Toby Appel: On Learning to Trust Yourself

You know those days when you reeeeally don’t feel like practicing, but the guilt compels you to look for something you can rationalize as a reasonably productive alternative?

Like listening to recordings on YouTube.

Or going to the museum to take in the artwork of a time period that matches the repertoire you’re playing.

Or reading blogs about music…wait – is that the only reason why you’re here right now?!!!!

My practice avoidance activity

Anyhow, my practicing “alternative” in graduate school involved going to the library and reading interviews, manifestos, and treatises written by or about great performers and teachers, from Horowitz to Casals to Louis Persinger to Tossy Spivakovsky.

I would hunker down in the aisle between the stacks and spend hours buried in books like Samuel Applebaum’s The Way They Play series, David Dubal’s Reflections from the Keyboard, and Gaylord Yost’s The Spivakovsky Way of Bowing.

The inner world and experiences of these musicians was a fascinating and enlightening place. Especially since what they said about practicing and performing resonated with the sport psychology principles I was beginning to learn.

What do today’s artists think?

So what thoughts, musings, and philosophies are bouncing around in the minds of today’s great musicians and teachers? What have they found to be the keys to practicing productively? What are they thinking about when performing? What do they believe it takes to carve out a satisfying career in the arts nowadays?

Today, I’d like to share an excerpt of an interview with Juilliard viola faculty member Toby Appel.

Meet Toby Appel

Toby has had a fascinating career, including a series of academic appointments beginning at age 18, stints as a member of the Lenox and Audubon quartets, performances at the White House and United Nations, and top prize at the Young Concert Artists auditions. He is also a regular commentator on NPR, has a range of narration credits to his name, and at one point, was artist Georgia O’Keefe’s personal chef.

In this interview, you’ll learn:

  • About Toby’s approach to practicing (which sounds a lot more fun than what I did for most of my life).
  • What Toby believes the role of a teacher is.
  • How important it may (or may not) be to figure out what an audition committee is looking for.
  • Whether it is more helpful to listen to lots of recordings or avoid them altogether.
  • Whether he thinks the recording industry and competitions have helped or hurt musicians.
  • And why violinist Nathan Milstein used to spit backstage before performances.

Note: This was recorded on an unseasonably warm spring day in NYC with the windows open, so you may be able to hear traffic noise and children playing in the park nearby. This was also recorded before I had the right sort of audio gear for this sort of thing, so I’d recommend listening along with the transcript below, which will help to make the dialogue a bit clearer.

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

For most of my life, I assumed that it was because I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, if I performed enough, the nerves would just go away and everything would take care of itself.

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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41 Responses

      1. As an academic editor, I’ve used Dragon voice recognition software for years, to speed up my editing and help keep my wrists and shoulders free from keyboarding tension. The latest version, v. 15, claims to be good at transcribing other people’s voices as well as one’s own.

  1. This is great, thanks! Is there anyway to download this talk/interview so I can listen to it on my ipod?

    Many thanks

  2. I was going to watch a movie now, but instead went to my email and saw this article. Couldn’t be more grateful for that, really.
    Excellent interview and writing, as always.
    Thank you Dr. Noa.

  3. Hi Noa, Great post and interview. Sorry my piece w. Toby
    isn’t up but we’re redoing the site as we speak and had to change
    servers so everything’s down. I’ll send the text to you and maybe
    you can figure out a way to link it. Looking forward to having Toby
    back on my series next year, and seeing you at Northwestern…..
    best, FA

  4. This is a fantastic interview – very interesting. If
    possible, it would be great if you could add more interviews and
    insights from other musicians on the site. Thanks for adding this

  5. I really enjoyed this interview, Noa. Thanks for putting it on. It would be nice to see it in print, also, if that is possible. What I got out of this interview that resonated with me was when Toby said that he practiced as much as he needed to. That goes straight to the issue of trusting ourselves! He also said to trust that your won’t change from being a fine musician to a total dog overnight! More than likely, our performances will be just fine. Going out on stage with the attitude that you are who you are and you shouldn’t be trying to please others is a good also. Tinking that you are here to say what you want to say and it is not a big deal.
    Not having an opinion about the music is the worst thing you could do. If you play from the heart and the instrument disappears, you have had a good performance. I also liked that he said to give yourself many choices of how to play a piece and then live in the moment so that the best choice comes out in the performance.

    1. Hi Sue,

      I liked those parts as well. Indeed, we can get overly caught up in practicing too much in an attempt to convince ourselves that we’ll be fine, when all this does is wear us out and make us feel even more insecure as we’re just spinning our wheels.

  6. This is irrelevant but I love the background sounds of the
    kids playing! I like the open risk-taking idea, as opposed to
    playing it safe. Yes, I enjoyed the interview. Thanks.

  7. As a person getting serious about music later in life, with
    no aspirations of a professional career, I nevertheless enjoy
    glimpses into the business of music. How do musicians create a
    career, what are the pitfalls, what is important to do internally
    for your well-being, etc. So Toby’s observations along those lines
    was very interesting. I also took to heart his encouragement to
    experiment wildly when practicing – how else, if not by exploring,
    will you discover good routes into the feeling of the music? So I’m
    taking it to heart from now on! So I would like more interviews,
    especially with people who can so readily verbalize their motives,
    feelings, experiences, as Toby Appel did. (And Dr. K, you did a
    great job giving him open-ended questions AND plenty of space so he
    could discover his answers!)

    1. Hi Susan,

      Thank you for the kind feedback!

      There’s a great video online, where pianist Leon Fleisher also talks about the importance of experimenting during one’s practice time – where there are no expectations or demands to be met or any limitations. This is when practicing can actually be fun (?!).

  8. I’m definitely a fan of having text as well as audio–I like
    to read along–for clarity purposes as well as time. The interview
    itself was fantastic, and I would love to hear more of

    1. Hi Kathleen,

      I know, text would be awesome… I’m just not sure I’m up to the task of transcribing it all myself. I can’t wait for the day when software will be up to the task of 100% accurate dictation. I mean, Google has a car that can drive itself – so maybe it’s not so far off in the future?

  9. You should definitely do more interviews!

    Getting it transcribed you’ll have to pay someone because there is no software that does a credible job. I know this because I’m a professional freelance transcriptionist.

    Definitely would love to see more.

  10. I really enjoyed the interview and would definitely like to
    hear more. The most rewarding thing for me was to hear Mr. Appel
    say he likes to finish up his practicing so he can do all of the
    OTHER things he enjoys in life. I am like this too, and often feel
    I am not working hard enough because of it.

    1. One of the things I found fascinating about a number of great artists, is how aware and thoughtful they were about other things in the world around them. Other arts, politics, world affairs, the state of humanity. It seems that their curiosities led them to be citizens of the world beyond the walls of the practice room. I don’t know where they found the time, but I suspect that this is part of being a great artist, whatever our chosen craft may be.

  11. The last 3 minutes were just beautiful… 🙂 Great
    interview, dr. Noa!!! I love how you let him talk and really
    listen. I just interviewed a very inspiring conductor (for the
    blog, hihi) and I must say I was a tiny bit stuck in my looong list
    of questions… I prepared too well, I guess…? You’ve beautifully
    encouraged Mr Appel talking and always continued the thought
    (rather than: “the next question is:…” and changing the
    topic!…). Really professional! Big compliment. And thank you for
    the lesson! 🙂

  12. Loved the interview! Among the many things Toby said that resonated with me, I enjoyed hearing his outlook on trying new things in your career. As someone who has a music degree but makes my living in a different field, it was encouraging to hear his thoughts on this.

    A tip for those too busy to listen to the whole interview: I downloaded the audio file onto my smartphone and listened to the recording on my commute.

  13. I loved his comments about not letting somebody from the school of hard knocks tell you that you’re worthless. Also loved the reminder that you can’t read the minds of judges or audiences. You’ve just got to be yourself!

  14. Wonderful Interview! I really enjoyed the questions about what goes on in his mind during good/bad performances, the emphasis on experimentation and the process of decision making. It’s also really great to hear how he, even after many years and an illustrious career, still asks questions about the music and explores the repertoire for its emotional content and connection with the audience. Trust is something personally as a young music student I struggle to have but this interview helped me realize the necessity of trust to reach for our higher artistry goals. I can’t wait to hear more interviews!

  15. Late to the party here — this is really good. A few things:

    1) Joyce Didonato has said the same thing about what she might do while practicing. This whole link is worth watching, but she brings up the concept of practicing flexibility early on. Seriously though, listen to the whole thing:

    Partway through she goes off on the “inner critic” which is almost exactly what Steven Pressfield calls Resistance. What she says about it is worth her weight in gold.

    2) In a podcast, Rachel Barton Pine recently talked about having old fingerings and ideas surface after decades. Playing some concerto someplace and suddenly using not the fingerings that she’s rehearsed for it but the ones she did back when she was 13 — and not knowing where the hell they came from, and being sapooked that they had survived in her memory for all that time. Reminded me of what he said about having old ideas bubble up when people have had a bunch of retoolings of their technique.

    3) His comment about learning a piece on a shortie viola is what finally got me to drop the hammer on buying a 15″ viola for myself. I have a 16″, and I’ve been struggling with it since I have nearly nonexistent shoulders but have been resisting getting a shortie. His comment finally got me to do it. 🙂

  16. Mr. Appel’s comment about how he rarely writes fingering in his music got me thinking. I remembered my organ teacher at Westminster Choir College telling me not to play fingers, but to play music. I have spent a significant amount of time this summer erasing fingerings (and pedalings) from my scores. While this was initially a bit scary, overall it’s made a huge difference. I’ve become committed to learning musical gestures rather than mechanical instructions. I try to learn how the musical line expresses itself through the hand and fingers rather than learning 3rd finger this black key this beat of the measure, etc. I’m spending more time singing the melodic lines as I practice and making sure I have the music in my mind first.
    I found that in the past I would write lots of fingering in difficult spots that usually remained difficult. I’ve had spots like this clear up immediately after I went in and erased all that fingering. It’s been an interesting journey that is far from complete, but it’s been a change that has resulted in big improvements.

  17. I’m a hobby violinist who grew up through youth symphonies with many of my professional artist friends and love to listen to and learn some yet from what they’re doing now. Great interview. It was fun to relate to my own practice in terms of experimentation and cooking from scratch. Also about confidence and marking parts to death. Wish I could have heard your talk at UW Madison tonight Dr Kageyama, but I hope to read some other blogs or publications in this area, as well as listen to Toby in concert.

  18. Very interesting. Yep it’s all about letting your own inside creation come out. Refreshing to hear this talk. To be able to just play and say this is me….Love when he talks about hearing a talented musician play without editing, microphones and hundreds of takes too…something severely lacking nowadays.
    Thanks for such a wonderful site!

  19. Hi Noa,

    It’s been a while! I read your blog voraciously; and now that you’re posting interviews with artists, that voracity will only increase. Your writing style is incredibly readable and enjoyable, while the content of your blog is extraordinarily substantive.

    I’m writing to beg you to interview bassist Edgar Meyer and/or mandolinist Chris Thile. While not strictly classical musicians, they both demonstrate a constantly transcendent, supple, flawless technique that is always subservient to their musical message. And, most fascinatingly, they have a beyond-classical-level technique in anything they play, improvised and not-improvised: classical, bluegrass, jazz, folk accompaniment, country, etc. I think getting into how they practice would be of immeasurable value to musicians, classical and non-classical alike. They’ve essentially redefined their instruments, and their instruments’ capabilities, for all genres.

    Thanks so much. I hope you’re doing well.

  20. Funny notion about the whole ‘every action has an equal and opposite reaction’.
    Essentially 9/10 times this is taken literally by the person saying it. The constructive understanding when applied to the social sciences and especially the science of learning, motor control and motor coordination is like this:

    “I conclude from a reasoning process based on a constructive process, that since ‘every action has an equal and opposite reaction’ I need to implement another plan to bypass my habitual way of ‘reacting’. ” To do this the practitioner will study the various parameters involved: direction + timing+ spacing.

    This reasoning-out process of how to overcome consciously and constructively the notion of ‘every action has an equal and opposite reaction’ brings about improvements in efficiency and response timing. It is a practice that is at the core of any martial art, namely Aikido; and sadly not many teachers know how to present it, as a result aikido joins the realm of mystery rather than being a tool for constructive motor learning and motor coordination = constructive practicing.

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