Have you ever gotten discouraged because it felt like you started something too late? Or that you were too “old?”
Like, maybe the voice in your head has been telling you that you are too “old” to win an orchestra job.
Or it says that you started taking piano lessons “too late,” so now you need to play catch-up and work twice as hard on everything from your technique to repertoire to sight-reading to theory, ear training, and all the things that every other pianist seems to have learned long ago?
Or maybe that voice tells you that you’re both too late and too old? And that it’s not possible at this point to learn how to double tongue, become local pickleball champion, or build a social media empire around your spoon playing talents?
That voice can get pretty loud sometimes. And it can be pretty convincing too.
So how do we get the voice to shush? And make room for the possibility that maybe we’re capable of more than we think?
Finding a different narrative
One way of building confidence involves editing the story we tell ourselves. And learning about others who have overcome the same mental barriers we are facing, can be a real help.
For instance, it was thought for many years that running a mile in under four minutes was impossible. And then Roger Bannister ran a 3:59:04 in May of 1954.
This seemed to unlock something in the track community, because his competitor John Landy ran a 3:57:09 the next month. And then 15 other runners proceeded to do so over the next three years.
I’ve certainly experienced the too late/too old narrative myself over the years, and it’s a fear that I hear pretty regularly from musicians of all ages and levels.
So I thought it might be helpful to chat with a musician whose career dispels the too late/too old narrative, and decidedly did not follow the typical path and timeline that one would expect of most orchestral musicians.
And who might that be?
Meet Kim Laskowski
Bassoonist Kim Laskowski has been associate principal bassoon of the New York Philharmonic since 2003 – winning her position at the age of 48. As a freelancer, Broadway musician, and member of the New York City Ballet Orchestra and Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra at various points in her career, she also has many TV, radio, and film score credits to her name, plus two platinum records for CD’s she recorded with 10,000 Maniacs.
Kim also serves on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music and The Juilliard School.
In today’s episode, we’ll explore…
- 2:44 – Kim’s initial inspiration, the bassoonist whose recording “captivated” her, and the journey that led her from freelancing to winning the NY Phil job at age 48.
- 11:28 – what did Kim’s audition preparation look like?
- 15:17 – the most useful thing Kim’s teacher ever said to her (even though it was difficult to accept at the time).
- 17:12 – the skill her French classmates had that she didn’t, which she feels was the key to their ability to learn new music faster than she could.
- 20:38 – the thing that gave Kim a “big boost” of encouragement and kept her going in her preparation for the NY Phil audition.
- 21:40 – the question you should ask yourself when listening to a recording in order to get the most out of it.
- 24:52 – the number of repetitions Kim puts in that seems to work wonders for her playing.
- 30:39 – Playing fast didn’t necessarily come naturally to Kim – so how did she figure out how to play fast?
- 32:10 – What is Kim listening for when she’s practicing?
- 33:40 – The importance of telling a story or having a message in your orchestral audition.
- 35:17 – Kim explains why trying to do things in your orchestral audition that are “original” is a mistake. She also explains what you should do instead.
- 40:47 – What are some of the confidence-building strategies Kim used in the early part of her career at the NY Phil?
[00:00:00] Today I'll be chatting with bassoonist Kim Laskowski, who is currently on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music and The Juilliard School and has been associate principal bassoon and the New York Philharmonic for nearly 20 years, a job that she won when she was 48.
In today's episode, Kim will share her journey from freelancing, to the New York City Ballet, to the New York Phil, plus insights on how to listen to yourself, how to listen to others, the exact number of repetitions that seems to work wonders for her, how she learned to play fast, how to build confidence and much more.
There are quite a few things that come up in this episode that might require additional context. Like references to books and articles and previous podcasts interviews. I've put links to all of these in the show notes for this episode, which are available at bulletproofmusician.com/blog. So without further ado, let's get started with [00:01:00] the episode!
Noa: When we read someone's bio, it, it generally fits together really nicely and tells us a story that makes a lot of sense. The reality of course, is that usually the person's path was a lot messier and not nearly as linear as it looks in hindsight. And the most important part of the journey that doesn't show up at all on the bio is the "how" part of the story, right?
