating bananas, there’s a person last minute cramming and there’s a person just belting out there concerto. There’s the person doing yoga like so there’s different things that happen backstage before a performance or audition. I’m curious what you find most helpful to stay in a good physical place, a good mental space, a good emotional state during the wait just to be prepared for the moment.
Once I’m backstage, it kind of depends on the audition. If it’s a cattle call, I try to be in an area that is not in the room of flutes, a million flutists playing at one time. Maybe there’s like an area where I can sort of be quiet and put earplugs in. It’s kinda hard to escape, you know, like 20 flute players. But I will show up, warmed up so that I don’t have to rely on warming up or feeling good once I get there. So if it’s a cattle call, I will probably be eating a banana and studying my music. And just kind of focusing other auditions when I know I’ll probably have a warmup room. Knowing the excerpts, I often will kind of study the excerpts again in the order and I start to think strategically about, Oh, I really want to bring out my loud dynamic in this one and the soft one here or the short tonguing here or the more legato tonguing on this one.
This one should be more soloistic, especially if it’s like a principal job. But again, if I already have done that in the hotel room, which is possible, if it’s a later audition and I’m kind of in a holding pattern before I get in a private room, I’ll probably watch a video that kind of makes me laugh or do something to keep me lighthearted. But once I’m in my own private room, it’s pretty much focused breathing, centering words of encouragement to myself and even visualization. If I have like an hour, I’ll even visualize the whole thing. I mean visualize the whole audition. If I know the excerpts I’m about to play, I will probably study them, look at my cue words, and I will visualize myself playing each one on the stage. And then I’ll kind of lightly warm up, play through maybe the fast one they’ll do slightly under tempo. If there’s a lot of intervals like we have Firebird and certain ones that have like big intervals, I’ll kind of do them more slowly to just physically feel the sensation of, okay, I’m going to do that. So I kind of go through things slowly. Not that I don’t necessarily do them at tempo, but I try to keep it pretty, pretty light trusting, you know, that probably the day before I’ve already done it in tempo.
What is the video that you watch that makes you laugh or what is the show?
It’s been anything from, you know, like Netflix, you know, they have a lot of standup comedy routines on there. Sometimes I just need someone that’s just so hilarious. It just totally breaks the mesmerism of this intensity. I mean, even The Office or a show that’s just hilarious. Sometimes I’ve even watched like best of Jim Carrey clips on YouTube, you know, or outtakes of something that was always help.
One of the things that I think is a misconception is that every audition has to be perfect. Warmup has to be perfect, everything has to be perfect, audition has to be perfect. And then you win. So I’m curious, did you have moments on the day of where you’re like, Oh crap, this is going to be awful. Or like you tried to stay in a good headspace, but were there moments where you got out of the good headspace and it ended up still being fine, you’re able to recover and so forth?
So I know for my DSO audition I started in semi-finals because I had been a sub for so long and it was probably the best audition I’d had at that point in my life. Between the preparation and the mocks and working mentally, I felt like who else has done much work? I had that really ideal balance of I know I can win, I know I’m good enough but I can’t control the outcome. So I release my attachment and it took eight weeks to really release the attachment. Living here I was very attached to winning that job. So it was definitely one of the more important aspects I worked on specifically for the DSO audition to release the attachment because the first time around when there was a no hire, I felt a little bit paralyzed. The second time around I was like, well, I know I can play the flute. I need to work on whatever mental blocks seem to be there or self imposed pressure or whatever. That seems to just creep in.
I wonder if you can speak to this eight week process of releasing some of your attachment to the outcome because you’re right, it’s not directly under our control yet. Especially if you’ve gotten attached because you’ve been subbing the orchestra or you’ve been acting in a role and you love the city or you love the orchestra. You meet these colleagues that are awesome to play with and it’s really hard to not be attached to it. Can you say more about how you found a way, at least for the moment of the audition?
