Jennifer Montone: On the Unspoken Mental and Emotional Aspects of Being a Musician

When I was navigating the music world as a kid in the 80’s and 90’s, nobody really talked about performance anxiety.

I mean, I’m pretty sure it was something we all felt, but it was so rare to hear anyone acknowledge it any way, that I still remember the one time another student brought it up before a concert.

I was 10 years old, warming up backstage with the other kids in the studio, and one of the older “star” students arrived, and kind of jokingly let out an “aagh” and said something like “why do we all do this to ourselves?!” We all kind of smiled and laughed, and knew exactly what she was talking about, but that’s pretty much where it ended.

Enduring gratitude

I haven’t had any contact with this person for decades. And I never thanked her for this. But I do think this moment had a lasting impact on me. Because in that brief moment, I learned that what I was feeling was normal. That this person I looked up to, who had much more performance experience than I did, and who would go on to have a successful music career, felt the same jitters and butterflies that I was feeling too.

And knowing that you’re not alone in this experience, especially when you’re 10, and nearer the beginning of your musical journey, can make such a difference in how traveling along that path feels.

Have things changed?

I sense that the mental and emotional aspects of performing, teaching, and studying music are being more openly discussed nowadays. But I think it makes a real difference when we hear the discussion happening not just amongst our friends and peers, but amongst the people we look up to and admire the most as well.

So I thought it might be helpful to have this conversation with folks in the music world who have had terrifically successful performing and teaching careers, but are also really open and thoughtful about their experience of the mental and emotional sides of being a musician.

Meet Jennifer Montone

Jennifer Montone is Principal Horn of The Philadelphia Orchestra, and teaches at the Curtis Institute of Music and The Juilliard School. Jennifer is an active chamber musician, has performed as a guest artist or soloist with numerous orchestras, and the recipient of an Avery Fisher Career Grant, has also won a Grammy Award for her performance of the Penderecki Horn Concerto with the Warsaw National Philharmonic.

…and special guest co-host Catherine Cho

Today’s episode is made extra special, in that I’m joined by guest co-host Catherine Cho (violin). A top prizewinner at the Hannover, Queen Elizabeth, and Montreal competitions, Catherine maintains an active performing career, serves on the faculty at The Juilliard School, and has also recently been appointed Artistic Advisor of the biennial Starling-DeLay Symposium.

In today’s episode, we’ll explore…

  • 3:57 – Why is playing horn such a mental game? And what do horn players worry about anyway? Jennifer illustrates the mind of a horn player by walking us through one of her recent low points – and how she recovered.

  • 8:17 – How do you separate how you feel from how you sound? As in, how do you avoid getting sucked into the mental negativity spiral of assuming that if you feel bad you must sound bad?

  • 11:14 – What do violinists (and string players) worry about? And whether as a horn player or violinist (or any musician, really), how can one get to a better place mentally?

  • 13:50 – Jennifer describes the three ingredients that seem to contribute to an optimal mental balance during performing.

  • 16:55 – A funny anecdote which illustrates how different musicians approach nerves differently.

  • 18:23 – Are young musicians nowadays more open to talking about nerves than in previous generations? Or is that just because teachers are more open to providing a space to talk about this than in the past?

  • 23:31 – How does parenthood affect you as a musician? What are the positive impacts, and what are some of the challenges?

  • 28:28 – Jennifer and Catherine describe their teaching journeys and how they’ve worked at the craft of teaching over the years.

  • 35:07 – What kinds of notes do Jennifer and Catherine take during (or after) lessons?

  • 37:29 – What it says on the refrigerator magnet that Jennifer will look to for support on tough days.

  • 34:53 – The thing Catherine did one year with her studio that made a “very, very significant” change in the growth of her students that year.

  • 42:51 – What is something that was really difficult for Jennifer and Catherine? And what is something that has come pretty easily?

  • 45:47 – The approach Jennifer adopted when recovering from a serious jaw injury that helped her go from feeling like a player with lots of technical shortcomings, to feeling like a much stronger and more confident technical player.

Catherine: [00:00:00] My name is Catherine Cho. I am a musician, mostly play violin and some viola. And I'm teaching at the Juilliard School, violin, chamber music, and a community engagement seminar with Natasha Brofsky.

Catherine: Well, first of all, I can't believe that we haven't crossed paths at Juilliard if we're both teaching at the same school. Have you noticed that this happens to all of us? What is causing this issue?

Jennifer: Maybe we need to hang out in the lobby more.

Catherine: I mean, do you find that you're just spending hours teaching and then you leave, you play your concerts and there isn't a lot of time for communal connections? So this is why this is so fun because we have the opportunity to have a conversation about all the thought bubbles that pike over our head during the day.

Catherine: So, what thought bubbles go over your head during the day while you're teaching?

Jennifer: Me

Catherine: Yeah.

Jennifer: Well, okay. I mean, I'm just so thrilled to get to actually do this because I've known you [00:01:00] both separately for a really long time, so it's just so fun to get to actually chat together in this circumstance. As far as Juilliard goes, I just pop up on Mondays and teach my students and then take a train right back down to Philly.

Jennifer: So I'm, unfortunately not around nearly as much as I would like to be.

Jennifer: In terms of, the things that pop up in the thought bubbles above my head, it's a little hysterical because as we all know, horn players are a little, uh, fraught. So we have all sorts of usually unhelpful thoughts that are going through our heads that then we try to desperately in a panicked way, replace with something that might be remotely helpful.

Jennifer: As we're trying to play and not crack all the notes and mess up every concert. So it's such a mental game. Our particular instrument, maybe a little bit, uh, I don't know if it's more so than others, but I know it is certainly a big mental game for us.

