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.
Subscribe to the weekly podcast via iTunes

Noa: So one of the things that everyone wants to know about is practicing. So I’m curious, you know, in all the years that you’ve been practicing, have you figured out a set of keys that for you at least seem to be the principles of effective, useful practice?

Toby: I often am not practicing what I’m going to do at the concert.

I’m often practicing what I might want to do at the concert. Giving myself a bunch of choices. And I think that’s what teaching is about as well. Uh, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. So if you’re playing chamber music, which is mostly what I do in my career, or if you’re playing a concerto with an orchestra, you have to be in a position to be able to react quickly to some change, particularly, um, free oboe solo might entice you to play more freely and that communication or conductor in me, I’m more interested in following what you’re doing rather than the other way around. Um, and the performance piece, particularly say something like late Beethoven quartet has a life of its own. And, uh, it always was interesting to me when I would go on tour.

I mean when I was in my late teens, early twenties and play 10 concerts in a row, maybe skipping one night in the set, how different performances were from night to night and sometimes you’d feel well. What was interesting to me as well, was going back and listening to those recordings and the ones you felt particularly good about weren’t, really, any different than the ones that you didn’t feel good about.

So part of the goal of performance is to make sure that your worst night isn’t all that much different than your best night. And then it’s all in your mind for the most part, a certain amount of technical proficiency, uh, is required to get you to the point where you’re not your worst nightmare is probably not going to happen.

Not going to have to throw the bow on the first note. You’re not going to fall down. You’re not going to show up without any pants. Uh, all of those things are just insane worries that take over your mind and, and the sooner you can get rid of those worries. Um, and concentrate on the emotion of the music, the better off you are. I think a lot of it also has to do with the kind of training you had. Technically I had basically one teacher and when I was about 16, I started doing some work on pieces that my teacher didn’t want to do. So I worked with his pupil who was Joe dePasquale who was the principal viola of the Philadelphia orchestra and still teaching.

And, uh, uh, I don’t know if he’s playing, he’s 93 v old. So I, there was not a different technique. I didn’t go to somebody who said, Oh, no, no, no, that’s not how you hold the instrument. That’s not how you vibrate. That’s  not how to hold the bow so that doesn’t enter into my thought process when I’m performing.

And when I’m practicing very little, um, there’s another side of that, which is I spent so much time teaching that those technical skills, which I learned, but as a, as a nine year old. I get to practice with all of my students as I’m teaching them, and I go over it. So if my bow wasn’t working right, it’s not that I haven’t thought about it in 25 or 50 years.

It’s it’s, uh, I did it yesterday with a 12 year old and, or a 25 year old. And it’s still fresh in my mind and I’m of the school, probably because of the way my teacher played and taught that you have to be able to do everything you expect your students to do. That was, uh, that was how I grew up. I was unbelievably in awe of my teachers’ technical skills and therefore musical skills, because he, he was able to explain how technically you got to everything.

Yeah. There’s emotional plateau. And a lot of it had to do with the variable virbrato and choices that you might make. The lessons were long and incredibly detailed. And so, and I wasn’t ever told what to do. I was asked how many possible choices are there for this possible fingerings possible borrowings. And how do they compare?

How do you choose from one to the other? So all of that stuff is happening in my head. As I look at a new piece of music. Yeah. I got to play in tune and. Uh, I’ve got to figure out what notes are and then I’m looking for patterns and I’m looking for groups of notes that repeat, and I’m looking for anything that jumps out at me and I try to be as stupid as I can be to start with and not have any preconceived notions about what I’ve heard other people do.

I tend not to listen to the recordings very much, which when I was young worked greatly to my advantage as a viila player player, cause there wasn’t much recorded and there was a lot of music that nobody played. Nobody, nobody heard it. And so I was able to form my own, uh, ways of playing, um, without too much, uh, uh, leading by the nose.

I’ve heard stories about some, uh, teachers, uh, who said, go listen to all the recordings in the library. And then if you want to figure out what the tempo is, you, you just divide that number by the number of recordings that you listened to. That’s the right way to do it, or do it the way everybody else does it.

Go right down the middle of the road. That wasn’t the way I was brought up musically. It wasn’t really the way I was brought up any kind of way. So I’m not sure I’m answering your question. Practicing is about experimenting with every possible way of doing something. Even the ones that seem unbelievably stupid.

