Interview: Sarah Cosano, woodwind player and more

Sarah Cosano is a busy working woodwind player (among other things). I initially reached out to Sarah about doing an interview because I was interested in her experiences with playing on cruise ships, but it turns out her musical experiences are quite varied. In 2000, Sarah was an MTNA National Competition winner, a featured performer on the NPR radio show From the Top, and an Emerson Scholar at the Interlochen Arts Camp. Since then she has performed with the Disneyland All American College Band, BLAST: Music in Xtreme, and the show Evolution in Japan. Her cruise ship playing has taken her around the world (Russia, Estonia, Fiji, New Zealand, Iceland, and the Caribbean). She is a bandleader, a freelancer, an educator, and a doctoral student in saxophone at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Sarah was kind enough to answer some questions about her career thus far. Read to the end for a video of Sarah doing her thing on flute, and be sure to check out her website for more performances.

photo, Rich Whitlow

Tell us about your musical background.

I grew up in a small town in rural Idaho, and really the only music I knew was through competitions. (My graduating class was 8 people, so band programs were non-existent!) My teacher kept me motivated by entering me in competitions. I loved the dedication it required to make pieces as perfect as possible.

When I got into school at Duquesne in Pittsburgh, I was elated! Little did I know how much my life would change. Living in a larger city made it very clear to me that I didn’t have gig-worthy skills even when I was practicing 3+ hours a day. By the time I finished my undergraduate degree as a performance major, I knew something was missing. I moved back home and spent a few years working day jobs, saving up for instruments, and taking lessons on doubling and jazz. A couple of years later, I was on ships as a showband musician.

Since then, my career has been eclectic. I love the university environment, the constant challenge to become better and all the available information. At the same time, I believe the “real world” deserves respect. It’s hard and unforgiving, and that’s what makes it great. I would say so far my life has been equal parts school and career musician. Between each degree I have taken a few years off to tour and try to balance my academic knowledge with the practical. I don’t regret one second of it.

What education (formal or otherwise) and experience prepared you for what you do?

Classical training is definitely useful for some things: technique, rhythm, tuning, and the basics of musicianship. I took lessons on each instrument from great teachers (clarinet lessons from a clarinet professor, etc.). The downside to the college education system is, often there is an expectation for virtuosic technique in just one skill set. That can inhibit students because they feel they don’t have time to diversify. And I think deep down we sometimes are afraid to be bad at something again.

When I started gigging, I had to pick up skills from all kinds of sources. You never know what you can learn from someone, even non musicians. As a lounge singer on Celebrity, I got commentary about how I switch the microphone a lot while I sing (point taken/fixed!). When I played in a funk band, they wanted simple solos with more soul. I learned about networking, and really being a team player (for example, when you’re a sideman, your primary job is to meet the goals of the person who hired you). Even the showbiz aspect was picked up out there: learning how to create an environment and collaborate with other artists to create an interesting product.

If you could do it over, is there anything you would have done differently to prepare for your current pursuits?

Every step of the way, I have been really honest with myself. If I am doing a gig and feel that I am not being challenged enough, then I take it upon myself to find where the next step is for me. So with whatever knowledge I had at that point, I took it as far as I could. That translated to a lot of change in the past 10 years.

Some would say it can also be a weakness, because I find myself getting to a certain level and then losing interest. It’s fun for me to pick up something completely new because the progress is so noticeable in the early stages. Where I am now, I wish I had taken some voice lessons and worked on double reeds so I’d be further along at this point, but I’m doing that now, so I don’t have regrets. Nobody plowed this path for me—I really had to work for it and I’m proud of that.

Side note: I think it’s important to assess where you are regularly. I feel that jealousy and dissatisfaction can be healthy because we see that we need to stretch again, to make a change in our own life. We just have to keep pushing forward.

What effects did youth/student-oriented music experiences like Interlochen, MTNA, From the Top, and the Disneyland All-American College Band have on your career development?

You know, these were all different phases in my life. Competitions like MTNA are like musical Mount Everest. You have to do the opposite of woodwind doubling and focus on one main goal. The pieces need to be perfect. You have to be able to hear the music like your own voice, becoming one with it and committing if you want to win these things. It taught me how much deeper I could reach into the heart of one piece. But it takes everything. I don’t know if I could compete at that level with all the things I balance right now. I remember that Interlochen had chair challenges, where you would challenge the person above you every week in band. No slacking if you don’t want to be last chair!

