Auditions and Life Lessons

Auditions offer life lessons

Auditions are like job interviews for musicians. We prepare for hours but have one shot in front of the judges. It’s frightening, thrilling, and weird.

My musical children have not shown interest in studying at a high level or performing in competitions, but I am familiar with the experience, having participated in competitions and auditions for music school.

Non-musician parents will appreciate the perspective of Penelope Trunk whose son recently took an audition at Julliard.

My 11-Year-Old Son Auditioned at Julliard. (

I like her perspective on practicing, that “the art of practicing is finding a process of repetition without boredom.” Some ideas for this kind of practice can be found elsewhere on this blog in the following articles:

Resilience and grit are the new buzz-words in parenting, and music is one of the best ways to teach these skills. Whatever the outcome of Penelope’s son’s auditions, she is raising a resilient child. If you liked this article, another perspective to consider is Amy Chua and her book about being a Tiger Mother.

When we visited New York last year, we took the kids for a tour of Julliard. My husband’s mentor and friend is the head piano technician for the music school. Here’s a picture of my 11-year-old son at Julliard. We weren’t there for an audition, of course, but the building is impressive.


my son at Juilliard

We can debate the pros and cons of training children to high levels of musical aptitude, but I think Penelope Trunk is doing a good job teaching her child not just about performance but about life. Her perspective as a non-musician strikes me as healthier for parent and child than Amy Chua, whose children have drifted away from music.

The Judges

Banishing Negative Self-Talkangry judges

For the first several years after I started my job as music director, I had a lot of anxiety about the job. I often came home on Sunday afternoons and cried. My husband will tell you that I would spend hours obsessing over something I said or something that I did in rehearsal that might not have come out right. My imaginary judges were constant companions.

Saturday nights were the worst. I would spend a lot of time preparing for the Sunday morning rehearsal, learning every single part. There were many sleepless Saturday nights and many anxious nightmares. The negative voices in my head were deafening. I told myself “You’re not good enough for this job. You don’t have the skills to lead a choir. The choir members don’t like you.” The judges in my head were loud and persistent.

Slowly, I came to realize that this kind of negative self talk was not making the music better. In fact, it was holding me back from joyful expression.

Now, 13 years into the job, I would like to say that the judges are completely gone, but they aren’t. I still have moments of self-doubt. But I’m learning to stare the judges in the eye, ask them to be kind, and listen to the constructive ideas they have for me.

I think most musicians are familiar with inner judges.

We must have a certain amount of self-reflection to correct mistakes during practice. Because music eaves us very vulnerable when performing or working with a teacher, negative self-talk can cause performance anxiety.

A loud inner dialog takes up a lot of space in the brain. We can only remember four to seven things at once. Playing a musical instrument or singing uses a lot of bandwidth as we shift from thinking about the body to the music to the instrument. If the brain is overloaded with inner conflict, the music will suffer. There is a limit to how many things we can be doing and remembering at once.

The first step in solving any problem is to recognize what the problem is.

Notice as you go through your music practice and your day what narrative is going on inside yourself. Listen to the voice within. Are there particular things that trigger negative self-talk?

A Soprano on Her Head

In her book A Soprano on Her Head, Eloise Ristad offers ways to confront the judges. She suggests an exercise, asking us to imagine the judges as people sitting around us.

If we stand in the center of our circle. We can look around at each judge with a sense of detachment and curiosity and find out what each one is telling us. We can also take the initiative and talk back to them; we can ask them to be more supportive and just stop tyrannizing us. We can let their cold imperiousness turn the judges into ice, then let a tiny warm glow at our center intensify little by little until our judges begin to melt away….

We can lessen the power of these nagging, bothers some judges that continually defeat us and stifle are spontaneity. We aren’t doomed to constant censorship from these commentators on our every act and thought. There’s even a chance that we can come to terms with them and find the good in them.

In her book, Eloise Ristad offers many exercises for diminishing the effect of these judges, including asking them to speak kindly or taking their power away. If your inner judges are loud, I urge you to read her book and work through the exercises Ristad suggests in Chapter 2.

When you hear your judges, counteract their negativity with affirmations.

