We went to the store the other day, looking to buy some cake flour for a recipe we hadn’t made in years. And to our surprise, not only was there no cake flour, there was almost no flour at all!

In hindsight, I suppose the scarcity of flour (at least in our neighborhood) makes sense. Not just because flour is a key ingredient in making yummy treats to eat. But because there’s something kind of comforting about the predictability of baking. Of knowing that if you follow the steps in a recipe, you get something pretty predictable at the end of it.

Which is why I think “recipes” for dieting or getting in shape – i.e. all of the “5 essential exercises you should do every day-type videos” – are so popular. Because with so many things we could do, but only so much time and energy, it’s nice to know what’s truly important or essential, and what is less so.

So in the interest of exploring the various commonalities and idiosyncrasies of musicians’ audition preparation “recipes,” we started a 3-part mini-series last week, in which three different musicians from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra shared their approach to audition day and the week leading up to auditions. As you might expect, there were some strategies that overlapped, as well as a few that seemed to be unique to that particular musician – but were essential, nonetheless.

Meet Sarah Lewis

If you missed either Caroline Coade’s or Amanda Blaikie’s episodes, you can listen to them here and here. But today, guest co-host Rob Knopper (percussion, Met Opera) and I will be chatting with oboist Sarah Lewis, who has been a member of the DSO since 2017.

In this episode, we’ll explore:

  • Sarah’s backstage routine, and how being a brand-new mom threw a wrinkle into her normal routine. (3:02)
  • Negative thoughts vs useful thoughts. (4:13)
  • What are “useful thoughts,” exactly? Sarah describes the 3 things she wants to think about in auditions. (5:01)
  • Sarah’s “emotion words” sound a lot like Caroline’s “adjectives”! (6:24)
  • A few things Sarah wants to have optimized on the day of the audition – body, mind, and spirit. (8:21)
  • Sarah talks more about gratitude, and how she uses this as an exercise to stay in a better headspace even during the audition process. (10:05)
  • How she gets her mind more into the zone during warmups, and balances getting connected with her instrument and staying warmed up, with avoiding overplaying. (11:19)
  • Advice her teacher gave her on how to deal with other people around her sounding great before she plays. (13:01)
  • A breathing trick to use between excerpts that she found really helpful in staying more physically calm during the audition. (13:21)
  • How Sarah combines recording, runthroughs, and fundamentals in the last week – and what she focuses a lot on in the last couple days. (14:37)
  • An exercise Sarah found really helpful for combatting nerves in her most recent audition. (15:20)
  • The story of how Sarah ruined her good reed right before she had to play, and how this actually ended up maybe helping her – and why her practice of recording herself may have been a big part of why she was able to respond as effectively as she did. (17:37)
  • One thing Sarah wishes she would have done more for auditions. (20:02)
  • Sarah’s daughter makes a guest appearance, as she describes the experience of preparing for her most recent audition, when her daughter was just three months old. (21:29)
Subscribe to the weekly “audio edition” via iTunes

Noa:
My kids started watching this YouTube channel called TwoSet Violin. I don’t know if you’ve seen… There was one video that was the “16 different kinds of people backstage.” Right? So there’s the person eating bananas, there’s a person last minute cramming and there’s a person just belting out there concerto. There’s the person doing yoga like so there’s different things that happen backstage before a performance or audition. I’m curious what you find most helpful to stay in a good physical place, a good mental space, a good emotional state during the wait just to be prepared for the moment.

Sarah:
Well, in past auditions I’ve definitely found like stretching really helpful and once they’ve given me the list of which excerpts are on the audition, I’ve sort of done just a mental practice through each one. And then I like to do a real fundamental warmup for me that’s long tones. So, I really get my embouchure set, get my air going the right way and get in a really good place physically for playing. This last audition that I took, I was a brand new mom and I was breast feeding and I actually had to use my breast pump in the half hour of warmup time I had. So it was sort of silly. I’m like organizing my excerpts and pumping milk at the same time, but in a way I think that was actually almost a good thing cause it was a bit of a distraction from the nerves of the audition. So I think whatever can get you in that place of feeling ready to go and like you’re in your performance mode.

Noa:
Out of curiosity, through process of elimination over the course of auditions, have you identified certain things that are a definite no, no, that have not worked well?

Sarah:
I do know in certain auditions where I haven’t done as well. I’ve noticed when I go back and think about what happened, I remember myself being a bit scattered, like my mind wasn’t focused on what I needed to do to play my best. I was maybe noticing things about the room or thinking about what the audition panel might think of me or thinking of negative thoughts rather than really focusing on only having useful thoughts in those moments. So just using all your mental energy towards what you need to do to play your best.

