Nathan Cole & Akiko Tarumoto: On Practicing, and Balancing Life With Work and Audition Preparation

Perhaps you’ve seen the practice chart that made the rounds some years ago, titled “Should You Be Practicing Right Now?

All joking aside, I do think work-life balance can be pretty challenging for musicians, as one’s work is never really ever done. There’s always more rep to learn. And an infinite degree of refining and fine-tuning and nuance that one can explore. And intonation! $%&# intonation!!!!

So what happens when you add a partner to the mix, who is also a musician and needs their own time to practice? And then a kid or two (or three)? How does one find the time to take auditions and continue to grow, improve, and evolve as an artist?

Meet Nathan & Akiko

Nathan Cole and Akiko Tarumoto are the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s first associate concertmaster and assistant concertmaster, respectively. Which means that they sit a couple feet away from each other every day at work. But Nathan and Akiko are also married – with three cute little kids to chase after when they get home.

In this week’s 44-min conversation, we’ll talk about their different approaches to practice, what they continue to learn from each other, if it’s possible to balance life and audition preparation, and much more!

(BTW, I apologize in advance for the audio that gets a little unclear at moments, but there is a transcript below the audio player, so please do check that out.)

  • How practicing and preparing for auditions changed when they had kids (0:00)
  • The idea that you shouldn’t be playing for the committee (8:58)
  • Akiko’s approach to practicing (9:26)
  • Nathan’s old approach to practice, and how it’s evolved (11:58)
  • What Nathan has learned from watching Akiko practice (13:58)
  • What Akiko has learned from watching Nathan practice (14:12)
  • The Inner Game of Golf, and Nathan’s “breakthrough moment” (14:58)
  • How Nathan applied the “inner golf” principle to shifting (21:24)
  • Do they coach each other? (25:35)
  • Nathan on one of his teaching idols, Simon Fischer (30:09)
  • Is one at a disadvantage if you can’t pursue an audition single-mindedly? Is it possible to have a life, do gigs, etc., and still seriously pursue a big audition? (32:16)
  • Why Nathan believes it’s a great thing to do solo performing at the same time as preparing for an audition (36:00)
  • Akiko on why the worst audition is still better than a bad solo performance (a bit of perspective to reduce some of the pressure of auditions) (36:36)
  • Nathan on how short everyone (else’s) memories are of your audition (some more perspective to reduce audition pressure) (38:24)
  • Is it worth taking an audition for the experience? (39:25)

Noa: When I get questions about how to be more productive and efficient - and maybe you guys can relate to this - but sometimes I joke that having kids is one of the great productivity hacks.

Noa: You can't tell a screaming kid to wait while you finish an email, or wait until you finish your scales, and so I'm wondering if this is something you guys have found too. Has your practice evolved over time as you've had more kids?

Nathan: Yeah, well-

Akiko: Well, now it's starting to go back, kind of more to what it used to ... maybe the kids are getting a little easier, I think.

Akiko: But I think back when it was, you really only had the nap time and then after they went to bed to practice. I think I would feel more like, "Yeah, you have to get it done right now. "There's no, "I'm going to practice all day."

Akiko: I'm stuck [inaudible 00:00:51] and whatever, that lets me know that [inaudible 00:00:55] and a lot of time wasted. Nathan's always been good at not wasting time in the practice room. I think it's been a bigger change for me to just be like, "I have these two hours, I need to get this done."

Noa: Do you remember what changed specifically?

Nathan: What I remember from the last couple of auditions you took, which was post kids, yeah, it was just that scheduling aspect. It's like, yeah, you've got from 1:00 to 2:30, or you've got from 2:00 to 4:00 to practice, and then from 8:00 to 9:00 pm. And so, whatever you're gonna get done it has to be right then. Yeah, What's the saying, is it Mark Twain? "Nothing like a hanging to focus the mind wonderfully."

Noa: Right.

Akiko: We did put our kids on a sleep schedule really early on, for all of them, and I can say that, that really saved us, in terms of having time to work and having time to practice.

