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Performers Turn to Sports Psychologists to Conquer Stage Fright

April 10, 2020

The debilitating anxiety many musicians experience during auditions and live performances is eerily similar to the stress of everyday life during the coronavirus crisis. Experts in sports psychology who have worked with professional athletes for decades identify anxiety’s primary features: distracted thoughts, lack of focus, inability to attend, impaired memory, muscle tension, racing heartbeat, shaky hands, restricted breathing, excessive fears, self-doubt, and negative self-messaging.

Fortunately for people in music and other fine arts, crossover occurred when peak-performance psychologist Don Greene and others in the 1990s began to apply the expertise and therapeutic practices they used with athletes to musicians, singers, dancers, and actors. Arriving from the art world to learn practical skills, effective rehearsal drills, and simulated performance exercises, performers began to reap the benefits of applied sports psychology. Efficient muscle tension, nimble left brain-right brain transfers, consistency in execution, and mastery of achieving deliberately targeted, optimal energy zones in performance leads practitioners of the techniques to “flow.” The highly desirable mental state results in a person under extreme pressure transcending ordinary consciousness and function to perform with easy, fluid technique, awareness, choice, and expression.

Greene is the author of eight books including Audition Success, Fight Your Fear & Win, Performance Success, College Prep for Musicians, and others. A competitive diver while in high school in Brooklyn, New York, he graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and went on to become a Green Beret, Airborne Ranger, and Army Captain. Resigning from the military and earning a master’s degree and Ph.D. in psychology, Greene has served as sports psychologist for U.S. Olympic teams, Grand Prix drivers, Wall Street brokers and traders, and thousands of elite athletes. He has also helped students at The Juilliard School and performing artists working with major orchestras and companies, among them the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, San Francisco Symphony, San Francisco Opera, Montreal Symphony, Pittsburgh Symphony, Cincinnati Symphony, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

A stroke of luck put Greene’s peak-performance psychology and a centering process — first adapted from aikido by sports psychologist Robert Nideffer and adopted by Greene — on the radar of Bill Williams. A principal trumpet and soloist with several orchestras (San Francisco Symphony, Santa Fe Opera, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and others) Williams continues to perform and is founder of Santa Fe Strategies, offering project management and consulting for the cultural sector.

Similarly, chance timing caused performance psychologist Noa Kageyama to intersect with Greene at Juilliard. Kageyama, then a student violinist, recalls in an interview Greene’s eye-opening course, “Performance Enhancement.” Gifted with natural talent that had Kageyama playing a “violin” from age 2 — actually a Cracker-Jack box with a taped-on ruler for a neck — and Suzuki trained, he was plagued as a developing musician by frustrating practice sessions and increasing anxiety on stage.

Greene’s idea that crippling rehearsal activities and performance modes could be analyzed, eliminated, and replaced with improved, systematic rehearsal drills aimed at consistent, high-quality sound production was a revelation that permanently changed Kageyama’s career trajectory. Completing a masters at Juilliard and earning his M.S/ and Ph.D. in psychology at Indiana University, Kageyama is on the faculty at Juilliard and is the performance-psychology coach for the New World Symphony. He writes a performance psychology blog, The Bulletproof Musician, that is followed by 100,000 monthly readers.

In separate interviews, the three musicians spoke about motivations for entering the field, core principles they affirm and promote, and the conviction each feels that through the aperture of sports psychology, performing artists gain enhanced rehearsal skills and rewarding performance experiences.

Don Greene

Although he doesn’t often mention it, Greene played electric guitar as a teen. “I’m a frustrated musician,” he says in a phone interview. At age 4, Greene was diagnosed with a speaking disability and recalls being teased by his schoolmates. “In particular, I had trouble with the “gr” sound, which wouldn’t have been a problem if my name wasn’t Greene.”

Overcoming his public-speaking anxiety took hard work and practice. Greene says it informs his work today: “I can appreciate how difficult it is to play the oboe without playing it. Same thing with opera and singing. As best as I can, without singing, I try to understand it within the context of my own difficulties with public speaking.”

If that sounds like a “blanket” approach, Greene says his practice is anything but formulaic. “I don’t put a template on it. I try not to put people into categories. I work with every person as an individual and try to figure out the puzzle. If I’m judgmental when I’m helping them, I’ve learned it gets in the way.” Approach is determined more by level than by instrument or voice. Anxiety in a Juilliard student, freelance or orchestra principal musician, opera singer, dancer, athlete, he says, “It’s all the same thing to me.”

Even so, there are extractable differentiations. Classical musicians, he says tend to be more perfectionistic than athletes. “You can’t reach certain levels in classical music without those tendencies. And then people can overdo that. With athletes, if a swimmer’s pinky is out of position by a millimeter, no one will notice. But if a violin player’s pinky is off by a millimeter, everyone will notice. It’s the level of detail.”

In individual sessions, Greene assesses a person’s motivation, energy, confidence, courage, concentration, mental resilience and other factors. “I don’t work with anyone until I’ve done that. It’s like taking an MRI or X-ray. I’ve learned there’s no purpose to working with someone who has no idea about what they want to work on.”

Leading in-person classes, speaking engagements, and through online courses, Greene’s craft maximizes the principles and techniques of centering. Consistency is the goal. “As a diver in competition, I could hit my hardest dives and then miss an easy one. Consistency is doing the same things before you execute, with similar states of mind. This involves process thinking on the task at hand, not outcome thinking, focused on results. It’s a whole range of skills. I put the golf pros I work with on a stopwatch. They have to come into the ball, get in position and lined up, let out a breath, and then pull the trigger, in the same amount of time every time. It’s all a routine, so they’re not rushing, delaying, or overthinking before hitting the shot.”

He spends an enormous amount of time on routines: preparing the same way every time for a performer’s first phrases or movements. “That first moment is when people mess up. They choke, overthink, get out of their right brain, go into their prefrontal cortex and left brain. It all builds up. If you double clutch, get off to a bad start, you know you’ve messed up, so I work on that first note, sound or phrase over and over.”

Bill Williams

Williams sought Greene’s expertise and instruction after experiencing inconsistency in performances as a soloist and principal trumpet player with orchestras. He wanted to discover why he could play effortlessly one night, then not play as well another night. Why wasn’t he able to experience flow or deliver at or near his best all the time and not just some of the time?

Attentional control and energy management, he learned, provided solutions and required developing skills he says he can now “turn on” during the few steps from a concert hall’s wings to center stage. “Before I go on, I hear the music, I feel it in my body. There’s no space for words when I walk onto the stage. It’s about being fully focused and fully present.”

Williams’s clients arrive with specific concerns and a desire to learn how to transfer what they’ve learned in the warm cocoon of a practice room onto the stage. “The spotlight of the stage is a whole different kind of experience. One of the pressing questions is, “Why can’t I deliver onstage what I can do in the practice room?” For his clients, it's about learning how to perform well, no matter the situation.

He speaks about a student who took his concerns to teachers who told him only, “Practice more.” That attitude and instruction is out of tune with Williams’s proactive, problem-solving mindset. “I emphasize not on what you can’t do and fixing it, but on what you can do, what can be analyzed, learned, refined.”

Like Greene’s clients, each artist demands a customized approach. The steps necessary to master performance anxiety can depend on the position and function a musician serves. For solo artists, strong performance is about maintaining energy, staying focused, performing repertoire they’ve been rehearsing on their own and then must find a way to perform with an orchestra. “And they’re in different halls every week,” he adds.

He challenges clients trained under a good-bad paradigm to shift to an internal voice that places discernment over judgment. “The classic good-bad polarization clouds judgment over time. It can be very damaging and that’s the fallout I endeavor to work on. I encourage them to look at their own learning in a different way. On what’s working, what’s not yet working, and how to ‘fix’ these issues.”

Active noticing without “better or worse” language helps people to examine recorded practice sessions and performance tapes or videos analytically, without extra emotion. “It’s how we learn from ourselves and how we talk to ourselves that matters,” says Williams.

Noa Kageyama

Working primarily with students at Juilliard, Kageyama says his interactions happen in “sort of a bubble.” Which means the musicians he sees are not embarrassed or reluctant to seek help overcoming performance anxiety. “Occasionally I come across parents who speak about it from concern and love for their kids, but with language that makes me worry they see it as a problem. Instead, I tell them it’s a lack of skill development. My message to them and what I hope they get from our chat is that everyone gets nervous. At some point, your bow shakes and you have more experiences of nerves. I want to make sure students’ immediate thought isn’t that there’s something wrong with them. Whether you’ve been performing for two years or 50, getting nervous is natural.”

Deliberate listening is key to effective practice: play and record a passage repeatedly, listen to compare it to the desired sound, figure out the physical reason why a note is flat or sharp, make the change. “Is it the position of your fingers, how you place the violin on your shoulder, tension in your neck? It’s a matter of identifying what you didn’t want and figuring out what needs to change to get the result you want. Grasping that took me years to find. It makes practicing gratifying — not fun — but gratifying.”

Self-directed gratification is a confidence-enhancing cycle, because identifying the problem and coming up with solutions without a teacher accelerates a musician’s agency and growth. “It’s an empowering experience in the practice room. And it makes for a more active and engaging lesson with the teacher too.”

In addition to not more, but better practice exercises, Kageyama helps musicians transfer rehearsal skills to the stage by developing internal scripts and encouraging them to run mock auditions and “performance mode” practice sessions. He says most musicians can tell him what they were thinking during a bad performance — self monitoring and keeping score—but rehearsals are a better place for comparisons, focusing on mechanics, making adjustments. “For performing effectively, it’s 100 percent the opposite,” he says. “It comes down to thinking in four ways: in terms of sound — the rhythm or pulse, the sensory images, kinesthetic sensations, and creating nuances in the moment, or improvisation.”

Despite quirks that mean a pianist might be more worried about remembering all the notes more than the brass player — who’s nervous about making the note speak or not having hesitation before attacking a first note — he says, “It doesn’t matter if we’re worried about different things, it’s important that we focus on what’s relevant.”

Ultimately, he suggests, managing the mental aspects and elevated energy of performing lead to an artist’s best moments. “You’re able to experience the heightened state of activation more as excitement than as anxiety.”

Asked what he might choose to play if invited back onto the stage — and the rehearsal techniques he’d employ to prepare — Kageyama at first simply laughs. “I’d have to practice a lot because I haven’t played onstage since December 2000. I occasionally play the Pokemon song or Dora the Explorer for the kids. I’d have to take my violin out to make sure it hasn’t exploded, the bridge collapsed.” Eventually, he decides it would be Schubert’s Fantasie, the last piece he and his wife, a pianist, played together.

And Williams? “I’m a trumpet player, not a pianist, but I’d choose the Goldberg Variations on piano. I think the architecture of that set of variations has moved me for the larger part of my adult life. Glenn Gould’s approach in particular: It’s an intensely thought-out and crystalline approach. If I could wave a magic wand, that would be it.”

If coached by Greene, it’s likely their emphasis would be on centering; using high energy to achieve greater projection and power. “Athletes always want to maximize their energy, not push it down. They do not want their heartbeat low before they execute,” says Greene. “Musicians think they do, until they learn that’s not the way to go. The reasons I’ve been successful with musicians, singers, and dancers is that it’s not about calming down. I teach them how to not fear the anxiety, but to use it.”

Lou Fancher is a San Francisco Bay Area writer. Her work has been published by WIRED.com, Diablo Magazine, Oakland Tribune, Contra Costa Times, InDance, East Bay Express, Oakland Magazine, SF Weekly, and others.  She is a children's book author, designer and illustrator, with over 50 books in print. Also a choreographer, ballet master and teacher, she coaches professional ballet and contemporary dance companies in the U. S. and Canada.  Visit her website online at www.johnsonandfancher.com.