Competitions really have instilled in me a sense of how big the world is. Even if you are the top player in your school or town, there is someone out there who can run circles around you. I think if people really thought about that, they would work harder.

Disneyland was a completely different experience, I got in as I was coming home to work on doubling and jazz. At first, I really failed at the movement while playing, it was so hard! This summer was so different from what I had been taught in school. It was a place where jazz, doubling, and showbiz were everything, and perfection was not important. The people I worked with in this band have all gone on to some incredible careers, I’m proud to know them all.

Most importantly with the Disneyland experience, one guy that I worked with on this gig recommended me for BLAST and, after sending a demo, I got in on the Japan tour. Then from that tour, another person I met on BLAST recommended me for Evolution. So really Disneyland catapulted me on a crazy ride to some great gigs. Luckily the dancing part got easier!

How did you get started playing on cruise ships?

Cruise ships are a lot less who you know. There are many agencies out there, and if you’re lucky, you can work direct with the company. Agents usually take a 7–12% cut from each month’s salary, and they have clauses that renew for a few years after each contract. They are cruise-line-specific, so if you have an agent with Holland, you can still go direct with Royal if you get the contact info. Downside: working direct with head office takes a lot of time to get a hold of people. If you want quick or fill in work, an agent is a better way to go.

I kind of went in blind because I didn’t know much about working on ships. I auditioned for an agent and got a gig a month later. I’ve worked with a few agents, but our last contract as a lounge band was direct with head office. For showband,  they send you charts an hour or less in advance and you print them out. Then they call you on a landline and you video record the audition. Afterwards, you send the files to them, and they do the video editing and get you a gig. They usually ask for sight reading of a show with tracks and some basic soloing. And they’ll definitely test you on flute and clarinet.

What is day-to-day life like for a cruise musician? What is the best part? What is the worst part?

Typically for showband you will have a rehearsal in the am and then play two shows at night. There also are other sets, like captain’s cocktail (swing big band music) and possibly theme sets. What company you work for has a huge part in how your life is going to be. On Holland, we played 5 hours a day every day, split between Top 40 music and tracked shows (they recently dropped the sax from the instrumentation, the last surviving horn!) Most other companies are lighter. I would say the average work is around 3 hours.

Shows will typically be a couple of production shows with cast singers and dancers (most companies are going the route of tracks these days, and the band has to play with a click track). Then you’ll have a fly-on guest entertainer a couple times a cruise where you read the show in the morning and play it that night. That really helps with sight reading. Lately some companies (Princess) have cut the second sax part, so they ask you to bring tenor, alto, clarinet, and flute out there.

About the lifestyle. There are important factors to consider. For example, IPM, or in port manning means you have to stay on the ship to “protect it” even if you aren’t working. Some companies like Holland had a heavy rotation, every 3-4 days, but Celebrity was once every 3 months or so. And FOOD! Companies vary on whether you can eat upstairs with passengers or not. Believe me, crew food can be brutal. You’ll be sleeping in bunk beds with a roommate, likely a guy from the band. And you will need to have some degree of safety duties. So you want to think about these things when you consider a ship gig.

One good thing is I paid off all my student loans with ships! You can really save because you don’t have to pay rent or buy food. I also travelled all over the world and meet some incredible, adventurous people. We went to Australia, Fiji, Greenland, Alaska, Caribbean, Russia, Norway, Hawaii, Italy, Spain, etc., for free. I also met my husband from Argentina working on ships. Professionally, I had time to really work on my doubling and grow as a musician.

Still, living can become a drag after awhile because ships really have a corporate aspect to them. If a cruise director wants you playing to an empty bar that is not open at 11 am while the ship docks in Rome, you will be doing that. Also, you don’t really have control over the music or the musicians that you are playing with, so it can be really great… or it can stink. Many people on ships work 13-14 hours a day for very little wage so there can be some jealousy towards the entertainment department. Some companies have been pushing the limits to what musician contracts delineate. I was recently on a ship that assigned musicians check in duties at 6:00 AM every week. There has been push back, but I don’t know if the gig is going to keep going this way. It has changed a lot even in the past 10 years.