Akiko: As you know, if you can rely on those two pockets of time, 2:00 to 4:00, and from 8:00 to 10:00, which is great. So, I would just, every day, plan on getting 2:00 to 4:00, 8:00 to 10:00 done.

Nathan: As far as the actual practicing, do you feel like ... I know for me, I spent less time warming up and doing maybe a whole cycle of etudes that maybe before I thought, "Oh, I have to do all of these things every day to feel like I'm the best player I can be." Then I threw that out after a while. Let me just get to where I feel like things are working decently. Then I need to start performing this music, and working on the music.

Akiko: I think I got really into the mental aspect of it. We worked together on. You can beat your head against the wall with the playing part of it for hours and hours, but if you're not in the moment of actually playing the audition if you haven't optimized your chances of getting to your best playing then it is going to be kind of worthless.

Akiko: You just think more and more practically. This has to get done this way. I need to really think about the problems that you really have. Its not just that I'm not hitting that shift. It's that I get really nervous and I don't hit that shift or something.

Noa: So is there more planning or more prioritization given that you know you have those constraints?

Akiko: Be more goal oriented, right?

Nathan: Yeah.

Akiko: Its not just playing better. You have to decide what it is that you want to achieve with getting better.

Nathan: Yeah, I feel like because there wasn't the kids, because there isn't unlimited time, I felt like there were certain checkpoints along the way that I needed to hit, in a sense. Like a certain number of weeks out, I need to be ... I need to have all my fingerings and bowings chosen, and I need to be up to tempo, and whereas previously I know I had the feeling that oh, oh, even this is kind of far from where I wanted, I could just do more work in the end. Put in more hours near the end, which is a terrible idea anyway, but at least it was possible back then. Knowing that the hours are not going to increase towards the end, it has to be ... have to get those checkpoints along the way.

Akiko: Maybe even saying, "I have to be ready." Set the goal posts a little closer to ... if something happens, somebody gets sick, you prepare more for emergencies more than you did when it was just you.

Noa: That's interesting, because you were saying, Nathan, it's not a great idea anyway to cram. That not only sucks as a practical thing, because it's not fun, and emotionally it's no fun, and confidence isn't great either. Even in terms of learning and just being in a good place on audition day, it's not a good ... Do you feel like maybe because of the kids, and you knew you couldn't afford to cram, you might actually have been in a better place, structurally?

Nathan: I think so, because I had bad habits about that before, so this has been something that's helped me see that. It also just trying to follow your example, too.

Akiko: I think Nathan was meant to have kids, because he can get so much done in so little time. It's a special skill.

Nathan: I think too, some of the auditions we've taken lately have involved more solo selections, whether it's concertmaser auditions or whatever, and I think both of us have found those selections more fun to work on, but they do require much more of a personal approach, a real performing approach that's hard to whip up in a hurry. It's hard to really cement any of these hard excerpts whether it's section or solo in a hurry, but there are some if they're mostly technical problems, then you can solve them. If they get solved the week before audition time then maybe they're solved, and that's okay. If it's an excerpt that requires a real artistic stamp, I know now that I need more than a week to put my stamp on it.

Noa: Can you guys say more about that? The difference between these technical problems and the artistic side and what else has to go into it so that it really settles in. You feel like you can own it in the time that you have before the audition?

Nathan: Its like you said earlier, if you aim to be ready two or three weeks before the audition then those last two or three weeks can really just be performance practice. You know things are ready. It's just what's the impression that you're giving people right out of the gate.

Akiko: That confuses me, too. We're not supposed to worry about that?

Nathan: The impression?

Akiko: The impression I guess, but we're not supposed to try to ...

Nathan: Oh, please the committee?

Akiko: Yeah, like we're not supposed to ...

Nathan: Right, yeah, that's one school of thought. You're not supposed to play for a committee. You're just supposed to deliver this abstract great standard of playing, and the committee is going to recognize that and award you points. That's a healthy outlook for some people if they get really obsessed with what people think of them. If that's holding them back.

Akiko: Its funny. I think my method of practice is a lot more ... his is so much less structured, a little messier. I think since I just play things over and over, I do think one of the problems is I come up with how I want it to sound really early on, pretty much, but I think technically it doesn't get as secure.

Nathan: I hadn't thought about that.

Akiko: I think there's always the risk of ironing in mistakes, so I couldn't really recommend it, but I do feel like I ... If I get that volume of practice in, its nice. I feel like I have exactly what I want to do. I come up with, you know ... I think this is one of your strategies. You come up with things to focus your brain on when you're performing that aren't going to be technical things. You come up with the phrases that you want to make, and you're thinking of that hopefully rather than just playing cleanly. For me that doesn't work.

Nathan: I feel like in a way, you act as your own coach, but you act as a really old school coach. And I think it works amazingly. You know, athletes, they're just coached almost every hour of every day, or at least in certain sports, right. I feel like you're the kind of coach that's like "my way or the highway" in order to do it. That works so well for you-

Akiko: We talked about this. It works great in the practice room, and then you get into the concert and that person is still sitting there on your shoulder...going "blah, blah, blah...what are you doing?!"

Nathan: I feel like maybe in the last few years you've decided, you know, you've gotten older and you're like hey this guy on the shoulder has given me a lot, but I don't need him, but if I disappoint him, so what.

Akiko: Its kind of like a Beautiful Mind. You know how in the movie he eventually has to just ... it was a book. In the movie, anyway, he just decides that they're always going to be there, these extra people. He's just walking around and know that they're there and ...

Nathan: Not fight them?

Akiko: Yeah, I think eventually that going to have to be me. Weirdos following me around yelling at me to play in tune.

Nathan: Also, to your question, yeah, I used to really divide my work, anything I practiced. Then kind of divide it, solve all the technical problems and then I'll be able to make something more artistic out of it and in my head, I don't know where this came from, but I've thought well, the way it's supposed to work is that you can decide all that stuff on stage, because if you're just planning all that stuff out in advance then that's not real music making. The best players, I'm sure they don't decide all these things in advance. I don't know why I thought I knew that, like I'd interviewed any of them. Eventually I realized, yeah, you have to practice planning things, and have a good plan, and practice performing that for people. Then you get certain patterns in your ear, and your fingers. The grammar, the good taste, the combinations of actions. Then you can improvise on that when that's more comfortable.

Nathan: Now I want all that stuff, the technical aspects, solved a lot earlier, and spend so much more of the time on how it should sound.

Noa: It sounds like you guys have slightly different approaches, if I was hearing correctly. Akiko, it's like ... these weren't your words, but it sounds almost like through the playing you do, and the experimenting, and the noodling around with the excerpts in the early stages, you might inadvertently be installing some undesirable habits, but you figure out what you're aiming for sooner on. Then you can go about making that the strongest habit that you can cultivate. It's not the best way of putting it, but...

Noa: Whereas, Nathan, is it more like that comes later for you in the process?

Nathan: Yes, especially if we're talking five, ten years ago. From watching her work, I try to do more of that, and just do more playing, more repetition, because I've seen what that can do.

Akiko: He's always been great at practicing without being critical. Which is really, really important. That's such a foreign thing to me. Yeah, for me it's like this is to this, or that is to that, or you know. Yeah, it is really different and I wish I could do that, because it would be a lot healthier.

Nathan: I feel like that came from golf, though. Something where I couldn't realistically expect myself to be great. You've played some golf, right?

Noa: I've hit golf balls a few times, but I wouldn't call anything I've ever done playing golf, no.

Akiko: You remember his breakthrough moment story, right? With the-

Noa: The Inner Game of Tennis on the golf course?

Nathan: I still never read the tennis one. My grandpa had had the golf book, which I think was the third one. So, that's what I read. I read it the night before we went out. I'm kidding.

Akiko: You were how old?

Nathan: I was home from school, so I think I was 19.

Akiko: 19, oh, I thought you were younger.