Like how do they make the transition from one part of their career to another, or how do they get the opportunity in the first place or prepare themselves to be successful when it did present themselves or motivate themselves to keep going through difficult patches or believe that they were capable and all those other things.
So you've been associate principal bassoon at the New York Phil for almost 20 years now, but my understanding is that your path to that position was a rather atypical one. So I'm really curious to learn more about the how part of your story. But I'm thinking we might need a little bit of context first, to understand just how unusual a journey it's been.
And so I wonder if the best place to start would be to ask you if you could share a little bit about [00:02:00] what the journey has looked like? And I'm not sure where the best place to start that is. But, I'll leave that up to you to figure out where this part of the journey story starts.
Kim: The best jumping off place is the fact that I won the job at the New York Philharmonic at age 48, and I really had no symphonic history before that. And I think that we can jump to when I was 15 and I heard a recording of Maurice Allard, probably the most famous bassoon player of the 20th century, and I was captivated.
So my only goal in life at that point was to get to study with him. And while I [00:03:00] was at Juilliard, I took some auditions and made the finals of my first two auditions while I was a masters student. But I had no intention of going to those jobs and I wasn't ready psychologically to go to a job either.
I wanted to go on my big adventure. So I applied for a Fulbright scholarship and I ended up studying with him at the Paris Conservatory for two years. And I was pegged to go back for a third year, but I got very homesick for New York and I couldn't really see my future in France because I didn't know how things worked.
I could take auditions, but I had this feeling that, foreigners weren't welcome, which was just my projection because I think that I probably could have gotten a job and stayed [00:04:00] there. When you're from New York City, it's really hard to part with it, and I just could not, so I went home and I was playing the French bassoon at that time because in Maurice Allard's class you had to play the French bassoon, which was a different instrument than we played here in the United States.
So, I spent two years without playing the bassoon and I was trying to get my life together because I had no money. I didn't come from a family that could help me, as much as they wanted to, but it was a, you know, a staunchly working class family. My father was a bricklayer and my mother had been a stay at home mom for most of my life, until then. So, at some point I took the bassoon up again, but I went back to my Heckel bassoon, which is the system that they play here in the United States [00:05:00] and I waited until people called me for jobs and I spent really a long time, I'd say at the lowest level of freelancing, and, I did what they called "junk work."
I had to do other jobs while I was waiting to have my career develop, and I did things like work in a flower shop. I worked at Dean and DeLuca when it just was opened. I almost went to hotel and restaurant school to become a chef. But I started working and I remember when I hit five figures, it was $12,000 for a year.
That was such a big event in my life. I was not going to orchestral auditions. My life was so different than the majority of the people that, I was working with and I always wanted to travel a [00:06:00] lot and have, you know, big travels and adventures and I still do. So. I felt I could exist without having a job, and I really could.
It, it turned out very well for me. It was slow, but eventually I was appointed principal bassoon of Mostly Mozart, and I was second bassoon at the New York City Ballet. That was in 1999. Only a few years before the New York Philharmonic asked me to be acting associate principal while they held another audition, and I was doing the job while I went through the audition process.
That was interesting because I wasn't even going to audition. I still had that self doubt. So I asked my colleague to listen to my excerpt. And that was Judith LeClair. We were in the [00:07:00] dressing room and I said, I'm not sure if I should take this audition. I had been playing at the Phil for two months and I played some excerpts for her and she said, Well, I think you'll kick yourself if you don't take the audition.
So I did, and the first audition was in December of 2002. I was the, only person that had advanced to the finals and at that time they didn't like it if just one person, was in the finals. So they, ended the audition and told me that they weren't giving me the job, but I could come to the next audition that they were going to organize.
And that was six months later. And I had to go back to my job at the ballet. So I did go back and then I started preparing for that second set of auditions, which was an invited round. They invited people [00:08:00] from different orchestras and I had to play against them and I was the final person and they made me come back during the week to play with the orchestra and I had played principal with the orchestra really a lot.
So, but I did go back and that afternoon they gave me the job, and on some levels I think that, I wasn't afraid at that point because I had all this great work. I, I adored my job at the New York City Ballet. That was a fun job. And, I loved playing it at mostly Mozart and in the other, you know, the other five weeks of the year that I didn't have, work with those groups, I was freelancing and I did a lot of, film work and commercial [00:09:00] things and, I used to sub in shows, but I stopped doing that, because I found that very stressful, more stressful than any of these other jobs that, that I was doing.
