A couple months ago, I was asked to do a class for a group of conservatory students. And so the faculty organizers and I thought it might be interesting to do a quick survey in advance to see what questions the students might want to explore1.

Not surprisingly, the number one question that got the most votes was “What are some ways I can keep myself motivated to practice and improve in the current climate?”

I thought about this a bit, but never felt like I came up with a great answer to this question.

So it made me wonder how other folks might respond to this question. In particular, musicians who were active both as performers and teachers, until 2020 happened, and the normal routines and rituals of our lives were disrupted in so many ways.

This seemed like a perfect opportunity to reach out to someone I’ve been wanting to talk to for some time. A musician who has always struck me as being very thoughtful – not just about music, but of the mental aspect of a musician’s life in the practice room, in performance, and off-stage, as well.

Meet Astrid Schween

Cellist Astrid Schween has had a wide-ranging career as soloist, chamber musician, and teacher. Currently a member of the Juilliard String Quartet, she also spent many years with the Lark Quartet, and has performed as soloist and recitalist at major venues around the world since making her concerto debut with the New York Philharmonic at age 16. Astrid also maintains an active teaching schedule, not just with her students and chamber music groups at Juilliard, but through master classes as well.

In this episode, we’ll explore:

  • How Astrid relies on a routine in the morning, to get herself moving and increase the likelihood of a productive day (2:27)
  • An essential ingredient in her cello warmup, that enables her to save time and start her first notes of the day at a higher level (5:33)
  • A few insights into Astrid’s backstage routine and rituals (8:11)
  • Curiosity, and how sometimes, the beliefs or approaches that got us to where we are now, may not get us to where we want to go next (9:35)
  • How being in a quartet changed the way she plays as a soloist (14:02)
  • And the mindset that enables her to be open to colleagues’ ideas in rehearsal – even if it’s not one that she’s necessarily enthusiastic about at first (17:13)
  • Astrid shares a few thoughts on rehearsal management – as in, how do we figure out what we should be doing or focusing on in chamber music rehearsals? (23:21)
  • How important is it to feel some connection to the music? And what can we do if we don’t? (39:46)
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Astrid: Yeah, well, it’s been, it has been a year, hasn’t it just about? And, um, it’s, it’s a great question though. And it has come up with my students, and my colleagues and myself, like, what do we do? I think taking care of ourselves during this time is tremendously important. And in order to stay curious and hungry intellectually and musically, I think feeding the whole person is necessary. So that might mean while you want to stay motivated to practice and improve. You also need to just stay motivated period. There has to be that energy to move forward and try something and the shock of, of the lockdown and having to quarantine and maybe, you know, a lot of people experiencing loss, actual loss and illness and their families that, that puts a whole different light on this. And so, I think it’s, it’s okay to allow yourself to be impacted by the situation and to say, wow, okay, this is something I’ve never experienced before and being productive every second of every day is not necessarily the appropriate response. It might just be like, I just need to live with this for a bit, take care of myself, stay warm, stay healthy, and take it a day at a time and work myself, make work my way into some kind of, I think a routine is helpful, Noa.

Astrid: I think I’m somebody who benefits from routine. So, you know, I have sort of, it’s not like I’m an automaton by any means, but I have certain, certain activities that I know, okay, I do this. Okay, I’ll do that. And before I know it, I’m sort of up and moving and getting going, and I think what I’m trying to do is, is kind of raise the temperature gently on my own particular, startup engine. And then I think once my curiosity starts to kick in, that’s, that’s really the energy that fuels so much. That and the need to really take care of things.

Noa: I think sometimes when we put together a routine it’s routine that, feels like if I don’t do this routine, I’m not being productive or I’m not… How do you not make this routine yet another thing in your to-do list that makes you feel like you’ve failed even before you’ve gotten started with everything on your day?

Astrid: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I can go down that rabbit hole with the best of them, like, Oh, I got to do this and I’m late, and I should have, I would’ve, could’ve, should’ve, you know, and I just have to, I know that I’m not at my best in a panicky state and that shame, blame stuff is useful. In some ways it keeps us in touch with the work we have to do, but I have a feeling most of us use it in portions that are way too generous. We, we really do, need to, for example, I have a basic approach to warming up on the cello. You know, it’s not the same exact thing every day. It’s I still have to check all the things that make me comfortable as a player.

Astrid: And so I want my warmup to cover those things, but I don’t go to the cello, like, okay, I’ve got to do this, this, this, this, otherwise I’m a failure. I know better. And I know that each day is different and I’m in a different stage day. Sometimes the cello is in a different state each day. I think with time you come to realize how you best respond to responsibilities and the need to take action. And we all kind of develop again, I hate to use the word routine too often, but we develop ways or behaviors that we know are likely to be more effective. And I screw up sometimes and get myself into trouble. And then I’m like, Oh, I forgot. I forgot. I learned that lesson already. That’s all part of it. It’s an ongoing process. I have to say, it’s not like I’ve mastered it, but I am more often than not able to cultivate a plan for the day, that makes some sense.

