For symphony orchestra musicians, focus is everything. Whether performing a Bach solo in front of thousands, or competing with 80 other world-class musicians for a single seat in the orchestra—the ability to empty your mind and execute is essential.

Much like a Jedi, the orchestral player must master the mind in order to truly reach their full potential—no matter how technically skilled they may be with a violin and/or lightsaber.

In Sarah Jeffrey’s case, Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s Principal Oboist (or Principal Koboist as we prefer to call her), reading is one of her keys to achieve deep relaxation and focus.

We spent a day with the 10-year TSO vet to learn when, where, and what she reads, and how it helps her be her best.


9:15 am: Rehearsal doesn’t start for another 45 minutes but I like to get in a bit early to warm up, choose my reeds, and prepare for the day.

Reading in Musician Lounge
I’m always looking for little openings throughout the day to read. I read the paper after I've nudged the kids out the door in the morning, always have a book with me while I'm on the Subway, and I try to get in a few chapters before I go to sleep (though I'm normally asleep after the first page!). My favourite time to read however, is while I'm relaxing backstage, waiting to go onstage.  There is a bit of quiet time where I can focus my thoughts and I would much rather be stretched out in the Musicians Lounge engaged in a good book than worrying about my reeds, or the notes I might need to practice (not usually the best use of my time, makes me more anxious!). Reading definitely relaxes me.

10:00 am: Play time.


The reality is that most musicians don’t play every piece. So occasionally, the daring among us* will use this off-time to secretly sneak a peek at the latest New Yorker or try to get in a few pages of a book we’re reading.

* I can neither confirm no deny that I have taken part in such activities.


Unfortunately, the front desk (what we call the front row of the orchestra) can’t get away with this, as the conductor would surely catch them—and nobody wants to invoke the wrath of a conductor scorned!


As a musician, and more specifically, an orchestral musician, I spent a lot of time learning to quiet my mind, to focus on being in the present, using cue words to execute a phrase with precision and accuracy, and to be able to play my absolute best in the most anxious mental state. 

We train just like athletes do to be able to play our absolute best under extreme pressure.  A lot of that work is mental and emotional.  Some books that really shaped the way I was able to see my own strengths and areas for improvement are:

My Lessons with Kumi by Michael Colgrass

The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey

The Musician's Way by Gerald Klickstein


12:45 pm: Usually I’ll teach at the conservatory for two hours in the afternoon and then run to pick up the kids. Today however, I get to relax and have a nice coffee at one of my favourite local shops.

As a performer, if you can stay in the moment and maintain the right headspace, you have a big advantage. A lot of my colleagues will just stay at the concert hall all day and practice – ignoring the outside world as best as they can.

Most people in the orchestra read constantly.  I always see people at break on their Kobos or with a great book.  My husband plays in the horn section, and he reads most of the time when he is not playing the horn or spending time with the kids.  His reading tastes are a little different than mine... mostly non-fiction, anything historical, or political.  He loves Naomi Klein, Malcolm Gladwell, and Jose Saramago.  

1:30 pm: Time for my hair appointment. Tonight I’m playing out front—if ever a girl’s gonna get her hair done, today’s the day!


I love historical fiction, or a really good murder mystery.  Something that digs deep, rips out your guts, makes you cry, and leaves you thinking about something you hadn't considered before.

Right now I'm reading In One Person by John Irving.

20160302-KB2_6860 copy

6:00 pm: After a quick dinner it’s back to Roy Thomson Hall to warm up for tonight’s performance. The beautiful architecture never fails to inspire.


Tonight is day one of this year’s 2016 New Creations Festival, showcasing avant-garde contemporary music from some of the world’s top artists.

show night

8:30 pm: I’ve never performed this piece for a crowd before but it goes off without a hitch.

Brett Dean conducts the TSO (Malcolm Cook photo)
Photo: Malcolm Cook
When I was young, my parents read to my siblings and I a lot. As a little girl, I really loved Shel Silverstein and Winnie the Pooh.  I read all of the Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea series, and of course Little House on the Prairie, anything by Beverly Cleary, all of Judy Blume's novels, Charlotte's Web, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, and stuff like that.  It's really amazing to be reading it all over again with my kids.

10:00 pm: the show’s over, but that doesn’t mean people are going home. Tonight there’s an after party featuring DJ Skratch Bastid and The Afiara Quartet (yes this is a photo of a DJ live-remixing a string quartet).

Such a long day! Finally, it’s time to head back home and to my book. I’ll need to read a bit to unwind from today’s excitement. I’m looking forward to it.



Sarah Jeffrey's Reading List: