Interview with Cellist Jaime An

By Oleksander Mycyk

This week's blog features an interview with cellist Jaime An, who recently won an audition for the position of assistant principal cellist in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.


PracticeMind: Hello Jaime, congratulations on your recent success in winning an audition for the Assistant Principal cello position of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and thank you for taking the time to do this interview for PracticeMind!

Thank you for having me! I have always been one of PracticeMind’s biggest fans :)

PM: How did you decide to pursue a career in orchestral playing?

I grew up watching local orchestra performances in the Bay Area, and from then on, I knew I wanted to be a part of a symphony where I could perform these grand works for large audiences. Some of my favorite pieces of all time are orchestral works, which makes this path even more exciting for me. Also, I realized it was a way for me to still pursue my passion of performing music without having the anxiety of performing alone.

PM: Can you tell us a bit about your most memorable moments performing in an orchestral setting?

Recently, I performed Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 with the Baltimore Symphony under the baton of Jonathan Heyward. Although I was on trial and my nerves were giving me a stomachache, the comfort and trust I felt throughout the orchestra I had just met was enough to calm me down. This sounds cheesy, but it felt like nothing else mattered for those 45 minutes, not even my intense stomach pains. It was the first time I felt like the entire group was taking spontaneous risks in the middle of a performance, which made the music even more special and heartwarming.

PM: How many auditions have you taken up to now and what have you found especially helpful to adjust between auditions?

I have taken 2 symphony auditions, including the one for Baltimore Symphony. I have found that looking back on recordings from previous audition periods is very helpful in finding areas to improve on before the next audition. In cases where it is hard to record yourself on stage during the actual audition, even listening back to recordings from a few days before the audition is a productive way to give yourself constructive criticism. Also, I have found that taking a few days off from excerpts after a hard audition and just playing some of your favorite, relaxing pieces is worthwhile because it refreshes your mind (and fingers).

Hans Jensen and Jaime An in Alice Millar Chapel at Northwestern University

PM: Now to get to the crucial aspect of practicing… Since you were a student at the Bienen School of Music pursuing a graduate degree in cello performance when you took this audition, how did you juggle the school responsibilities and preparing for a professional orchestra audition?

It was definitely a lot of work to prepare for this audition, as most musicians can understand. After a long day of classes and late night Civic rehearsals, I would be tempted to come home and go straight to bed, but I would fight the urge and make sure I practiced, no matter how late it was. Everyday, I made sure to play through all the excerpts on the list, focusing on 2-3 each day for extra “deep cleaning.” Even though it is not sustainable in the long run, I pushed myself particularly hard during the 2 months leading up to the audition because I would tell myself that I could sleep and socialize once the audition was over, but I could never “redo” this specific audition.

PM: How long did you prepare for this audition? Were there any specific ways you structured your goal setting and practice schedule in the months leading up to the audition? 

I prepared for this audition for about 2 months, and actually put most of my other repertoire on the back burner for a while. In terms of goal setting, I made sure to learn the music beyond the 30-40 required measures and listened to the full works to see how the excerpts fit into a larger story. I also set daily tempo goals for myself for particularly fast and challenging excerpts that I had to build up to speed. Also, my teacher Hans was very helpful in making sure my excerpts did not become robotic and monotonous after hours of drilling. He always focused on bringing out the long phrases, appropriate colors, and other musical gestures in the music. 

PM: As classical musicians so much of our preparation exists in isolation in the practice room. In what ways did you take the excerpts out of the practice room to help prepare to play for an audition committee? (teacher(s), colleagues, other professional orchestral players)

I played in as many masterclasses/studio classes as I could, because each time, it would feel 1% better. Also, I played for various teachers and professionals to get as many perspectives on the music as I could. From there, I worked to form my own understanding and interpretation of these excerpts. Then, to help prepare myself for the inevitable nerves of audition day, I would do jumping jacks to simulate my elevated heart rate on the real day and then record myself in the practice room.

PM: The days and hours leading up to an audition can potentially be a stressful time for audition candidates. How do you deal with the state of mind before the audition? Perhaps you felt no stress! That is also possible!

To be honest, I am not great at dealing with stress; I tend to neglect everything else besides the upcoming audition and hyperfixate on what I need to prepare. I don’t think this is the healthiest course of action, but it does help me stay disciplined in my practice. Something I learned from Hans that I always do is mentally practice throughout the day, even when you’re not physically playing. If I could go through this audition process again, I would try to relax more and enjoy the journey of preparing for it. 

PM: Do you have any pre-performance routines from recitals and competitions that you brought to the audition day?

Regardless of what time the performance or audition is at, I like to wake up at least 3 hours before it takes place so that my body and mind are fully awake and prepared. Also, I make sure to go on a walk and do a mental run-through of the repertoire I will be playing. Lastly, I make sure to eat a banana about an hour before the audition!

PM: Tell us a bit about your warm-up routine. Also, does it change as you get closer to the audition and on the day-of?

For my warm up, I usually start with slow scales and a vibrato exercise (i.e. 1-finger vibrato scale or vibrating to different metronome speeds) Then, I’ll pick a random excerpt on the list to play extremely undertempo just to wake my fingers up. Then, I’ll do a run-through of all the excerpts and pick a couple that are going to be my main focus for the day. When I’m about 10 days out from the audition day, I like to take the excerpts apart and do a deep dive into them as if I am learning them for the first time. Hans has always had me do this when approaching a big day as it helps to refocus your attention on small details that may have gotten lost along the way. On the audition day, I start my morning off by playing all the excerpts slowly and drilling a couple of the hard shifts and difficult bow strokes. I try not to play too much before I go on stage, just to make sure I am not fatigued.  

PM: What are you most looking forward to in starting your new job in the Baltimore Symphony?

I am looking forward to getting to know the wonderful people in the orchestra and working with Jonathan Heyward! Also, I am excited to play all sorts of different orchestral works I have never encountered before.

PM: Before we end, can you share an anecdote or memorable lesson moment from your 6 years studying with Hans Jensen?

During my undergrad, there were times when I wouldn’t be able to practice very much because I was too busy dancing and preparing for shows. Once, Hans made me stop in the middle of a rather questionable Bach 3 and told me to SHOW him what I’ve been doing instead of practicing…so I took off my shoes and had to dance in the middle of his studio, and he joined me. I am not sure what I did, but I remember it loosened me up and we laughed a lot together. Although he is very big on focused and disciplined practicing, Hans has always encouraged me to enjoy other passions and hobbies in life aside from cello, and I’ve always admired that about him. I will miss him and his exciting ways of teaching very much!

Jaime An, 23, just finished her first year of graduate studies at Northwestern University with Professor Hans Jensen. She began studying cello under the tutelage of Jihee Kim at the age of 10 in San Jose, CA. She has won top prizes in the Korea Times Competition, American Fine Arts Festival Concerto Competition, US International Music Competition, US Open, and performed the Barber Cello Concerto with the Northwestern University Chamber Orchestra as winner of their 2021 Concerto Competition. She has been a member of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and the Associate Principal of the Peoria Symphony Orchestra since fall of 2022, and also subs with the Lyric Opera Orchestra of Chicago. Recently, she became the Assistant Principal Cellist of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and will begin playing with them in the fall of 2023. In her free time, she loves to cook and spend time with her friends and family.