Nathan: No, I didn't discover that until school.

Akiko: And then you said yeah. The next day you went ...

Nathan: The next day, the driving range, it was like, yeah, the Heavens opened. There was this ray of light on me. It was just shot after shot. It's like it was someone else in my body. Then we got out on the course, and I was like this is the turning point. It actually was a turning point of sorts, but at the moment I thought, "There were all the golf shots I hit before this morning, and this is the start." I've never had a feeling like that with the club in my hand. We got out in the course and then it all just went to seed. Shots were spraying everywhere. It was the same I've always played, but my dad couldn't understand why I was so frustrated. Basically he was saying, "You've always been kind of bad. Why are you suddenly upset about it?" But it was like "You don't understand the past 45 minutes..."

Akiko: It was a turning point...

Nathan: It was because-

Akiko: Is it your drives got so much better?

Nathan: No, like you said, I had never been able to swing a golf club without all those other thoughts coming in, and I never thought there was any other way. I was finally at the age where all those frustrations were starting to manifest themselves on the violin, too.

Noa: Could you describe that story? Its been a few years since I've read it. I actually looked for it once and I couldn't find it again. Especially for those listening who may or may not have ever encountered this story.

Nathan: I think I had been at Curtis for one or two years and I would probably just have met Akiko although we weren't staying in touch at that point. I had gone from being big fish in a small pond in Kentucky, to being at Conservatory and now people weren't paying so much attention to me. So, I was thinking I might find my identity in chamber music, so partly that was a good thing, but it also meant I wasn't doing as much solo practicing as I should. When I did things weren't as easy maybe as they had been when I was a teenager. So, it was during that summer we took a family vacation to visit my mom's parents in Florida. Since my grandpa was a big golfer I was kind of expected to go out with him and my dad to their club and I was dreading it a little bit, because I hadn't played much golf in a long time and I knew I was going to be terrible.

Nathan: It's one of those where it's just kind of an awkward age anyway and you don't exactly know how to hang out with the adults. I found myself drifting and looking in his library and I saw this book, The Inner Game of Golf, and I didn't know anything about the series, or the author, or anything like that. It just looked interesting, so I took it off the shelf and started reading. Yeah, it's really engaging writing and it starts off right away with some practical info, and the main idea of the book ... He had written two books before that on tennis and skiing, because he was really great at those sports. Golf was the first one where he had never really played golf seriously, and he made it his goal that within one year he was going to break 80, and he was going to do it not allowing himself to play more than one round of golf a week, and not allowing himself, I think, to go to the driving range more than once a week either.

Nathan: He was allowed to practice chipping and putting in his yard all he wanted, but other than that it was going to be maybe a few hours of playing a week. Spoiler alert, he manages to make his goal by the end of the year, but the book is filled with how he did it. Which strategies he took from the sports he knew really well.

Nathan: Yeah, I just read maybe a third of the book that night. I couldn't put it down until I was falling asleep. By the next morning we went to the club to warm up on the driving range as usual and I just decided I'd pick out one of his strategies which in tennis he called it "bounce hit," and I know you've written about that. Where you just use the rhythm of the ball and match it up with your own rhythm. He modified it for golf to give it three syllables instead of two, but I just used that on the range and it was perfection. I was just knocking them straight, and long, and beautiful. They were all the same and I didn't have to try. I was just looking forward so much to the upcoming round. As soon as that started-

Akiko: Wait, what was the "bounce hit" for the golf swing?

Nathan: The bounce hit of the golf swing, it was either back hit ... The suggestion that I liked was just to make it a neutral syllable. So it was DA, DA, DA. There was a DA when you reached the top of your back swing. A DA exactly when you made contact with the ball, and then one last DA when you finished your follow through. If you actually said them out loud when you swung, then you would get a certain rhythm. They wouldn't necessarily be evenly spaced. You were supposed to put them as precisely at those points as you could and then that would be your own personal rhythm. The more comfortable you got with that, the more consistent your shot would be. Yeah, it worked for one hour and then it fell apart. When we started keeping score.