Because from those, you may learn something about what you’re not supposed to do. And my filter is pretty quick. So it doesn’t take me that much time to zero in on a few possibilities. I tend not to write fingerings in too, so that I am free to do what occurs to me and to trust that I’m not going to fall apart in the concert.

If I don’t have all of those precious tools, I’d go to the Juilliard library, check out these music that’s got 19 different fingerings over every note. And even once where you say, Oh, you played or that’s an open string, that one, and then the next one is, is, is an F, the D string. Oh, you got to use your second finger where didn’t you learn that know what, what possible reason would there be to remind yourself that that note requires you to put down that finger?

I did a lot of sight reading when I was younger and that helped as well too. Uh, There was the, the eye-hand motor coordination. I’m still at my advanced age, works pretty well in that, when I see it on the page. My hand goes to that place. It goes back also to not having learned three different or four different ways of playing the instrument.

I have a tremendous empathy for my students who come in and this is the third or fourth time that they are changing the way that they have to play. And it’s a terrible disadvantage to them. Because in performance. I think what happens is that people will go back to what they did the longest time and or maybe what they did first.

And so changing it. It’s just hard and difficult. I practice as much as I need to. I don’t particularly enjoy it. I don’t feel like I have to play many, many hours a day. Um, goes back to that same, I trust myself enough in performance to not only not have to write down everything, but that, um, I’ll deal with the momentary changes.

And also the way I was trained, which everybody’s, it gives you, you’re spending 90% of your energy listening to the other people and the rest on the other 90% of your own. But most of it goes out.

Noa: It sounds like practicing is a lot of brainstorming, especially with new repertoire, but even with existing repertoire,

Toby: There’s not much room in my head anymore because it’s filled with all the pieces I’ve heard already.

And surely it’s easier to learn a new piece, uh, uh, of, of Mahler or Beethoven or something. I said, if there are new pieces by …, um, if you have, uh, a repertoire of, of  other pieces by that composer or his or her compatriots of the time.  To know something about what was going on in history and where they were and where the point of they were in their lives, uh, emotionally and every other, which way?

Yeah, it’s a bunch of experimentation. There is some repetition and for .. Um, depending on the piece, I had to play a concerto few years ago that was incredibly high. And, um, so I actually learned it on a smaller instrument because I knew I was going to have to put in a lot of hours to just figure it out and just make decisions, uh, about, uh, technical and musical things.

And, um, It would be too painful, or big deal. So I did most of the grunt work on a smaller instrument, then moved over to the big instrument near the end. Um, that is not something I’d ever tried before, but it was a good  thing for me and I had some instruments around.

Noa: Can you say a little bit more about the trust piece? I mean, you practice as long as you need to, until you   out enough where you feel comfortable enough with. The choices you’ve made or your ability to execute. How do you know maybe it’s an obvious question, but how do you know?

Toby: No, it’s not an obvious question. You walk on stage and you worry that if you are really good, that that day you won’t be so good. And that everybody will look back at, at. At your career, having never heard you before and say, what the hell was this guy doing this? What, what reputation is that? He just can’t play at all. You are not going to change overnight from being a fine musician or a fine artist into a total dog.

It’s just not going to happen. And when you, as you get older and you’ve played hundreds or thousands of concerts, you know what it’s like to prepare yourself. You know what it’s like to walk out and feel the nerves. And to feel cold in your hands or, um, and, and you learn how to fight those fears and, and the more you are able, it seems to me, the more you’re able to, to trust that you’re going to get through the concert, you’re going to live through it.

Nobody’s going to throw something at you, um, and that you are going to be who you are. If you are a thoughtful musician, you will bring that to this next performance. And. And it’s not really important that anybody else notices, except that you feel like you’re doing what you have to do, there’s a certain calm, I think that, that you’re not trying to please anybody else. I think that’s, that’s something to remember in auditions as well. Lots of students will come and say, what do you think they’re looking for this in this audition? I say, what the hell do I care? And what do you care? Go and you play the way you think you need to play the way you think the music needs to go.

If they like it, they like it. If they don’t like it, the chances of you knowing exactly what they want and then being able to give that to them are zero. Anyway. So there’s a wonderful old cartoon. They used to be something called the Schlitzu method of music. It was a bunch of cartoons. I don’t remember who did it.