Yeah. Well, I actually coached with the former flutist who went into yoga and then went into coaching yoga teachers who then went into basically life coaching. And I had done yoga with her when she was still yoga teacher and she just has the best energy. And I contacted her probably 12 weeks out from the audition and I basically, she wanted to help me in any way she could to work through that. And she and I kind of knew right away it was that self imposed pressure or attachment. And I have to say it took almost the entire eight or 12 weeks or however much it was really to release it. And I worked with her and her partner, Nick, and both with videos and centering and kind of like kar,ic cleansing and kind of maybe some yoga but new agey kind of stuff. It was interesting to unearth some pressure that, like I had said, well since my grandfather never made it, I want to be the one.
And I don’t know if it was just that in general, but it was definitely something that came up and that we got rid of as in the sense of like, okay, I can let that go. And then in addition, I think really the confidence building that up was great to really know that I had prepared so thoroughly the day of. I was like, I know I’ve done everything, but then in addition to just have worked so much on I don’t need it to be happy. It doesn’t determine the happiness of my life and to kind of work through that for so many weeks, it became something I felt not just sort of said. So it was kind of a various process of phone calls or seminars and various things, but it was still hard sometimes to get to that detached point. Especially now that I have a job and I take auditions that I really want.
Sometimes I then have to realize, I realize like I didn’t work on this enough in my preparation, but I nailed everything else or I feel awesome about so many things and maybe you think you’re not attached and then all of a sudden you’re like, I’m going to be so crushed if I don’t get this. So for me it’s been a really important lesson to work on attachment. The more I want the job, the more I need to release it and let it go, but still have the competence that I can absolutely go in there and crush it win it,
It sounds like what athletes talk about with further away from the competition or from the Olympics or whatever, you can be attached to it cause that helps drive you to do everything that you possibly could do to win and put yourself in position to win. Then as you get closer and closer, you start focusing less on the outcome and more on the process of doing your best. So it sounds like what you’ve described, recording yourself and listening and getting score and studying and coming up with all these plans and stuff.
The attachment does help with the preparation cause you’re very motivated and I think it’s timing it so that you can start to like pull it back. It’s, you don’t want to wait too long. And I think at times I’ve waited too long to maybe pull that in. But it’s probably a common challenge when you really want a job or a specific job knowing people or living in the city or subbing or I mean the same thing happened when I subbed with New York. Phil and I studied with Robert Langevin and got very attached to that audition and I’ve learned that I just, it’s like a part of the preparation that counts that matters. And I, we all get so obsessed about practicing and it’s so important. But I think I have not done enough on that end of it at times. And then the times that I have, it’s worked out great like DSO where I really just nipped it in the butt and I was like, Nope, I’m going to be okay. No matter what happens, I can’t control what the committee wants. I’m just going to go in there and play the way I play and just let it go.
Now let’s listen to Amanda describe her ideal day of audition routine.
If the audition is midday or afternoon, I will let myself sleep as much as I need to. I love sleep. So I would say ideally I’ve also done at least 30 minutes of yoga or breathing or some type of stretching, loosen everything up. But especially as a wind player, the breathing is really important, but even just with the arms, you know, and everything just really loosening everything. I tried to get a decent breakfast. I usually try to get something with eggs in it for the protein and then I try to always have a banana for when I get to the audition and probably have lots of snacks. But if I need to get a second meal I will. So I usually air on the side of eating more than I think I need to because I tend to, if I get nervous and I’m hungry, then I tend to get a little bit more nervous even or possibly shaky.
I have probably also ideally warmed up at least an hour in the hotel room. And usually I’ve done long tones with the tuner technique, but not too fast. Kind of moderate, definitely some tonguing. So a warm up where I feel like I’ve played enough to where it’ll take me two minutes to feel like ready to go. You know, in the private warm up room, I usually schedule it out if I’m arriving at the hotel. The night before I kind of, or maybe even earlier, I know my my audition time or what time I’m supposed to arrive at the stage door. So then I’ll just make a little schedule for myself with room to move it around if I need to. But it kind of helps me feel like, okay, I’ve got everything in that I need to. Sometimes I even take a hot bath the night before just to like chill out. So not the day of, but part of that relaxing the night before. So I can sleep well and the muscles are looser.