Catherine: Okay. For example, what are some of those thoughts that you're talking about? I'd be so curious. Cause I think fiddle players feel like that's what's happening to us, so I'm really [00:02:00] interested to hear you say that.

Jennifer: Yeah, well, I'd say the low point, and this is, it's funny cuz it's not that long ago. I've had all these, high points and low points in terms of being able to control my mental internal dialogue. And, recently I was going through, I guess it was about six years ago, I was going through a really bad injury of my back and we happened to take Philly Orchestra, took Bruckner Four on tour and I brought my kids along with massive suitcases and strollers, and of course the first Bruckner Four was broadcast and you know, live broadcasts from Hong Kong or whatever. My back was just killing me and I felt very weakened and I felt like all my loud stuff was really weak and I couldn't concentrate on any of the normal things for all the scary things.

Jennifer: And so I, I was sort of in this interestingly weakened state physically and therefore mentally, and it was fascinating cuz , the stuff that was going through my head right before I had to play the very exposed beginning thing all by yourself was like, I gotta go. I'm [00:03:00] gonna die. I'm gonna die. I have to, I gotta go.

Jennifer: I could go off that way. I could go off. I mean, but then I would knock over everybody's stands, but I gotta get the expletive outta here right now. Oh my god, Oh no, he's starting Ahhh, you know? And it was like just the most awful, like pre-playing regimen. Ever. I was like, so I make it through this concert. It was okay, but like my attacks were very, very direct. Very not gracious, you know, I was like, I got through this thing and at a certain point I got in the zone of it and I'm like, okay, you love Bruckner Four, you love this piece.

Jennifer: You love this orchestra. Just play like, isn't it nice you get to play this part? Look how beautiful it is. Wow. It's the same theme and in a different way. Now you're reversed. Now you do it with the oboe. You know, it was like, I tried really hard to regroup. But after the concert I was like, Jesus, I need a better plan.

Jennifer: You know? And it's like, okay. Circle back to all the [00:04:00] years of, you've had many plans for what you think of right before something, what you think of the day before, the week before getting yourself, like you visualize and you meditate and you do yoga and you have helpful adjectives and you've got vamps of rhythm and breathing and integrated sort of systems that work very well.

Jennifer: Now you could just go ahead and use those and that's gonna be good. So the rest of the tour was kind of comical of me trying to get over, like, my back hurts, I feel like a terrible horn player and I'm doing everything wrong and I have to try to do this. And then trying to regroup with all the, all the tools that I've learned and trying to get those back into the mix.

Jennifer: So, so that was a low point.

Catherine: Well, and but you said at the beginning that you felt like horn players have this challenge. So why is it that you feel that horn players have this challenge? Cause I, I can tell you for sure violinists have it, but I'm curious why you feel that horn players have that.

Jennifer: Yeah. [00:05:00] No. Well, it's actually, it's heartening to hear that it's just a universal thing. I think our, specific discomfort has to do with, you know, when you're trying to feel the music and you're trying to feel like you're into the groove and in your own groove and in the groove of what's going on around you and like on the moving train, connecting with your colleagues, all of that.

Jennifer: There's a whole lot of discomfort, like, oh, my chops don't feel good. Oh, I can't breathe very well. Oh, that's really high. Oh, I'm really bad at low. Oh, I don't have a smooth, you know, it's like you sort of, uh, there's such a physical component that's very tricky and very precarious on horn that I think maybe we just, um, but maybe everybody does.

Jennifer: But it's interesting, I think like the, the back and forth of, oh, I feel bad, therefore I must be sounding bad. And kind of getting out of that maybe is hurdle number one on mental with horn players for sure. And maybe wind players and maybe string players too.

Catherine: So when you feel bad, is there a way of redirecting your energy so that you can still sound [00:06:00] the way you'd like to sound despite, oh, my breathing feels funny and my, my back hurts. So what are some of your like strategies? I'm very curious.

Jennifer: Well, you know, when you teach, you try to figure out what the person in front of you, kind of what their learning language is and like, are they better if you put images in their heads or if are they better if they imitate someone around them or are they better if they think physical or is it better if they think, you know, whatever.

Jennifer: So, I kind of do that for myself. I ask myself those questions and then I try to do that also with my students. It's like, okay, well you've always been good with like, creating a picture in your mind and colors and descriptions and storylines and everything like that. Great. So we're gonna feel what that feels like.

Jennifer: Imagine you're like an opera singer and you're singing on stage and this is the scene and this is the story and this is how you feel and this is what you say and you can go creative with it, with feeling. And that gets you instinctively very connected to everybody around you.

Jennifer: So that's sort of a musical way. And then there's the physical way. It's like, oh, you're great if I just tell you to bring your tongue [00:07:00] right up to the front of your mouth and tiny little tip of tongue hitting behind two teeth. And you're subdividing and you're, you're kind of connecting the rhythm to the tongue and, your breath it's going fast.

Jennifer: And then you do a, a fast burst of air right at the moment, right. Right where the tongue's supposed to be, and then you get this real pop. It's like those are feelings of physical, and if your mind is busy going either which way, I think it, it definitely distracts you away from anything negative, physical and into something that's productive and intention based.

Jennifer: So generally I feel like proactivity as opposed to reactivity is maybe the flip for me. I often have this view of myself and I'm either a turtle on its back with four little sad little legs and you're like rolling, trying to get over and you're very vulnerable cuz your underbelly is very soft and everything hits it.

Jennifer: But then when you're like, the turtle of wonder where you're like on your feet and you've got blazing intention filled eyes and that turtle's like going places and also beautiful like [00:08:00] gorgeously decorated and like artistic and powerful and determined. Thoughtful, like a real kick-butt turtle, you know?

Jennifer: Like flip yourself over and do the thing you know how to do, you know? So something like that.

Catherine: Wow, that's fascinating.

Jennifer: I don't know - what do you do? I wanna hear your stuff too, cause we've played chamber music together and you're amazing.

Catherine: We do play chamber music together. And Jen, I hope it's reassuring to hear that those thought bubbles go through violinists' heads too.

Jennifer: It is reassuring

Catherine: Yeah, almost word for word.

Catherine: So for us, I think most violinists, I guess string players and probably a lot of instrumentalists maybe except for pianists, just fret about intonation because the moment you put your finger down or you do something here with your breath, your pitch changes and your pitch is connected to your sound.

Catherine: And your sound is connected to your internal voice and the message that you're trying to say is spoken through this [00:09:00] language. So it's all really connected to this very deep, soulful, spiritual place, that can really start to challenge your equilibrium. From moment number one, right? Which like you bring the instrument to you.

Catherine: And I find that when you're trying to help train your, your, your abilities, right, and your tools, it's really hard for all of us and students included not to question your abilities. And so I'm always talking to my students about let's spend a little less time questioning our abilities and building our abilities, and here's how we can do it strategically and simplifying the whole process because they want everything all at once.

Catherine: It's like, this is my community engagement seminar too. Big, lofty ideas. We wanna make impact and, and generosity. We wanna do all these things, but I don't know how to write a business letter or, or answer an email. So sometimes we just have to simplify the process. Let's play open strings and let's [00:10:00] find our voice and sound first before we put our fingers down.

Catherine: Or there's a lot of that breathing for us too, connection to rhythm, connection to your ears versus your eyes. I find that a lot of string players play with their eyes or watching what they're doing, thinking they can decide where the fingers go by staring them down. You know, it's the whole watched pot syndrome and and even with their bow, like they think they can see where their bow is from this angle.

Catherine: And I keep reminding them that what you're seeing here has nothing to do what we're hearing here. So there's a lot of that, redirecting your senses. So meditation and yoga. And learning how to use your ears on the highest and most sensitive level cuz the ears are so connected to, you know, many parts of your, well, I guess your inner soulful core values.

Catherine: Right. And I think once we find that, which we can eventually, then it helps us to, as you say, kind of center your thoughts and go back into your, your [00:11:00] listening.

Jennifer: Yeah.

Catherine: Changing your, changing your, you can even change your feelings. You can even change the way you feel with that different keyword or thought. So it's, it's not that dissimilar

Jennifer: Yeah, totally. I was taught, that if you're one third thinking, one third feeling, and one third listening, you're at a pretty decent balance. And I know that a lot of times when I go outta whack, I'm thinking almost entirely. And if I pull the other two in, then I pull in my foundation and I pull in my musical parts into the puzzle, but yeah. Do you, do you guys think about the balance of those types of things?

Catherine: Yeah, all the time. And I guess you're right, it depends on the kind of brain that we're dealing with. For some people, there needs to be a lot more thinking, for some people there just needs to be a lot more training for the listening because they can't actually hear the differences. And so that's actually quite common because, and I think it's, it's different for each person, but sometimes it's because they think so much about what they're [00:12:00] doing, they think they're hearing something, but they're not actually hearing that or listening enough to hear what's coming out, or it's the perspective. Right. Cause I'm sure for you too, it's like perspective, what you're hearing right here is really different than when you're 20, 30, 40 feet away. It's partly that too.

Catherine: And then sometimes they don't know what they're feeling and it's hard to channel that. So yeah, we kinda have to work on all the three areas in order to bring them together into a more balanced place. But that's all shifting constantly. And I think that's another thing is where we think, okay, this is the formula that works.

Catherine: And the students go, I got it. And then I lost it. And then I don't know what I had before and they forgot. And I said, you know, maybe it's cuz we're changing minute to minute and we have to go moment by moment. And it's just the awareness might be step one. And then we go from there instead of, you know, I have a 12 point strategy to how I can feel exactly centered.

Catherine: It doesn't, you know, as you know, as we all know, [00:13:00] it doesn't

Jennifer: Yeah, it's like shifting sands. I love that concept cuz yeah, that's been my experience through my career more than anything else is the impermanence of my feeling of control over my brain or the ability to, use my brain and my body towards a, a common purpose that is actually artistically viable. But yeah, no, it definitely seems to completely change depending on what's going on in my life and in my playing and where I'm at emotionally and in terms of body care and all that kind of stuff too. Actually, that's one thing I love about your newsletter that you send Noa, is that they're always from slightly different directions and I love that format and your approach to it has a lot to do with like how it's all changing and there's a lot of little thoughts and there's no like one, unfortunately, there's no magic bean, but there's a ton of tiny little things that at different points, if you've got them all kind of in the hopper, the gumball machine or something, it's like you're gonna need something and you just, spin it and like something's gonna come out and it'll probably be helpful at some [00:14:00] point in your life.

Jennifer: If not now, then sometime later. So it's pretty interesting how scattershot it is, but it seems like we're all sort of, fumbling through with a lot of different things that we try to go to, depending on what we think, the situation needs.

Catherine: Well, we gotta flow and fumble, right? Allow ourselves to flow and fumble . Well, thank goodness for Noa, creating a platform where it's accepted and acceptable and encouraged to have these conversations, first of all. Because I feel like when we were, I don't know about you, Jen, but when we were kids, it wasn't invited into the arena to have a conversation about stage fright or nerves, or my hands are sweating so much, or my brain is going outta control. I feel out of control that that wasn't the conversation we shared openly.