Noa:
Do you mind elaborating on useful thoughts a little bit more? Is it an excerpt by excerpt thing or is it general playing related or…

Sarah:
For me it, it’s just like if I notice myself thinking, Oh, they’re not gonna like me or, or I have this flaw that I need to fix and Oh, it’s probably not gonna go well, or you know, all these negative thoughts. Instead I try to think of three things that I want to focus on when I’m in the audition room or on stage. And for me in this recent audition, I think it was number one was take a really deep good breath. I’ve found that to be helpful and calming my nerves and relaxing my muscles and making it easier for me to play my best as if I take a really deep breath into the lower stomach. So I think about deep breath and remembering the emotion word that I have for each excerpt, which is knowing exactly what character or emotion you want for the excerpt.

Sarah:
So for me it was, okay, I’m going to take a really great breath, I’m going to focus on the emotion. And I also set an intention for the audition and I think sometimes it varies, but I think my most recent intention was my goal is to make the listener feel the emotion that I’m thinking of or that I’m playing. For me, it was really helpful just focusing on three things that kept out all those other dangerous negative thoughts from creeping up.

Noa:
Do you remember what some of the emotion words were for each excerpt?

Sarah:
I took an audition in June and then was selected as one of two people who were given a trial and then in our trial we had to do a excerpt round with the orchestra and for that one I remember for instance, there’s Brahms violin concerto, which is pretty challenging excerpt, but my emotion word for that was love.

Sarah:
And I also wrote Kinley on it, which is my daughter’s name. And it just was amazing how it helped me. You know, all those other little things or details kind of can bombard your head during the moment, but just having that emotion and that that word, my daughter’s name helped me really get into the mood that I think Brahms might’ve wanted. How long did you focus on the words you wrote down before you felt like you were in the mood of those words? Just like a couple of seconds. I think in the beginning, but I also tried to think of those words while I was practicing and doing mock auditions and also Ravel. The Tombeau de Couperin was one of the excerpts. It’s a big oboe excerpt and I’ve just read a little bit more about Ravel and why he wrote that and I kind of had this idea in my head about that excerpt that I hadn’t really thought of before, which was someone’s fond memories of wonderful friends from many years back. So I tried to put myself into that idea or emotion.

Noa:
Next. We zoom out a little bit to find out what Sarah found helpful to do on the day of an audition.

Rob:
What does your ideal audition day itself look like? Not playing wise, but like from wake up time to what you eat to how you deal with the waiting, the audition moment.

Sarah:
On the audition day, I kind of think of a few different things you want to have at optimal level, which is, well for me it’s, my reeds, I’ve made them all, but I want to make sure that I’m choosing the best reed and that I’ve soaked at the right amount and that my oboe is at optimal working conditions so that I check to make sure there’s no water in the keys and make sure it’s adjusted well. And then I kind of think about like mind, body and spirit. I think sleep is really important. So if you can sleep as much as you can, that’s awesome. But at the same time it’s hard because you don’t want to feel this pressure that you have to sleep a lot. So that’s a whole other issue.

Sarah:
But I would wake up at the time that I felt comfortable waking up and usually had a routine waking up if at all possible. If I had a really early audition, I would try to get in the routine of waking up really early. Yeah, I try to get a good night’s rest and be really hydrated and eat a healthy meal. For me, it’s helpful to do something like yoga and just really getting that tension out and get some circulation going and making sure your mind is healthy, that you’re thinking useful thoughts, productive thoughts rather than, gosh, what are they going to think of me? Or what if this goes wrong? And then also spirit just for me, like reminding myself that I’m grateful and because at the time when the audition day there’s really not much more preparation you can do in my opinion. Yeah.

Noa:
You remember specific types of gratitude? Cause I think we know that we’re supposed to be grateful for things, but sometimes in the moment it’s hard to think of what to be grateful for cause we’re just stressed out.

Sarah:
Yeah. I, well I remember Oprah talking about, you know, before she goes to bed she writes in a gratitude journal and my mom does this too. And she told me about it. So I’ve kind of tried to get in the habit of at least thinking about a few things every day that I’m grateful for. And I think it’s a really good exercise to change our perspective a little bit. I don’t know, I feel like every day I’m grateful for my, my baby and husband and family. And sometimes it’s a little thing like I’m grateful that my reed still works okay. And then or something silly like that or I’m grateful I didn’t have any traffic on the way to the audition. Do you have an approach or like a certain amount of time you’ll warm up or run through? Is that you do that you have planned to do for an audition day?

Sarah:
If I have time, I like to listen to a recording of each of my excerpts again in the warmup room. Yeah. If I have enough time just to get myself into that zone of really familiarizing myself with the music and then if I have time I’ll do a little mental practice through each excerpt, exactly what I want to do and then I’ll take my warm up, reed out and do some long tones and anything that I feel like will really help me get in a good place. Playing wise.