What advice would you give to a musician who wants to play on cruise ships? for BLAST? shows like Evolution?

To get onboard: practice your doubles, practice your reading, get used to improv (rhythm changes and blues is usually enough for starters), and work on getting a clear, solid jazz sound. I don’t think you will have any problem getting on if you have these skills ready to go.

Once you get there, explore the destinations, and take advantage of this time. For most people, you’ll never get to see the world like this again. Musically, go in there and learn everything that you can. If there is anything that you don’t know how to do, work your butt off and fix it! Also, don’t underestimate the people around you because they can make your life easier, especially in a ship situation. Make friends because you don’t know who’s connected to who. At some point, you will have learned everything that you can get from this gig, and you may began to feel stuck in one place. Don’t become one of those musicians who kept doing the same thing because they’re afraid of moving—find that next step!

BLAST and Evolution sometimes feel to me like luck. But I think they are lessons in basic networking. These aren’t advertised gigs, they are people knowing people. You have to get your foot in the door somehow, and then things will open up. Also, I should point out that my main instrument is saxophone, but for Evolution I barely played that. It helped to be versatile on a few instruments. My main job there was a flute feature while dancing. So really work hard on making each instrument sound as legit as possible, because you may be hired primarily as one of those, and you have to step up to that.

Several of your performance experiences (BLAST, Evolution, the Disney College Band) include movement and dance. Do you enjoy that part of it, or is it just a necessary part of getting to play music? Do you have abilities/experience in these areas that has given you an advantage over other musicians who might have wanted those performing opportunities?

I love it! I love being on stage and being a ham, so that’s really fun. Of course, movement was hard at first. In BLAST, I would come to the hotel every night and put the iPod on in the gym, going through the movements while singing my part. You have to time the movements of big muscles with the small muscles. We also had a part where we used pogo balls and jumped on trampolines while we played, so that took practice. I still am more stiff when performing than I would like to be, probably because I only took dance as a kid and it is hard to keep good air support while jumping in the air.

Players who do marching band would definitely have an advantage at BLAST, and that is something I wished I had when I was growing up. If you haven’t had formal dance training, movement while playing can still be done. You just have to practice it just like you would an instrument.

What part has teaching played in your career? What part do you see it playing in the future?

I really enjoy teaching, especially because I have had to teach myself a lot of things over the course of my career. Another plug for doubling, when I lived in Austin there was not much need of saxophone teachers, so most of my students were middle school clarinetists. That’s an advantage to being a doubler. Wherever you are, you can find a place for yourself among all the other professionals in your area. I would like to teach at the college level, because I feel comfortable in this environment and like to boil things down to a practical level. I’m not a very abstract person. I want my students to be empowered to really achieve things and I also want them to know how to think on their feet and create opportunities for themselves. Looking back, my career has been pretty cool so far, but anybody can do the same thing if they take some risks.

What part has YouTube and other online presence played in your career and development?

I only set up a website this past summer. For a long time, I used YouTube and Myspace for all my promo materials. It wasn’t very organized, but if I wanted a gig I could send links to the specific videos. It’s important to have information online so people can “spy” on you. Now that I book more gigs with my band, the first thing I do before hiring someone is internet search them. It’s a shame how many great players do not have material available. How can I know they are good for our gig if I can’t hear them?

A few years ago, I started putting instructional videos up. I really should do more. It takes effort to get them online. It’s been crazy how many more people come to my channel now! I’ve picked up a few Skype students this way—they will see the video, check out my website, and then go from there. Another part of this is that there is some misinformation there on YouTube. If I can combat it a little of that, then I’ve done something good for the world.

You do non-woodwind things like singing and playing keyboards. Do those things affect or inform your woodwind playing? How? Would your career to this point have turned out differently if you were strictly a woodwind player?

I got into singing when I realized how much better the gig is if you can sing! I also like to front bands, and truthfully was getting bored just playing short lines on sax. Singing is a totally different world. Words, meaning, acting, and connection with the audience are all supremely important. It’s still hard for me to disconnect from mechanics and really convey the song’s meaning. I think this is something that we as instrumentalists often miss, just the simplicity of emotion and the importance of audience-performer connections.