Noa: Do you remember how that ended up effecting your violin playing after you got off the golf course?

Nathan: Yeah, really clearly, because I probably didn't play any violin for about a week after that. Either he let me borrow that copy of the book, or I else I just bought it at a book store, devoured the whole thing, and then when I did get back to school and started practicing again, I started using that exact method actually for shifts. It was pretty close how it worked for shifting as apposed to the swing. But then, just like you were talking about that person on your shoulder, he talks about each person has two different selves. I think Self Two is your intuitive brain that does things without being told. It's like the person we always wish could be in control because they're so natural. Self One is the person on your shoulder always yelling at you, always telling you what you're doing wrong, and telling you how to do things that you actually already know how to do.

Nathan: Since I was a kid, I hadn't experienced playing the violin letting the unconscious self be more in control. It was hard work. On the violin, this thing that we do every single day, those habits are so ingrained. All the self-criticism.

Akiko: I need to work on that.

Nathan: Yeah, it's like working on getting Self One out of the way and deciding the things he's good at. Which are more administrative and not letting him do the other things like controlling your bow arm and controlling your fingers.

Noa: I think it's tough because we need that coach sometimes to figure things out and solve problems and run the show when we're in the early stages of learning something. We get so good at it that it's hard to shut it up when it doesn't serve a purpose.

Nathan: Yeah, on the driving range I was able to flip a switch for one hour but it got exponentially tougher on the violin when it was ... My standards on violin are much higher, and I've been doing it a lot longer with some bad habits. It's always a work in progress.

Akiko: What would you recommend for someone like me? I think I should try and sit down and read The Inner Game of Golf, because I don't play golf. It's not relative enough?

Nathan: Right, well, there is an Inner Game of Music not written by that author, Tim Gallwey, but by a bass player.

Akiko: Everyone seems to recognize The Inner Game of Tennis.

Nathan: Well, tennis is the first one.

Akiko: That's Tim Gallwey?

Nathan: Yeah, because that's the sport he actually played and supposedly this whole idea came to him, because as a junior he was going to win the Junior US Open or something, and all he had was one over him smash at the net, then he would have won it, but he muffed it. He put it right in the net and just couldn't believe that it happened and then went on to lose the match. Something like that, and that's what started his whole quest for all this.

Nathan: I think it's fun to just pick something small. Anything that's bothering you physically or technically, and figure out how to do without that mental interference.

Akiko: That's my project for the month of June, right?

Nathan: Okay.

Akiko: No, I've decided I have to get more comfortable in quick passages.

Nathan: Oh, right.

Akiko: My mental hang-up about quick passages is starting to cause me a lot of unnecessary anguish.

Noa: It's kind of cool that you guys have these little projects for yourself to improve on in your playing, which I think we sometimes don't think about. When you leave school and you don't have a teacher anymore. At first it's this weird what am I supposed to do now. Maybe it's even cooler because the two of you are together so often, both at work and at home, and able to hear each other, and what you're doing. Does that come up? Do you guys have moments where you coach each other, or do you stay away from that?

Akiko: I know we definitely do. You maybe ask me once in a while how I would do something on the violin. Especially because I've taken those two auditions recently. I played for you quite a bit, I would say, somewhat regularly. I always still have lots of questions about technical stuff. Like how I'm going to ... I'm having trouble with the shift, or a fast passage is not secure, so I'll ask him how to practice it. Nathan's a great teacher and he always has a way to fix it. I always joke that I get annoyed because he'll suggest something right away. He doesn't even have to think about it. I'll try it and it just works. Yeah, he just always has really great things. It is really fun to have this resource all the time. Its kind of crazy especially for the fourth chair audition, there was a lot of concertmaster excerpts. Some that I hadn't ever played or even heard. I played them for you and you're always like, "I wouldn't take time here." You know, things that really, really help you. Kind of insider information. It's great.

Nathan: Just stuff other people told me.

