Spotlight Series: Sarah Whitney

To continue our monthly series on kick-ass women of the classical music world, this month we have violinist, blogger and all-around music entrepreneur Sarah Whitney.  A native of Concord, MA (She’s a GBYSO alumna!) and currently residing in NYC, Sarah has been taking the classical music world by storm as a member of the acclaimed ensemble, SYBARITE5, as well as running her own unique concert series titled “Beyond the Notes”.  She performs regularly as a duo, AND a trio, is a regular on the recording session circuit and is passionate about creating innovative concert experiences.  As if being on the road almost half the year isn’t enough, she has also recently launched her own blog, The Productive Musician, where she gives great advice on time management and basic life hacks for the artistic soul.  Today, she is giving us a little insight into how she gets it all done,  the valuable lessons she has learned while on the road as a touring musician, and how the biggest risks are always the ones worth taking.

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What are your morning rituals or routines?

SW: In the past year or so my morning time has become very sacred. I’ve found that it’s the only way for me to have any sort of routine amidst my ever changing schedule. Ideally, I like to have 1 1/2 hours of “me time” BEFORE I check my email. During this time I will do the basics – make my espresso, eat breakfast, shower, get ready, etc. I will also spend time to plan my day, set my daily goals, read something inspiring and do a short meditation. I’m currently using a planner called the Panda Planner which I love and helps outline much of my planning. This pre-email time has helped me immensely. Most emails are “asks” and although they are things that I need to tend to, most of the time they are other people’s priorities to be fulfilled. By setting my priorities first thing in the morning before checking email, I’ve found I have a better chance of keeping track of and completing my most important tasks.

Any Must-Haves for air-travel? 

SW: A pashmina scarf! The temperature can always be unpredictable on planes so a scarf is something small and lightweight to carry that can be a great way to keep warm and double as a blanket. Also, I oftentimes roll the scarf up and use it as a makeshift lumbar back support which I’ve found makes longs flights SO much more comfortable.

I also only travel wearing jersey and never leave for the airport without my refillable water bottle!

What has been your scariest moment on stage? 

SW: A few years go my quintet, SYBARITE5, premiered a brand new concerto for string quintet and orchestra with the South Carolina Philharmonic. We had been mumbling about switching to iPads for music reading for a while and thought this would be a great time since we wanted to read off of scores. So, we took the plunge. During the performance, all seemed to be going well until I turned the page with my foot pedal only to see I had flipped from page 1 to page 3. I turned back thinking I had skipped a page only to find myself toggling between pages 1 and 3 with no page 2 in sight at all! Mild panic ensued and since there wasn’t much I could do, I slapped on a big smile and did a little improvising to get me through the missing page! Luckily, all the pages were in impeccable order moving forward, but my heart definitely skipped a few beats – no, MANY beats – during that performance!

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What has been your most rewarding moment as a musician?

SW: One of my favorite things is performing at retirement and nursing homes. When my grandparents were living, I would visit their retirement home and grew up frequently performing at these communities. Sometimes they were formal concerts and other times they weren’t but I loved sharing my music this way. Throughout my career, I’ve continued to play at retirement homes all over the country; a few years ago, I was playing at an intensive care unit where many of the residents were not 100% cognitively aware. I was playing Moon River and all of the sudden one of the residents started humming along. This created a chain reaction and before I knew it, I had a choir of residents singing along! It was an extremely rewarding and magical experience. Although we couldn’t really speak to one another, we could connect through our music.

Practicing: Love it or Hate it?

SW: Practicing is a very precious time for me and it’s something that I have grown to sincerely love. Between all of the necessary admin work, travel and life events, it can be quite challenging to find a lot of practice time. I miss those days at grad school when practice hours were a plenty! I have, however, learned to be much more effective with my practice time and can accomplish more in less time than I used to.

What about when you were a kid?

SW: Probably the exact opposite of how I feel about it now! There was usually lots of negotiating about practice time and I was constantly looking for ways to put it off. My parents probably have a laundry list of excuses I used!

Who were some of your role models as a young musician?

SW: Gidon Kremer was a huge role model to me. He was one of the first violinists I learned about that pushed the boundaries of being a classical musician. I was fascinated and inspired by his creativity, artistry and fearlessness to be different. This opened my eyes to a whole new way of thinking about what it meant to be a violinist.

How old were you when you knew you wanted to be a professional musician? 

SW: I didn’t actually grow up always knowing 100% that I wanted to pursue music professionally. It was a large part of my life and I was very serious about it, but I had a lot of interests and ideas about the future as a young child. When college “discussions” came along my junior year of high school, the prospect of music school was appealing and seemed to make a lot of sense. In some ways you could say the decision to become professional was during my junior year when I applied to music schools for college, but honestly, there really wasn’t a “moment” and in hindsight, it actually happened very organically.