So, and that's how I won the job. But it was funny because I heard, I'm not sure if this story is true, someone said, that in a way they might have been hesitant to hire me because I didn't have a job somewhere else before and I was already old. And, I heard that the conductor had said, Well, where does she play?
And the person answered, Well, she's second bassoon at the ballet. And he said, Oh, that music is harder than anything we have to play - give her the job. So, I've really enjoyed my time at the Philharmonic. I, it's something that I never thought would happen to me. I mean, I wasn't even looking for it, you know?
Noa: It sounds to me like you really built up a [00:10:00] diverse career of activities that required that you cultivate a great deal of range, perhaps, on your instrument. And, I saw, or I read somewhere, that you had been doing some improvisational music and rock music and, you know, just different, and even Broadway, like the whole, the whole thing.
It reminds me of, some of the, the research in motor learning, which suggests that, to be able to cultivate more robust skills, we actually have to practice a wider range of things instead of just a very narrow specific range of things. And even your experience, I know nothing about the difference between French bassoon and German or other types, but I imagine that there's an expansion of range that you needed to cultivate in order to be able to adapt to these different types of instruments as well.
And. I don't have a specific question. I suppose I probably should, but what I'm really curious about is what the preparation looked like in terms of [00:11:00] being able to go from the freelance work that you were doing to being more prepared and feeling confident going into Mostly Mozart and New York City Ballet, and then eventually into the New York Phil. Cause I know that you were very thoughtful about practice and preparation and I'm wondering what the evolution of that was like, and what you needed to do to be able to, be successful in those positions.
Kim: I'm really smiling when you're asking me that question because there's this whole story behind that. You know, I, I played a lot of Broadway and I never had my own show until, Well, I, I started playing in 1988 at Phantom (of the Opera) as the principal sub. And then, I got a job, playing The King and I, and it was a two year run.
And when that was over, I was gonna miss that weekly paycheck. So I decided that I was going to make a game for myself, which was. [00:12:00] If I practiced more, was my phone gonna ring more? Well, let me tell you, it did. So in the practicing, my specific goal was to become proficient at the things that I was weak in.
I didn't know how to double tongue. So, because at the time that I was in school, it was not a required skill. And people, went, you know, their whole career without learning how to do that. And it was especially difficult for me because I couldn't even say duga, duga, you know, like that without a reed in my mouth.
So I was, in my early forties before I could really double tongue. So I learned how to do that, and then I quantified what would make me a more, I wanna say legit player cuz that's what we would call it. A legit player. And then there's like, you know, more popular [00:13:00] music. So I decided that, I was really just going to go for this symphonic style, which I had been trained in because I studied with the associate principal of the New York Philharmonic.
And although I don't remember anything he said to me, it must have been really effective because I still, I played in that style. That was the natural thing for me to go to. And so, I made a game of this and I did get so much more work because when you start practicing on a regular basis with a, with a structure and with a concept of what you're doing, and you are achieving what you're trying to do, your whole being changes. And so when you sit in the chair, you are already giving the impression with your, your carriage and your playing that you are, confident in what you're doing. And I [00:14:00] think that, people, can do that. It's very effective.
Noa: Was it hard to identify weaknesses? If not logistically or practically then maybe mentally or in terms of managing your ego, like? What did that process look like, of identifying, Okay, these are the things I feel least comfortable with, or maybe are least good at?
Kim: I'm gonna tell a story about Maurice Allard and how I was sitting in the class, with, 12 other bassoonists, cuz we didn't have private lessons. We had two master classes per week that were three hours long and that was torture. And I would practice and practice, but when I'd come into class, I'd completely fall apart.
And my teacher always said exactly what he was thinking and it was sometimes very difficult. I think he said to me something that cut me to the quick, but was the most [00:15:00] useful thing that anybody ever said to me, which was, "You don't assimilate fast enough." And I went home and cried. I did not figure out how to do that until I was in my forties.
When I did the game, you know, how am I gonna get better? And how am I gonna improve all the things that, I was not good at? And, that was, the turning point for me. And now, more than ever. And I tell that story a lot because I have students saying to me, You know, I can't learn the whole etude in a week, and I can help them with that because that was a difficult for thing for me to do.
