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 why you’re here right now?!).

My practice avoidance activity

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.

Deep thoughts, by Toby Appel

Mr. Appel 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 Mr. Appel’s approach to practicing (which sounds a lot more fun than what I did for most of my life).
  • What Mr. Appel 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.

Listen now

Click the play button below to listen, or use the download link to get it onto your computer or iDevice.

Download (Duration: 41:29 – 29.9MB)


What was your biggest takeaway from this interview? I’m curious to know what stood out most to you; share below in the comments.

Also, what do you think of having more interviews like this on the blog? Leave your thoughts about this in the comments too; if there’s a strong enough response, maybe this could become a regular feature…

Want more Toby Appel?

Toby Appel’s Irreverent Guide to the Orchestra (NPR).