 

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Have any pre-concert rituals? 

SW: Tea! I’m very sensitive to temperature when I perform and get cold very easily. Even in warmer climates, the air conditioning in concert halls can often be very fierce. I’ve found the best and most consistent way to keep my body temperature warm is with a hot beverage so I’m usually sipping on tea or hot water before a show!

Do you have a favorite city to perform in?

SW: One of my favorite places to perform was in Fairbanks, Alaska with SYBARITE5. It was March and indescribably cold, but the the warm reception and hospitality of the community was amazing. We also got to see the northern lights and had one of the most memorable back stage riders consisting of an entire Alaskan salmon!

 

What do you find to be the hardest part of being on the road?

SW: The hardest part about being on the road is being sure to make time for myself. I travel mostly with SYBARITE5 and sometimes it’s very convenient to do everything together as a quintet. Although I love my colleagues, it took me a while to realize how essential my “me time” was. I’ve had to find ways to make sure that that happens and make sure I’m disciplined about my time management on the road.

What advice would you give to your 18-year old self? 

SW: All of the musicians you are around now will become your colleagues in the real world! Keep in touch with these people – they will be incredible resources for advice, collaborations and support.

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If you could have dinner with any classical musician, dead or alive, who would you choose, and what would you ask them about? 

SW: Prokofiev! I would ask him if he was going to write one more piece of music what would it be, and who would it be for?

What is the biggest risk you have taken in your career? 

SW: The biggest risk I have taken is probably moving to NYC …without a job! In 2008, my last year of graduate school at the Cleveland Institute of Music, I realized that I did not want to be in an orchestra and therefore had no exact idea about what I WANTED to do after I graduated. I had met Louis, founder of SYBARITE5, at the Aspen Music Festival and School and he called me with a proposal: Would I be interested in moving to NYC after I graduated to help grow SYBARITE5 into a professional chamber ensemble even though there wasn’t any concrete work or financial guarantee yet? Crazy, right?! Well, I took the plunge and I’m so glad I did. Almost 10 years later I have established quite a career in NYC and toured the country and the world with SYBARITE5!

Where can people find you? (website, IG, FB, Twitter, etc.) 

www.sarahwhitney.com

Blog: www.theproductivemusician.com

IG: @sarahwhitneyistall

FB: https://www.facebook.com/sarahwhitneyistall

Thank you so much, Sarah!  Safe Travels!

Ten Things to Know About Making a Supplemental Recording

Happy October!  Having lived most of my life in the Midwest and in New England, fall to me means changing leaves, cider doughnuts, apple picking, and of course, a few decorative gourds.  But for a lot of us, Fall also means School Application Time.  Whether you are an 8th grader applying to private high schools or a Senior applying to college….. the application process as a whole can be overwhelming and stressful, and while school guidance counselors can help with the academic side of things, for many young musicians, the question of sending in a supplemental recording can leave them and their parents scratching their heads.

Wanting to be able to give the best information to my own students, I had the pleasure of sitting down for a chat with Dave Jamrog (check him out here!)– Boston-based recording engineer and videographer extraordinaire (he recorded my CD, the French Cello!)– about the ins and outs of the supplemental recording process.  Over the last five years, Dave has worked with hundreds of student musicians and helped them get their materials together.  With his help, I have put together the 10 things you need to know about making (and sending) a supplemental recording.

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1)There is a big difference between sending something in for high school, college as a non music-major, and for those of you who are applying to colleges or conservatories as a music major.

High School:  This one is pretty easy and pretty basic.  Having once held the dual positions of Strings Director and Admissions officer at a prestigious NE Prep School, I can tell you:  I just want to know what level player you are.  I’m thrilled if you are an extremely advanced player because you will likely be one of my principal players, will be able to perform solos and will probably do some chamber music.  I’m thrilled if you are a “decent” player because you will fill out my section and be an enthusiastic member of the group, and I’m thrilled if you’re a relative beginner, because you will grow and become a better one. You should send a recording of yourself performing a work for your instrument, either solo, or accompanied by piano.  This one can be an iphone or home-made video.  What is NOT helpful, is a full length video of your latest orchestra concert.  You’re sitting somewhere in the middle of the violins, but I have no idea who you are, or how well you are playing. Save that one for the grandparents.   And please, I beg of you: DO NOT send in a recording of you playing an instrument as part of your application and then show up to the school having decided not to continue playing “in order to focus on your studies”.  Your oboe playing helped get you into that school, not because it showed what discipline you had, but because that school needed an oboe player! If you are sending something in, you need to be committed to lending that talent to the school.

College (non-major):  This one is slightly similar in that the repertoire is going to be your choice.  You should send in a couple of pieces that show a good contrast in style, tempo or genre.  As a trumpet player, you could play a little Haydn and then some jazz, for instance, or a slow piece and a fast piece.  Again, this college is looking to fill its orchestra, chamber music and private lesson program.  If they don’t have players, there is no point in paying for the faculty or the facilities, and colleges know that people who play instruments are smart, creative and on track to be successful students, so they need to have the program in place to attract that kind of student.  While it might be less competitive than going in as a music major or applying to a music school/conservatory, your financial aid might be affected by whether you are the best cellist applying, or just an okay, half-decent player.  Believe me, they’ll want both of you, but program directors can only submit a short list in order for it to hold any weight with admissions.

College/Conservatory (music major): Okay, this one is the biggie.  You’re not just going up against other random students applying to said school with varying interests and talents.  You are going up against all of the other talented 17 yr-olds who play YOUR INSTRUMENT.  You need to show your strengths and show them that they should pick you. It is imperative that you send in your absolute best, most polished looking recording.  For most, if not all, of these programs, you will need to submit a preliminary recording in the late fall/winter, along with your application, and if that is accepted, you will fly to the school in Feb/Mar and play a live audition for the faculty.  Each school has their own repertoire lists for the preliminary rounds, but for strings, it is usually one or two movements of solo Bach, and the 1st movement of a standard concerto. If you are a Junior in High School, and you even THINK you might want to go into music, this is a great time to hop onto the websites of a few schools you are interested in, and look up the repertoire lists so that your teacher can start you on those pieces now.

2) You should listen to your teacher and do exactly what they suggest regarding your recordings. 

High School students are told time and time again that they should start taking initiative in their lives.  Trust me, this is NOT the moment to do that.  Your private teacher knows your playing inside and out.  They know your strengths and they know your weaknesses.  They know how important this recording is, and they have undoubtedly chosen pieces that will show off said strengths and hide said weaknesses.  Just because your friend is sending in his Dvorak concerto doesn’t mean that you should whip up some Prokofief Sinfonia Concertante in the next couple of weeks just to make sure you’re playing something harder than the competition.  It’s not about how difficult the piece is: it’s about how well you play, and the longer you have known a piece, the better you will sound playing it.

3) Book your time in advance

Take a look at your calendar now and take note of all of your deadlines Book your recording for two to three weeks before the first deadline.  Bear in mind that your recording engineer is dealing with 100 high school seniors who all share the same deadlines.  Your deadline is their deadline.  YOU might have the time three days before you need to hit send to deal with post-production and finalizing your recording, but your engineer might NOT.  While we’re on the subject of deadlines, please be sure to let your private teacher know ALL of your deadlines as well.  Give them one spreadsheet with each school, the pieces needed, prelim deadlines, recommendation letter deadlines, etc.

4) Book a long-enough window of time (Yes, 2 hours IS needed to record 15 minutes of music)

A lot of young musicians (and their parents) underestimate the amount of time it takes to make a good recording, and a lot of parents wonder why they need to book (and pay for!) two hours in order to record 10 minutes of music.  Well, here’s why.  When you’re booking time with a recording engineer, you are booking their time.  That’s two hours of them being there (usually, they don’t charge for travel time, but they should if you are asking them to travel a far distance to come to you).  Part of that 2 hours is spent setting up microphones according to the space (every space’s acoustics are different, and the engineer knows how to set things up to get you sounding amazing).  Then you need time to tune, warm up, and get comfortable.  It’s nerve-wracking to play in front of strangers/microphones/cameras in your face.  You will also want to stop after your first couple of takes and listen back to yourself to make sure YOU like the balance, and so you can hear for yourself how the dynamics are coming through the microphone).  Besides, if you’re going to bother doing it at all, you want to make sure you get exactly everything you need, rather than feel like, after all that, you still never got a good take of that last page.

5) Audio vs. Video. Dress the part, make sure you have figured out page turns, and that your stand isn’t covering you completely.

Certainly, for video, you need to be sure that you are dressed as if you are playing a concert.  Doesn’t have to be a concert gown or a tuxedo, but definitely dress trousers and a button-down shirt, Long skirt and dressy top, or a long dress. Wear your hair in a way that doesn’t cover your face, get in the way of your instrument, etc.  I once had a student who ALWAYS wore her hair up in a bun.  For her senior recital, her mom took her to get her hair professionally done and wore it down in gorgeous, flowing curls. Well, she had a hell of a time playing with her hair suddenly getting caught between her fingers and the fingerboard, in the pegs, in front of her face so she couldn’t see the music.  Not surprisingly, she came out for the 2nd piece with her hair pulled up in her usual bun!  Page turns!  Photocopy pages and tape them out so that you can avoid turning the page if you can (or make sure everything is memorized). If you are recording at home, make sure that the space around you is clean and not too distracting.