Akiko: Other people - like Bill Preucil

Nathan: I put whoever's initials it was that told me, I put their initials in the music.

Akiko: G.D. Yeah, it was great. I still have a lot of trouble hitting the high harmonics. A longer distance down the string to try to gliss up into a harmonic. I still have a really hard time with it. Nathan watched me for one second and he's like, "You're taking your finger off the string too early. That's why you're getting that weird noise instead of the harmonic." I was like, "Alright."

Nathan: What's funny is that technique you mentioned, there's a famous violin etude book written by Jakob Dont and that's basically the whole challenge of it. It's a whole bunch of sliding up to harmonics. In Galamian's class back a couple generations ago he said ... I think back then the prize was a dollar, he said, " I'll give a dollar to anybody who can get through this without missing one of these harmonics." They were the best players of the day and only one person who could do it and that was Michael Rabin who had some real mental illness, and had stage mother, and it was only the sort of half-crazy person that could even think about getting through all that. That's a famous thing to mess with your mind.

Akiko: Yeah.

Noa: It sounds, Nathan, like you enjoy getting into the problem solving bit. I think you said something earlier today about problem solving and Akiko, I think your comments too speak to Nathan's kind of geeking out about, okay what's the technical mechanism here and how can I get around it, or solve it, or beat it. I think it's part of the whole deal. We talked about having this coach in your head. My favorite story is John Wooden, the famous UCLA coach, where these psychologists sat and watched his practices. They counted up 2,000-something verbal commands. "Acts of teaching" in essence, just actions that he engaged in. Very few of them were either positive or negative. I think all together maybe 15% or so, maybe less, were praise or criticism. Almost everything that came out of his mouth was purely instructive. It's like do this, or do that, or more this, or less that. Do you know what I mean?

Noa: It wasn't judgemental. It was strictly instructional and I think ... I'm not sure why, but I think we all tend to be much more judgemental than instructional. I think initially because we don't really know. We don't know why the note was out of tune, or why we missed a shift, or why it's rushing. We just know that that's not good, and that's bad. We judge it because we know enough to know it's not good, but then we're not quite sure instructionally what to tell ourselves, so then we get stuck in that judgemental loop.

Nathan: Yeah, you can also get stuck the other way, too. I got the chance just a couple months ago to meet one of my teaching idols in London. Someone whose books I'd read and used, and the great thing about this guy, Simon Fisher, is that he seemed to have some explanation, some solution for everything. Even things that I thought you're just supposed to know how to do. You either know it or you don't. Well, he had a way of going about it, or making it simpler. It was amazing. I always teach his methods, and so when I got to meet him I did have one specific problem. I had gotten in one of these internet arguments with someone about the difference between two different bow strokes and how you do them. It really got me thinking maybe I don't really understand how these two things work and I got to figure out the difference.

Nathan: I came to him with this question. He just kind of looked at me, "But you don't think about that when you play those bow strokes, right? You're not making a difference when you do that." No, you can't think about that. There's no way to describe that. If these people are asking these questions, they don't need to be playing those strokes at all anyways. You're telling me that. Your supposed to have the solution to this. It's like no, no, no, if you can do A then you can do B. Don't worry exactly about how it's happening.

Noa: Was that reassuring to hear?

Nathan: It was very much. Although, it's possible that he said that to me because he knew I was kind of getting a little down the rabbit hole. To someone else he might have said, "Yeah, here's the difference, and here's how you do it."

Noa: I don't know that there's a good transition to this, but there is something I was curious to ask. It's something that I get asked, or sometimes I hear about. Sometimes people have a lot of time to practice or work on things because they're still in school and so forth. Other times people already have a job, or just doing lots of gigs to pay the bills and so forth. They worry or wonder if they're at a disadvantage because they can't devote all their time and energy into just preparing for an audition. What do you guys think about ... Do you guys have a feeling about that one way or the other? Do we need to put all our time and energy into preparing single mind leaf for an audition or is it possible to be successful, and to do well, and be prepared even without that sort of single minded ... This life and audition balance. Can we cultivate a life and still win an audition? What is it? What do you guys think?

