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.

thumbnail-4

 

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!

IMG_0884

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.

 

thumbnail-5

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.

thumbnail-3

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!

The Secret to Having Discipline (also known as fake it ’till ya make it)

Growing up in the world of classical music, my life revolved around that word: Discipline.  The fact that I needed it, whether or not I had it, my peers who obviously did have it, those sad, talented kids who just didn’t have it (“what a shame!”….) Every day of my life was measured in how many hours I had managed to get myself to practice.  Did I manage 3? Or an epic, I-can-totally-hang-with-the-cool-crowd 5? Or did I sit on the couch and watch bad re-runs on TV while eating countless bowls of cheerios?  In high school, I was surrounded by an incredible group of like-minded, talented friends.  they were fiercely loyal, but also fiercely competitive.  Any practicing my lazy-ass self ever did during that time in my life was purely to keep up with them.  In college, I discovered that I had cultivated a bit of street cred for my ability to get up super early (I mean, 6 am–IN COLLEGE!  I deserved a medal!) and get my practicing done.  But even that was a matter of pride, rather than discipline.  Once people started talking about the fact that I did it, I couldn’t very well STOP doing it, right?  After college I went to the New World Symphony in Miami Beach for 3 years, and discovered other reasons to practice that had nothing to do with discipline.  Ex. A) wanting to stay on the same work schedule as my ÜBER disciplined boyfriend. Ex B) knowing that if I practiced BEFORE our 10am rehearsal, the Music Director (my boss) would sit and chat with me while I had my coffee outside the hall.

 

ephasus

And so, it wasn’t until I moved back to Boston and shared my first grown-up apartment with a non-musician friend that I learned of the true nature of discipline.  Continue reading

January 30-Day Focus: Blogging

 

I can’t believe I’m already on month 5 (F-I-V-E!!!) of my (year-long) 30-Day Focus Project, and I have to say, it has been an AMAZING experiment for me.  The clarity I have found in identifying the 12 most important areas of my life has been profoundly helpful in improving my ability to make plans, decisions, and set goals for my work, my relationships and in basically every area of my life.  I feel like I have accomplished more in the last 4 months than I have in the last 4 years!  I’ve been announcing each one as they come, but here is the full list in case you’ve been curious: Continue reading

3 Things to Leave Behind in 2017

 

Hello, and welcome to 2018! I had a great time with my family here in Bermuda and it has been so wonderful to slow down, relax, and spend some quality time with friends.(and also my couch!)

As I mentioned in this post from last September, my life and my career more closely follow an academic (Aug-July) year than a calendar (Jan-Dec) year,  but one can’t help but be swayed by the masses doing their yearly tallies and New Year’s Resolutions.  I am a total sucker for a new start of any kind, and also for any and all forms of self-reflection.  So, even though I feel as though this holiday time is merely a half-way point, it has been interesting to look at 2017 as a whole and figure out some highlights, as well as how I have grown over the last 12-months (starting with my hips, but that’s due to too many Christmas cookies!).  I believe that as we grow as people, it is as important to shed past habits, thoughts and actions and consciously leave them behind, as it is to embrace the shiny newness of an adopted habit/job/family situation, etc.  So here are 3 things I am choosing to leave behind with the rest of the 2017 detritus Continue reading

Holiday Gift Guide for Your Kid’s Music Teacher

I get asked about 50 times a year by my non-musician friends and family members what an appropriate gift would be for their child’s violin/piano/clarinet teacher, so I thought I would post a few ideas.  You will notice one entire category that is missing from this list, and that is: ANYTHING that has music notes, treble clefs, or any music joke on it  (Like a magnetic fridge pad that says “Chopin Liszt”).  As I said to one disappointed friend who had sent me a link to a website dedicated to such atrocities: You’re an accountant; would you be psyched to get a pair of cheap mini-calculator earrings? No? Well, there you have it.  Just remember, when the piano teacher in your life isn’t patiently teaching kids how to find inner discipline, listen critically and build the character skills necessary to bring about world peace, they are actually perfectly normal people.  And please remember, as always, it is truly the thought that counts.  It’s nice to mark this mid-point of the year with a show of appreciation and as a way to reflect on accomplishments thus far.  That can be in the form of a heartfelt note and a hand drawn picture from the student, or it can be a purchased gift.   Below, I have compiled a list that covers a large range of price points, and of course, gift cards are always adjustable according to one’s budget.  Hope it helps, and please feel free to pass it around! Continue reading

The $100 Bill

What would you do if I handed you a $100 bill?  

I once had a student who started cello lessons with me when he was 5 years old, and he LOVED the cello.  He loved playing the cello, he loved practicing the cello (as soon as he woke up-at 5am! Much to his parents’ dismay).  But he had this weird thing he did–He only used about 3 inches of bow–ever (probably due to the fact that he was trying not to wake his parents up!).  And every week he would come into his lesson, sad about his lack of tone, and I would say “Use your whole bow!  Use more arm weight! Yes!!!! Just like that! Do it again!  Terrific!  Okay.  Practice this piece like that, with big bows, and you’ll always sound like that”.  And he would leave his lesson super excited about knowing exactly what to do to get that great big cello sound he was after.  And then he would come in a week later, using only 3 inches of bow, and sad that he sounded so wimpy.  And we would repeat the cycle. Continue reading

A Punch in the Face

“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.”  -Mike Tyson

If someone had told me that I would be quoting Mike Tyson on this blog, I’d have punched THEM in the face.  But, alas, it’s true.  My best laid plans for a totally Career-Centered Month were thrown for a serious loop when I managed to spill water onto my laptop.  Long story short, KAPUT.  nothing.  Did I run regular backups?  Of course!  Just not in the last 8 months or so, and that hard drive is in my condo in Boston, which I can’t get into until November.

Thank god for dropbox, but that giant spreadsheet that I have been working on for the past year with all of my contacts and venues and programs and A WHOLE YEAR OF RESEARCH?  GONE…  Gone….  gone…. Continue reading

What I do All Day

There are two questions I am often asked by my non-musician friends and family:

The first, is a general, “So….what, exactly, do you do all day?”.  When I tell them I practice, they look at me kind of funny.

But then when they see me perform, they inevitably ask the 2nd question: “How do you know where all of the notes are going to be?”.   I’d love to simply refer them to the answer to my first question, but that would seem rude.  I’m not offended, I swear.  I get it, what I do is really strange.  I spend hours alone in a room with the door shut “practicing”–whatever that means, and then I perform.  Actors have their fellow cast members.  They go to rehearsal, they interact.  There is a clear process of learning and memorizing lines and stage direction that the common person understands.  Athletes?  They work either with the rest of their team, or if it is a solo sport, they at least work with a coach.  They do drills, they discuss their technique, how to improve. They can measure their progress through speed and distance.  But a musician?  Hmm. Weird.  So, here it is: A day in the life of a musician.  Or at least the practice room part of it.  Continue reading