Noa: I don’t know if there are any like trade secrets in your cello warmup, but can I ask what that looks like to some degree? Cause it sounds like you are aiming to achieve some fundamental needs that you have to be comfortable playing the instrument. Which might, like you said, change from day to day might require different ways of getting there depending on whether you just had a huge series of concerts or whether you’ve been off of the cello for a little while, but I’m curious what some of those specific objectives you have for your warmup to make sure you’re ready to play and learn.

Astrid: Sure. Well, one thing I’ve learned over the years is being warm actually physically warm is important before I start playing. And so there are, there are things I do just in terms of, I’m not a stretcher, I’m not somebody who actually stretches muscles right off the bat, but I, I do a little gentle aerobic work before I go to the cello, just gentle. I might do some, some simple resistance training to kind of prime my muscles and get me feeling just a little bit more in touch physically so that I don’t go to the cello, like whatever comes out. I feel a little bit like I’m preparing for the instrument. And then I’ve noticed that saves me lots of time. And that my first notes on the instrument are immediately things that are of higher quality and are easier for me to generate and then my goal is to resonate the cello, figure out where it is, where I am and just kind of get into the sound world.

Astrid: Playing for me is so much about what kind of sound I’m making. And once I get the sound going, maintaining its resonance, right? So that’s kind of how I approach the warmup. And then sure there are things about like sounding beautiful and all the registers, feeling comfortable in all registers, having a good sort of postural balance so that everything feels easy. It’s nice when, when you have that flow in your playing and in your physicality and the instrument responds. Sometimes it takes longer to get there, and it can be a lot more challenging.

Astrid: So this is, this is kind of a way to, to tweak that whole approach to the morning warmup. And I’ve also recognized that that for me, getting out every day is tremendously important. And so that’s been a big part of the daily getting in a walk before it gets dark, if possible. And if not possible, then what’s my backup plan. So I, I find that’s a very important counterbalance to the intensity of the cello and having to sound good and constantly, you know, keep making progress throughout life so that it’s not like a leveling off, this is how I play, but this is how I play. And I’m playing more and more like this, which gets me excited.

Noa: Something you said about staying warm, made me think of backstage because I think it’s, it’s particularly unpleasant to feel like you’re cold, not just physically, but even in terms of being connected with your instrument backstage, are there things that you’ve learned to do for yourself backstage that help you stay warmer and more comfortable in the way that you described for practicing?

Astrid: Yeah. That’s a great question. Backstage is a very, very special state. Isn’t it? You know, for a lot of us, we grow up, um, with the expectations of what’s supposed to happen with a concert and, and all that gets mixed into what backstage is I find it’s also a part of the temperature for me backstage is just kind of clearing my own cobwebs. So yeah, having kind of a pre concert routine, there it is, there’s that word again, has been helpful. And that includes actually in my case, bringing something warm I have had a sweater with me. I might bring gloves. I often will have a little thermos of something warm to eat or drink. I know I need protein to perform if I, if I don’t, it’s very uncomfortable.

Astrid: And what else? Yeah, just having enough time backstage to transform myself from feeling not ready to play to. Okay. I’m ready to go. That that takes more time than I used to allow for, you know, it’s part of a quartet. It’s becomes a group decision. What time do you guys want to meet? What time do you want to walk over to the hall and on occasion I’ll, I’ll go ahead a little bit earlier, just so I can, you know, putz around and get my stuff in order so that when we do sit down to, to warm up there’s, there’s something, there’s blood flowing and I’m more comfortable with the environment

Noa: You used the word curiosity a couple of times already in like the 15 minutes we’ve been talking. Yeah, and I don’t know if that’s a theme for you, but it would be pretty awesome if it were. Earlier, you said, you know, stay curious and hungry, you know, cultivating the whole person. And then I forget the other context of which curiosity came up. Oh, you know, just talking about playing some Bach and listening to recordings and cultivating curiosity. In that sense, I had, an advisor, or supervisor and my internship year for whom curiosity was a big thing. He just, essentially his philosophy was to approach life with curiosity and approach problems with curiosity and everything with curiosity. But yeah, I think it is a much more effective and creative and, and useful way maybe to approach a lot of our day to day experiences. And I just, I don’t have a specific question I guess, but, or maybe it is… Well, I was going to say, I’m curious, but I’m wondering how it is that you cultivate curiosity, whether it’s something you actively seek out or if there are ways of cultivating it, that you’ve found over the years.

Astrid: Yeah. Boy, it’s a good question. It’s talking about curiosity. I think I, I don’t know if I stumbled upon it as much as maybe I met people along the way who served as models for me, I think that’s more likely the case, friends, teachers, mentors, other musicians, traveling, competing, people who seem to not lose their way as they were facing potentially stressful situations. And I think that was very much, it made a big impact on me. I think I found relief in approaching what I do as a cellist, as a teacher, as a traveler with, from the point of view of being curious about things, because I, I probably grew up with a little bit more of that sort of driven. You’ve got to succeed there. There’s just sort of a lot of expectation and that’s great. It pushed me and it was necessary in many ways, but you know, there are always takeaways after a person comes through a process, there are these takeaways that you’re left with.

Astrid: And then I think having, even being able to look at those and say, huh, this served me when I was younger. This got me to this point. Now I’m here. Maybe these attitudes or these beliefs or these approaches are no longer, so helpful. Let me see if I can create new ones for myself. This is obviously not working. So it gives me a feeling of dread or, you know, um, stress again, there’s stress, how can I reconfigure or redefine some of these things, then be more useful to me now at this stage. And I, yeah, I think I met people who were able just through their example and the way they talked with me, I was able to start sort of becoming more open-minded like, Oh, okay. Be curious, could be a good thing. And it could lead to kind of a lifelong learning approach, which I think also feels very positive and very helpful.

Noa: Is there a particular mentor or model or example that comes to mind that you still remember not to put you on the spot? I’d love to hear it. I mentioned the way they play and I just love stories of these sorts of things. Does anything come to mind that you could recall?

Astrid: Um, yeah, let’s see. I, well, I read, I read those “The Way They Play” books and loved them and was always also just like you really struck by how thoughtful people were in what they were doing. I spent some summers at Marlboro and I remember working with some really great artists and noticing that they had sort of an even keel and a way of kind of learning new repertoire, managing rehearsal, rehearsal management. It’s like a huge thing unto itself. And I remember watching this and thinking, Oh wow, I have, I have so much to learn. I felt sort of adrift in, in much of it at the time, but I kind of put like a little bookmark, like dear self, returned to this later and figure this out. And then I think honestly, no joining a string quartet was not something I had initially kind of envisioned for myself as a young cellist.

Astrid: But when the opportunity came to join the Lark quartet, I was 24 at the time. And I didn’t know what, what a rich experience I was about to step into and how other colleagues being in the midst of other people could provide for me, not just the camaraderie and means to performing, but also incredible feedback, ideas, creativity, imagination, and the expectation that I should also be able to produce similarly. And I think that actually hasn’t had a lot to do with the way I look at all of this. I know it’s, it’s changed the way I play as a soloist. It’s changed the way I teach, having these, these very deep collaborative working relationships really does necessitate, you know, this kind of approach. And, uh, I’m fortunate that that goes on today in my, in my current group.

Noa: Can you say more about how it’s changed your approach to playing and teaching?

Astrid: Yeah, so I mean, in, I think my formative years, playing solo repertoire for example, was very much about cello chops, playing well, playing accurately, playing with conviction, playing in a way that was commensurate again with the expectations that were, were like, you know, they were so real to me, they were almost physical, architectural forms. And, and then I think in working with other people, I was forced to question these, I don’t know, tenents or beliefs and look at them like really? Do I have to sound like that? Is that a good sound? Are there many good sounds? Is that the proper spiccato Oh, there are eight hundred spiccatos. Oh my God. I only know one. And I, I found that it was just like an endless series of doorways that I was walking through. And, you know, I’m not saying that my colleagues sat there and were like, Oh, let’s, let’s ask her this.

Astrid: I think it was just very organic that as we delved into the repertoire and we worked with thoughtful coaches, teachers who guided us, and we also went on to sort of an international stage together and had to represent our work in that kind of way. It really caused me to grow in ways that I never could have predicted. And so now when I go back to this old repertoire and I play the Dvorak Concerto or play the Elgar Concerto. It’s just like, Oh my gosh, there’s just so it’s so much richer for me. I’m hoping it’s, it’s a richer collaboration that I’m able to offer because I’m more invested in the overall piece and the energy of the piece. And I’ve also listened to myself with the ears that my colleagues have, have, let me borrow over the years. You know, I’ve tried to imagine, what does this sound like? What might the sound like? And that’s, that’s a kind of curiosity that I think I’m talking about and that I’m extremely grateful for.

Noa: My experience with chamber music ended, I think when I left college, so it wasn’t incredibly extensive, but one of the things that I do remember in that context is having to entertain lots of ideas that I may or may not have initially agreed with or understood or appreciated, and then often, I wouldn’t say being wrong. But, but discovering that my ideas didn’t necessarily sound as good as I initially might’ve thought that they did. I mean, is that kind of what you’re speaking to in terms of having what sounds like an expanded concept of what excellence or what the Dvorak could sound like or should sound like?

Astrid: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, how did you just put that? You said you had, there was, there’s a way that you described that I wanted to, well, yeah, it’s sort of an expanded view of possibilities and when, you know, when you’re in school, I have to say my school, chamber music, I, it was very up and down. I had some really wonderful experiences and then I had some that I just didn’t know what to make of, and even in my early years with the Lark, you know, it was, it was, there’s so much to just the social act of being with people and working that, that I found challenging. Um, how do you do this? Well, how do you try ideas that you may not agree with? How do you find the capacity to take a breath and say, I have to try this idea because it’s meaningful to someone and, and therefore it’s part of this organism that we are trying to create together.

Astrid: So, and over time, that’s become a much easier thing. It’s like, Oh, really? You want to try that? Okay, let’s try it. And then it’s like, Oh God, that’s a great idea. I never would’ve thought of that. You know? Great. Okay. And so learning how not to be completely identified with your ideas, one’s own ideas, you know, to have them to enjoy them, to put them out there, but then not to feel territorial, like what happened to my idea, you know, why you’re taking her, these are, these are like very primitive responses that I think are alive and well in all of us. And there’s this, there is this process of taming those impulses and, and trying to get to it’s like the higher plane where, you know, and I make it sound like it’s, it’s rosy. It’s not it’s there it is there.

Astrid: It’s just harder to do that. But I think now I even, even, you know, it’s an interesting thing now, instead of having necessarily the wherewithal or the desire to say, Oh, yes, let me try your idea. That’s completely opposite from my idea. It might be more like, um, a behavior that I’ve learned. Like, I know that I need to make space for this. And there’s nothing that I can say, there’s no way I can not do this and have the group functioning at it’s at a hundred percent. So knowing that it’s almost like, yeah, okay. So what’s your idea. And then through the action comes new belief and new understanding and new possibilities.

Noa: You don’t have to answer this, of course, but I mean, I think we would all like to think that, you know, these amazing quartets that we look at are comprised of these completely evolved human beings who were able to detach, I think might be the word that you used from their ideas and not be territorial. I love that, that way of putting it. Is that not the reality? I mean, is it, is it easier at some point to try these other things, maybe you’ve been speaking to it already, but I was listening to a podcast about Penn and Teller, you know, those two magicians and how there’s this one thing that this one trick that Teller worked on for years and was completely invested in and just loved this thing that he had created and Penn hated it just never, never got it. It’s like, that’s, that’s, that’s dumb, you know, and eventually allowed him to do the, do the thing and it’s part of their routine, but still doesn’t really care for it. It doesn’t really understand it. So that’s kind of what popped into my head. And I just wondered if, um, yeah, I mean, do you sometimes for the sake of the group embrace ideas that you’re not quite sure that you love as much.

Astrid: Yeah, sure. And, and in that process, I have to say more often than not, when I do that, my idea, even if I still have a little bit of a preference for my idea, it changes shape too. It’s more informed. It’s, you know, because I mean, let’s face it. We, the four of us play together because we recognize some kind of similarities in approach and, and welcome those. So I’ve also learned to just be a little bit like this person is making this suggestion for a reason, and maybe I’m not hearing the whole thing. And so I just allow for that, the fact that my, my perspective might need a little tuning up. And then I do notice that over time, whatever I was so absolutely sure of has, has morphed in some way. Um, and maybe the other person’s has too. And, and we’ve come up with something that is more representative of, of all of us, but it is, it is hard.

Astrid: And there are times when it’s harder, you know, like you’re on stage warming up and you have 20 minutes to feel the hall. I find that’s a very, for me personally, it’s a very tricky time because I’m, I’m, you know, all about, how’s the cello responding in this space. I want to feel comfortable. Like, I know what’s going to come back at me. How much do I give? And if, if somebody gets a little talky at that moment, like, like let’s reassess the way we play variation three, I’m like, no, I gotta hear this. I gotta feel the resonance. So we, we do have those things. And, and just knowing that we, we do try to make space for each other.

Noa: This might be related to, uh, you talked about how rehearsal management is a huge thing. And yeah, like when I was in college, we just had a set amount of time in a specific room, and you just, just kind of played for that amount of time, hoping things would get better. You weren’t especially sophisticated about planning out our time. Um, just wanted to survive the next coaching. So I don’t even know what question to ask, but I wonder if you could say a little bit more about some of the takeaways that you’ve developed over the years of being in different quartets and certainly reflecting back on when you were in school and maybe not thinking about rehearsal management either. It’s like what you wish you would’ve known back then to kind of take baby steps towards really making the most of that time.

Astrid: Oh yeah. No, totally. I, that’s such a great point that I’m laughing because I, I was, you know, one of those people to go in the room, okay, this is our hour, you know, Tuesday’s rehearsal or whatever two hours. And it was so hard to, I, for me personally, it was very hard to quantify elements of music. I felt very wrapped up. I felt my whole soul was in the music and I was completely moved by it. And all the voices were running through my head. And if you’d asked me to write them all down, I could have done that. It was sort of a complete sort of immersion in that way, but I couldn’t make sense of all that information. And I also, I often felt very distracted and then I knew that there were, we had limited time. I was supposed to play this piece better.

Astrid: I didn’t really understand the construction of the piece. I didn’t know so much how to prioritize the elements that needed to be addressed or how to talk about them. And I have to say it took me an awfully long time to learn, to give voice to these things. And I think it might be why in my teaching this, an area that we spend a lot of time on, and now that we’re over Zoom, you know, I’m having my students talk. I mean, they’re playing a lot, but they’re also, I’m trying to give them a way in to understanding what it is we’re working on. And it seems important to me that they are able to take a look at a piece at a timeframe. I have to prepare this for my audition in two weeks. This is what still needs to happen. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.

Astrid: And they can create for themselves some kind of meaningful set of goals. And I think that’s, that’s come out of my, my own sort of fighting through the chaos to make a little bit of, organization in my thinking. So, you know, last year when we went all of us, we went online. I was still coaching chamber music. And I was like, Oh my gosh, what is this going to be like? You know, people are scattered all over the world. We had members in different continents and yet we had this weekly meeting for coaching. And so I actually used the opportunity to work with my groups on score reading. I said, you know, it’s going to be, we can’t play synchronously. You can play, you know, we can go person to person and then try things. But I think this is an opportunity to design what we’ve never been able to do.

Astrid: All of us get cozy and sit around the score and understand it. And it was, it was fantastic, Noa. It was really like something I’ve always wanted to do. And I think the kids were, I keep calling them kids, the students, the students were also, you know, at whatever levels they were really excited to say, Oh, I think that might be something, an area where I can spend more time developing my skills. And so we actually came up with some really neat ways to think about interpretation, which led to how do you rehearse, right. If you’re, if you understand the piece better, the way it’s put together, then you can understand what you might do with it to help bring out the elements of the piece. And then in, so identifying those things, you decide, we need to work on these elements. And one thing leads to another. And then I think you end up with a more independent student or a group that’s more capable of working on its own and more efficiently.

Noa: So it sounds like some of that is just a natural function of becoming a better musician and a more, having a more sophisticated understanding of what you’re looking for when you’re looking at a score, which then dictates what are the problems that we need to address and solve. And, then what are our goals even I think for the piece. Cause yeah, I think back in the day I was like, if it’s in tune and it’s together and it sounds good and it follows the directions, generally speaking of the score, I don’t know what else to yeah.

Astrid: We’re good to go.

Noa: It kind of reminds me of, I think this was the summer after either my freshman or sophomore year of college. I was in a trio we went to this. I think of it as a chamber music bootcamp in Israel. And, um, Henry Meyer was one of the coaches there,

Astrid: I knew Henry…

Noa: a violinist, and you know, he, he was working with a quartet and they showed him this piece.I think it was maybe a contemporary piece of some kind, huh, I’ve never played this. They just gave him…he said “Can I have a score?”. And they fortunately had a score and they gave it to him. It’s like looking through it and they’re playing and he just starts pinpointing these things and saying, have you thought about this? Well, what do you, what if you try it this way and you know, left and right. And then I just remember all of us, you know, who are watching, but also of course the quartet that he’s working with it’s like, you know, how do you do this? I mean, we were all in college. We thought we were somewhat sophisticated musicians. We just, I mean, that just made us realize, man, we know nothing. Like how does this person who has never played this, never, maybe even seen it, just able to notice these things. And on one hand it was inspired, but also we all kind of discouraged and bummed out about ourselves. But I was wondering if you could describe a little bit more like what, like when you’re, and I’m sure it’s different for a new piece versus an old familiar piece, but what are some of the things that you look for, um, when you’re looking at a score like you’re searching for or trying to notice?

Noa: Yeah, no, it’s such, that’s, that’s exactly how I, I began this process for myself. I mean, you know, many, many, many years ago, what is it? I would say that, you know, a piece of music is it’s not unlike, uh, a creature or, or person, you know, there are certain things we all have skeletons. And, um, there are certain ways in which the piece is constructed. There’s certain expectations we even might have. Of course there’s highly experimental music and there’s music that wants to break all sorts of traditions, but still it is. If you take the approach that nothing that’s written on the page is accidental or frivolous, then you start to say, wow, I need to pay a lot of attention. What is this? Where does this come from? And so I found, you know, Beethoven is kind of the perfect person to start with because he, he was the, I think the, the supreme composer of here’s a thought, here’s an idea, you know, and then, Oh, I’m going to do this to the idea.

Astrid: And now we just going to be over here and it has a partner and, Oh, it’s morphed, and now it’s doing this. And so just sort of tracing the evolution of the idea and to all of its different guises throughout the piece became kind of a really neat way to creep into the anatomy of a work of music. And then just, I have to say that, you know, in, in my day at Juilliard, I had some wonderful theory teachers, but in spite of their best efforts, I still kind of kept theory and analysis in this like academic corner, like, well, my playing is over here and that’s other stuff I need to know, but I, I was never at the time successful putting those two things to work together. And now it was kind of like, Oh, I’m understanding the structure of the piece might give me some ideas, you know?

Astrid: And so then I found myself pulling out old terms, exposition development, recap, or variations or whatever it is. And then just really tracing the, the journey of that initial motivic idea or thematic idea and what it encounters on the way, what context it finds itself. And so it’s kind of a linear narrative in my mind that helps me. Um, and in working with the students last semester, it seemed to make sense to them. And I had one, one trio that was really, I, you know, we had to do some kind of final project and I said, what do you guys want to do? I mean, you know, and we came up with the idea of, of mapping, mapping the energy of each movement of a Brahms trio. Where is it going? Exactly. Not, not, not roughly, but precisely. And so one person took over the rhythmic energy.

Astrid: Somebody else took over the harmonic energy. Someone else took over the melodic landscape, and they worked really diligently. They figured out their own way of notating this, their own little nomenclature for it. And then they started sending me these, you know, highly colorful graphs of what was happening with measure numbers. And by the end of this, Noa, I mean, we all knew the piece so much better. They knew what their agenda as performers would be. You know when they were to meet again, you know, we’re going to work on blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And I said to them, I can’t wait until you get a chance to sit together and go, go through this because I felt like they finally, I finally sort of sort of witnessed a student ensemble, taking ownership of a score, embracing it and making it personally relevant in a way that I had never seen before. It’s not that it doesn’t happen. I’m sure it happens in people’s classes all the time, but, but this was really kind of, you know, they said, no, we, this is we’re onto something and we want to do it this way. And I was thrilled. It was really very exciting.

Noa: I love that they came up with their own system for doing it instead of trying to fit it into some kind of academic structure that they’ve learned, which eventually will, I’m sure be helpful to them, but, but for now, for them to, to kind of have to think through how they wanted to do it, I feel like that’s a pretty interesting aspect of the experience as well.

Astrid: Absolutely completely. And they did reference certain basic things. They broke things into the big structures and they were every now and then a dominant chord, or you know, some, some visiting strange harmony from another planet would show up and they would identify it, but then it intrigued them. It had meaning for them. It wasn’t just an academic exercise.

Noa: You described Beethoven, how for you, one of the things you’re looking for is to identify the, the idea and then how it’s developed and expanded and modified and interacts with other things over time. And then you also mentioned contemporary composers where some of it’s intentionally breaking the rules and so forth it’s to some degree, whether it’s Mozart or Schubert or Beethoven or whatever it may be like, are the things that you’re looking for different and informed by what you understand about the composer and what their intentions might’ve been?

Astrid: Yes. I think, um, you know, we all come from a tradition. So these composers that we’re encountering for the first time, maybe also come from, from there, there things that informed their process and how they write. And so often, you know, you’ll sort of, I find myself looking for the usual things like Henry did when he saw the score for the first time, you know, markers, clues, repetitions, reiterations ways in which small things are becoming developed. And I think that’s, that’s kind of a hallmark. I learned that from Leonard Bernstein, uh, years ago, not personally, but through his writings and certainly his, his, uh, video work that one of the hallmarks of classical music is it, it has to develop, you know, an idea has to sort of come to a conclusion at the end of the work or the end of the movement, and it’s been transformed in some way.

Astrid: So I tend to take that approach to any new piece. And if I see that that’s not what’s at work, then I have to say, Oh, there’s another system at work here. Okay. And there again is your curiosity, right? Blow that old model out and say, okay, what am I not seeing? And maybe certain things are just hard to look at and understand, and then you play them. You start to get a feel, you notice that there’s an atmosphere that’s created, or the rhythm has a certain feel. Those things are very important. I think our instinctive reaction to music is tremendously important. And the danger and all this about I’m talking about today is that it might sound like, Oh, you have to study. But, but it’s the idea is to have something that breathes and feels alive and it moves you and compels you to want to know more. So I think that a good piece of music, if I can be so bold as to say that at, or an effective piece of music will pull the interpreter and listener in, in, in ways that really cement that dedication. Like I better figure this out because this is, this is worth figuring out and bringing to the world of sound.

Noa: A lot of what you’re describing reminds me of something that I read in, uh, Daniel Levitin, his book, “This is Your Brain on Music.” There is, there was one part that stood out to me. I’m probably gonna mess up how exactly he put it. But basically he said, you know, when your brain hears music, it’s really just trying to figure out what’s going to happen next. Right. Sort of like schema theory. It’s trying to figure out…like, when you go to a restaurant, you kind of know what to expect. And some of the details might be different, but fundamentally you, you don’t expect to pay first and then have the people choose what you are going to eat on your behalf. Like there are certain expectations and in terms of looking at the score and looking for patterns and when things come back and how they’re slightly modified and so forth, it sounds a little bit like it fits in with maybe how it seems our brain works and what it enjoys when it’s hearing. Yeah.

Astrid: Yeah. I think that’s wonderful. I haven’t read Levitin’s book, but I know I might even have it. I purchased it, but it’s, it’s waiting for me. Um, yeah, I think, you know, that’s something, I imagine all performers at some point come to terms with, or, or, or develop, and that’s a way to process new music. I don’t mean contemporary music, but music that that’s unfamiliar, how am I going to embrace it? How am I going to digest it? How am I going to make a plan to learn it? And how am I going to take it on as my next performance mission? Boy, that’s a whole other chat.

Noa: I don’t know if this is a direct link to that, but you were starting to say a moment ago how the conversation we’re having could in some ways start becoming a little bit too academic or theoretical. And, and I think when we’re younger, oftentimes, especially before we’ve encountered that there is such a thing as music theory, a lot of what guides us is, is more instinctive, you know, based on recordings we’ve heard or just concepts that are kind of internalized about what music we like and so forth. And I think, I don’t know if this is true, but in my head, at least I think there were times where it seemed like, like you’re describing difficulty, applying music theory to actual practice and performance and playing, and, and maybe it’s seeming like there’s a sort of disconnect or binary nature of this is instinct and that’s good. And this is music theory and that’s too stuffy and intellectual and so forth. And I imagine actually obviously that the two support each other and that they’re much more intertwined than we think when we’re little, but how do you like, yeah. Like where do you, is it a process that happens as you learn a piece? Or like how, yeah. How do those two things fit together for you when you’re, when you’re working on a piece and developing it?

Astrid: Um, well, that’s interesting. I mean, I have to say, I have to have to fess up and say that, you know, as a, as a musician, my, I really need that emotional connection to the music. And there have been times when I’ve had to play music where that didn’t hit me first and I, my reaction, Oh boy, this is going to be a tough one. Um, and I had to almost learn how to feel the music, but that’s very much not the norm. I would say 99% of the time music impacts me. And, um, I’m like, Oh wow. And I have to have that. And as I say, if it don’t have it naturally, I have to find a way to, to, to love it in order to play it. I have to appreciate it. I have to respect it. And I have to, um, feel some sense of, yeah, what is the word?

Astrid: I guess protection would be too strong, but I have to take care of the music so that it delivers its message, whatever that may be, or it’s the feel, the feel is tremendously important. And I, I, I’ve noticed, you know, in my teaching, again, that’s sort of a way I gauge my own progress. You know, I’m always gauging my students’ progress, but I also see over the years in my teaching, how I’m really reminding my students that the feel of the play, the feel of the sound, how does it make you feel when you play? This is just as important as knowing what it is they’re playing. And yeah, it’s, it’s an essential component. And I feel like everything we do musically is it’s kind of wrapped in an emotional package and that’s what makes people want to come to concerts. They, I mean, a lot of people want to come in and experience, you know, the incredible counterpoint or the motivic development.

Astrid: And, but I think, I would think by and large it’s it’s how is this experience going to impact me? What will my takeaway be? And I think that most human of connections is an emotional one. So, so for me, it’s, it really is my way into a piece. And I have to say all the times I’ve heard the Dvorak concert now in auditions. And it is very popular. So in the upcoming additions, we’re going to hear it in many dozens of times. I still am moved by the piece. And yeah, I like hearing people do things in ways that I haven’t yet heard it still intrigues me. It’s a part of the musical personality that I couldn’t manage without. And I, I think when people are acquiring the skills to become better, quote, unquote interpreters or more, um, skilled at, um, analysis, it should be the passion shouldn’t be put aside.

Noa: I don’t remember who said this, but it reminds me of, uh, something that someone once said along the lines of how the only currency that really matters in our lives is how we feel at the end of the day.

Astrid: Oh, that’s great. Yeah.

Noa: So I don’t want to take up too much more of your time, but there is one thing that I have to ask now that you kind of brought it up and that’s, that’s how to find a way to love rep that you have to play, but maybe wouldn’t have picked out yourself because, so I was studying with Ron Copes, uh, when I was doing my masters and at the end, the last piece that he said, Hey, you should try this out. Not because you’ll love it necessarily. He didn’t say this, but I think in his mind, he’s thinking not because you’ll love it, but because it would really be a good stretch for you was the Schoenberg Phantasy. And I have to say, I mean, I’m glad that the semester ended because I didn’t, I didn’t know what to do with this. I didn’t, I just couldn’t grasp it or connect to it. And if it was like the first semester and I had to continue with it, maybe I would have found a way. But, but yeah, like that was something I really struggled with. Like, I don’t know how to love something that I didn’t immediately feel connected with. I think I did myself a disservice to not learning that skill. Um, how, like, how do you, if you had a student who’s like, I just don’t get this. I don’t feel connected. Like, what would you have them do? How would you help them cultivate that connection?

Astrid: Yeah. Wow. That, that does happen. And I mean, you know, in all fairness to you, Noa, at the end of your semester, you probably had a lot of other things going on besides figuring out the depths of Schoenberg and going forward. But yeah, I, I think of Henry again, I think of how he was able to hold that score and make sense of it. And he, he was, you know, immersed in the second Viennese school. He knew that language inside and out, and that was probably very helpful in looking at a brand new score. I think it’s a matter of familiarity, you know, like whenever we’re introduced to something new, sometimes it’s even in cuisine, somebody says here, try this. And you might be like, Ugh, it’s got a weird texture. It’s got a funny smell. It’s got whatever, but then you, maybe you have it again and then maybe you have it again.

Astrid: And it’s like, Oh yeah, I know this. This is actually better than the last one I had. This is not bad. And I think that has something to do with it, how it’s introduced matters. And then, and then just kind of holding, I was going to say, holding the hand of the student literally, but you know, saying, look, there’s this repertoire, it’s, it’s very specialized. Uh, it comes from this, these are some of the materials involved. These are some of the ways these composers thought they were influenced by this. That can be really helpful. Maybe if you’d heard like really early Schoenberg and, and even early Webern. And, you know, I mean, it’s this like very warm and emotional deep romantic music, then maybe to see how that morphed, how they made that transition wouldn’t seem so bizarre. Like, Oh, all of a sudden these guys are on Mars, but you know, they, they took their time getting there and then there’s an appreciation. And through appreciation, I think this is kind of like people on the planet too. Isn’t it, we, we can be more, more tolerant to things that are unfamiliar when we have, um, a thoughtful and careful introduction.

Noa: That’s interesting. I like the food metaphor because I don’t think I ever played it in a lesson for Ron. I think it was right at the end. And I just sort of escaped at that point. Like, I’ll work on it over the summer, but yeah. I mean, two aspects of the food metaphor, maybe, I mean, one being introduced to, I guess, milder, uh, versions of the same thing or precursors of that same thing, and then kind of it evolving, but also having someone introduce it to you, maybe because I can think of a lot of food shows that I’ve seen, where if I’ve seen the food show before I’ve eaten the thing, it actually gives me a much greater appreciation. I’m much more excited to try the thing. And I’m much more appreciative of the thing that I would have been otherwise had I not seen other people talking about the aspects of it that were really intriguing to them. Yeah.

Astrid: Yeah. Well, I mean, as you’re talking, it’s so funny, I keep having these social, um, you know, sort of metaphors pop up in my head when you’re small and your parents introduce you to maybe people who don’t look like you or, you know, who come from a different place. And the approach is, is with warmth and trust and, um, comfort. Then that becomes a very natural way to approach people. And I think, you know, here, here we were talking about music, but I think it’s the same. If you see somebody else enjoying something, you can sort of think, Oh, I wouldn’t have seen that, but that’s, that’s lovely. So this is something very nice about that. Very important.

Notes

  • I mentioned the magicians Penn & Teller – here’s a great clip of Penn playing the bass (I had no idea he played the bass!) while walking the audience through how Teller does this sleight of hand maneuver. And here’s the segment of the podcast episode I alluded to, where Penn is just not a fan of Teller’s new routine that he spends years developing: The Magic Show – Act One: The Oldest Trick in the Book. (20:52)
  • I alluded to Daniel Levitin’s book This Is Your Brain on Music – here’s a 20-min video of Levitin speaking about this subject: This is Your Brain on Music
  • As well as a short video on Schema Theory as well: What is Schema Theory in Psychology? (36:55)

More Astrid

Astrid’s website has links to lots of terrific videos and audio. Not just clips of performances and recordings, but interviews where she shares more details about her experiences studying with Jacqueline du Pré and other influential teachers. As well as individual and chamber music master classes where she shares tips and strategies for handling all sorts of things – from technical issues that frustrate us in the practice room, to how to make the most of master classes, and a whole lot more.