Akiko: Don't we always think it's better to continue with your normal life as much as possible?

Nathan: Well, we do, because we haven't known anything else for the last 20 years. We've had jobs and regular schedules to keep for that long.

Akiko: Right, but even like, people will be like, "I don't think I should say yes to this, because I have ..." You have to be mindful of how much time you have and you can't say yes to random extra concerts if you have something that you really want to prepare for. As we were saying in the beginning, I don't think you actually need that much time to prepare for something like ... Are you talking like an orchestra audition, or what kind of thing are they preparing for?

Noa: Yeah, I think orchestral auditions in general. Some people do tend to ... It's like me. Its hard for me to get work done in short snippets of time. I prefer longer snippets. Not snippets, longer chunks of time, and I wondered if maybe that's the case for some folks who feel like it's really difficult to focus in shorter chunks of time for an audition.

Akiko: I definitely prefer longer windows of time. If you don't have that luxury ... I certainly don't think ... I remember once telling Mr. Dicterow that I needed ... I didn't have enough time or something to work. He's like, "That's only some of these excerpts. Its just this list and then you just play the first few pages of your concerto. What's taking so much time? You can do it in an hour." There you go.

Nathan: I think it depends a lot on how much of the material is new to you. I think if someone's never taken an audition and they don't know any of the music and they have very limited time, then they also need a number of other things to break their way. They need to be really quick at learning things. They need to be good at practicing in short segments. Maybe they need the right excerpts to be called at the audition. Once you've taken a couple, and you've worked through the stuff, and challenged yourself, and tested it on other occasions, then yeah, I don't think you need tons of time. Like you say, if you are going to take on other things or live a normal life, you need to conserve your mental energy and your focus too.

Nathan: If you're going to take an audition that's got to be ... You've got to shape the rest of your life around that to some extent, even if you can't steal all the time. I think it's great to do solo performing at the same time as preparing for an audition, because then you never forget the performing aspect of auditioning, because it's so easy to lock yourself in a room and you emerge with pale skin, and you're squinting, and then how am now going to go out on stage all alone to deliver this stuff. Whereas, if you were just on stage a fair amount anyway, and then you walk out on audition day, too, it's all part of the same thing.

Akiko: I think solo performing is so much harder than an audition. The stakes are high in an audition, but in the end ... early rounds especially there's a screen, it's ten minutes, so what if you had the worst day of your life. Its like it never happened, walk away. You go have your drink and your cheeseburger and you go home. It hurts for a little while, but no ones going, "Oof, a lot of people heard that." You play a bad solo performance, and it doesn't go well, you've got to stay out there on that stage for more than ten minutes. People look at you and they're embarrassed for you. [inaudible 00:36:15] I think if you're doing solo performances and preparing for an audition I think you're constantly ... This is going to be less scary than getting up and playing at a recital. Keep a little perspective on it. Its easy to lose perspective with auditions. It's a thing about this big that you're working on for months. You just go a little bit crazy and start rethinking things.

Noa: Reminds me a little bit of that quote that I think is attributed to Heifetz...something like, "We should always be happy when we are performing. Either it's going well and so we should be happy it's going well, or if it's not going well, every note we play gets us closer to the end when we can leave, so we should be happy about that."

Akiko: Except when it's not going well, it seems to take like 10 times longer.

Noa: Right.

Akiko: Getting off the stage.

Nathan: You were saying earlier reminds me, I went to a very nice concertmaster of an orchestra I once auditioned to be this persons stand partner, and it didn't go very well and I didn't get the position, but years later when I ran into them, they said to me pretty much without prompting, "It would be so great to be sitting with you." I really was flattered by that. I thought that was so great. I said, "Yeah, I really didn't have a good day that day." The person said, "Oh, did you take the audition?" Here I was thinking he was specifically remembering my wonderful audition and how I got robbed. I guess it was based on how nice a guy I am. Might be nice to sit by me. Yeah, nobody cares about your audition except ... nobody cares as much as you do.

