NEW YORK - Performance psychologist Don Greene never tells a musician to calm down or relax before a performance.
"You aren't supposed to be relaxed or calm," said Greene, who wrote Performance Success and also taught performance psychology at The Juilliard School. "You should be feeling energy. Adrenaline is very powerful. You can deal with it two ways: you can hope it goes away and deny it, or you can use it to do even better than you did in the practice room."
Greene started as a sports psychologist. "This is my instrument," he said, holding up a golf club. "Just like with musicians, you have to move at the right tempo."
Greene is a former champion diver, West Point graduate, Army Ranger and Green Beret, and yet for him, public speaking "terrified me. It was the biggest fear of my life."
He conquered that fear, and he also developed a method to help people who perform under extreme stress – from police SWAT officers to musicians – to conquer their own. He calls his method "Centering," and on Wednesday at the 2009 Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies, he began to teach us how it works. Greene shared the lecture podium with Noa Kageyama, a violinist who become interested in performance psychology when he took Greene's class at Juilliard.
First one must understand the origins of stress, and kinds of stress: extreme stress comes from extreme situations, like having a loaded gun pointed at you or facing town a mountain lion. Physical stress gives us our fight or flight response, "Run like hell, or stay and fight," Greene said. But that can be and should be channeled for good.
"I would no more have a musician use beta blockers than I would have one of my athletes take three shots of vodka before a race," Greene said.
Violinists very often face performance stress, when "all the pressure is on that first note, everything is leading up to that moment," Greene said. Physicals signs of that stress can manifest as a shaky bow, forgetfulness, tension, wild vibrato, erratic shifting, inability to focus and cold hands.
That stress can creep into the mind. "People get very self-critical and start screaming at themselves," Greene said. While at Juilliard, Greene had students write down their thoughts before a performance - how they talked to themselves in their minds. He found the lists that students came up with to be rather alarming. "They would never say to a friend what they say to themselves, or they'd never have friends. I called it the 'Juilliard Syndrome.'"
Basically, the left brain – which is responsible for words, numbers, analysis and criticism – goes haywire under performance stress. "Instead of just one voice, there's a whole committee meeting going on." And the committee is not being kind.
One's limbic system, or the reptilian brain – which processes emotion at a caveman-type level - kicks in with a fearful response as well.
"No matter how intelligent we may be, if we respond to the emotional brain, we do irrational things," Greene said. Though it may have helped the caveman fight a bear or flee from danger, it can be a problem when applied to modern situations. "It saved our ancestors' lives, but it can destroy ours."
The key is to override the lymbic system and get to the rational brain; and to get from the analytical left brain and into the more touchy-feely right brain.
"There's a time to be analytical and in the left brain, but when you perform, you definitely want to start in the right brain," Greene said. "Under stress, people get slammed into their left brain."
Here are Greene's steps for "Centering":
1. Identify a focal point, a fixed point in the distance that is below eye level. Why below eye level? Try doing the problem 23x16 in your head. What do your eyes do? They go up, and that's because you just jumped into your left brain. Don't tempt the left brain!
2. Form a clear intention. What are you going to do in your performance? Think of this in a pro-active, positive way.
3. Breathe mindfully. My yoga instructor would call this "belly breathing," but it's the kind of breathing you do when you are sleeping or very calm. "That will help jump start the calming effect," said Kageyama. "Focus on getting the belly button to move as far away from your spine as possible."
4. Release tension. Are your muscles tense? You may not even be aware that they are. Here is one exercise Kageyama showed us for relaxing muscles and becoming aware of them:
5. Find your center. This one isn't very easy, but try circling your hips, as if you were spinning a hoola hoop, and make the circle smaller and smaller, until it feels like it's inside you. Then drop that point a little lower, and that is your center, or our "chi." "It's almost like you have a little center of gravity, core of the earth, inside of you, grounding you," Kageyama said. This can also mean finding a stable playing position:
6. Think of a process cue -- an image, sound or sensation that will activate the right brain and help you imagine your performance.
7. Direct your energy. "Feel it being sucked into your center, into your chi, and blasting it out through your focus point," Kageyama said. "You don't aim at the last row, you aim past it. Pull it up into you and use it!"
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