And here’s what Amanda had to say to the one week countdown question
Thinking about the days leading up to audition day, once you hit the week away, mark, how does your practice start to change?
I’ve experimented with this a bit and I think I may go back to a way I used to in the sense like I used to do a ton of mocks, three weeks out and then maybe my last big one a week away. I remember Robert Langevin saying once you hit a week, start running your list entire list daily. So maybe on my own I would start running the list, but if I get too many comments or if you care too much about what your people you respect think and it’s hard for them to not say anything. I feel like I need to get myself away from that analytical brain, which we’ve talked about in boot camp and really start to enjoy the music and trust myself. So mocks absolutely. Once I hit a week, I might do my last big mock for someone I really respect.
And then from there take it all, let it just marinate and start to focus on the cue word, really focused on the cue words. And also I really like playing along with some of the recordings because that’s what makes me fall in love with it. And stop thinking so analytically, and I can’t say I’ve always done that and I should, but for the DSO audition, I remember the week out I was playing along with my headphones or the speaker and it just kind of made me like, Oh, I just love doing this, you know, and that’s the space you want to be in and you want to stop over analyzing each little nuance and technicality and you want to start to enjoy it and have fun and think musically. More from the heart.
Is it ever difficult when you’re in that last week and you’ve decided to stop thinking about technical issues, but then a technical issue pops up and you have to decide, well, am I really gonna ignore this? What do you do?
I would fix it and I would do a lot of like slow practice or rhythmic practice, especially something technical. Anything that’s really technical, I try to still do for sure every day that week leading up to it. And maybe the day of is when I wouldn’t do it quite as fast in addition to different rhythms and playing it slowly I might do different articulations. So if it’s all tongue I might slur. I might even start it in tempo. And then if I get to a challenging part, slow it down just a little bit. And that helps me to start the excerpt in tempo. And then when I get to a tricky part, I can train myself to just keep the tension out and relax the hands or keep everything almost slightly under tempo, which probably comes out to being right in tempo. I probably start to also up the self encouragement, self-talk.
Really make sure that positive self talk is constant because I know it’s easy to start to get a little bit anxious or feel almost the adrenaline start to kick in a little bit. And then just try to think of being like my own best friend. Like, what would I say to a friend who’s about to take an audition or try to be good to myself.
Take a break or go do something fun…
Massage or go buy a sweater or you know, like kind of treat yourself in some way or just go for a hike with someone or I dunno. You know what I mean? Like do something that maybe you haven’t allowed yourself to do and all that intensive training.
Can I ask how you give yourself permission to do that? Cause I know sometimes it’s hard and it feels like you should be spending all your time completely devoted to audition prep. I think of it a little bit as overtraining and sportswear. If you don’t have enough active recovery, it actually inhibits your ability to make gains. And I was wondering how you were able to give yourself permission to do those things.
I think physically I know that I will play better if I’m not playing four hours or five hours a day that week of physically I know I’ll have less tension in my hands. Of course it’s hard with the job, you have to play your job, but you also want to touch on your excerpts. So there’s like that fine line of almost listening to your body and knowing, okay, I’ve probably reached a point where I should stop so that I’m not going overboard with sports. It’s pretty common I think to start to taper in some of the technical excerpts. I’ve just found that if I over practice them, I actually they start to get a little bit worse and if I just do them to a point where I’m like, yep, I’ve got it maybe two or three times instead of 15 especially the week before, I feel like my fingers stay relaxed and I don’t build an intention. The Rome method is great for like getting it in the hands and all that, but the week before it’s there and so I think it just attend to play better if I know I’m upkeeping everything yet relaxing the intensity a little bit. Also, I don’t want to peak too soon or burnout either. So keeping it fun and just sort of like a reward system, especially if it’s been going on for six weeks or more then it’s physically probably a really good idea and mentally a really good idea to just keep yourself excited about life and being fulfilled in other ways.
The other thing that came up though it wasn’t a question per se, had to do with perfection. As in you spent so much time preparing for every possible detail and try to make everything as perfect as you can because the assumption is that to win the audition, you have to be perfect. The reality of course is that something unexpected always comes up that there’s no way you could have anticipated. So when something like that happens, does that mean that we’re just toast or is the idea that we need to be perfect a myth that only adds a ton of unhelpful pressure to an already stressful situation? Here’s what Amanda had to say.
I know that my for the second flute audition, my semifinal round was pretty much exactly how I wanted to go the finals. However, I felt it wasn’t as perfect and recovery was something I, I was probably doing pretty well at in the sense of not getting down on myself. I know we can all be part on ourselves. So that was, that was good. And then there was another super final round that day, the super final round being section playing with the other flutists. So in that case, you really can’t predict tempo, pitch. They might be flat or sharp or whatever. They probably haven’t been practicing cause they’ve been sitting out listening to audition. So you want to prove that as a second player you can adjust to anything within a split second. I think what I did well was being patient with myself despite little tiny things that maybe weren’t as super solid, like A plus like the day before or two days before and just one thing at a time.
Focusing, recentering, just trusting that the right thing would work out. Fortunately even though my final round wasn’t A plus, it was probably A or A minus, you know, it was good, but I definitely made a couple more technical mistakes. I still got to super finals and had a chance to play with the section and even then I, I remember feeling a little bit careful like I wasn’t sure how full-out to play or I just figured, all right, I prepared well I’m, you’re making adjustments on the fly. Trusting the preparation in general and then it resulted in a trial week. So that worked out well because I feel like that’s in a sense easier in that you have time to prepare casual music you’re playing in context and you can really just dig into that lush orchestra ensemble.
- The TwoSetViolin video I mentioned: 16 Types of Musicians Before a Concert (1:10)
- Amanda mentioned spending a lot of time working on getting her mind to a place where she didn’t feel that her happiness was dependent on a certain outcome (7:49). Trombonist Doug Rosenthal (Kennedy Center Opera) has written about almost the exact same thing, noting that this was a meaningful “light-bulb” moment for him as well: A Tale of Two Auditions
- Amanda alludes to “bootcamp” (14:23), which is the semi-annual audition bootcamp that Rob and I teach. You can learn more about it here (enrollment is taking place now through Sunday, April 26th for the upcoming summer session): Rob & Noa’s 2020 Summer Audition Bootcamp
- Amanda describes a variable tempo practice strategy that is described in a University of Texas study: 8 Things Top Practicers Do Differently (it’s strategy #7) (16:07)
- The ROAM method that Amanda alludes to (18:30) is Rob’s at-tempo note-learning method, which is one of the strategies we’ll cover in, yep, you guessed it, Rob & Noa’s 2020 Summer Audition Bootcamp. =)
Where to find Amanda
You can contact Amanda at her website, amandablaikie.com, where she also has some handy resources like her new play-along duet series for high-school flutists using the Rubank Advanced Method book: Virtual Rubank Duets
You can also follow her via her Instagram page: amandablaikie @Instagram
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Developing your own set of “best practices” for auditions and performances
When Rob and I recorded these interviews, it was early February. We thought that this would be a great way to get into the topic of performance practice, and audition preparation in particular, as we began enrollment for the online summer audition intensive (a.k.a. “audition bootcamp”) that we’ve taught the last few summers.
Of course, the world looks quite a bit different than it did just a couple months ago, and for some, audition prep is understandably not top-of-mind at this moment. Which is completely understandable.
Yet we also heard from some folks who are looking for community and structure and tiny goals to work towards in anticipation of having to make screening tapes, take school or graduate school auditions, enter competitions, or prepare for exams and recitals in the coming year. So if an online performance practice intensive sounds like something that would be a meaningful way to stay engaged and motivated to practice through the next few months, we certainly want to do what we can to support you in this, and would love to be a part of your summer. You can click the button below to see what we have planned and enroll if it sounds like a good fit. Enrollment is currently open, and and runs through 11:59pm on Sunday, April 26th: