Several years ago, I stumbled across a video of the violinist Pamela Frank sharing some advice she once received from the conductor Yuri Temirkanov about the opening of the Brahms Violin Concerto (click here to watch the clip ).

In what she describes as being a total light-bulb moment, he explained that “To play exciting music, you cannot be excited.”

In other words, the Brahms Concerto isn’t exciting because the performer’s heart rate is elevated. The excitement is created by something that’s written into the music, which, when executed in just the right way through a carefully choreographed series of physical movements, evokes an emotional response in the listener.

I don’t think I had ever heard anyone say this before in quite that way. So naturally, I was pretty intrigued, since for much of my life, I thought performing was all about just feeling the music, and letting the result on stage be whatever came from that.

This worked well enough when I was a kid, but I grew increasingly perplexed as I got older. Because on many occasions, I’d listen back to the recording of a performance, and hear in my playing only a tiny fraction of the emotion that I was feeling in the moment.

Plus, what was I supposed to do when I had to play a piece that didn’t evoke much of any emotional response in me? I mean, for the life of me, I never could manage to feel much of anything for the Schoenberg Phantasy , for instance (but maybe that’s just me?).

Obviously, something different has to happen in the practice room for performances to truly come alive on stage. But what is it exactly? How do you practice, so that you’re able to perform in a way that consistently creates an inspired, and emotional experience for the listener?

Meet Blaise Déjardin

Blaise Déjardin is Principal Cellist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a founding member of the Grammy-nominated ensemble A Far Cry, as well as the Boston Cello Quartet, and founder of the online sheet music company Opus Cello.

In this 40-min chat, we’ll explore:

  • How playing beautifully doesn’t necessarily require an emotional connection to the music. Sounds like heresy I know, but it all makes a lot of sense when you hear the explanation (1:04)
  • How technical problems have to be addressed consciously before they can be performed automatically (5:56)
  • How he’s very detail-oriented in the practice room – but discovered this is not a useful headspace on stage (6:57)
  • A description of the sort of thoughts that go through his mind as he practices (8:19)
  • Blaise admits to not really being that into practicing scales (WHAT?!!!!) (14:52)
  • How he started arranging music for more than one cello, and how this turned into Opus Cello. Plus, how arranging benefits his playing, and gives his career more variety – and a different kind of fun too (19:16)
  • Some of the personal philosophies and strategies (like one that will resonate with your inner 5-year old) that helped him get into a good headspace for the BSO principal audition he won (on his second try, FWIW) (22:47)
  • The profound realization that the “things that are going to win you the audition are things that are set in your playing a long time before the audition” (28:27)
  • Why it’s pretty much guaranteed that you’ll make a mistake in every audition you take (but that’s ok) – and how striving for perfect can be counterproductive (30:54)
  • Why he didn’t touch the cello or practice at all the day before the audition  (35:22)
  • And why “eat a baguette in Paris” is now on my bucket list (39:31)

(Apologies in advance for the audio quality – there’s a transcript below if it’s difficult for you to make out all the dialogue.)

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Noa: I saw something that you said in an interview recently that I found really interesting. If it’s okay to quote you back to yourself. You said something like, “Even though feeling emotions yourself can translate naturally into your playing, it’s not as reliable in my opinion, as knowing how to play beautifully in a consistent manner, no matter how you feel yourself on a particular day”. Do you remember saying something along those lines with regards to what you learned from it?

Blaise: I do, yeah, and I still believe that. Yeah.

Noa: I’d love for you to expand on this a little bit because when I was a student, I think I just assumed that feeling the music would naturally come across the right way to the listener, to the audience. But of course when I listened back to recordings of myself, I’m surprised at how often that actually wasn’t the case. So I’d love to hear you say more about the, the technical side of being more musically effective and how you might work on that.

Blaise: Well, I think it’s something I discovered when I started studying with Bernard Greenhouse. He talked about that a lot. And so, in fact it’s a lot about details, how you shift, how you shape your vibrato, what you’re doing with your bow. All these things that might happen naturally, when you’re really feeling it and it’s translating into the instrument.

Blaise: Well you don’t want to be able to do it only the day you’re feeling it, you have to be able to do it consistently. And the way these things happen physically is what you’re doing physically, it’s not really how you’re feeling.

Blaise: So I think I learned a lot of that from Bernard Greenhouse. And then I think it’s also something that applies very well to orchestra auditions, because that’s a very stressful day. And there are probably more people who play worse on audition day, than people who play better. I don’t know if anyone plays better.

Blaise: But I think if you can rely on all those technical things, then you just repeat them. And then of course you want to connect with the music and you want to be impressive with the music, but if you already know what you’re going to do physically, then you’re in a pretty safe place where nothing is going to sound really bad, or not beautiful.

Blaise: And I think that’s something I feel, when I give lessons, I often feel like the students don’t really know what they’re doing with their left hand or know what they’re doing with their bow. Whereas usually I have made my choices and I think a lot of performers do that. They make their choices in the practice room and then they just keep them consistently in performances.

Noa: I’m assuming that doesn’t just mean études and scales and that sort of thing, but it actually has more to do with how you practice the music or the excerpts themselves?

Blaise: Yeah, I mean, it’s starts with like, “What do I want to do with it? What do I want people to hear?”. Actually especially preparing auditions I would record myself lots, and sometimes record yourself and you thought you were doing something and then it doesn’t come across. So then, “What can I do? So that it comes across?”

Blaise: And so usually I feel like, phrasing. That’s something I learned from Greenhouse, that the two hands work together. So, maybe if you have a crescendo your vibrato is meant to blossom and at the same time you’re going to add some bow speed, or just pure bow.

Blaise: And so those things you can keep repeating over and over as you perform. And so I think that that’s what’s helping me be somehow consistent in my playing. It’s never going to be 100%, but I think it’s much safer than having no idea what you’re doing with it.

Noa: So I’m curious then how that translates on stage. Because it sounds like it starts with a clear idea of how exactly you want something to sound, whether it’s an excerpt or a piece. And then a lot of experimentation, a lot of recording in the practice room to make sure that it’s coming across and figuring out, “What am I actually doing physically when it sounds the way that I want?”.

Noa: What happens on stage? Are you still kind of in the same head space? Or… How do you then produce that in a pressure type situation?

Blaise: Well, I’m still trying to understand how that works, as many people are, I think. I mean I think when I’m on stage and ultimately I do want to connect with the emotions and that’s really what I’m trying to do. But I feel like, usually if I practiced well, if I prepared well, all the physical stuff is sort of automatic. It’s a second nature, so it’s going to happen.

Blaise: So for example, if I prepared Brahms B Flat Piano Concerto solo, if I prepare it well, my body distribution is going to be the same, my vibrato shaping is going to be the same, my dynamics are going to be the same. And then hopefully you have this little extra thing that connects with the music. But already all the technical things I did at home, should sound beautiful to the audience. And so that, that takes some pressure off because even if I play, what, in my opinion, would be normally it should be good enough for a concert.

Blaise: So yes, I do want to go for emotion in the concert, but I feel pretty secure with my preparation beforehand and I know I can rely on that. And the other thing of course about performing live is, what happens to your body when you’re performing and you’re getting nervous and that’s something also I learned over time.

Blaise: I know my shoulders go up and I get tense. I remember when I first started thinking about this, I had to consciously bring my shoulders down and try to breathe better and bring my back back and those things that then… You know, now I’m a bit more used to it, so the number one thing for me is not to get tight in performances, to always be relaxed and not to get in my own way. Which is easier to say than to do, but those are sort of my two things. I feel like if I can be relaxed and if I prepared well it should sound okay.

Noa: So then you don’t have to worry about as many of the things that you would in the practice room and kind of trust things to work out a little bit more?

Blaise: Right. And that’s… So, you mentioned the word detail, that’s my challenge because I’m very, very detail oriented. And so I realized if I’m still detail oriented when I perform, it’s not helping.

Blaise: So I do have to be in the moment and focusing on what I’m doing but also have to just enjoy the big picture. And so I think it’s part of… I think every performer, especially if they feel they’re struggling with performance on stage, who like assess who are like, “Where are my strengths? And where are my weaknesses?”. And then work on the weakness and tried to make it a strength, if you can. But really try to balance your playing because none of us are perfect and maybe there are some people who feel great on stage all the time and perform amazing all the time. But I don’t think I’m one of them. Like I try to get a certain level.

Noa: Not to put you on the spot, but I’m curious about level of detail in the practice room, whether it’s something you’re working on now or recently. And maybe this ties into the kind of work you did with Mr. Greenhouse.

Noa: But yeah, I’d love to hear maybe an example of the level of detail, the kind of decision making process maybe you go through. Just so it helps to give a picture of this to folks who might be wondering how much detail is enough or what’s too much and so forth.

Blaise: Well, I mean, there’s detail in the bow’s phrasal points, “Does your bow have one bow-speed from the tip to the frog? Are you going from the tip to the frog? Which part of the bow are you’re using?”.

Blaise: Then the vibrato, “What kind of vibrato are you using?” First of all, “Can you have variety in vibrato?”, because I feel like a lot of people, we don’t. So “Can you have a variety of vibrato? Can you change the shape of your vibrato within one note? How you connect one note from the next, both in the bow and in the left hand”.

Blaise: Which is one this for the bow trying to play legato. Something legato, everyone obsesses with the bow, and of course, you know it’s important, but then what do you do with your left hand? Are you going to have this big shift? Moving your whole hand is going to create a gap in your left hand. So if I have something legato, I’m going to try to have legato in the left hand too. Then things are always connecting from finger to finger.

Blaise: And then of course the dynamics, and then trying to achieve all that, being relaxed. And I think as far as auditions go or even an important performance, I like doing a lot of short repetition times. So it’s not about doing three, four hours in a row. I mean, I do it usually 45 minutes practice sessions, but then even, if I let go of the cello and then a few minutes later, I come back in and I do five minutes, cold or try to play good right away and then do that a couple times. Then this is the same thing and then gets your automatic system going.

Blaise: But I do feel like sometimes I wonder like, I feel I do a lot of detail, that people won’t pay attention to and that don’t matter. So all those things you can do in the practice room, but then you have to know how to look for them, and I feel like before I met Bernard Greenhouse, I didn’t really pay attention.

Blaise: Sometimes I played great, and then I didn’t, and only when I started playing with him, I felt like I could raise my level, consistently and, and be touching musically and not just good.

Noa: Is it that he highlighted these questions you weren’t asking yourself, that led you to open up the door to more things? Or how did that happen that transition?

Blaise: Well, yeah, I feel like literally was striking while you know, here I shift like this and it sounds better and, and it’s true. It’s just more beautiful and he was a very touching player. So I wanted to know like how he does it.

Blaise: And I felt when I was taking lessons with him… I mean it was sort of an out of body experience because the way I was playing, I didn’t know I could play that well. But I think it’s because he gave me the tools to play beautifully. And I think it’s easy to get lost into, like you said, where, technically is what we call “perfect”, which is usually not missing notes. Which is not really perfection.

Blaise: Or lots of people get lost into the super emotive side, like they’re super convincing on stage. They’re very emotional and it’s like, “Wow!”. But then maybe if you’re going to listen without the video, or without looking at them, then maybe you won’t be as convinced.

Blaise: So for me, I only care about what it sounds like. So that’s something I discover at that time and that’s why I ended up having to practice because there’s always details to figure out. But also a lot of them become automatic with time, you know? The way you match your bow arm with your left hand and the vibrato and all that. After a while you don’t really think about it, as much.

Noa: Yeah, you know that’s interesting, because I’d like to think, looking back, that I was more cognizant of… Because there’s left-hand ingredients and then there’s right-hand or right-arm ingredients, and you could adjust variables in each side that then create this different mix of possibilities.

Noa: And I’d like to think that I was cognizant of both sides separately and then together, but I don’t know that I was, you know what I mean? I might’ve just sort of thought of one side or the other and sort of let the other side be on autopilot. Because that, obviously, complicates things a lot, by having to think about the two different sides and how they factor together.

Noa: Is there a way that you practice that? Because I’m thinking, you know, on one hand if I start thinking about my left side then I’m going to start not being able to pay attention to my right side. Then if I go there, then I suddenly am not paying attention to my left. Like how does one kind of balance that and not go crazy trying to figure it all out?

Blaise: That’s a good question. Well, I mean, first of all I think you can practice things separately. I think that’s okay. It’s okay to do bow exercises. It’s okay to do left hand exercises, to do right exercises.

Blaise: For me it starts as a simplest question, it’s like, “How do I do a beautiful crescendo? How do I do a beautiful diminuendo?”. Usually what happens with me that if I have like say, before diminuendo I might, when I start with a very generous vibrato, very large and wide. And then when I get towards the end of the diminuendo is going to be smaller and maybe more relaxed. And then the opposite you do to a crescendo. The vibrato’s going to start small and open up as I get louder.

Blaise: Those are pretty standard things. And I believe in that type of playing, but I don’t know, a lot of people that play with only one vibrato and some of them make careers, so I’m sure it’s fine. But to me it’s missing something emotionally. Because if you listen to a singer, I mean, I don’t think any of them is going to use the same vibrato for the whole phrase. It’s never the case. It doesn’t work physically as in for them.

Blaise: So yeah, so you can practice each side separately and then start with something basic like your shifting exercises, hairpin crescendo to the top, diminuendo down or the opposite. Then take an easy melody and decide some dynamics and try to shape with that. But yeah, I think basically if you can trust all that, you know, it’s more like you said, then you can put it into bigger pieces and then just have it being a part of your playing, for anything else that you do.

Noa: So, I don’t know if this is what you describing or not, but it almost sounded like your thinking of musical skills and musical gestures in the context of not just pieces that you’re working on, but even maybe like études or scales? I mean is that the way that you approach scales as well maybe?

Blaise: I’m not a big scale person. I wish I could be, but yeah, for a scale, or even open strings or… I think it’s funny because basically the only scale I did regularly was a very slow scale, like the 60 per beat, four beats per note. And I feel like maybe that the skill I use the most now in my job, is this playing long, legato melodies and that helped me for that. But doing work outside of the pieces because I think the pieces can be overwhelming. There’s a lot of things to tackle on…

Blaise: So yeah, I’m sure there must be études. I mean études help, I think, I remember my teacher in Paris, Philippe Muller, like if you played a concerto, he would find the étude that was featuring the one technical thing that you would encounter in that concerto. And so I think that makes a lot of sense, once again to practice something outside of the piece.

Blaise: But I think, as far as melodies go, you can even even invent your own little flavor of the notes. I think it’s all about experimenting and listen to what you like. If you end up loving people, who play with one vibrato, great. Personally, I try like playing with the faster vibrato and I can’t, and actually Bernard Greenhouse, try to relax my vibrato back when I studied with him.

Blaise: So yeah, find what works for you and then try to do it. But the practice room is like the safe space, right? That’s where you can try anything and everything. It can be as crazy as you want. You can be over the top, you can do anything and then make your choices. And then get on stage and just play what you decided to play.

Noa: Yeah, and I love that you kind of admitted to not doing a ton of scales, which I think is awesome. And I talked to other musicians too who aren’t necessarily super a hundred percent gung ho with scales all the time. They do them but they almost like find their own ways of integrating fundamentals work into their practice, that may not be a particular scale method.

Noa: Yeah, so I was curious like what do you do instead of scales then? Like what sorts of exercises do you find most useful for yourself at this point?

Blaise: I’ve been doing more shifting exercises, because that’s really what I encounter in my job, is like big shifts. Yeah, so there’s that I do love, for cello, I love the 40 Variations for the bow by Ševčík. That’s something I really like, just to get used about, different bow strokes and articulations. I mean usually if it’s a day I’m practicing seriously, I’ll start with like open strings and then some of those exercises…

Blaise: But I never go too long. I don’t think I can really go past that half an hour or 45 minutes on technique because then also now I have to prioritize my time. I don’t have a lot of time to practice, and I do have a lot of pieces to prepare, so I just have to learn those pieces just for my brain.

Blaise: But yeah, I think a lot of, I talked with a lot of very good cellists who don’t really do scales any more for the same reasons, they have concertos to prepare and… They get their scales, you know, 10, 15 years ago and they know how it goes.

Noa: There are a couple other things that I’ve learned about you by stalking you on Google. One is, you do a lot of arranging and composition and you have your Opus Cello business, where you have all these different cello centric arrangements and combinations of things.

Noa: Which I think is really cool but also seemed that you are interested in music outside of the classical realm as well. You guys did a a Metallica arrangement at Fenway as well as the national anthem.

Noa: How does that all fit together? Because it seems like there would need to be some time split across more different things given the additional interests that you have aside from your orchestral job. Does this take a different kind of practice? Or…

Blaise: No, I mean the whole arranging thing came out of a need because, so we started this Boston Cello Quartet group, out of the orchestra, with three colleagues. And I really wanted us to have a repertoire that’s unique to us and I thought the best way to do it is to arrange for us. And I had done someone that was in Paris and I had recorded there. So I already got into it. And so I spent a lot of time and I could at the time, I just had my section job. So it was a bit easier, to have to have time to write all this.

Blaise: And then I realized I do care in general about cellist playing together. And then people were starting to ask me about my arrangement and people were just telling me website would be the easiest way to tell… If you want something you order it on the website and what you can have if it’s not, you can’t have it yet.

Blaise: So that’s sort of how we started. And then it went very well, first of all, just download and it was prints and our first album just came out. But I think for me it’s fun to arrange. It really gives me a really deep understanding of whichever piece I’m arranging because I really have to dive into the score. And I think even though I know my arrangements are sort of virtuosic, I don’t think they’re impossible.

Blaise: I think, whenever I’m writing I’m always thinking about how it’s going to fit, for the point, the left hand, like “Is there a good fingering for this? Or is it going to be flat out impossible?”. If it’s impossible I don’t write it. So everything I write is possible. And yeah, it’s a lot of fun and I think I always need something on the side of my orchestra job and even on the side of music to be frank. So I think it give a bit more balance because I don’t want my whole life to be just orchestra, orchestra, orchestra.

Noa: I saw a video of, you guys played at Tanglewood, I think, the Aquarela… something or another. So I swear that there were a couple of times that it got close to veering into Star Wars, but it didn’t quite go there fully, Was that intentional? Or what was going on there?

Blaise: Well I was just using one, one cell of the March from Star Wars. Of course playing the Boston Pops, I did a lot of John Williams and a lot of Star Wars, so I was clearly influenced. And you know, it’s funny, we actually just played that piece “Aquarela do Violoncelo” in China. And there was a cello festival there and there was just, there’s a lot of really great cellists, who came there and we played this piece and a lot of cellists look up to where it was funny, like they had such a great time. And they were having so much fun and it was really great to share that with them. You know, there’s this one bit where we raise the leg in the French Can-Can and all that and…

Blaise: And so I think that, that’s fun. I think, we spend so much time being very serious about what we do and then I am also, then you need to let go sometimes and then just enjoy yourself. And I think that was part of the reason also when we started the Boston Cello Quartet, it went so well, is people were so surprised that we were having fun because we would end every program with a medley like Aquarela and people were like, “What the BSO having fun? Smiling?”, they didn’t expect that but I think that’s what we all are, if we have chances to let it out.

Noa: Going back to the audition actually, so you were in the section for some years and then the Principal position came open and then you took the audition. You did an interview before in CelloBello about some of the details of your preparation.

Noa: There are a couple of things that kind of stuck out to me, one that you were already kind of at peace with with the outcome, however it was going to turn out. Which sounded like a really helpful thing in terms of managing pressure, because I know sometimes when people auditioning for their own orchestra it can go either way. I mean you could either feel like not much pressure or it could feel like a ton of pressure. Do you remember how you got to that particular head space in advance?

Blaise: Well, so first of all I took the audition twice so I didn’t get it the first time. And for some reason my section job was the same, I took it twice.

Blaise: But I think I got there because I had worked very hard for my first audition for Principal and I think what I did that one, I really, really wanted it to get it, like really bad. And so it didn’t work out, I went far in the audition but nobody was hired. And so the second time around, where first of all I had practiced the music so hard already the year before, it was just a matter of, you know, something I was thinking about always is getting my routine back in, my physical feeling and all that.

Blaise: And then I was thinking about like how much does it really matter if I don’t get it? And of course I’m lucky because I already have a great job, section in BSO, it’s fantastic. I didn’t feel I needed to be Principal, absolutely in my life. Which is a bit ironic, you know?

Blaise: I feel like usually it’s the profile of people in the first chair or people who are always looking to be Principal in some orchestra and climb up to different orchestras. And that was really not my case, and so I felt like if I didn’t get the job, I would probably still be in the section of the BSO and be happy there.

Blaise: So I think it’s sort of funny because I feel like mentally I was preparing myself to lose because I didn’t want to be bitter because there are always stories of people getting bitter because they didn’t win a job in the orchestra or something. And I didn’t want to be like that. I didn’t want to ruin my mental stability with an audition.

Blaise: So I was very ready to lose. And also I do know that you have to feel free and feel relaxed to play well. And it’s already a pressure filled event and especially, the job was not open for a very long time and the guy before was famous and all that. So if you start thinking about all this, I think it can be very crippling. And also I try not to think too much about what the committee may want because of course I noticed that on the orchestra and I may know the people who are on the committee. But you’re never going to please everybody, I don’t know what my votes were, but I don’t expect I pleased everybody.

Blaise: So at least you have to be yourself, I think. I feel like you owe yourself to play like you want to play, you know? And so that’s the danger I feel sometimes with those major orchestra auditions, where people know sort of what the orchestra likes, then they try to play like that. But then if they don’t really believe in it, it’s going to sound just like that. It’s going to sound like they don’t believe in it. This probably won’t be convincing, actually that’s one less I remember from Philippe Muller in Paris. He always said like, “To be convincing, you have to be convinced”. And I think that that’s a good rule of law for anything you play, if you don’t really believe in what you’re doing, there’s no chance it’s going to be convincing.

Blaise: So I think that sort of helped letting go. Then there are many sort of funny things that I did during the audition. So at that audition, I was actually doing a coloring book for adults backstage. So because I know how the audition goes, it’s long, I had done this one before it’s at least five hours in the hall and then five times playing. And then if you’re playing every time you’re between rounds and you’re really tiring yourself and you’re going over and over the shifts and the fingerings. And it’s a terrifying circle. So I think doing that it sort of took my mind off the music plus it’s a calming activity. So I feel like, yeah, it would’ve been like a kid, I would go play my round and then color a few spaces and then go back playing.

Blaise: Just to help, stay calm because one thing I’m convinced of is that, there are more people who crumble or who play worse on audition day that people who play better. I don’t know if anyone actually plays better. And also I don’t expect myself to play better. And so I think that that goes with what I was saying about preparing to play beautifully with your technique is that you know, if you play your normal level is going to be good. And so you don’t try too hard because you really when you try hard also taking risks. So, and risk, you have to know which risks to take and not to take.

Blaise: And you know, actually I was talking with a friend recently, about someone else, one of my colleagues actually, who had been sitting principal for a few years, mentions, he feels like he always plays better when he’s sick. And notice that it was me too. And I think it has to do that, you’re just happy if you get through it, because you’re not feeling well and you probably go back to the basics because you don’t have the energy to focus on all the details and other things. So that’s interesting because clearly that’s a situation where you let go of expectations and you’re just happy with the most basic level. But that’s probably still going to be okay.

Blaise: And another thing, I also believe at audition is, of course it’s good to practice and prepare, but I think there’s things that are going to win you the audition are things that are set in your playing a long time before the audition.

Blaise: So yes, you’re learning the music and the notes, but you know, at the end people are going to hear your sound or your phrasing or… And those things do not happen three months before the audition, when you get the program. So in a way I think that helps relax too, because what’s really convincing in your playing is going to be there, it’s not going to disappear.

Blaise: And that’s something I learned over time too, because I think I’m pretty difficult with myself. I always want to get there, but then you have to be aware of what’s good about your playing. And I think there’s, I can’t quote it exactly, but there’s a quote I think from Piatigorsky saying like, “Anyone can know their weaknesses, but it takes a really wise person to know their strengths”. And I think that’s important to remember when you go on stage and anytime is to know what’s good about you.

Blaise: And so I think that’s reassuring to know that this is not going to change. And then you just go out and play, and another image I like, is for me, I feel like auditions are a bit like golf tournaments. If you have played a lot of golf, and I feel like golf tournaments, they always say to stick to the game plan. You don’t try to make more birdies because suddenly someone else’s made one, you stick to your game plan because maybe they’re going to start making bogies later. And so I feel like auditions are the same. They’re are going to be a lot of people who are going to make bogies everywhere.

Blaise: So just try to stay stable and stick to your game plan and don’t try to overdo it, just be yourself. And I feel like that’s what you say for strategy on stage.

Noa: Is that what you meant by knowing what risks to take and which ones not to take?

Blaise: Yes, I mean, I’m not going to try, on the day of the audition, to do something incredible that I have never done before, you know? No way, that’s why I say like I will have prepared before in the practice room how to sound beautifully, how to be touching emotionally and how it happens. And that’s exactly what I’m going to do at the audition. And I’m going to try to to be the best I’ve ever been because that’s probably not going to happen.

Blaise: So yeah, I don’t think an audition is the best time to take a risk. In the practice room? Yes, take them and then see, maybe there’s something you never did before, that actually feels comfortable and you can incorporate in your playing. That definitely can happen. But last minute on the day of the audition. I don’t think so.

Noa: I think it can be tempting to feel like you need to play better than you can play on the day of an audition. You know, you get there, you hear people warming up, and someone tuning just sounds amazing. It’s like, “Oh man, I really need to bring my A+ game today”, and to be tempted to do more than you can. But I don’t know if it’s okay to ask you this, but if you had to give yourself a score for the audition… I’m assuming it wasn’t a hundred or an A+…

Blaise: It’s hard for me to score myself. I mean, I… It was obviously not bad, but I think what I know is that some of the excerpts I played, I played exactly like I wanted to play. And I think some of them were considered important, like Shostakovich symphonies, that we were going to record. And so I think if at least, in a couple of excerpts you can be exactly like you want to be, then the jury has an idea of what you can sound like. And I think I made mistakes in all my auditions. I never had a perfect audition.

Blaise: But then we’re all human and that’s also something, I think you have to be kind to yourself. It’s like, we always imagine other people being perfect and we have recordings that are perfect. And we hear stories about people who are perfect. They’re just stories. Nobody’s perfect. Everyone has failing moments. And so I think you want to be kind to yourself and know that. And I think the committees know that. That’s why they allow for mistakes.

Blaise: But yeah, of course it’s tempting for me too. I remember most auditions, I would get to my practice room and then on the way I would hear someone else practice their Dvořák. I’m like, “Wow. It sounds really good”. Of course everybody is going to sound very good at that level of auditions, but there’s some very good in their practice room and I don’t know how you’re going to sound in the hall. And I think it sounds good, maybe the committee will disagree. You know, so I can’t pay too much attention to this.

Blaise: And I think it’s something also I learned from doing international competitions when I was younger, where you always have that guy, who was like playing over and over his piece and he’s like really on it. And I feel like it’s already the guys who make it to the end. That’s why I try to save my energy and keep my energy just for the audition time.