And it was the guy that played the, uh, the, uh, He was, he was a bass clarinet player or something, or a bassoon player. And in this particular book, he was preparing for an audition. He walks in. And the first question they say is, do you have a family says, yes, I have seven children. And my wife we’ve been married for 30 years.

And what do you like to play? Oh, I, I know the music is beethoven. I played it all. I love it all. Uh, and then he plays, a few notes and they say thank you very much. We were, we were looking for a younger man with less experience, someone who can grow in our orchestra and not come with preconceived notions. So he goes home and he, and he puts a different hat on that.

He goes back, he changes his name. He walks in, it’s obviously the same guy. And he says, and thank you for coming. Uh, mr. Splitsuit or whatever his name was? Uh, You know, are you a family, man? It says no, I’m single and ah, yeah. Okay. Uh, no children, no wife, live by yourself. And what experience are you bringing to this job about the kind of music you’d like to?

Ah, I’m an open book. I don’t, I don’t have any preconceived notions. I haven’t really played that much stuff. After playing a few notes, thank you very much. We’re looking for a man with more experience and more, you know, who knows, so be true to yourself. It would be nice if you have an opinion. Not having an opinion in my book is about the worst thing.

That you can have, or not having an opinion is the worst thing you can have. Walking in without, uh, a feeling about how Bach should be played. Or how Brahms should be played.  If you want to be really smart, I suppose you can find out who the conductor is of this particular orchestra. Go listen to his recordings and then try to play it the way, you know, as if he won’t notice.

Oh, I see. It was in about 1963 recording of this piece, you know, I don’t feel that way anymore about this music. So yeah,

I would like for my students to know how to learn a piece of music, I’m not interested in them playing it the way I play it. I don’t give them fingerings. I’ll give them bowings and I’ll fight with them to explain how they got to where they got. But it’s not my job to, to clone.

Noa: Do you feel that that’s a big part of where they start trusting themselves?

Toby: Absolutely.

Noa: Because it sounds like that’s where  you develop trust in your own ideas and your choices.

Toby: Absolutely. I think it’s a wonderful feeling to wake up in the morning and somebody called and say, would you play such and such a piece. I’ve never heard it before, but a sure I’ll learn that in three days and play with you.

I know how to do that. Teach myself a piece of music. It’s a, a real problem. Um, for, for kids who have studied with someone who gives them all the answers to… teach them to fish.

Noa: A little bit ago, you were talking about, you know, these great teachers that you had, that you respected and had this tremendous technical ability and their ability to translate that into musical ideas, um, or connect them to musical ideas. And. It seems like, especially in auditions, that’s the thing that everyone is afraid to do to go beyond technique and actually say something or have an opinion, or to go out on a limb a little bit.

Um, especially in the practice room, is there a particular way in which you connect the technical to the musical or do they feel like separate things to you or does one come before the other? How do you…

Toby: One comes before the other and you started with the beginning and they have to know how to hold the bow and hold the instrument and stand and learn how to play in tune and have some facility.

And then you start with vibrato and you figure out once you can do it, um, then you start figuring out why you might need a different virbrato at one point or another. And if you accept the idea that your right hand is your mouth, your lips, your air, and your left hand is your heart. And how you feel about the music, how fast your heart is beating.

Then you have a responsibility to have it, the, um, variables, um, and no matter how beautiful your sound is, if your vibrato was always one speed and one way that you cannot be expressive, you can’t. Speak expressively. If every word comes out at the same dynamic at the same speed, it doesn’t go up and down.

And you don’t know when to pause, which words are more important than which other words. And then it’s a process of, uh, of, uh, making decisions. And, and I find it in my students that as long as you ask them enough questions, they know how to choose, but they’ve never been trusted to make those decisions nobody ever asked.

I heard a story from a friend once about it was playing with, uh, Nathan Milstein. He said he spit backstage before he would walk out. I said, what are you doing that for? He said, well, I am basically I’m spitting on the audience and it’s not as bad as it sounds.

It’s not like you’re nothing. And I’m the big artist. It’s like, it’s not a big deal. I’m here to say what I want to say and why should I be nervous about that? Exactly. It’s a balancing act and it’s hard. You don’t want to look bad in front of people. Make mistakes. People think less of you. How do you control anyway?