6) Piano accompanist vs. solo:

Pianists always make us sound better, but they also help us  to actually play better.  You’ll hear the harmonies better and make better dynamic contrasts, and because they are professionals, their high level of playing will help you to boost your own level of playing–even just in that moment.  It’s for this reason that Dave recommends doing the  pieces with your accompanist first (if you have a mix of accompanied and unaccompanied repertoire.) That energy will carry over into solo stuff (he’s seen it happen a million times!) Get an accompanist that you trust and allow them to help coach you.  They probably have a lot of experience doing this, have figured out a few tricks of the trade,  and they are there to make you sound your best.

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7) Make sure you are recording something that you feel very comfortable with, and that you are as prepared as you possibly can be.  

Ideally, you should be recording pieces that you have already performed, either in a recital or an audition.  This is where trusting the teacher comes in again.  I have had students decide (on their own, 3 days before their recording) that they wanted to record their NEW piece instead of their “OLD” piece because they felt that the “NEW” piece would be more impressive.  Don’t underestimate how different it will feel to have that camera and those mics in front of you, when you are trying to get a “perfect” take.  If you miss something once in the practice room, you’ll miss it 10 times in the recording space.  You want tried and true.  One way to get more comfortable with the process as a whole, is to practice doing recordings on your phone in the week prior.  See how it feels to “just keep going” and then be sure to listen back and take note of what went well and what you want to fix.

8) Don’t stop too often. 

It’s never going to be 100% perfect.  Dave said that this is one of the biggest and most common mistakes he sees. In an attempt to get everything absolutely perfect, a student will stop every time something small goes wrong.  A good rule of thumb is that if something goes HORRIBLY wrong in the first 30 seconds, then go back and start from the beginning, but once you get into the piece–keep going.  It is far better to have three complete “less-than-perfect” takes that you can choose from, than 68 “perfect” snippets that are completely useless to you.  I like to have my students start with one “no matter what” run-through of each piece.  Psychologically, they are under less pressure to “get through it” because they know they already “have one in the can”.  Then, we can take the time to get better takes.

9) This one is for the parents:

Please trust the other adults in the room and know that they all want the best outcome for your child.  From the recording engineer, to the teacher or the accompanist.  If you start trying to micro-manage your child’s session, you are going to add to their stress and cause unnecessary tension for everyone.  If the teacher is not there, and you are not a musician yourself, you can ask the accompanist or the engineer to help keep tabs on their takes.

10) What happens after the recording session:

Your engineer will send you all of the files of your various takes, and you (and possibly your teacher) will listen to them, take notes, and decide which one(s) are the “keepers”. You won’t be doing any editing or splicing  (never allowed for this kind of thing!) so you can disregard any partial takes.  You’ll tell your engineer which takes you want to use, as well as all of the information the schools have given you about how they want the files submitted (they often want different sizes, formats, etc.).  The engineer will then send you all of your neat and tidy files labled and ready to send off to your schools.  Make sure you listen to it before you send it in. and please, please, please, don’t forget to put your name and instrument on the file or in case of a hardcopy, on the case and the CD/DVD itself.  Also, be sure to save those files to your computer, dropbox, or an external hard drive.  Check with your engineer about their file management.  Dave keeps all of your files for 6 months so if you need to send something in for another audition later, he can format it however you need and you don’t need to re-record.

11) Bonus:  What to do if you really cannot afford a professional engineer? 

I get it!  Between lessons, chamber music, orchestra, summer festivals and application fees, sometimes it’s difficult to find the few hundred dollars that a supplemental recording generally costs. Here are some alternatives for those times when you’re in a bind.

  • Dave had a great suggestion, which was to book a group session for several of your friends/studio mates/school peers.  And split up a shorter time.  Since there would be zero/minimal set up time between players, you wouldn’t all need a full two hours and if you hired one accompanist, you might get a deal of that as well.
  • Ask you school A/V department if they have any good recording equipment, and see if they have a student who knows how to use it. Maybe you can help tutor them in AP Bio in return :-).
  • Call Berklee and see if they can suggest a talented music production/recording engineer student.
  • If you have no other choice, Røde makes a $50 microphone that works with an iphone that will help with the quality.  You’ll still have to figure out the file compression/uploading logistics, but if you are particularly tech savvy, this might work for you.

From the bottom of my heart, I am wishing all of you the absolute best.  Prepare well, go in with confidence, trust your teachers, and this should be an enjoyable experience for you.  If you are interested in setting up a session with Dave, you can find him here.  Thanks so much, Dave, for your input and stories!

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Photos of our recording sessions for The French Cello.