Noa: I think there’s this impression that you have to play a perfect round or you have to play a perfect audition to win the job. But the more people I talk to, I think, the more I feel like, you have to play really well, obviously, but perfection just doesn’t happen. And trying to be too perfect oftentimes is counterproductive.

Noa: And actually, I’m curious about your thoughts on what happens behind the screen, in the sense that, I read about this football coach, American football coach, Bill Walsh, who coached the 49ers for many years. And he says that when he was evaluating players, he wanted to see of players, 10 best plays from college and 10 worst plays from college. And I didn’t read further, or maybe it didn’t say much more than that, but my intuition was that what he’s looking for is he wants to find out what’s the best that this player is capable of, but also what are the most boneheaded thing this player might do for us?

Noa: And if there’s a high ceiling, like if the best plays are pretty awesome and the worst plays are not so bad, then that’s pretty nice to know. Whereas if there’s great highs but really awful lows, then you know there’s going to be a lot of inconsistency.

Noa: I mean, do you think something like that might subconsciously maybe be happening behind the screen in terms of what people hear?

Blaise: Yeah, I mean absolutely, especially if you hear people five times in a row and… I don’t know if it was my audition or other auditions, where I see comments of people saying like, “Oh, you’re so boring. They hire someone who’s consistent…”. But think about it, do you really want someone in an important position who’s going to crash someday? Who’s going to really crash everything? Do you really want that? Even if you play very well, three or four times before, it doesn’t matter. You can’t have that. It’s just not professional.

Blaise: So yeah, you need consistency and your image is very good and like, “How bad is your bad going to be?”, and “How good is your good?”. And I think, you know, you want to have sort of a small range. I mean if you have a big range because you get really awesome, that’s great. But we definitely don’t want too much of the bad stuff, that’s for sure, yeah.

Noa: I also read that you didn’t practice on the day before the audition. And not to be too much of a nerd about time but how much time did you have off the instrument before the, do you know what I mean? Like so from the time you started warming up on the day of, to the last time you touched the instrument, maybe 24, 36 hours before, do you know how much time there actually was? Because I’m curious about that, but also I’m curious what the experience was like for you, knowing that you weren’t going to stress yourself out by woodshedding the day before. Like was it freeing? Or did you feel a little bit uncomfortable being away from the cello? Or how was that for you?

Blaise: No, I was very happy to be away from the cello. No, I mean there was probably at least 30 hours, because it was a day plus a night. But that week we were recording Shostakovich 4 which is a very big symphony and very tiring physically. And to the point I was thinking like, “Oh, maybe they did the audition that week to make sure that nobody from the orchestra gets a job”, because it was so tiring. And so, I knew I needed my energy on the big day. I also knew I was prepared, I didn’t feel I was going to do anything reckless the day before the audition in my preparation. So I wanted my muscles to be relaxed, I want my mind to be a bit fresh. Because sometimes I know that it’s sometimes too also when do I play best, and sometimes I play best when I didn’t touch the cello all day. And then I just shrug and I play.

Blaise: And then so why do we practice, right? But so, no I felt very comfortable about not touching it. And to be honest, I had decided that I was not gonna take that audition again. Like, if they did not hire, I was not going to take a third audition. So I was so happy to be done practicing for this audition. So I was very happy to let it go and then whatever happens, happens the next day.

Blaise: And I want to add also, we were talking about perfection, like, what is perfection? Like perfection for whom? Everybody has their own criterias for perfection. Clearly my career would be different from other people. So you can let anyone decide if you are perfect or not, or if you are good or not or…

Blaise: So I think all this helps relax a bit. But there’s a feeling of being judged that, I say it’s good to try to ignore it as much as we can, because the committee listening, they’re all musicians. If you play beautiful and if you play with your heart, they’re going to like it, even if they don’t agree with the fingering you did, or a shift that’s not the way it used to be done before. As long as, it’s honest and touching and musical, I think that’s really what you need to bring across.

Blaise: And in my experience sitting on committee also, people who win, usually plays this way. So yes, mistakes don’t matter and there’s no standard for perfection that you should be trying to get to.

Noa: One last question, a tough one might be, so if anyone listening to this was to be passing through Boston and wanting to find a good bakery, I understand that you started getting into baking. Where’s your go to bakery for carbs and baked goods?

Blaise: So that’s a tough question because one reason I started to bake is that I couldn’t find in Boston the French pastries, we have to bring it from home. I mean I like the Clear Flour Bread in Brookline, which actually is labeled a European style bakery. Them, for American standard, Clear Flour Bakery is good, but it’s like very American for me. It’s a bit too sweet, usually for my taste.

Blaise: So I mean, my friends are pushing me to open my shop, but that’s not going to happen. I don’t have the time. So yeah, I would say Clear Flour Bread is probably my go to.