Rob:
You have a dedicated warm up reed so you don’t play on your…

Sarah:
well it’ll probably just be a backup reed because I like to wait until about 15 minutes before I play to soak up my audition reed. So if it’s too early, the reed can get over soaked. And so I have a sort of a backup read, warm up reed and yeah, just try to make sure I’m getting the fundamentals really in place. And then I’ll go to excerpts. I won’t run them, but I’ll maybe just go over a few tricky spots, just nitpick and certain places just do short spots and then maybe some more long tones. And then as I soak up my audition reed, I’ll probably do a little stretching and just releasing attention, maybe some deep breaths and and also reminding myself what I’m going to think about when I’m on stage.

Noa:
Did you ever have to deal with sudden doubts when you hear somebody else warming up and they sound really good or,

Sarah:
Yeah, my teacher in my undergrad, once people warming up will always sound better in your mind than they really do. So I just tried to tell myself if I think they sound amazing and they’re so much better than me, I tried to remind myself I have good things about my playing too and I wish them the best. Oh, I actually have one little trick that I learned that I thought it was kind of helpful, which was from this class I took in Toronto, I’m on the stage in auditions, which was a breathing exercise as she mentioned that if you take an extra long exhale and then your inhale is about half, as long as that, that’s the correct ratio to really lower the blood pressure and calm the body. And I’ve found that to be really helpful between excerpts in an audition is just to exhale for like four full seconds and release the tension in my body and then inhale. And for me personally, that’s been huge to help with nerves and shaking.

Noa:
Just one of those or multiple of those?

Sarah:
Just like one really seemed to be helpful between each excerpt just a long four second exhale. And then a good inhale.

Noa:
Finally we zoom out one more time and ask Sarah what their practice looks like in the last week leading up to the audition.

Rob:
When you have one week left before the audition, what does your practicing look like and what are you spending the most time doing? And especially how does that exactly change the last 48 hours?

Sarah:
I still try to do a lot of recording and at that point I’m trying to cover more excerpts during the day. Then just just focusing a lot on say two or three excerpts and trying to go through quite a bit. So I’m covering the whole list every two or three days. And also really finishing touches on my reeds so that I don’t have to, you know, make a brand new reed a couple of days before the audition and lots of fundamentals, especially the day before and two days before. I find for me it’s really helpful to do a lot of long tone exercises to get everything working really well. Mentally, I’ve before my most recent audition, I was feeling pretty nervous and so I just decided, you know what? I’m just gonna write down every possibility that I’m nervous about and then make a plan to prevent that from happening.

Sarah:
And then I’m also going to write down every possibility that I’m excited about and then see what I can do to have that possibility actually happen. Which I found really helpful. And I realized there was, I think I wrote down like 25 things I was worried would happen. I think a lot of times in the back of our minds, we feel this nervousness and I think when we really pinpoint exactly what’s causing that and get really honest with us and figure out exactly why our subconscious is freaking out, that’s really the point at which we can find a solution and start feeling better. So for me it was like, I’m nervous that I’m going to get water in my keys and that my reed will feel out of tune or my embouchure won’t be very strong or that the audition panel won’t like the tempo I’d taken this section or something like that. And then I realized, Oh, all of these things have things that I can do to work to prevent them.

Noa:
So do you remember how many of them actually happened?

Sarah:
How many of the bad things happen? I think most of my nightmares were prevented from doing that, from from really focusing on what I needed to do. Like make sure I’m swabbing enough so I don’t get water in my elbow or, yeah, I think it was helpful. I’m sure some of them, like I wasn’t completely comfortable on my reed. That was another thing that I tried to prepare for and prepared mentally. So when it came time, I found a way to push through.

Because when the personnel manager came to get me, I said, okay, thanks. And I put my reed in my mouth to just the spit off of it and I mashed it into my tooth and it ruined it. So I had to use my backup raid. But I think it almost was a good thing because it forced me to like really hunker down and make this thing work when it wasn’t my most comfortable read. So I think a lot of times things like that happen and I don’t know, it’s just really valuable to train yourself to respond in those situations in a healthy way. Because if you can do that, sky’s the limit. And usually when it feels like, Oh, this is going to be horrible, usually it’s not as big of a deal as you think. From my most recent audition, and I started playing and I, I felt, Oh, my reed is over soaked and like feeling really uncomfortable. And I tried to keep my mind in that good mode of trying to keep trying to sound better and play better. And, and I know from experience that other auditions, I’ve been in that situation where my mind goes the other direction and I start thinking negative thoughts like, Oh, that didn’t go too well. All this next thing isn’t going to go well. And then I stop doing those important things like supporting the embouchure and using a good air stream. So it’s not always a bad thing if something bad happens in an audition, it’s just really about how you respond to it.

One thing that I wished I had done certain auditions with, take my own pillow to a hotel just because you and also earplugs. Cause sometimes when you travel it’s uncomfortable and you have this weird pillow and everything’s loud. And so I might recommend that.

Noa:
Given that Sarah’s daughter was born not so long before her audition, Rob also asked Sarah a few questions about what it was like to prepare for a big audition, or having to juggle the competing demands of being a new mother. Oh, and it’ll probably be pretty obvious in a moment, but Kelly was actually sitting on Sarah’s lap at this point of the interview. So there are a few points where the audio may not be quite as clear.

Rob:
So you’ve won two auditions when? When were they in relation to your pregnancy and birth of Kinley?

Sarah:
So I got the second job in Detroit in 2017. And then I auditioned for the assistant principal this past year in 2019, which was when she was about three months old.

Rob:
So you gave birth and then started preparing for an audition, how long in between?

Sarah:
I tried to practice a few times before I gave birth but it was kind of exhausting. And so then I had her and I took about three weeks off because physically it was just too hard to play.

And then I started preparing for that. And I was kind of on the fence about whether I wanted to take the audition for a few weeks. So I really got serious about the audition about a month and a half before.

Rob:
How did you prepare and raise a baby at the same time?

Sarah:
Well, I was lucky that my husband is really hands on, he helps out a lot. And my parents are very helpful too and my in-laws. So yeah, we had a lot of help and I just tried to be very efficient with my practicing. It was kind of a good exercise in forcing me to really, like every second, make sure it’s being used wisely and focus exactly what I needed to and I think recording helped a lot with that just knowing exactly what I needed to to work on.

Rob:
How much did your practice time change between like, the old days and with baby?

Sarah:
I guess in the old days, I would practice three or four hours and then make reeds for a couple hours. But with this, I would be lucky…two hours of practice, an hour and a half of reedmaking.

Rob:
So what were the kinds of things that you had to cut down on?

Sarah:
I think I just really tried to force myself to play as well as I could possibly play every moment. So there would be no wasted time trying to fix issues that shouldn’t be there. I would just record and then jot down the things with each exercise that I thought I needed to work on. And then I had that written down for next time. I could go back and remember just really narrowing in on the issue.

Rob:
So you really just had to make every minute count.

Sarah:
Yeah. Like how much free time I had before kids and how much time I wasted before kids. And I’m sure if life got even crazier, I think that I had a lot of free time now.

Rob:
Any advice to new moms or pregnant moms or people raising kids on how they can deal with the massive project of preparing for an audition?

Sarah:
I always thought I wouldn’t take auditions until I had kids think it would be possible.

But I think you never know what can happen and in my mind, it seemed impossible to prepare for an audition with a baby because as you can see, they are a lot to handle. But in a way I found that helpful because it It made me better at tackling challenges because of parenthood their constant challenge So it kind of also has given me a better perspective on life in general. And also being so busy prevented me from overthinking things.

Noa:
And as we wrap up this three part miniseries on audition preparation, I should mention that today is the last day to sign up for the semi-annual online audition bootcamp that Rob and I teach. If you’ve been looking for a summer project, and working on honing your learning process and becoming more comfortable performing under pressure, sounds like it might be a fun thing to work on, you can get all the details at bulletproofmusician.com/bootcamp.

Where to find Sarah

I wish I could say when you’d be able to hear Sarah play alongside her colleagues in Orchestra Hall next, but in the meantime, here is her performing a short excerpt from Ennio Morricone’s Gabriel’s Oboe, on her front porch, as part of the DSO’s #playonyourporch series:

Assistant Principal Oboe Sarah Lewis with an excerpt from Gabriel’s Oboe

Looking for a summer practice project?

Whether you’re preparing for an orchestral audition, college screening tape, or competition, one of the big challenges is that unlike baking chocolate chip cookies, there’s no single exact recipe you can download that works equally well for everyone.

Because we’re all in different places, and need different things at different times.

That said, the process of learning, preparing effectively for performance, and peaking at just the right time, is also not random. In that there’s both an art, and an underlying science to all of this. 

If you enjoyed this audition prep series, and are thinking that performance preparation, and honing your own personal recipe sounds like it could be an intriguing summer project, Rob and I would love to be a part of your musical lives the next few months, as we begin our 3rd annual summer audition bootcamp this coming week.

Complete details are available here: Rob & Noa’s Summer Audition Bootcamp

Enrollment ends today (Sunday, April 26th) at 11:59pm eastern, but if you have any questions, just send me a note here and I’ll do my best to get back to you as soon as I can.

About Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.

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

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

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

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

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

NOTE: Version 3.0 is coming soon! A whole new format, completely redone from the ground up, with new research-based strategies on practice and performance preparation, 25 step-by-step practice challenges, unlockable bonus content, and more. There will be a price increase when version 3.0 arrives, but if you enroll in the “Lifetime” edition before then, you’ll get all the latest updates for free.

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