Noa: Right. Well, sports psychologists talk often about outcomes versus the process, the process. Those are the things that you do that you have control over that will maximize the likelihood of a good performance. Outcome factors. There are those are things that we can’t control. Like what other people think, whether we win a job, whether we get a standing ovation, whether we get a nice review, those are things that we don’t control.

And our tendency is to focus on those things at the expense of the things that we actually can control. Okay. That’s kind of an odd paradox

Toby: and the sooner you can learn to forgive yourself the better time you’re going to have in performance because some people walk and say, well, it’s just not my night.

First five measures. I screwed something up and I know it’s just, it’s just everything going to be bad from now on. And there you go. It’s the inner game of tennis and you’re going to keep hitting the ball in the net. There’s nothing you can do about it. So you just shrug it off and say, I’m human. And I screwed up, this is a live performance and, uh, you know, I’m doing my best and you know, that’s why you practice.

Noa: How have you been able to get students to be more self-compassionate or forgiving of themselves in the moment?

Toby: I don’t know… I think that it’s just something that’s built in with them. Uh, Everybody’s different. Everybody has another way. Most of the time I have found that under pressure, the kids do not fold under pressure. The kids do not, uh, uh, get just smothered by the weight of the pressure. They usually, they just bring their best game forward and do just fine.

And the few who don’t, um, hadn’t understood what they were trying to do in the first place. I had a girl audition just a few years ago. Um, and somebody who I’d met, um, in a far off country and who’d taken some lessons and came before the audition and played again. And I said, you have to calm down. Yeah. I understand what you’re trying to do musically and emotionally.

And I agree with everything you’re doing, but it’s so overblown in your face. Just got to step back and think about. I know, not looking through your we’re too close. It’s like, like a microscope here and just step back, use a looking glass instead of a microscope. Like we’re still there. You know, things will have a little bit better perspective.

Yes. I know it’s been a problem! I’ve always had this… I know, I know, but I’ve just, I  have to live the music. I said, I fight with you about that. Yeah. I already said I agree with everything. It’s just, it is too aggressive and too loud and too  in everybody’s face. I think you’re going to have a hard time.

I know my colleagues are not going to like that. So if you can, pull it back. She got in, went into the room and just let it rip. She just couldn’t pull back. And afterwards she came out and said, I think I blew it. She wasn’t worried about it, particularly. It upset that she didn’t get in, but, um, It was kind of interesting that she wasn’t willing to, to do that thing that wasn’t true to herself in the end.

It was just right.

Noa: It’s hard to do things that scare us under pressure. The funny thing is it’s hard to do things that scare us even in practice. Um, so for her, I mean, that’s probably how she practiced. And then since that’s the way she was accustomed to playing.

Toby: It’s dangerous. You revealing something about you as a, as a person and your emotions and it’s, it’s, uh, it’s very tough to do that, to lay yourself out on the line and then be willing to be judged for it.

But the truth is that most of the people, uh, are well-intentioned on the other side of the screen. Most of them have been through it as well. And they’re looking for you to do well. This is the chosen life that we’ve, uh, made for ourselves. And we would like to see it perpetuated. So having someone come along, who is emotional and taking chances.

That’s a great thing. The detriment is, is the recording industry and competitions and how you compare two people together, which one is the better one, which one’s going to get the money or the scholarship or the job. Um, not to mention your love or adoration. That gets to be difficult. And I think the recording industry is probably biggest culprit in all of that, because now we have these clean versions, of course, in the beginning they were real performances and we forget that.

Yeah, they may have little tiny bubbles or problems unless we’re dealing with some of the big veterans. who never screw up anything ever, ever, ever. And all of the emotion is there. Um, and there are still people who could do that, which is very few. Um, and then the idea that the audience has a live performance is supposed to be as good as technically clean or antiseptic or perfect as that, or the same, every time was a problem.

So I would do away…if I were in charge, the only recordings that would be allowed would be live recordings with no editing. You want to know whether this guy is good? You could get this recording. It’s a live performance. Can you play the piece or not? Can they play the violin or not? Um, because any idiot, could go out and edit every goddamn note of a piece until it sounds pretty damn good.

And just all that’s required is time and money and a good engineer and a good microphone. And it’s depressing. Well, the competition circuit is another thing that, you know, the common denominator. Uh, if you have a real point of view as an artist, then 50% of the people on the jury are going to be pissed off about it, or won’t agree with it.

And a mark of 75 where nobody really thinks you’re terrible or nobody thinks you’re great is a lot better than half of the people thinking you’re awful. And half of the people think you’re wonderful. That gives you only 50 out of 100.

I don’t know what to say about that. It’s just, that was just the way of the world. We have competitions, people like them, a lot of students who want to go to competitions and we feel that it’s good for them too. They just like the challenge that they like the pressure and they think that they’re going to do better.

I’m not so sure juries are a wonderful idea, but the kids kind of in the end, they, they get themselves into better shape for doing them.

Noa: So. What do you think about when you’re performing, like even compare perhaps on a good day versus a bad day, if it’s a bad day, what are you thinking about as you’re performing on a good day what are you thinking about when you’re performing.

Toby: A lot of, uh, uh, a lot of my wellbeing in performance depends on who I’m playing with. Whether I trust them. And, uh, and how much time they’re spending, listening to me rather than dealing with themselves. And when I play with wonderful people, I can walk out and be relaxed and think about the music and just let it all be. I can become an audience member myself and just, um, just relax and, uh, everything works itself out just fine.

I can be free to, um, to be in the moment of the music and, and experience it just exactly the same way as the audience does. Pretending, like I’ve never heard it before, knowing full well that I’ve got in my arsenal, a bunch of tricks that I can pull out, ways of reshaping the phrase, depending on what’s going on around me, um, to fit the moment.

And I’m not looking to do it the same every time, not worried about doing it  the same every time. And even though I would like it to be as close to perfect as possible, whatever that is. Um, I’m willing to forgive myself when I screw it up because I’ve already decided I decided a long time ago. I’m trying to stick to it.

That the day that I stopped taking risks, musically is the day I stopped playing altogether. Well, I’m not going to take the easy route. I try to insist that my students don’t do that either. The ones that I have difficulty with in terms of having students. The ones I have difficulty with are the ones who just can’t stand the idea of screwing up and it affects them so much that they can’t take the chances.

On a bad day. It’s funny because on a bad day, a lot of the things that are, uh, uh, that you would think would get in your way are things that you can turn to your advantage. You’re sick. Well, a lot of times you don’t have to get nervous anymore because you’re spending most of your energy, just keeping yourself upright on the stage, because otherwise you’re going to keel over because you’re sick. Or you’re injured. That’s a tough one because it’s a real mind game to get around something that’s happening. And if you’re smart, you don’t put yourself in a position where you have to play, but it’s just not possible a lot of the time. I had play injured recently over the last few months, too much. And it was way overuse and there was nothing I can do about it.

I’ve since tried to cut back as much as possible. And we’ll see, I met during a period of time, you have like 30 or 40 concerts this summer and it’s going to be what it’s going to be. And I’ll do my best to get through. I’ve already written to a couple of festivals, don’t make me play more than six hours or so a day after that, I’m not going to be much use to you and I’ll get hurt then.

And most people are really good about that.

um, I, don’t I’m not a person that needs to play through the piece over and over and over and get to convince myself that I really know it. Um, and that comes from the fact that I like doing other things in my life and I’m not willing to sacrifice my time doing those other things in order to increase the percentage that I might gain.

Um, technically I don’t know that I’m going to be able to improve things musically because my brains don’t work. So I’m still always asking questions. Um, but it’s, I decided a long time and it wasn’t worth it. And I didn’t grow up that way. I know people who, if they don’t practice 10 hours a day, they don’t feel comfortable walking on stage.

Fine. I’m glad I ain’t that person. Then I have friends who practice 10 hours a day because they love it and they can’t stop, and they’re learning new music all the time and that’s all they have in their lives that they want to do. That’s also fine.

Noa: Um, what would you consider to be your greatest success? In the career because you’ve had a really remarkable, interesting varied career that I think is unique, even amongst musicians or even beyond musicians. Just curious what you would consider to be your greatest success. And of course, success is defined differently by different people, but just whatever pops into your…

Toby: Probably my greatest success is that I feel fairly good about myself at this point in my life. I’m sorry I haven’t recorded more. Um, I just haven’t, I don’t enjoy the recording process. Um, um, I, I do it when I’m pinned to the wall and, uh, but the amount of time that’s required to raise money, I don’t want to do things over and over again. When I record. I want to be able to just go in and play and say, Oh, that was pretty good. Okay. Do it again. Fine. We fix these three things. Fine. Good enough. That’s who I am. That’s how I play. Um, If I have to cut things apart into little pieces, it’s just not enjoyable anymore. I’d like to be able to say that one is more interesting.

This one, I did a different change of phrase. I they’re both good, but I kind of maybe prefer that one. If it’s gonna go down as history. I like being able to cook. I know that if I had stuck to one thing, I would be better off career wise. Uh, I would’ve. People would have wanted me more to, to, uh, record or play, or, but I made choices that I thought at the time were ones that allowed me to explore different things.

I, I played Viola from the time I was nine until I was in my late twenties, I suppose. And then somebody offered me a possibility to get to play violin in a quartet. And I thought, well, okay, I’ve never done that before. That might be a fun thing to do. So I learned to play violin and did that for awhile. And I still play violin and I enjoy it.

It’s fun for me. I probably sound different because I started out life as a viola player. I never studied the violin. I just went back and sort of tried to remember which I was able to do pretty clearly what my teacher had done in terms of the basics. Most difficult thing for me in that process was knowing what a violin was supposed to sound like from 14 inches, 16 inches away instead of across the room and, and how to manipulate that. But that’s probably the hardest thing about any instrument, what you hear compared to what they are going to hear, how that  works. That’sfune. I enjoy doing it. I love knowing how to, I like knowing how things work. I like building things from scratch.

I like making food from scratch. I like, uh, if I could, I would build my own house. Raise my own food. build my own car. I’d love to know how to do all of those things. And I like the process. So nothing’s ever too much trouble. And I like that way of teaching as well. Why not take the time to figure it out and give yourself many, many, many, many choices, even though you’re going to throw most of them away.

It’s not. What else do you have to do? You’re here at the moment. may as well. Think about it. Deeply.

So for me to, to still be able to use my brain, that that feels good. And when I’m feeling successful, it’s when the audience says, I think I’ve heard that piece now because of the way you played it. I think I understand what it’s about now. I never did understand that before. So. Finding the, the emotional connection is something that you, I think you can only find by experimentation and knowledge of other music from the composer, and then some, some strange in a, uh, um, mind melding game from Schumann to me through my great-great-grandparents through the air through some magical thing that happens. You just know, how did you know what, how much freedom you can take in a phrasing and Schubert? You experiment, you know what it’s right.

Hopefully play with people who have a connection. So I believe in all of that as well. My teacher had experiences with his teacher and with, you know, down through the ages and that’s why it takes so long. One-on-one to, um, uh, talk about how things got to where they are now and what the possibilities are.

I like to listen to old recording. Sometimes I find that very interesting as well, how styles have changed. I was taught that if you sing, how you want the music to go and then copy that, you’re very likely to get closer to what you want than if you just deal with the instrument. And that seems to work for me as well.

My students, they don’t like it, but they do it.

Noa: I get the impression, I mean, just from today, but even from this other interview that I’ve seen, um, one of your strengths, perhaps is your ability to see, or to feel comfortable with experimenting. I mean, in music, perhaps even with life in general, that everything’s kind of a big experiment and you’re willing to see what happens when you try all the different options that you can come up with.

Toby: Yeah. And to have done the technical work that gets you so that you don’t fall on your face when you do that. And I think a lot of students haven’t ever tried doing that experiment so today, or right now you’re going to play. And you’re going to think about all the technical stuff. And then you’re going to play it again an hour later and forget it all.

And just trust that all of that stuff is going to be in place and then go back afterwards and say, well, what wasn’t in place? What did I lose by doing that? And I think too many teachers and too many students. Won’t. Won’t trade off any emotion content for the music or power. Real artistic power for the technical part. Too risky.

And it’s so rare to hear somebody play and it’s from their heart and the instrument disappears. It’s all about, you know, where everything is in place, everything works. There’s a funny ad on TV, it’s Mario Andretti or somebody who’s driving his car around and he’s taken somebody that the car is, are you ready for this and that?