“I am good enough; I am doing enough; I am loved.”kids playing music

Reflection can be a useful tool for growth, but it must be done with love and compassion.

Too much judgment holds us back from experiencing life in the moment. It keeps us frozen in the past because we are afraid of failure. Negative self-talk often causes performance anxiety for musicians and it prevents us from fully expressing ourselves artistically.

Finally, I believe that recognizing and counteracting judgmental self-talk is a kind of spiritual practice. It has helped me be happier in my career and in my personal life. But I have to keep practicing because the judges change form as I face new challenges. I try to stay aware of the voice within me, ever vigilant that my judges are fair and kind.

Recital Preparation

The Studio Recital for my students is this week and we’ve been talking about recital preparation.

Mental preparation in the two weeks leading up to a performance is critical. By this stage, you should have all of the notes, rhythms, and expressive elements under control. Most of the technical difficulties should be mastered. In the final stretch before a big performance, attention will shift from hewing out the difficulties of the piece to polishing for the audience. I touched on these ideas a bit in the blog post “Mental Practice” but here’s another look with a keen focus on recital preparation. Since I am a woman who plays flute, many of the suggestions below are based on my experiences. In the comments, please let me know if there are other things you consider before a big performance.

The flute and recorder students of Marlene Hartzler, 2013

Studio recital 2013

Recital preparation has mental and physical aspects.

You must practice like you are performing.

  1. Play through your piece often without stopping. Push yourself for high accuracy in notes and rhythms while maintaining musicianship. Make sure that transitions of dynamics and tempos are smooth. You should still leave time in your practice for woodshedding, but play through your piece in its entirety once a day,
  2. Try messing up on purpose and improvising your way through the mistake. Keep your fingers moving until you get back “on the rails.”
  3. Find opportunities for playing your piece for other people. This can be as simple as asking a friend or family member to listen to you play the piece all the way through, or as formal as organizing a pre-performance concert (at a nursing home, your church, etc.) Young children may enjoy performing a concert for their stuffed animals. Set the critters up in front of the music stand and have fun entertaining the furry guests. Don’t forget to bow at the end!
  4. Record yourself performing. Listening to an audio recording will help you refine your musical ideas. If you are able to videotape yourself, watch for excessive body movement. Pay attention to your face when you make a mistake. Do you grimace when something goes wrong or do you have a “poker face?”

Mental preparation goes a long way toward a positive experience.

  1. Visualize the room in which you will be playing. Imagine people sitting facing you. If this is a space you are familiar with, make the mental picture as vivid as possible by adding details about the size of the room, the color of the walls and flooring, the temperature of the building, the lighting sources and quality, the smells, the height of the stage, and so forth.
  2. Create a mantra that you will use during your final preparation and on the day of the recital. You might say to yourself “I am prepared. I am strong. I love this music.” or something similarly affirming. Practice this positive self-talk while you are practicing and whenever you feel nervous about the upcoming performance.
  3. Consider this question: what is the worst thing that can happen if I mess up? Perhaps you will have a bruised ego for a little while, but you will not be irreparably harmed. In the worst case scenario, you will have a juicy story to share with friends and laugh about in the future. In a recent post on this blog, I shared a link to a story about a woman whose skirt fell off during a performance. She didn’t die of embarrassment. In fact, she continues to teach and perform with a good sense of humor.
  4. Practice concentration exercises. Find ways to redirect a wandering mind.
  5. Notice when you are engaging in negative self-talk. Counter it with positive affirmations. Visualize yourself feeling radiant after a perfect performance.

Consider the physical and logistical aspects of a performance.