And getting into the process of that and how so many people, different people deal with that is another thing. And, and you know, I think that. [00:16:00] I think in your last podcast, or that was on Sunday or something, I think that you were talking about a lot of stuff that related to that.
Noa: Actually, I'd love to hear you talk more about this if possible, cuz I think one of the things that people often ask about is, you know, how to learn faster or how to get it into your body, get it into your head, get it into your fingers faster and, and yeah, I'd love to hear you say more about how you were able to figure this out.
Kim: Well, yeah. I mean, the thing is when we're playing orchestral excerpts, we only have a small excerpt and then pretty easy to memorize that. But memorization really comes into it a lot because well, look, first of all I wanna say that when you're in the class with 12 other kids who were playing the bassoon and they were all educated in France, in the conservatory system where they have to take solfege in the municipal conservatory before they're even allowed to play an instrument.
That's how it still was at that time. [00:17:00] So when they came into class, they could solfege the whole piece that they were playing. Unless you were trained to do that pretty early. It, it's hard because it takes a long time to attain the skill of solfeging if you weren't doing it from an early age. But there's always some way that you can, learn something, but it takes many different, skills.
So you have the aural memory. And people don't understand how important that is in learning, because most people are just looking at music and reading it. Yes, they hear it, but they're not using, hearing it as a way to make sure that they play the right notes. So I think that's really important that, you, if you know the piece, I can hear it or sing it. You're probably gonna have a good chance [00:18:00] of playing more right notes to begin with. But then there's muscle memory and there's visualization, which can help muscle memory.
Then there's just playing through the material without stopping and being able to hold your concentration to have your aural memory, your muscle memory, and your visualization. Because I'll actually visualize my fingers playing certain things. I can look at a passage now and think about how I would move my fingers and then just play it like that.
So you think that, okay, I'm learning this piece, and, how am I supposed to work on it to get it to the point where I could play it without too many mishaps? Once you're doing all these other [00:19:00] steps and some of them take a lot of repetition. I think that's an important thing too, which I'd like to talk a little bit about after I finish this.
You have to practice the skill of being, for, you know, five minutes to play a whole etude. And you can set up, your recordings, equipment and you could play it and not let yourself stop. Because a lot of people just stop. I mean, I used to do that all the time. But you can't do that, you know. So it takes all these different skills and every day I would like dream up some other thing that would help me to do the stuff I needed to do.
And recording myself constantly, constant, mock auditions, even just for myself. And I followed Performance Success. I couldn't have gotten my job without Performance Success. That's an activity book and when you recommend it to students, they don't really understand that it has to be [00:20:00] adhered to from the beginning to the end, or else you're not gonna get the full benefit of this.
Noa: So when you recorded, a couple things. One, I'm curious, the importance of not stopping, but the other is, did you listen back to all the recordings or sometimes was it just recording for the sake of recording?
Kim: I listen back every day. I'm, I'm recording every day, just in my regular life for my job, or I wanna know how it sounds.
And that that was a big thing at the Philharmonic audition. We didn't have the technology that we have now, but I had this Sony professional Walkman, and the most powerful thing was after all this practicing work I did when I would listen back to it.
I couldn't believe that I actually could play like that, and that was a big, boost of encouragement. I mean, that was the thing that kept me going. I would record an an excerpt and say it sounded good, you know, So it would keep me going when you listen to yourself. Yeah, well that's an art and [00:21:00] listening is probably the most important thing that people can do.
Noa: Actually, can you say more about that? Because I think listening is, for many folks, one of the least favorite things involved in the recording process and. And I'm wondering, you know, what to listen for, how to listen.
Kim: Now when I'm saying listening, I meant listening to music, and then of course that's related to, listening to yourself back. But when you're listening to music, Yeah. that's difficult to even choose the right stuff to listen to. It's, inspiring and you try to do things to achieve the same kind of expression in your sound.