And then you, you experienced it from the guy at the back and it’s going unbelievably fast and it’s, and then, and screaming at it’s noise. Everything is flashing and you’d see it through Mario Andretti’s eyes. And he’s just going for a slow peaceful drive in the countryside and looking around him, he sees some pretty girl and then he winks at her and it’s like, it’s, everything’s growing very slowly.

So there is that as well. If you trust yourself, you’ve done the work and you’re technically secure, you know how to make a sound, you know, where everything is going, like, uh, like, like a great ballerina or like, you know, the guy who was doing that thing, that somersaults in the air and the circus. If you’re thinking about, Oh yeah, it’s three times and I have to do that.

And then I spin it. Then I have to damn, if I don’t do it like that I’m gonna get hurt or that I might miss it. Yeah. You might miss it. But you go into it believing that you’re not going to miss it. And that’s the biggest part of it. Hopefully you put in the hours as well. So you got a good chance. My teacher used to say, you’ve got to do it a hundred and one times because.

On the hundredth time, you might screw it up. Then you have to go back to the beginning again, so that that’s the reason to put in some sort of repetition.

It’s not an easy thing to do. Otherwise more people would be good at doing it, but if you’re only interested in the technical part of it, it’s going to be very terribly unrewarding. Hopefully. If the world were a better place, people would see through it. I don’t want to hear somebody just played the notes. We got too many like that already. Not interesting.

Noa: Well, I want to let you go in a second, but there’s one thing that I’m always curious to hear. You know, if you could go back in time and talk to a younger version of yourself, is there any advice that you would want to give yourself?

Toby: When I was at Marlboro festival, I played with Sándor Végh and Sándor. I was in my, I was 18, I guess, 18 or 19. And he came over and he said, just continue doing what you’re doing. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise, but you’re doing this, you know? And that, that meant a lot to me. I already knew that, but I never really. Uh, I never heard anybody who aren’t respected that much say that. And there certainly were other people around who said the opposite – is you’re nothing, you know, people more famous than Sándor Végh. And, uh, and in some cases that was another lesson that, uh, I, I, I don’t see the value of it. I took me a long time to forgive those people and it was because they had somebody in their lives that tore them apart treated them badly because that’s the school of hard knocks you’re supposed to experience because it’s a tough business. And I’m going to do you a favor and tell you you’re a piece of crap right now, so you can get used to it. I didn’t need that. I didn’t like that. If I could have avoided that I would have avoided that because it wasn’t fun.

Um, but I’ve worked my way through it as I’ve worked my way through a lot of other things, you know, life is not easy. Everybody’s got something going on that’s not easy. And the more dignified you are about it, the better sense of humor you have about it. And the less seriously you take yourself. And the more you realize that this is the only one that you’ve got and so I’m going to make the best of it, and I’m going to try to help people as much as I can, if I can. Um, so I’m very lucky. I have a skill that people want to learn and they’re willing to come and ask for help.

Want more Toby?

Here’s Toby’s humorous take on the stereotypes of each instrument in the orchestra, described in a way that only a violist, and Toby in particular, can get away with (like, who is overrated, whose instrument is the easiest to play, who is mean, most insecure, most likely to slick their hair back, works the least/complains the most, etc.): Toby Appel’s Irreverent Guide to the Orchestra (NPR)

And here’s a video of Toby demonstrating some of his cooking chops: PT Originals: Violist and Chef Toby Appel cooks with Fred

And here are a few audio-only recordings of Toby: Toby Appel @New Music USA

As well as a few videos to get you started down the Toby Appel YouTube rabbit hole…

  • Rebecca Clarke – Dumka | dePasquale | Appel | Wolfram
  • Mozart Horn Quintet | Thornton | Park | Appel | Yoo | Kosower

Ack! 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 perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. 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 learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And 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.

Comments

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.
    Karen

  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
    them!

    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!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Get the (Free) Practice Hacks Guide

Learn the #1 thing that top practicers do differently, plus 7 other strategies for practice that sticks.

Do you know your mental strengths and weaknesses?

If performances have been frustratingly inconsistent, try the 4-min Mental Skills Audit. It won't tell you what Harry Potter character you are, but it will point you in the direction of some new practice hacks that could help you level up.

Share309
Tweet
Email