  1. Knowledge is power. Ask your teacher about any details that confuse you or create anxiety. Perhaps you want to know where you should warm up or if you need to bring a music stand. Although it’s not possible to know every detail of the day, see if you can get more information about the things that worry you.
  2. Know where you are going and how long it will take you to get there. Plan your route the night before and leave lots of extra time for travel. It is far better to be early than late to a performance! If you arrive early, you will have time to practice your concentration exercises, get a full warm-up, and have a few moments of quiet. Running late can be very stressful and will deprive you of the time you need to prepare fully.
  3. Practice in the shoes and clothes you will be wearing. Make sure your shirt allows for easy breathing. Are your shoes comfortable? Ladies: Is your neckline OK for bowing? Take a look at the hem of your skirt. It should be at least knee-length for standing, floor-length if you are sitting on a stage. Can you safely balance in heels?
  4. If you have hair that can reach your mouth, consider how you will wear it away from your face. Headbands, hair ties, bobby pins, and/or barrettes are good items to keep in your instrument case.
  5. Lay out your clothes the day before. Are you missing anything? You don’t want to have to make an emergency run to the drugstore for tights/hose/dark socks on the way to the recital.
  6. Watch what you eat on the day of the performance. Be especially mindful of caffeine and sugar, which can make you feel jittery and leave you feeling low later. Wind players need to be aware that salty foods can make the mouth dry and spicy foods can make the lips and tongue swell. Dairy products can increase the amount of mucus in your throat. Try to avoid eating a meal one hour before the performance. Normal nervousness can be upsetting to the stomach. Eating too close to the performance can also make your mouth water.  Bring a water bottle, but be sure to not drink too much! It’s disgusting, I know, but these things can make a difference!
  7. Get a full night of sleep. Just as cramming the night before a test is unproductive, staying up all night practicing will not make your performance better. Research has shown that sleep is essential for brain function. (How We Learn is a great book detailing this research.)
  8. Eat a banana to help quiet the nerves. (This is the one exception to the “don’t eat before a performance” rule.) Maybe you think I’m crazy, but check out these articles on the effect of bananas on anxiety: “Banana Natural Beta Blockers For Anxiety” and “Best Foods For Calming Your Nervous System” and “Got Nerves? Eat A Banana.

It’s totally normal to be nervous about a performance. Nervousness is your body’s way of being excited.

Performance anxiety is a whole other topic, on which many good books have been written. My favorite is A Soprano On Her Head by Eloise Ristad. I’ll post more on this subject in the future.

However, I believe that proper recital preparation can alleviate some nervousness. Being super-prepared with the music, practicing like you are performing, using visualizations and affirmations, working out the logistics, and preparing your body all contribute to a successful performance experience.

Break a leg!



Gigs: The Fun and the Funny.

Freelance musicians are dependent on gigs for their livelihood. Though it may seem like an easy way to make money, the truth is a bit more complicated. The lovely music you hear at a wedding may be lovely, but it is a tiny part of what goes into performing gigs.


toddler theater with Rotten Ralph, Sept. 2015

I consider myself very lucky to be a freelance musician. I love my career. It’s exciting to be working for myself and adapting to the wide variety of occasions my services are needed. This week, I played an outdoor wedding, headlined a concert for 250 toddlers, taught music classes, rehearsed and conducted an adult choir, team-taught an arts program with the theme “autumn leaves,” met individually with flute and recorder students, and performed at a birthday party for a dozen two-year-olds. But those are just the performing moments, the ones that everyone knows about and which seem glamorous. There were also hundreds of miles of driving, instrument schlepping (my arms are sore today!), practicing, emails and phone calls, QuickBooks data entry, standing in line at the bank, and paying a big health insurance premium bill. Those things are not so fun.

My friend Emily Packard has a wonderful blog article about her adventures as a gig musician Take a moment to read it. Her writing is terrific and the story is a good one, though I feel very sorry for her poor violin.

Emily Packard’s blog


this is the performance where I almost fainted. the sun was scorching!

Another blog popped into my Facebook feed as I sit here writing this. The Self-Inspired Flutist is another article about the perils of being a performing musician. I laughed out loud when reading about the author’s horrible experience of having her skirt fall off during a recital. Performing without clothes on is every musician’s recurring nightmare and it really happened to Terri Sanchez.

Have you read the book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly? Anthony Boudain’s confessional is filled with hilarious, disgusting, unbelievable moments from his career as a chef.

I’ve often thought that we musicians should write something like that too. My husband is a piano technician and he loves to share war stories with fellow technicians about mice nests in pianos and colorful clients. A piano technician friend works for the Pentagon and tells entertaining stories about working in the D.C. area.

I have my share of war stories too. There was the time I nearly fainted while playing in the hot summer sun on stage with a furry shark. Or maybe you would like to hear about the funeral gig that included discreetly eating my own snot while playing the flute. But I think I’ll save those stories for my book Musician Confidential.



What do marching bands, music competitions, and playing classical music in the dark have in common? Memorization.

Performing musicians are asked to memorize music from time to time. Memorization is often required for competitions and is useful for making a piece more musical. While memorization may seem difficult at first, with practice it becomes easier. And there are some advantages to memorization: when we are free of the dots on the page, we can listen more carefully and respond more musically.

Cognitive scientists have long understood the necessity of memorization in the learning process. In 1917, Arthur I. Gates embarked on a project to find out the right ratio between study (reading from a book) and memorization. [“Recitation As a Factor In Memorizing”] Gates found that 1/3 study and 2/3 recitation from memory is optimal. What does this mean for musicians? If you’re trying to memorize something, play it while looking at the page once and try it from memory twice.

My students, especially the ones in marching band, ask for help memorizing music. Different skills are useful in different contexts. Because marching band is the most common need for memory with my flute students, we will consider how different memory skills are best suited to the music in the pregame show (“Star Spangled Banner,” the fight song, and the alma mater.)

There are THREE types of musical memory:

  1. finger memory
  2. aural memory
  3. visual memory

looking through the lyre

Let’s consider each one in greater detail.


I am able to play my high school fight song, even though I graduated 20 years ago. I can pick up my flute and without even thinking about it, my fingers will begin going through the motions. I’ve probably played the fight song thousands of times during football games, basketball games, and band practice. The patterns are drilled into my fingers forever. Finger memory is a physical memory and it requires little conscious effort. This kind of memory is embedded in the mind through many repetitions. If properly strengthened, finger memory can be very reliable, especially in stressful situations. Finger memory is learned through playing the piece many, many times.


Grab your instrument and play “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” starting on the note F. After a couple of tries, you were probably able to play it pretty well. “Twinkle” is a tune that most people know how to sing. When you worked out the song by ear on your instrument, you heard it in your head then matched the pitches to the sound coming out of your instrument. You may have had to move up or down pitches until you found the right one, but it was easier on the second try. Aural memory is useful when finger memory fails and we need to get back on track. This type of memory is especially useful when playing “The Star Spangled Banner,” which has a lot of tricky intervals. If your finger memory fails, you can use your ear to guide you to the right note and you’ll be back on track quickly.


You don’t need to have a photographic memory to use the skill of visual memory to aid in learning a piece of music. The tune for my high school’s Alma Mater was a bit unusual. I never learned the words. But it was mercifully short. If I close my eyes, I can still imagine what the printed sheet music looked like: the typeface of the title, the layout of the staves, and the starting notes. The visual memory is so strong that even now, I can still read parts of the music by bringing up the image. Visual memory is critical for memorizing difficult transitions, changes, or anything that is unusual. Take a mental picture of the music and read the notes from the inside of your eyelids! This type of memory can be very strong, but it can’t be used for long pieces of music. It’s most helpful for small sections.


By understanding and carefully using all three types of memory, you are less likely to forget. It’s not wise to rely on one type of memory. Rather, it’s best to have “memory redundancies” by using two or three strategies at all times.  Pay special attention to the form of the music. Repeats are like freebies because once the memory is stored, it can be recalled easily a second or third time. Add an additional memory strategy in places where the music changes or becomes difficult.

Memories get stronger with use so keep testing your memory in regular intervals. You will find that the more you play from memory, the easier it will become. The neurons need time to both encode the memories and retrieve them so don’t hurry the process. When music needs to be memorized, start early and test your memory often.

But here’s the good news: your brain has an incredible amount of memory available. In the book How We Learn, Benedict Carey offers some encouragement.

“Everything we have deliberately committed to memory–the multiplication table, a childhood phone number, the combination to our first locker–is all there are for good. …(There) is more than enough (memory capacity in our brains) to record every second of a long life, cradle to grave. Volume is not an issue.” (pp. 36-37)

To learn more about the science of the brain and music, please check out my other blog posts: Brain Imaging On MusiciansHow We Learn book reviewThe Musician’s Brain.