Everything aside, our job is to express. And the preparation is, to create art. S o when you're listening to recordings, you have to [00:22:00] ask yourself, why do you like it? Is it because they have great technique and you don't have great technique? Or is it because you are so taken with what they're doing you're feeling it. That's a big thing for me, you know, that's why I always, love to listen to my teacher because no other person on the bassoon recording ever sounded like that to me, even though he was playing the French bassoon and had a different sound. I listened, the more concepts of what I wanted to do. You know, I was inspired
Noa: How do you incorporate listening into your process? Like, is it something you do earlier on and in the process of trying to cultivate the sound that you're aiming for in your head? Or is it something you do throughout the process of learning or maybe later on?
Kim: Throughout the process. Because I, I had a teacher in high school and every week she just used to ask me, What do you wanna sound like? How do you want your sound to be? [00:23:00] And so I, I would listen to recordings of bassonists. An American bassoonist wouldn't have gone to listen to a a French player.
It was by accident that I heard that. And then, it didn't matter whether you were playing the German bassoon or the French bassoon, if you heard a sound like that, it was like, oh, so much resonance, so much, um, emotion in the sound, so expressive. It's just not a beautiful sound. Beautiful sound is tied into how you're playing the music. Your sound needs to express cuz you know, while you're playing every note has to have it's own sound that's appropriate for that point in the phrase, and not only does sound express, but the articulation that you use also does, and color and, there's just an endless amount of things to express with, and that takes having a concept in your head of, what you want to express.
Noa: So it sounds like that [00:24:00] concept is really important and it takes work to cultivate that. So you have something that you're aiming for. Sounds like recording is part of that as well. Making sure that what you think is coming out of your instrument actually is coming out of your instrument. And you, you mentioned repetition being part of the process as well.
How does that fit into the equation?
Kim: That's funny because. I don't know. I read somewhere, I can't even remember. It said if you practice something 21 times in a row or you have to repeat something 21 times for it to be imprinted on your neural pathways and, it is good if it happens over like a period of 21 days. I don't know, maybe I dreamt this.
So I tried that and it really worked. But of course as you, I think it, it was might have been you or somewhere I read. The way you do the repeats [00:25:00] have to be, you can't just like, repeat it 21 times in some stupid way because it's gonna come out sounding bad.
It has to be correct in, time, rhythm, intonation and expression, with the appropriate, details, that's going to define it as relative to the work, and this works for me because I was, you know, as I said, I had that learning problem, which was more about my confidence in myself, and if you're not confident, you really can't concentrate on what you're doing.
That's a whole other thing. But a student of mine who I saw like just a couple of days ago, he lives in Germany. He used to laugh at me when I would say that, and then he graduated and he went for his master's degree in Europe and he came over to play for me and he said, I took what you said seriously [00:26:00] and as an experiment, and he proceeded to stand up and play for a good 15 minutes.
This incredibly hard concerto perfectly from memory.
And he's still in denial about the 21 times , but you know, he tried it out and I guess it worked for him.
Noa: So when you say 21 times, does it mean like 21 run-throughs of a concerto consecutively, or is
Kim: It's any, it's, It could even be a three note motif.
Noa: is there like a separation between them that works for you or is it like in one chunk or...
Kim: When I was preparing for the Adams Chamber Symphony, I could not process this thing. So my son, who really influences me a lot in his, his practice journey, said, Look, why don't you copy it and cut the little phrases that you're having difficulty with, [00:27:00] and you'll cut them into a piece about, you know, uh, three measures long, you know, however long the phrase is.
And then, just put them in an envelope and just pick one out randomly, and then practice that one. With your repetitions and then pick another one out and then, you know, it's sort of like a chunking, activity or random practice also. And I did that and, uh, it was very useful.
I would do random practice my whole life. And when my son used to hear me, practicing. I think he thought I was, you know, doing stupid things. And then, he read these articles by Christine Carter and and he said, now I understand what you were doing, all that time.
Because he could never figure out from my practice habits how I could learn all that stuff. , because it was so different than how we used to practice in the old days, is [00:28:00] just not realistic. Well, I mean, practice techniques are awesome. I knew Christine when she, I was her mentor while she was a doctoral student at msm, and we were talking about a lot of things.
And of course she wrote all those articles about those different practice techniques, which I think people naturally use them, but with great guilt. You know, they think they're not practicing the right way, but they are
Noa: I had a student at my class who was the son of, one of the faculty members. And, and after we talked about random and interleaved practice, he came up to me after class and said, Yeah, you know, this is cool because I heard my dad doing this all the time. And I thought, you know, what's wrong with my dad?