I played piano in high school, but I have gotten really rusty. If I had more time, I’d like to do more jazz piano because it would be cool to be able to accompany myself on a solo gig. But I just can’t find time for it right now. Playing keys on that one cruise contract made me very aware of a mindset difference—as a sax player I play a lick and then hang out. But with piano, you are always there as part of the rhythm section. You really need stamina and a focus towards the people around you, more so than when you’re playing horn. Having some piano skills has also been nice for accompanying students. My career has been mainly woodwinds, but piano is useful when arranging things, and working on singing exercises.

Do you identify as a “doubler?” Is it your intention to play all your instruments equally well, or are there one or more that you would prefer to focus on?

I tend to focus on whatever gig I’m working towards. Its hard to juggle 5+ instruments all the time equally. If it is 3 or more that I need to keep in shape, I rotate instruments with 45 minute practice sessions and I try to get 2-3 hours in a day.

I began as a saxophonist, and that instrument is the easiest for me. It’s what I primarily get gigs with too. But I want to make them as equal as I can. Another caveat, don’t let other people define you. They may see what you are, but only you know where you’re going. At the beginning of every phase (or instrument) in my career, pretty much nobody believed in me. And probably for good reason, because I’m sure I didn’t sound very good! But I practiced my way out of it. I wasn’t going to stay in that place long.

Do you have any favorite woodwind doubling tips?

I know this is common advice, but get rid of the concept of a “doubler” as soon as you can. Whenever I pick up an instrument, I say to myself, I am now a [insert instrument here] player. With flute, I work really hard to match the embouchure to full-time flutists. Don’t take fingering shortcuts— if clarinetists don’t slide their pinkies, don’t form that habit yourself! You have to also hear notes in a different way, the airstream and the shaping inside your mouth will change depending on what instrument you are performing on. Listen to recordings of great players and try to internalize it so it will come out correctly.

We’re really lucky to play multiple instruments. If you can get past the initial feeling of frustration trying to make sounds come out (I sometimes call it the 40-year-old in a 10-year-old body syndrome), you’ll see there is a real advantage to the speed with which we learn things. You already know rhythms, tuning, and many aspects of technique that will cross apply to whatever instrument you are playing.

What instruments do you consider part of your current professional toolbox? What musical styles? Are there others you are working on or would like to add at some point?

  • Alto, tenor, soprano sax
  • Bari sax
  • Flute
  • Clarinet
  • Singing
  • Piccolo
  • Piano
  • Bassoon (just started lessons this semester!)
  • Classical
  • Jazz
  • Pop/Rock/R&B
  • Reading gigs

I have a whole list of instruments that I would buy if I won the lottery!! A better-quality piccolo, my own bari sax, bass clarinet, alto flute, and bassoon. I’m also aiming to take oboe lessons next fall. For a long time, I was wary of double reeds, but bassoon has broken the ice for me. It’s been a lot of fun and I’m enrolled for another semester come January.

I saw some very cool electronic things that musicians were doing on ships on my last contract, and I may someday try to figure out basics of DJing. Not top-40 style, but actually creating electronic patches as music. So much to learn, so little time.

What projects are you working on now?

My jazz group Cambia (formerly Off the Record) is releasing our debut CD on December 11. We’ll have songs online via iTunes, Amazon, and all those great places before Christmas. I play tenor, alto, flute, clarinet, and I have a vocal cameo in the last track so it’s a doubler’s dream. The music is original compositions by myself and my husband (a guitar player). We’re hoping to take this project on the road to a few places next year, so if you stay tuned to my website I will keep updates rolling there.

Do you have time for other interests, hobbies, etc?

I wish! I used to guide rafting tours and I went snowboarding a lot when I lived on the West Coast. I miss it sometimes, but living here in Nebraska makes those hobbies difficult. At this point, I pretty much just do music stuff and follow news and politics obsessively. I like cats. Does that count?

Thank you, Sarah, for taking the time to share your thoughts and experiences!

Leave a Comment

Comments that take a negative or confrontational tone are subject to email and name verification before being approved. In other words: no anonymous trolls allowed—take responsibility for your words.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.