Noa: Along those lines, this is another question that I sometimes I get about whether to take an audition. Sometimes, in the last few days before an audition you can feel horrible and it's like, "Oh, this is a waste of my time. I can't believe I'm going to do this." Then often times people end up winning or being finalist, so there's that doubt that creeps in at the last minute. What do you think about taking an audition "just for the experience" even though you know you're probably not going to win?

Nathan: I did write a whole article on this. The title of the article is "Don't take an audition for the experience." Mine's not the only viewpoint. Along the lines of what we were just saying, I feel like auditions are to get a job. They do teach you things about yourself, and your playing, and they will sharpen your skills, and all that, but there're also other things that can do that, and an audition just has two results, win or lose. I think if you think you can win, then take the audition. If you don't think you can win, take some other auditions you think you can win, or else put that time and effort into putting together a solo program. For some instruments it's tough to put together a full length solo program. I understand that.

Nathan: Rob Knopper for example, who I know you talk with and work with all the time, he had his Delécluse Project, a self starting recording project, so maybe yeah, you're not putting together a 90 minute solo percussion recital necessarily, but that was a project that really carried his playing to another level according to him. I believe that. I feel like doing something like that rather than just throwing your hat into the ring if you really don't think you're on the level. What do you...?

Akiko: Yeah, I've done one audition where I didn't actually want to get the job. This isn't really a great story because I didn't get it and it was fine. My life went on. Did I get anything out of it? Yeah, I learned the excerpts. Later on I played them for this audition, so it was nice to have gotten any crack at them and to have played them for people. I personally couldn't totally discount that ... That was in Chicago. There was a minimal outlay of resources to do it. I still think it wasn't a bad idea. It is little bit strange, because there's no way you're actually trying you're hardest if you don't actually want the job you're auditioning for. I know people do that. Orchestral musicians do that. Not going after a job they don't think they can win, going after a job the won't say yes to if they get, which is really strange.

Nathan: You mean to move up in your own orchestra?

Akiko: Well, not even that. In a different city. I haven't taken an audition in a while. Sure, I like fill-in-the-blank city. Maybe I should just see what happens. I think that's a weird thing, because it's strange taking an audition, and you're not going to say yes if they give it to you. That makes no sense at all.

Nathan: Probably the more common thing though is people, whether they 100% believe it or not they don't think they're good enough, but they feel like maybe if everything goes their way, maybe it could work out. That exact situation happened to me very recently. Someone came to play for me with three days left before an audition, and kind of panicking, " I'm not going to go. I'm not going to take it." I could sort of see where they were coming from. Some of the selections were not quite where they should have been, but my take that day was, "You've put in a lot of work. I know you've been working seriously and you're not where you want to be, but you need to close the circle, finish the process, and see the work that you did, how exactly did that translate to the stage. Some things will work out well and other things won't, but you have to know. If you just stop now with three days left, there's a whole lot of information you'll be missing out on that you can't get any other way.


[1] Nathan referred to the “Inner Game” books (14:58):

[2] And then there was Nathan’s golf “turning point” story (14:58)

[3] Nathan mentioned that Simon Fischer was one of his teaching idols (30:09). I too remember looking forward to seeing his latest column/exercise in the latest edition of Strad (or Strings? Ack, can’t remember!). Some of which you can (and should) read on Fischer’s website.

[4] You can read Nathan’s article on why one shouldn’t take an audition just for the experience here. (39:25)

[5] And Rob Knopper’s Delécluse Project is pretty interesting (40:52), even if you’re not a percussionist. The associated blog posts are chock full of useful info – like the specific recording gear he uses to practice. Nathan and Akiko also have a terrific podcast, aptly named “Stand Partners for Life,” where they discuss orchestral life behind the scenes – like stand partner do’s and don’ts and what the experience of touring can be like. And, as veterans of the audition process on both sides of the screen, they share insider tips on audition preparation as well.

Check it out on Nathan’s website HERE, or on iTunes.

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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