He can't pay attention or focus for any period of time. Like, what's wrong with him? Why is he doing this? And now he realizes that his dad was actually onto something. Not to get too into the weeds on the 21 repetitions, but one other thing I'm curious, and then we'll move on, is, you know, this idea of repetition without repetition, like you said you're doing the repetitions, but it's not like you're just mindlessly going through the motions of 21 [00:29:00] repetitions.
What do you think about from one repetition to the next? is it adjustments or is it, new ways of approaching the phrase or different qualities to your sound? what goes on through your mind as you're going through these repetition?
Kim: It could be all those things, but in purely technical things, I'll start out slow because I want the connections of my notes to be extremely smooth, and then I'm going to pay attention to the way my hands and fingers are working, I want them to work in a certain way that I'm not smashing my fingers, you know, into the instrument and I'm really paying attention that I'm, what I think is ergonomically correct for me. And then I will, be visualizing my finger movements so that if I just look at that, passage, my fingers do that, small passage just automatically. And that's really helped me a lot for things like sight reading or you know, learning things fast. You have to pay attention to a bunch of [00:30:00] things when you're learning things so that they stick because, things go by so fast. Speaking of playing fast, I was not the type of person that liked to ski or do any kind of fast physical activity or, you know, I'm very active, but I don't go to a gym or anything like that. and I had to figure out a way to play fast.
For me, the visualization is really important because then it allows me to relax my fingers in between the fingerings so that there's a moment of relaxation, because if you just keep the tension from, your fingers, from the note before - I call it, leftover tenseness or leftover fingerings, and you can't lift your fingers to get to the next note. You're not gonna be able to have any velocity. So when I was doing repetitions, I was really able [00:31:00] to, get my fingers to have a certain kind of lightness, I found that really useful on the job.
Noa: This is interesting cuz it sounds like, I think if, people hear that have to do 21 repetitions of difficult passages, or I think it, maybe it could sound like a chore, but the way that you're describing it, it sounds like each repetition takes you closer to your goal and like it sort of evolves over the process of the 21 repetitions.
Like you're focusing on different things as you go through the 21 and it sounds much more engaging and active and It's almost like you get 21 repetitions to evolve your skills in the direction that you're trying to go.
Kim: That's not to say that I'm doing them all the same tempo. I'm not. And listening to yourself while you're playing is so important. And most of the time I think you hope, oh, I hope it comes out okay. No, it's, if you're not attending to everything, and I mean the way one note is [00:32:00] sung into another, how your vibrato is going to continue over, you know, half notes that are slurred, is the intonation right for the actual melody that you might be playing? Or, is it appropriate? Cause intonation also expresses. We can't just hope it's going to be good enough.
It's not for just, learning notes, cuz learning notes is also learning all these other skills like, how to manage your air, how to manage the physical activity of being in, the same position all the time. You know, you have to go to Alexander technique. You have to pay attention to so many things. And so I'm doing that on a daily basis.
And when I'm teaching, I'm trying to get people in touch with the physicality of everything, aside from the artistic thing, which is like super important, because that's why you're managing all these things so that you can, [00:33:00] create art and it's, you know, people didn't like to talk like that cuz it sounded corny or, you know, but it's not.
Because if you go to an orchestral audition, if you are, playing, the excerpts and conveying a certain story or message and captivating the jury, that's what gets you to advance. Everybody thinks it's ultimate perfection and, and students come back and say, I played really well, I don't know why I didn't advance. It's if they're interested in you and you drop a note or you didn't play something well, but they make you play it again, it's because they're interested in you.
Noa: There's a great video online of actor Brian Cranston talking about his audition experiences and, and what his goal was in each audition. And, people listening to this aren't gonna be able to see what I'm about to do, but basically his goal was to get whoever was sitting there watching these auditions to, just kind of go from having their head [00:34:00] on their hand a little bit bored to then seeing him start to do his audition and then, the head going up a little bit and off of their their fist, so that it expresses, Oh wait, what's going on here? Who is this person? And I heard you on another podcast talking about the importance of your being able to figure out how to have an individual interpretation of the excerpts that you're playing at this audition. And I'm wondering, yeah, how, how does one do that? How does one figure out how to play the thing that you've been playing for 10, 15, 20 years as an excerpt and presenting it amongst a whole collection of other bassoonists, in a way that is compelling to you and also compelling to the folks listening behind the screen?