Noa: Is there a good… My kids keep saying that I should stop pronouncing baguette incorrectly, but it’s such a habit. I don’t know how to pronounce it the right way. Is there a good place to get a baguette or croissant in Boston?

Blaise: Well, croissant for sure Clear Flour Bread are good. I haven’t tried their baguettes. I’m never really convinced by baguettes in this country, like ever. So I don’t know if it’s something with ingredients or the way it’s done because in Paris it’s so easy to get a good baguette and a good croissant.

Noa: What’s different about… Like what is a good baguette? Is it just like the crustiness? Or is it the chewy… Like what’s different?

Blaise: For me, a good baguette is like, it’s crunchy on the outside, it’s light and airy on the inside. You know, crunchy but not too crunchy and I feel like usually in The States, it’s a bit too dense and I feel like it’s more successful here with like artisan breads, like sourdoughs and stuff like that. Those are really good here. But baguettes is not quite right in my opinion, but maybe I’m asking for too much detail and perfection, you know, it’s possible.

Noa: Maybe it’s the water. I read that they did some tests with… using New York water to make pizza dough versus water from other cities and the New York water just led to more New York like pizza crust then than water from other places. So maybe there’s something in the water in Paris.

Blaise: Very possible, yeah.

Noa: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to chat about some of this stuff.

Notes

[1] Blaise mentions his teacher Bernard Greenhouse. This short excerpt of a Greenhouse master class illustrates a little of what Blaise describes. (1:44)

[2] Blaise mentions the Ševčík 40 Variations, Op. 3 – which exists for violin and viola too (@IMSLP) (17:26)

[3] Opus Cello is Blaise’s cello sheet music publishing company – which has music for all sorts of cello arrangements of things, from one cello to 12. It also features some cool interviews with other cellists. (18:35)

[4] I allude to the Boston Cello Quartet’s performance at Fenway for a Red Sox game. And their performance of the national anthem . (18:52)

[5] I reference this Tanglewood performance of Aquarela do Violoncelo by Blaise Dejardin for 12 Cellos. Which you can download at Opus Cello, for the next time your cello studio challenges the viola or violin studios to some sort of end-of-semester single-instrument-ensemble deathmatch (21:02)

[6] Here’s that Cello Bello interview (22:31)

[7] Blaise says he kept himself occupied with a coloring book backstage while waiting for his audition. Which is awesome, because there’s actually a bit of research which suggests this could be a really good idea! (26:12)

[8] I mention former 49ers coach Bill Walsh – here’s a great look at a pretty fascinating individual: A Football Life: Bill Walsh (33:34)

[9] Clear Flour Bread gets a mention as Blaise’s go-to place for baked goods in the Boston area – when he’s not making his own that is. (38:44)

[10] The thing I mentioned about NYC water perhaps being an important factor in why NY pizza crust is different than that found in most other cities? Yeah, that wasn’t just in my imagination. Here’s an article that digs into this a bit more, if you’re curious: Is New York Water Really The Secret To The Best Bagels and Pizza? (40:22)

Want to hear Blaise in performance?

Blaise + piano

Here’s Blaise on YouTube:

  • Rêverie for cello and piano (Debussy)  

If you want to hear him live, check out his website, where you can find his performance calendar.

Blaise + 1

In an effort to address the dearth of Mozart solo cello rep, Blaise and conservatory buddy Kee-Hyun Kim (cello, Parker Quartet) have just released an album of Mozart cello duos, arranged by Blaise, which you can learn more about in this Strings magazine interview, and listen to or play yourself via the links below:

Blaise + 3

The Boston Cello Quartet has also released some CD’s, featuring music that you can also print and play with three of your favorite cello buddies. Like their Latin Project, which you can hear a sampling of in this trailer .

Want to play some of Blaise’s arrangements?

From Beethoven to Piazzolla, and 2 cellos to 12, there’s a whole range of arrangements available to download and read through with your cello buddies:

A few of Blaise’s other talents – “bio” writing

It’s easy to get bio envy and feel like a total nobody when reading other folks’ awesome bios. But here’s Blaise’s “failed cellist biography” which shows a different side of his cello life:

A few of Blaise’s other talents – “musicology”

Blaise also demonstrates his musicological chops, with this “exclusive” article on the discovery of Mozart’s lost “Puzzle” concerto for cello and orchestra (in G Major):

And last but not least…

The photograph above was taken by Blaise’s colleague, BSO Principal Trombone Toby Oft, whose website you should totally check out too. This page would be a good place to start.

About Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.

Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.

After Countless Hours of Practice, Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills and a few tweaks in your approach to practicing. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to discover the 7 skills that are characteristic of top performers. Learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.

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