Jennifer: Yeah. No, it's funny, I had a conversation once with the Second Horn who just recently retired, Dan Williams, and he said, it's so funny, like you, you have this whole thing that you do before you play. And he said, it seems very on purpose and he said it's [00:15:00] funny cuz Mason Jones, who was of course Principal Horn of Philly for a million years, he said he would just put his hand out and if he was shaking at all, he would just stare at it and eventually he would stop shaking.

Jennifer: And then he'd just play. I'm like, well, wouldn't that be nice? You know? I was like, how the heck did he make that happen? Cause if I look at my hand and it's shaking, it will shake more. It'll shake more. It'll like knock off everything on the stand. Like the watched pot is gonna like boil wildly for me in terms of my mind.

Jennifer: So I have to do a whole bunch of other things that get me away from that. But yeah, I thought it was very funny. Y eah, I don't think this particular part of our field was, in the, in the verbal arena as much as it is now, which I think is a beautiful thing.

Jennifer: Cause clearly we all feel it very strongly.

Noa: I know that the two of you are very thoughtful and open and accepting, and support your students in that way are very much aware of it and, and kind of thinking about it and inquisitive about it.

Noa: Do you sense a change in students' willingness or desire or openness or or [00:16:00] comfort in talking about this at earlier ages than our generation or, or is it still kind of the same and it's really up to the teachers to start cultivating more of this sort of dynamic?

Jennifer: I think there's a little bit of both. I mean, I find that some of the younger students, you know, I'll ask them like, so how did it feel to perform? Or, you know, it's like, how did that recital feel to you? And they're just like, no, it's pretty good. Yeah, it was good. I'm like, okay. So yeah, it's like anything mental beforehand that you did that you thought worked or didn't work?

Jennifer: Yeah, no, I just, I, I do what I always do. Like, oh, cool. What is it that you always do? You know, it's a little like pulling teeth. Cause they don't wanna like, upset the dragon. I didn't die. I didn't like fall off the stage. it went fine. So let's not talk about it.

Jennifer: So sometimes I think there's reticence to kind of open up the can of worms just because everybody's a little worried about what's gonna come out. So sometimes it often works for me to like wait until they have a situation where they're feeling uncomfortable. Like I'll sort of float the topic a bunch of times after key performances and kind of share what I usually do, like in a recital situation, [00:17:00] I might do some of these. So if you're looking for more ideas to add to your arsenal, go ahead and implement those as well. Or give them a try. And then sometimes I'll wait until if they have trouble audibly and then be like, okay, cool. So, you know, sounds like we're dealing with some of this stuff.

Jennifer: But yeah, it seems to depend very much on the person, but I think it's definitely, there's less stigma to it, but maybe there's still a little element of like, if I show any weakness, that somehow makes me a lesser player. Which I think is just a pride component, which is very valuable for our field to feel strength and showing your strong side especially to a mentor or to a group of colleagues or whatever.

Jennifer: So I think we've got those two sides of us and yeah, I mean, I think vulnerability is great and strength is great. And it's interesting when we feel safe to show one or the other.

Catherine: Yeah. I have to wonder because when I was studying with Felix Galimir, he used to say, "Back in my day, there was no tendonitis, it didn't exist." And I'm thinking to myself, okay, [00:18:00] did it not exist or did people not talk about it and just play through it? And is it because of technology and being able to hear so many other players with greater ease, that people started to really push themselves past a certain point, to achieve all these different, you know, Like, I could play all 24 Caprices now one day, like so and so on YouTube.

Catherine: I don't know if, if people are pushing themselves in a different way because of that, and then there's so much injury. I feel like there's a lot of injury in our field in the violin field. And then because of it, we have to seek help. And at that point it becomes a more open dialogue because someone can't play and then they're seeking help.

Catherine: What should I do? They ask their mentors. More and more mentors are talking about this, like I feel that the mind body connection, spirit connection in violin playing is much more, it's much more common. And I remember first having these conversations with students 20 years ago, they felt like it wasn't as [00:19:00] common.

Catherine: So I do think there's a little bit of a shift. At least in our instrument, and I'm, I'm happy about that because then people can talk about it. And you're right, Jennifer, they sometimes they don't wanna talk about it because vulnerability versus okay, I'm gonna talk about my challenges and how I overcome them or how I tackle them.

Catherine: I do think it's important for them to see that about us too, because sometimes we speak louder through our example of, you know, I dealt with this challenge by doing that and this and, and this other thing, and this was the outcome. This was my desired outcome. It worked this time, it didn't. And I think just them seeing us sort through that can help them to start sorting through it for themselves from starting to notice.

Jennifer: What I just noticed about what you said, which is so interesting, is how the topics of injury and the topics of mental stress kind of can go intertwined like that. And it kind of reminds me of what you said about awareness like a lot of times what I did in Hong Kong with my Bruckner is it snuck up on me.

Jennifer: [00:20:00] Like I was really busy with the kids. I was really busy with finding the hotel cuz we stayed separately. I was really busy with trying to deal with my back and I didn't really think about the Bruckner until I got there. And then I got walloped by a wave of, you know, oh my God. So it's interesting how, like, If one can see straight, like as you're starting to bring tension into a situation or starting to feel a little bit of something that's not quite right, like if we don't ignore the tiny little symptoms of things, you can keep it in a healthier place before it becomes something where you can't play and you have to ask for help. I feel like my goal would be for the music world as we're trying to do this is like to somehow make it completely okay to be very aware of any little thing is fine, just kind of let's deal with it all together.

Jennifer: Like a very open conversation about the tiny little things that might lead to something unhealthy if let it go that far.

Catherine: I have a question for you that I feel like doesn't get discussed very much. Do you have an outlet for talking about motherhood [00:21:00] as a musician? Because you've brought it up, right? I brought it. We've both, we've all three of us parenthood, we've all brought it up, in this conversation. Do you, do you have a?

Jennifer: No, I mean, mom friends, which is very valuable. Mom, musician friends are even more special because I think we all understand, you know, our parents' friends. Yeah, I think the way that things shift if you get married or, and or have kids and or have, pets that are big in your life or whatever, once you sort of have more dependents in your life, the amount that you are focusing on, just everything music-wise is, it's just part of everything and not the only thing like it is in school or, you know, it's a slightly different percentage somehow. Which I think is good and bad because we bring the life stuff into our playing, which is awesome, like experience our own life experience and you know, it can help with nerves and it can help with it's like, well, it's like my kid's not in the hospital.

Jennifer: I'm just playing a piece. Like it's just french horn, you know? It's like kind of like [00:22:00] perspective and gratitude and all those kind of things. But yeah, It, would be interesting to have like a little bit of a support system just for the, the, how does parenting change your outlook when you're playing?

Catherine: Yeah, because I feel like that's a topic that comes up when I talk to my friends who are, who are parents and mothers. But then when I think, is there a, is there a circle, a discussion like a round table of, of parents or mothers in music who perform and teach where people can talk about the challenges and also how it one impacts the other.

Catherine: It might be really fascinating to, to delve into that because it's a very deeply layered process that I think enters our minds every day. Right? I mean, it, it doesn't disappear.

Jennifer: Well, it's kind of central to yourself. It's like you're, you're a musician and a performer and then you become also a parent. Actually it's interesting you say that cuz I've had three injuries in my career. And my third one is now very recent and I'm still kind of dealing with it, but I'm, I think I'm on the other side.

Jennifer: But I have had a stomach tear for the past five years or four years, [00:23:00] um, probably coming off of diastasis recti, which is of course a pregnancy thing. But I think like it didn't heal, you know, and I just found out that Rafa Nadal also had a stomach tear recently, and I was like, Ooh, I need to look up what he did to fix that cuz he's playing all the time and he's always aggravating it and so am I. Cause I took off a lot of time during the pandemic and of course got better and I did physical therapy during it and it got better. But then as soon as we started playing big horn works again, it's like now it's back out again. I think there's even things relating to physicality of being a mother that you know, can also happen. Cause as I did some research and found out like a whole bunch of horn player women that, had a kid in the last decade who feel like their loud playing isn't as strong as it used to be or they feel some tenderness or they feel some pain or they feel, like their, their crescendos hit a wall or something like that. I'm like, I'm not alone on this, which is good to know about, but also, yeah, I think the communication between all of [00:24:00] us would be helpful.

Catherine: Yeah, it would be because it's, it's fascinating to listen to you talk about how it's such a big part of your life. Right. Even where we're speaking from today. I'm, I'm like in one of my kids' rooms and surrounded by superheroes. It's just, you know, it's a, it's a deep part of your life and, and actually I personally do feel that it, impacts our musicianship in a really deep and profound way to be parents. You know, the gravity and the depth of that is very inspiring, you know, and, it opens, speaking of senses, it opens up your awareness and senses in a really, kind of impactful way when you play, but also when you're teaching, don't you find that when you're working with your students, you just have a slightly different perspective on what you're about to say, and sometimes you pause and then you say it a little bit differently and yeah, it's

Jennifer: That's maybe something also that I love that in our field, as you get a little older, all the life experiences, like, I don't know if you've noticed with students who go through a loss. [00:25:00] Or, you know, it's like a difficult time, like a breakup or a loss of a friend or a loss of a family member or something.

Jennifer: It's like they, they start to worry. It's like, well, I'm not practicing and I should be practicing, and why can't I focus on my audition that's coming up? And it's like, honey, you're living, you're grieving, you're dealing. I feel like it would be nice if we could all see ourselves backwards as if it was a sitcom, it's like, remember when I was worried about this?

Jennifer: But what came out of that was that then I, I had greater, it's like all, everything that was in a minor key and lyrical had so much more poignance at the end of that, because I know what that actually feels like. It's like when you're simulating pain, it's like you can't know it until you know it, but once you know it, you can't unknow it.

Jennifer: But yeah, it's all these sort of gifts of experiences. It's an interesting thing about how life changes us.

Catherine: Yeah. Truth

Noa: What I'm sort of struck by again, is, is the teaching aspect of things. As musicians, of course, over time you evolve in various different ways and I'm assuming at this point you've been teaching for at least a couple [00:26:00] decades now, and so you've seen yourself evolve as teachers, as well as musicians, and I'm wondering if it's just a natural evolution by which you become a better teacher or was it intentional for the two of you at least in some way to, to get better at the art and craft of teaching? And if so, what have you done? I mean, is it related to becoming a better self teacher or are they separate things altogether? How has that process or that journey been for you?

Jennifer: Do you wanna start? Okay, I'll start. Gosh, it's amazing and fascinating. I think, when I first started teaching, uh, so I studied with Julie Landsman at Juilliard and she was so nurturing with teaching her students how to become good teachers. Like she would let me come once I got a, a job, um, that was away from New York, cuz I first was in Jersey Symphony and I was too close to the age of her, you know, like I was just finishing up school.

Jennifer: But once I was in, St. Louis and I was like four or five years older than people. She would let me come to her master [00:27:00] classes at Juilliard and watch her teach. And then she would let me say like one thing to each person afterwards, and she would say things like, um, in a masterclass, try to say one good thing and then maybe two things to work on, or vice versa. But then figure out whether you wanna like say it as a big thought, or if you wanna sort of start at the beginning and work on each little thing, you know? Or if you wanna help them break it down to something, and then layer things on top. Kind of like think about it, like how are you teaching? And then she would say things like, look back to your own practicing and your own lessons and listen back to the tapes that you took of recording of your own lessons.

Jennifer: And I notice like how I taught you was how I practice and therefore how you can practice and therefore how you can teach as a starting point. And I thought it was so interesting cause I'm like, oh, there's a system that you do, and also things like, look at the person in front of you. They are not the same person as they were a week ago.

Jennifer: And they're not any stereotypes, you might have thought of them when they auditioned for you. [00:28:00] Like, okay, like they're a changing, evolving human that today is in need of something slightly different.

Jennifer: And then all the other influences of other teachers, who didn't spell it out for me, but I, I remember back to like, well, when someone was low energy, how Eric Ruske would like start gesturing and dancing around the room and was like phrase to here, do this da da da kind of constant cheerleader and how much that's in my playing and my high school teacher, the problem solving and what is the structure of that piece?

Jennifer: Like, Hmm. What are the compositional techniques? When does the harmony change? How do you build that? What do you think that's gonna mean? All the thoughtful things and all the exuberance things and all the problem solving things. And it's like, it's neat cuz as I go through the teaching part of my world, it's constantly all these different, suggestions and ideas come floating back to you.

Jennifer: And then yeah, at certain points I'll feel like, you know, I'm talking about technical stuff too much. I'm getting in the nitty gritty too much, and I'm not super inspiring right now. Like, where's my inspiration? I'm like, okay, well go listen to some recordings, drink a glass of wine and deep dive [00:29:00] on vocalists or old school fiddle players and like start with Heifetz and go .

Jennifer: Like get back into the groove of like what you love about this thing so that then your macro is there to balance out whatever micro analytical you might be throwing at your students. So yeah, I feel like, it's fun to try to look at yourself from, your past and then what you, what you want to give, like your ideals, I guess?

Jennifer: But I do think it's constantly changing, maybe better and worse. Like I don't think I'm even on a straight trajectory of becoming a better teacher. I think I'm just changing, but I'm trying to be thoughtful about it .

Catherine: Right. I, I remember, um, you know, Miss DeLay, who was kind of the ideal example of teaching her students how to teach themselves. In our master classes, she broke her studio down into these little small group classes. There were three to five of us, and we would meet every other week and someone would play, and then each of us would give a comment.

Catherine: And at that point, and then this was in college, I remember thinking to [00:30:00] myself, no one has ever asked me to comment on another person. And I was 18 years old and I was just so afraid and scared and just tense about the whole thing. And I remember really blanking out and thinking, I have no idea what to say.

Catherine: This person sounds phenomenal. What am I supposed to say? But through that paralysis, it absolutely worked. It just week after week, I could find my brain starting to change because of the fact that she would just wait there and look at me and not let me skip. You had to say something. So the act of that kind of opened up a new way of listening and, and, and also just the idea that you have a voice and that you're allowed to think and have your own opinions.

Catherine: I think that was key. So I always remember that with my students is meet them where they are, wait and give them space to have an opinion if they don't have one. And if they do have one, listen. They just need to be seen and heard, and when [00:31:00] you're listening to them, really try to understand what they're saying.

Catherine: And if you don't understand, ask questions and seek out the truth and, and that, you know, fluctuates from day to day, student to student, year to year. And so sometimes at the end of my day, I'll be going home and for sure I'm spending a couple of hours recapping the entire day and having different opinions about what I did, maybe what I could have done, maybe what I shouldn't have said, and, and just the act of giving yourself feedback.

Catherine: The next day you think, okay, maybe I'll do it a little bit better tomorrow. Cuz there's always room to keep adjusting. And I think that's what's so fun and fascinating about teaching is it's not right or wrong. There's, there's curiosity, there's figuring it out, there's experimenting. I'll go home and practice and try something out.

Catherine: It's like, you know, why can't this person do that? I'm like, and you know, you try to just experiment and seek answers for now. And, and when I look back on things that I said to my students you know, 30 years ago when I started, you know, I, I cringe and think, yeah, that [00:32:00] was really not very helpful advice. I think, I won't say that anymore.

Catherine: You know, I think it's just that combination, right. Of your, your former teachers, what you've learned along the way. Feedback, staying inspired yourself. I listen to a lot of podcasts. Brene Brown, I work with Dana Fonteneau. You know, just talk to Noa. Do this kind of conversation, you know, where you're constantly giving yourself opportunity to learn.

Noa: Do you guys take notes? Like, you know how in the practice room sometimes it's helpful to problem solve in writing and take notes and keep track of what you've been up to? Like, do you do the same for teaching as well? Not even just to remember what students have been bringing in, but, but for your own continued growth?

Catherine: Yeah, I do.

Jennifer: That's so cool.

Catherine: But it's more like little keywords. I don't write paragraphs like someone will play and I'll just have like three or four keywords, like bup bup bup bup bup. And it kind of helps me connect the dots with this is what I think is happening. Remember to follow up, you know? [00:33:00] Um, on that like at the moment because I think the vibe you're getting in the room is so different than what you thought happened tomorrow.

Catherine: And this is why they usually record their lessons. Cause the same thing happens to them. They think we did something and then they go back and listen and realize that's not what we did. So yeah, I do find it that it's helpful and I definitely journal very regularly just about the day. And it often includes kind of philosophical aspects of the teaching.

Catherine: Like maybe this week was a little, like you said, Jennifer, a little too micromanagement. You know, you didn't see the shine in the eyes with the students, so that means you were just digging a little too hard, too deep. You know, this one is getting complacent. You need to push them, you know, you can't wait forever.

Catherine: Maybe things like that.

Jennifer: Yeah, I definitely do the, like you said, the, the notes on each student and what they worked on and I'll be like, you know, feeling, you know, feeling insecure about blah, or like, like distracted and not as prepared [00:34:00] or, whatever they're going through.

Jennifer: But yeah, I haven't done that much in writing about my own stuff, which I think is a really cool thing. Cause a lot of those things are like late at night I'll be thinking about my students and like you said, just recapping what I did as a teacher and what I might wanna change so it'd be cool to put it in writing. Cause I think that would actually help for me to look back and see like what the pattern is. Cuz sometimes I think if I have a busy day of a busy week of work, like if I'm, if I'm very oriented for the playing aspect of things, sometimes you're more excitable in the lessons, but you're less specific because you're more on a roll yourself or whatever.

Jennifer: So you might bring different things depending on what your life is like as a player might in, you know, be influencing what you're doing as a teacher, which would be cool to see the patterns of that. One thing you said about that thing of, I'll try again tomorrow.

Jennifer: Like, my favorite, I have a fridge magnet, which is like, courage does not always roar. Sometimes it's the quiet voice in the night saying, I will try again tomorrow. It's so funny cause sometimes [00:35:00] I'll just have like a bad day and I'll just go to the fridge and just look at it and be like, Ok, cool.

Catherine: Well, you know, there's this one year where I had all of my students, write reflections during the week before I see them, and they had to keep it all into Google Doc and make a, like, they had to make a lesson plan for what they would like to see happening and then reflect on it and their practice.

Catherine: And I have to say, I saw such a change in the momentum and, and the growth of all of those students. It's very, very significant because by making them accountable for and responsible for their work, not just for their practice, but for all the deep work that they need to do. I listened to juries that year and I thought, okay, this is making a huge difference.

Catherine: I know the scales are really important too. And the etudes okay, but this other component was fascinating. So I decided to do my teaching assistant search that way. Cause I had [00:36:00] appointed up until that point. Um, every four years I shift. So this year or last year, I decided I wanna make them go through this process.

Catherine: So they had to apply, they had to send me their reflections, an artistic statement, give a master class. I had my former assistants watch and make comments and be part of the panel. So they had to really dig deep into why they wanted to teach and what teaching really is. And in studio classes, they get up to the front and give comments, and then teach a little mini master class just to make it feel natural and normal, you know, as opposed to, I remember feeling frozen.

Catherine: First time I had to give a master class, I thought, I don't want my kids to feel frozen, so let's just exercise that muscle. And you know, we all learn so much because these brilliant young people come up with this fascinating, unique perspective and they say things in their own way and it just inspires all.

Catherine: And I learn so much from listening to them. And you can see it in the eyes of the other students are just lighting up. So, Yeah, I [00:37:00] learned so much from, but you, you learn so much from them. They have so much to say.

Jennifer: No, I love that idea about the reflections. That is a brilliant idea. And, it's neat because a lot of our students are gonna end up wanting to do, pedagogy in universities or kind of making their own, uh, career outside of a chamber, like just chamber music or orchestra or soloist, like the three major boxes, you know, have become like a really interesting whole bunch of puzzle pieces and teaching's always a big part of that.

Jennifer: So yeah, I love the idea of giving them the real experience of what it would be like to, to be doing that as a, as part of your career or whatever. Yeah, I find, we're pretty lucky with the students we're getting to teach cuz they, they care so much and they're fricking brilliant and I love that whole thing of, um, of learning from everybody in the room.

Jennifer: Cause if you combined all of us, if there's like six of you in a room, if you combined all the best qualities of all of us. It's like we'd be, we'd be quite spectacular, you know, and it's like,[00:38:00] that whole, uh, every person's my teacher in some way.

Jennifer: Cuz then it's, it's not like you're. Like the world doesn't need any more, Dale Clevengers, they need a whole bunch of different people who bring lots of different things, but it's neat how it pushes, it pushes our field, you know? We did a horn class the other day for Curtis where we listened to old LPs, and just kind of deep dove into all the differences.

Jennifer: And so we'd pull out like two LPs of, two different, old legend horn players playing particular things. And it was fascinating. It was like, okay, imitate this person now, imitate this person. Now do your version with taking whatever you want from those things. And we're all like a little bit of what we've been inspired by and, and a little bit ourselves and a little bit of a conglomeration of stuff that we don't even know.

Catherine: That's so funny you bring that up. Last night my son pulled out our LP player actually. He's like, let's listen. I love listening. I have one at school too, because I think they're all listening on their phones, which is, you know, just horrendous. [00:39:00] But yeah, and, and he's, I said, so I have my feeling about LPs, why I want my students to listen, but I'd like to know why you wanted to do it today.

Catherine: He goes, you know, I don't know, there's just something cozy. I feel like the experience is completely different. I'm by the fireplace, I've got my blanket and slippers on, and I can just be with the music and I'm okay. That's great. Whatever you to just be with the music. Sometimes, everyone's in such a big hurry and they have such a long to do list.

Catherine: It's like we need time to just, just be with the music. So I love it that you do that with your class and um, you know, Juilliard has quite an extensive library of

Jennifer: An unbelievable library. Yeah. I used to work in the, listening library when I was in school. And I loved it. It was the best just because, yeah, I'd be, you know, sort of hitting my head against a wall trying to improve on something, and then I'm cleaning off some LP that somebody just brought back and I'm like, I could put it in and just listen a little, [00:40:00] you know, just sort like, okay. Yeah. It's funny how like influences ooze in and then, you don't even really realize that it's helping you unlock stuff that was frustrating to you.

Noa: I think a lot of times we see people, whether in their teaching capacity or performing capacity, do things that seem so effortless and natural and easy to them that, that they know weren't, but nobody else really does.

Noa: I'm just curious, like what are some of the things that have come easily to you, but also what are some of the things that have actually been kind of difficult. And maybe the world doesn't know, but, but ought to because sometimes we then give up when things are difficult because we think they're supposed to be easy, even if they're not.

Jennifer: You wanna go? Yeah. It's a real.

Catherine: That's a great question. So for some strange reason, memorizing music came very easily to me. So my teacher when I was in high school would give me Tchaikovsky concerto and then like [00:41:00] I would have it that week, like I could play it, and I had it from memory and it was like that with etudes but terrible at remembering dates.

Catherine: So I had a really difficult time when I came to Juilliard with music history. I just could not remember the dates of anything. I'd have a general feel, but if someone asked me like I'd have to work really, really, really hard, but memorizing. So it was very frustrating because I couldn't figure out the disconnect.

Catherine: Why is it that a topic I care so much about, music history, is it so difficult for me to remember these dates and yet it seems congruous with memorizing notes, you know, that you see on the page and putting back into your brain. So it was really, really challenging for me. I've worked really hard on that, on trying to just strategies , which, you know, Noa talks about all the time, which are so useful, you know, how you repeat something when and how often, and different ways [00:42:00] of repeating it so that it stays with you.

Jennifer: Yeah, no, that's, you're right about all the different ways and what you can do all, all the things you can throw at a topic or throw at a challenge. What just occurred to me when you asked that was that when I was in school, I felt like, it was very clear to me, like what I was naturally good at and I was really naturally not so good at.

Jennifer: And then the things that were in between , and Don Greene, actually when I was working with him, he would talk about taking, a list of excerpts and break it into one, two, and three. And it was interesting how that fragments your mind into different categories and it's like, okay, so maybe you would practice, like the three would be the wood shedding things that hit some of your technical challenges and you really need to break them apart, take 'em slurred, take 'em slow, build them back up, you know, kind of clean them up from the last time you played them, that kind of thing. And then two would be sort of a normal amount of practice and then one would be the easy ones where you could play along with recordings, maybe sing them and then [00:43:00] buzz them and then play them and decide what you want your interpretation to be. And then make sure that you're physicalizing what you want.

Jennifer: It was interesting how trying to look at it like a puzzle was helpful coming out of school and becoming my own teacher, cuz I think that's a period of time that we're never sure quite what to do. And we feel a little panicked a couple years out of school where we're just like, oh God. Like, what if I have all these weaknesses and I don't even know them? What if I'm, I'm letting things slide and I don't even know. And then, so I ended up with, my first injury was of my jaw.

Jennifer: I got in a car accident and I hurt my jaw really badly. And I couldn't play, for like eight months. And then I went to a neurologist and he said, okay, we'll go back to playing only between a middle C and a middle G. And he put electrodes all over my head and figured out that if I played only in that range, nothing lit up in terms of muscles that were getting whackadoodles.

Jennifer: So, he said between middle G and middle C, for, five minutes a day. Starting with slurred and then working your way [00:44:00] up from there. And then after two weeks of that you can add one minute or one half step and build out from there. And it was so frustrating first off, but then it was like, well what are the elements of horn playing?

Jennifer: If there's only between middle C and middle G, what do you do? And it was interesting cuz then I found myself thinking back to those times of trying to figure out how to practice the, the audition list. Like how do you build things up? How do you break things down? And then I found myself with bubble charts like these, these charts of everything relating to loud playing everything relating to lyrical, everything relating to high, everything relating to articulation, abrupt breathing, about this.

Jennifer: And what happened at the end of that was that I used to think that I was a really faulted, um, physical player. I used to feel like I just had technical issues out the wazoo. It's like my high loud was strained, my low articulator was unclear.

Jennifer: My, my middle register was bumpy, my low was weak. My high was, you know, I thought of myself as all of these fraught technical things, but like really [00:45:00] musical. Really pretty. Can play pretty, can play exciting, you know, it's like, can make an emotional impact. And at the end of it I was like, after you problem solve everything out and you, you separate out things, into little boxes and then you work up one little thing, it's like you actually can fix your problems quite well and build a foundation underneath it. And it was just very interesting cause it's like this really upsetting situation ended up making me feel like I have these foundations that now if I, if I need them, if I go back to being physically not, so, if I don't practice very much and I've got physical problems and technical problems coming outta my playing, it's like, okay, well at least I know how to build the foundation underneath it.

Jennifer: So it was an interesting learning experience for me as far as solving your own problems and dealing with what you think your weaknesses and strengths are.

Notes

  • I mentioned a metronome conversation that took place in Catherine’s podcast episode, which you can listen to here.
  • Catherine mentions teaching a community engagement seminar with cellist Natasha Brofsky. You can hear Natasha’s podcast episode with the late violist Roger Tapping here.
  • Jennifer mentions her teacher Julie Landsman, whose podcast episode you can listen to here.

More with Jennifer

You can connect with Jennifer and listen to more great interviews at her website:

More with Catherine

You can connect with Catherine and watch her teach a masterclass at her website:

Also, you can learn more about (and apply to) the 2023 Starling-DeLay Symposium, to which Catherine has recently been appointed Artistic Advisor:

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, with time and performance experience, the nerves would just go away.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and start enjoying more satisfying practice days that also transfer to the stage.

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