Kim: I think that a lot of times, people think that they're supposed to do things that are original. And that's a mistake. Cause you can't play that excerpt like that, you know? But I want to! At [00:35:00] an audition in, in the States, at least you are expected to give a stylistically correct interpretation.
And that's important to know what that is. And so you have a lot of great examples on, on recordings and uh, also your teachers help you do that. But then there's the stuff that's going to make it original. First of all, you have your sound, you know, Heinz Holliger said that Americans were sound junkies, and the answer that somebody gave well not probably directly to him, but was, I'd rather be a sound junkie than have a junkie sound. And, Okay. So you have to have a sound that is going to make somebody want to listen to what you're going to play. And sound is at its most beautiful - I mean, if you have a beautiful sound, it becomes even more beautiful when you're using it to [00:36:00] express.
But how do you build an interpretation? And I think that's what we're really talking about. Well, I'm not shy to talk about imagery or stories. I tell my students, what I'm thinking about and what scenario I'm thinking of when I'm playing a certain excerpt. Not every one has a story, some just have moods.
Some, it's just like, I, I'm feeling it, and so I'm gonna play it that way. And that's going to govern the way you use your articulation, the way you develop the notes, how you're going to do a swell. People see forte or piano, but those are just guidelines because in the old days they used to say you have to play what's on the page.
Uh, well, there's so much more to the page than that, but you have to do [00:37:00] your expression, within the confines of what the orchestral style is.
When you're listening to, to recordings and when you're going to concerts, you want to listen to what they're expressing more than, Oh, aren't they a great player? You know, they can do this. They can, you hear how, how fast the person can tongue, Those things, yeah. But, were you moved?
I remember that great interview with Blaise Déjardin, where he said he was, delivering certain solos, cold. Of course it wasn't sounding like that, but certain things you really have to have all your wits for, but you practice that, that expression in the practice room and you can practice feeling, having certain feelings and then see how you can practice expressing that in the practice room.
Oh, I'm going to make a sound that is [00:38:00] (makes sound) okay or give cues to students like, why don't you think about, you know, maybe if you thought about something or you have a personal thought, why don't you try to incorporate that in it and we're in a safe place? You could do that here. That has to be practiced. You cannot wait for the audition to get inspired.
Expression is a technique as much as anything else.
Noa: Sounds like it, it starts also perhaps with listening, to establish kind of a range or the ballpark of stylistic expectations. And then within that then imagery, stories, and experimenting a lot, with the expressive aspect of your playing to then, find something that feels like it's yours.
It's funny that you brought up that particular interview with Blaise. I was thinking about him today actually in the context of preparing to talk to you because one of the things that stuck out to me in that chat was his saying that, the things that win you the audition are not the things that you do like [00:39:00] in the last day or week before the audition or month even, perhaps.
It's the things you've been doing for years that then put you in the position to be able to play the way that you want on that day. And, and I just thought of that when I, thought about your career and, the range of experiences you've had and, and all the skills you've had to cultivate and the ways in which you've had to cultivate the skills.
And so it almost seems to me, and I don't know if you feel this way, that when the opportunity at the New York Phil presented itself, you had been preparing for that without realizing it for decades.
Kim: I was listening to like probably before I was born and in my house, you could not listen to rock and roll except until the Beatles came. And we went to see the great pianists before, like, you know, we were, teens and we studied music.
I studied the piano starting at age four, and I had great education and ear training for years and years and years [00:40:00] theoretical knowledge. I studied Baroque style with Albert Fuller. In that class, you learned how to interpret everything. And that was one of the greatest, things that I, I did, was take that class because it helped me understand just how a phrase was constructed.
And that was very useful.
Noa: You know, there's something that I absolutely have to ask, and I've almost forgotten, and this is related to confidence. I mean, one, the general question is, how have you worked on building confidence, especially not having had a symphonic background that perhaps many others had had who were auditioning for the New York Phil job?
