Julie Landsman: On Getting into the Zone and Developing Trust in Your Playing

I think most string players would have to admit that at some point in their lives, they showed up for an orchestra rehearsal less prepared than they’d like to be.

At least, I certainly remember the week during my first big summer festival when I felt overwhelmed by the part to Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta , and “hid” in the section a bit during rehearsals (and ok, part of the concert too).

Not one of my prouder weeks, but something a string player can get away with at times. But if you play an instrument like the french horn, it’s not so easy to hide! People notice if you come in late, crack a note, rush, or hesitate at the wrong time.

So I imagine it takes more than a little courage to sit in the wind/brass/percussion section of an orchestra and know that right or wrong, you’re just going to have to go for it.

Which of course is easier said than done! So…are these folks just naturally more courageous than the rest of us? Or is this kind of fearlessness a skill? Something that one can develop with the right kind of practice?

Meet Julie Landsman

Julie Landsman played principal horn in the Met Opera Orchestra for 25 years (BTW, the story of her winning audition was featured in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink), and has been an influential teacher to a generation of horn players.

In this ~32-minute chat, we’ll explore:

  • Why she subdivides 100% of the time – and how this relates to more accurate and effortless playing (1:26)
  • How Julie works on developing trust on stage (8:06)
  • The importance of musical thinking vs. physical thinking (12:27)
  • How Julie learned to overcome her difficulties with entrances, using a “countdown” (13:50)
  • Practice mode vs. performance mode, and the things Julie focuses on in the practice room and on stage (20:29)
  • The way in which audiences are “mind readers” (25:57)
  • Visualization, and how this fits into playing in such a way that it can bring an audience to tears (27:23)
  • How talent and hard work fit into achieving success (30:55)

Noa: A couple of years ago you produced these videos on the Caruso method, and there are some elements that I think are really universal that I'm curious to pick your brain about. There was something about subdividing that I found really intriguing and I'll tell you why later, but I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about the idea of subdividing and how that fits in in both the practice room and on stage too.

Julie: I subdivide 100% of the time, whether it's while teaching a student, whether it's while practicing, whether it's Caruso or music, and absolutely when I perform, just about every entrance for sure, and while playing, very diligently. So yes, subdivision is the glue that holds together all of the technical aspects of my playing so that my music making is free.

Noa: Could you tell me a little bit more ... like if I were psychic and I could tune into what's going on in your mind as you're playing. I wonder if you could describe the subdividing? Is it kind of an organic pulse, or is it like a sound, or is it numbers, or syllables? How does that subdividing sound, as it were, in your head?

Julie: It's a pulse inside of my tone that isn't an audible pulse to anybody listening, but it's a felt sense, kinesthetically. It's not a mental practice, but it's a very physically based feel of time.

Noa: The reason why I'm so curious about his is because I was at this chamber music festival one summer and Leon Fleisher was one of the coaches and he was trying to get us to subdivide more and at first we really didn't understand why or what he meant by subdividing. We thought that it was about the metronomic beat in our head because we might have been rushing or something and he quickly corrected us and then told us that wasn't the purpose at all, it was I think as you describe, essentially this underlying pulse to organically keep everything internally consistent. So if we were moving forward, the pulse would kind of move us forward and if we were taking time it would slow us down.

Noa: So that way, nothing was arbitrary, everything kind of fell into place even if we were taking time and being very free. That for me ended up being something that I could never not do anymore, it just was something that, especially in unaccompanied music like Bach, would just keep everything together, yet allow me to be free, if that makes any sense? So that's why I was really curious about if this is the same sort of thing as maybe what he was describing?

Julie: Yeah, well on one level, it's exactly what he was describing. It gives you the freedom and the flexibility to mess with the time but keep incredible structure within the time. So for sure, he and I are on the same page, but there's many different levels of how I put it to use and if you're curious about the true Caruso method and how the timing fits into that, Carmine was very much a chops doctor, a chops man, a coordination of what he called 200 moving muscles to fire at the same time.

Julie: So his approach, in a sports-like manner, is the coordination of getting everybody to move with precision and balance and ease, because the more coordination and balance there is, based on timing, the easier you move and the freer you are then to just be with the music and have the underlying technical structure in timing be already set based on how you practice your exercises, or whatever it is you choose to practice. He was specifically applying it to his method, but of course I apply it to everything.

Noa: Everything meaning not just music?

Julie: Music.

Noa: Oh, music, okay.

Julie: Well golf also, golf and swimming, I'm a swimmer, I also studied golf for a little while, not to very much success but there's an upbeat and a downbeat. The reason I stopped playing golf is because it reminded me of playing the french horn. The timing and the coordination is exactly the same and I figured if I did that with the horn and aiming and timing and hitting the right notes, I didn't need it also in my golf game.

Julie: But when I swim, I swim in 12/8-

Noa: How interesting.

Julie: ... I have three kicks to every stroke and I keep it very coordinated and very easy. I don't work hard, I can move fast or slow, it doesn't matter but most importantly, there's a timing and a coordination to my movement and my breath in my swimming.

Noa: I wonder if you could tell me a little bit more how you develop that? Because it's something that ... there was a study of javelin throwers at the Olympic level and there was this qualitative difference between the top maybe three javelin throwers, or the top five in the world, and those who are in the top 20 or 30 but not quite at that elite level. One of the differences was this focus on what they call rhythmicity, where the top javelin throwers really focused on throwing in rhythm, whereas the elite, but maybe not quite as elite javelin throwers, were often focused more just on trying to generate as much force as possible but maybe not in rhythm, which sounds like what you're describing.

Julie: Interesting. Yeah, very, very much so. So the ease of the coordination based on timing, gives you more efficiency. Things can move with the greatest of ease, it's possible to feel like you're a magician when you play your instrument and everything is easy and coordinated. Whereas if there's more over-efforting and less a sense of subdivision and timing, but of how to do it and how to make it happen on a more technically based level, I find it to be harder to achieve beautiful music.

Noa: If you had to try to illustrate or describe how you developed a sort of subdividing pulse internally, or how do you practice it, or cultivate that sort of trust and ease, are there certain principles involved, is it part of your warm up, or how do you develop that?

Julie: Well trust is really the word, right there. It's almost as if you have to trust if you jump off a cliff there's a net waiting for you. If I trust my timing in my movement, let's say I have a skip of a tenth and it's a Mahler symphony, or if it's Das Rheingold, if I'm subdividing those three eighth notes before the skip of a tenth and I just trust that if I'm exactly with the timing, I will move exactly right and land in the right place. And it is a huge trust issue. How do you develop the trust? Over time, and it's a developed skill.

Julie: So for me, I was a very lucky young girl in that we started the Caruso method back in junior high when I was a young player. My band director, Joe Greco at Ardsley High School, brought Carmine in to work with our high school band. We used to practice his exercises as a band, which was a wonderful band, but more importantly, there began my ability to incorporate subdivision at a young age with no effort, it was easy at that point because I hadn't really developed deep-seated habits that didn't include habits. Then it went further in that my horn teacher in high school, after Joe Greco, Howard Howard, the other former principle horn of the Met, also studied with Carmine. So my young years included subdivision from a very early age.

Noa: Yeah, I think if I look back, or even if I watch my daughter practice, there's a big emphasis on getting the note that you're going to, but I don't know that I ever really thought about the interval in between. As in, are my hand and fingers moving in rhythm to get there, not just accurately, but get there with the right sort of timing in between that space, if that makes any sense? So it's this-

Julie: Of course.

Noa: ... I understand that that's part of what you practice also, getting there with rhythm.

Julie: Of course and you don't start with a tenth, you start with seconds.

Noa: Okay.

Julie: And build up to thirds, fourths, et cetera. There's a lot of finesse to the method but that skipping of a tenth, after developing the skill of practicing tenths away from Das Rheingold, is easily coordinated but it's a leap of faith because you can't manipulate it or force it into place. That I feel gets in the way, so I get students, usually around the age of 18 to 21 is when they normally start with me, if they start younger, even better. I've got one fellow right now, do you know who Nathaniel Silberschlag is?

Noa: I have not met him, no.

Julie: Okay, he's at Julliard and he just won his first professional job at age 19, but we just have been working together since he was a youngster, even younger than Julliard age, since high school, and we've been doing the Caruso for as long as I did it as a kid. So if you get them really young and get them trained to depend on timing and develop and trust, it can be magical to play, magical.

Noa: I like the timing and the pulse issue too, that's something that you have absolute control over and it's a lot of times tempting for us to focus on things that we don't have quite as much control over, like whether we're going to nail that shift, or be able to execute this particular passage. But we can absolutely control the focus on timing and pulse, which is, it sounds like, one of the key ingredients to nailing it anyway which is sometimes a little bit less out of our control.

Julie: Yeah and horn players, probably just like any other instrumentalists, can get very distracted with how to move. Put this finger here, put the tongue there, make sure this is going on and that, a lot of variables to keep track of and a lot of them can be deal-breakers for music making. That's just not musical thinking, that's physical thinking. In the Caruso method, in my exposure with it, and the way I emphasize with my students is to trust that the timing will coordinate the movement for you and it does, absolutely it does. You just need experience of practicing with it, away from performance, so that in performance, it's there for you.

Noa: Right, right. So that means that you don't practice like you perform, obviously. There's something that you do in the practice room that you can then trust when you get out on stage?

Julie: That does not mean that I don't subdivide it, I do.

Noa: Right.

Julie: But I practice the subdivision away from work.

Noa: Right, right, so that when you do go to work it's something that is already baked in.

Julie: Oh yeah, it's very automatic for me and if I find that I'm having trouble with something in a passage at works for example, I'll subdivide it even more conscientiously to really clean it up. Especially entrances, Noa. Especially being set and ready to play before the note comes out. Lot of horn players are known for missing first entrances, I certainly had troubles in my first years at Julliard, where I was depending on the upbeat of a conductor, and less on my own sense of timing. I learned at a very young age that that wasn't a smart thing to do.

Noa: You know, that's interesting. I wonder if you could say a little bit more about that? There's a famous violin teacher who once said something along the lines of, "Always continue, never begin." Which is kind of what popped into my mind when you were talking about entrances. How do you do that? How do you practice in the way that you're describing?

Julie: Well I know for wind players, we have to breathe and we have to get our support ready and our air ready to move, and our tongue in position, there's so many variables that go into the beginning of a note that I encourage myself and my students to really be ready before they try to play a note, to not just pick the horn up and throw it on their faces and expect beauty, or expect precision. In order to have that precision, all your ducks need to be in a row. It needs to become automatic with practice and timing and time but there's a real important order of events that takes place before beauty comes out of your instrument, before accuracy comes out of your instrument. Otherwise, one of these 200 muscles may be going in another direction, or may not be firing up with everybody else, so there's a real sense of ... I call it a preset, yah, bah, bah bah, play, is always there, but I might have breathed a bit before that and my belly is the first thing that gets set to move the air forward.

Julie: So I'll inhale, and my belly will be set, and the air will be released after the fourth sixteenth note but my chops are already set. Everything's in place before the air gets released to make the lips vibrate. Just like with a bow. Isn't the bow on the string, or nearby, in the neighborhood?

Noa: You know that's something that I never thought about either when I was practicing, right? Like you just start and it usually works in the practice room, so you don't worry about it and then suddenly on stage, you do worry about it because you don't actually remember how you start something. Does it start here in the bow, or there in the bow, or off the bow, or off the string, or how far off the string when you start going down? I think it's important to kind of choreograph all that, even though in the practice room that doesn't seem like an important thing.

Julie: I think it's essential, especially in auditions, when you transition from excerpt to excerpt, to have yourself set for the next one based on a pre-designed set of timing. How many beats am I going to count? Where am I going to breathe? Where will I be set and where am I playing? That's basics for transitioning and accuracy.

Noa: What I like too, that it sounds like each one is different, just like you have this countdown that leads you into the piece, or the excerpt, rather.

Julie: Absolutely. I mean, there's going to be more that goes into it besides just a countdown, you want to know the character and hear it. Some of that, for me comes pretty darn automatic, but in ... I've been at it a long time, but in teaching students, there's a lot of way to unlock their creativity, and I would say with each student, there's variation and difference. For me, I'm highly inner visual, so I might see a color, or I might see the face of a loved one, or I might feel something in my heart that will open up when I play. I've got various ways of bringing the creativity and beauty into my already precision timed approach.

Noa: So there's like a ... kind of a character mood element that's part of your lead in?

Julie: Absolutely, absolutely, and it changes per student and it changes for me per piece, and per occasion, depending on how high the stakes are. I might have those images and pre-rehearsed scenes, whatever it is that inspires me, ingrained into my imagination so that I'm there rather than in a worried state.

Noa: Right. If you had to kind of package it all together then, not to over simplify it, but it sounds like there's a character and a mood triggering some kind of phase of this lead in and then there's the getting into rhythm, cueing up, the coordination of muscles part. Are there other things too or are those the two main elements?

Julie: Well, yeah, there's other things. If I'm in an ensemble, listening skills are essential. Listening to what's around you, understanding where your entrance fits in, or while you're playing, how it coordinates with those around you. So it's like 360 degree listening skills. That's how I do it. A lot of people, it might be more visually based, but having spent much of my career in the Met pit, where I can't see half of my colleagues across the pit, who I'm playing with, there's a lot of listening and sensing and mind reading, which I've become pretty good at. I don't know how it happened, but over the years you just get more tuned in to your environs and what's around you and what's happening, and your part in the ensemble.

Noa: I'm curious about the difference between what you're attuned to when you're practicing, versus what you're attuned to when you're performing, because there's certainly some overlap but I'm increasingly curious about this difference between practice mode and performance mode, where there are different things that we need to attend to and focus on and so forth. Some of which can be actively unhelpful if we use it in the wrong situation. So when you're practicing-

Julie: Like what?

Noa: Well, so one of the essential keys to practicing effectively is this ability to self-monitor, right? To listen to what just happened-

Julie: Yes, yes.

Noa: ... so we can stop and address and kind of refine and tweak things. Whereas if we self-monitor too much on stage, I think there's a tendency to find ourselves constantly in the past, or dwelling on what just happened, as opposed to creating each next new moment.

Julie: Not only dwelling in the past, but tying yourself up in knots with TMI.

Noa: Too much information, you mean?

Julie: Yes, yeah. My students come in all shapes and forms and many of them will look back at what just happened and it destroys what's coming up, and many of them will micro manage what needs to happen and it ties them up in knots. So it's a high wire act for sure and how do you get the right balance of elements in there? I guess part of my practice mode and what I teach in practice mode, is to develop the reflexive skills to trust your technique. I personally do it primarily through the Caruso method, and the timing of that. There's many other ways to skin a cat, it's not the only way in, it's the way I know best and the way I use every day, and it's what I use in my teaching. Again, there's many ways in.

Julie: As far as how do you monitor and listen to yourself in the practice room, was that the question, Noa? Bring me back to that, excuse me.

Noa: Yeah, well I think what I'm curious about is how practice mode looks for you versus how performance mode looks for you, and how you-

Julie: Okay.

Noa: ... get better at both.

Julie: Got you. So a lot of my practice at this point in my career is based on practicing technique that will make the music at hand easier. So if I need to build up endurance for the upper register, I'll tailor my practicing in that way. If I need to work on articulation, or faster articulation for the last movement of the Brahms Horn Trio, I won't practice the part that much Noa, but I'll practice things that will make the part easier for me, in the form of scales or arpeggios, or articulation exercises that make playing that 6/8 rhythm in an easy manner much more within my grasp.

Noa: I guess what I'm curious about with practice mode too is what you listen for, or how you listen, versus how you listen or what you listen for when you're performing it? Does that make sense?

Julie: Yes, I think in performance, I up the creativity. My ears are more open because again, I'm with other people, and I use that as inspiration. I also have an audience and I use that as inspiration. Perhaps in my imagination, there's key people in that audience that I'll want to direct my playing toward, or perhaps in the performance, there's beautiful sounds around me and I'll intentionally induce a state of love, that I love the way this person sounds. Oh my God, I did the Tombeau de Couperin last night, this music is like eating candy, it is so beautiful and I put myself with great intention in a state of absolutely loving what I'm hearing and being a part of an ensemble, because you can get very profoundly isolated and alone in a performance, and get tied up and anxious, and that doesn't lead to your best playing.

Julie: So, the more you can connect in a performance with your audience, your players, your own heart, your own feelings about loving what's going on, the more you're going to sound amazing. It brings so much dimension and color and beauty to your performance, as long as your technique and your ease is already there, from what you've done in the practice room.

Noa: Right, well it sounds like a much more engaging experience for the performer as well, to not have to worry and be obsessed, like you said kind of in your own head, about the mechanical and technical details.

Julie: 100%, and the audience are mind readers, they get it if you're with them and loving what you're doing, and they get ... or they don't get it if you're stuck in trouble, or worry mode, or how to do this, or, "Gee, now I have to move down through the registers, how do I place my tongue?" Or, "Oh my God, there's a low C coming up," and then everything before the low C is a disaster. Or if there's a high C coming up and everything before the high C is tight and pinched and sharp, or you miss it because you're in the future. It's crazy. It can be crazy making, so I try to get in my performance mode scenario, and it's not the same for everyone, but there's definitely similarities for me, and it's changed over the years. I've been playing a very long time and at many different levels of experiences of joy as well as anxiety and concern. You need to have that exposure over time to know what works for you and I think having a good teacher is a really good thing. You need a teacher that's going to help guide you and bring out for you what's the most important.

Julie: For example, one of my graduating seniors right now, someone I'm going to miss terribly, is just such a creative artist. He's highly visual and he has a scene, hiking in Yosemite with his family looking over a lake. Do you know how many times we've pulled that lake up in lessons to make him sound beautiful? Constantly. Another one of my current students is from Florida and her beach is her world. Well, there's so many boats on the water, or sunrises at the beach that inspire her to focus on that as opposed to, "Oh my God, I'm worried about this entrance." That isn't to say that timing doesn't run the show, it does, but the creativity added to the timing, especially when you want your performance to really rise above average, is an important factor.

Julie: It does mean you have to practice these things, and I'll sometimes give people a guide ... I call it a guided meditation but it's really a guided visualization, on how to approach an audition or a performance. I've used them a lot myself, a lot, and sometimes it brings me almost to tears when I'm performing, because they're so poignant and so touching. My performances bring the audiences to tears when I do that, I've been told so, it's really fun, really fun. Hard work, a huge commitment of your time, energy and heart space, but that's what makes it all worthwhile.

Noa: Great, well it sounds like what you do in lessons some of the times then, is help your students practice flipping the switch then, and getting into performance mode because I'm assuming other parts of the lesson are definitely in practice mode?

Julie: Oh yes, yes. I do show them the way to do that as well, it's certainly important. Sometimes I'll ask them to use performance mode in the lesson. I'll say, "Come in and let's work on it and now let's go to a more creative place to bring in what I'm hearing that's not happening, which is that it's not that interesting, or the sound is dry. How are we going to juice it up? How are we going to make this attention grabbing?"

Noa: That must be fun for students too, right? To have moments where you're definitely in kind of nuts and bolts, and then moments where you might essentially be saying, "You know what? Just forget about that for the moment and let's work on having fun, or creating beauty," and so forth.

Julie: I hope it is. I'm a pretty demanding teacher, I wonder who comes into lessons and leaves saying, "That was fun," or, "Gee, that was hard work but I got a lot out of it." I think each student's experience is different and I treat them all differently because some of them need kicks in the butt, and some of them need soothing and asking them to back off and focus on things that are going to make it easier for them. So it's very individual, very individual.

Noa: As it should be, I think, because we're all different, we all need different things at different times.

Julie: Well and it's fun for me, Noa, that's one of the things I love about the art of teaching, is that if you know your customer, as I refer to my students, know your customer and know what they need, and know how to get the best out of them, and know how to teach them in the best way possible to get the most out of their talent.

Julie: Talent comes in many forms as well, if I could just talk about that for a moment. Talent doesn't necessarily mean it's dripping out of your pores, that you're the greatest musician. I've had students succeed who just work so damn hard and really are applying themselves in a very diligent manner, and on the converse, I've had the most talented students ever who can't apply themselves, which just breaks my heart because they've got all the possibility of conquering the world and they can't put in the work, they don't have the discipline.

Julie: I mean, if you get a combination of both, then you can really fly but the ones who are super talented that don't do the work, mm-hmm (negative), it's not going to happen. The ones with a little less of that super talent but a serious work ethic can get a lot done. Those are the ones I really try to get the creative element brought in, because part of talent is also naturally knowing and hearing music, and some of them that don't have that piece, I try to help them with that through some of the creative visualization, or hearing, or the connections that I was referring to before.

Noa: Well maybe that's a good place to wrap up then, thank you for your time as always and I hope your summer is an enjoyable one.


[1] The very first thing in this chat was a reference to the videos Julie produced on the Caruso method. (1:07) For more about this, check out Julie’s instructional video series:

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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