But the more specific question maybe that, that I've come across with a number of folks is, is how to deal with largely self-imposed pressure, of winning a job when you're already doing that job. So if you're in an acting role or if you're subbing with the orchestra and you're friends with people around there and like you really want the job and then you have the opportunity to win the [00:41:00] job with an audition.
How do you manage that pressure as opposed to auditioning at some other job that you have no connection to.
Kim: In the early part of my career at the New York Philharmonic, I, on the subway, I just would read bits out of Performance Success and that helped a lot. But I did, I mean, I had a very supportive family, so I could always come home and talk to my husband and, you know, he just listened to what I was saying.
And of course, other professionals that I was friends with, and I would read a lot of inspirational things and that would help build my confidence. And while I was preparing for the New York Philharmonic I would watch, Jerry McGuire every week, and now I'm watching a movie called Hustle.
And in that movie there is this one fantastic quote from Adam Sandler where he [00:42:00] tells the young basketball player, and I took a picture of it. It says, "Obsession is going to beat talent every time."
When you're obsessed with something, you're gonna take chances. Because you can't live without doing the thing that you want. I mean, I sacrificed a lot, and even though I lacked confidence, which most people do, I did it anyway! So it's like, you're afraid, but you're going to jump in. And then doing that enough you learn how to manage it. But there's not a day goes by that I'm not trying to pump myself up.
Noa: It sounds like confidence for you has been a continual work in progress then.
Kim: Yes. Oh,
Kim: it's still.
Kim: It still is. And it's not [00:43:00] something that you get. You have to constant, constantly be attending to it. And that really works, because you know, you go through periods where you say, Okay, I'm gonna pack it in now. And then you go in and do some performances that are just fantastic, you know, and you say, Wow, you know, well I guess I gotta, you know, I'm gonna do it. and of course, you know, you need a lot of practice and you have to,
For me, it's 24/7 bassoon.
Noa: If you're wondering what Performance Success is all about, what was in these articles with Christine Carter, what came up in the interview with Boston Symphony principal cellist Blaise Dejardin, or which Bryan Cranston video I was referring to, there are links to all of these things in the show notes for this episode.
Which you can find at bulletproofmusician.com/blog.
Kim also made several references to the importance of preparing psychologically, as well as preparing physically on one's instrument. I think we all know this on some level. But it can be [00:44:00] hard for us to know what preparing psychologically actually means. Like, what are the mental skills we should be working on?
If you'd like to find out what your own mental strengths and weaknesses might be specifically as they relate to music performance. I put together a short 18-question quiz that will help you pinpoint the areas that might need the most work. It's totally free, takes about four minutes, and you'll get a downloadable PDF with a breakdown of where you stand in six key mental skill areas with suggestions on how to turn your weakest areas into strengths.
You can access this quiz at bulletproofmusician.com/msa. Again, that's bulletproofmusician.com/msa for Mental Skills Audit.
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- 13:46 – the concept of variable practice comes up, which you can read more about here.
- 14:38 – speaking of identifying weaknesses, this is something LA Phil principal trumpet player Tom Hooten speaks to in his podcast episode as well.
- 16:57 – Kim speaks to the value of solfège, and this is something that came up in trumpet player Kristian Steenstrup’s interview as well.
- 20:19 – Kim mentions the book Performance Success, by Don Greene, whose work and sport psych class at Juilliard were my introduction to performance psychology as well.
- 24:51 – Kim alludes to the idea of 21 repetitions. This is indeed a popular number that we’ve all heard, but often can’t remember quite where it came from. You can read a little more about the research in this area here.
- 28:02 – Here’s Christine Carter’s article on random practice that Kim alludes to: Why the Progress You Make in the Practice Room Seems to Disappear Overnight – PART 1
- 34:14 – Here’s the Bryan Cranston video on auditioning that I mentioned: Inspiring advice from Bryan Cranston to aspiring actors
- 37:58 – Kim mentions Blaise Déjardin’s interview, which you can listen to here: Blaise Déjardin: On Emotion, Technique, and the Kind of Practice That Facilitates Consistently Beautiful Performances
More insights from Kim
You can read about Kim’s experience performing in North Korea with the NY Phil in 2008:
Or listen to her interview on the Double Reed Dish podcast:
Or check out what’s in her case, via the NY Phil’s What’s In My Case series: