2009 Starling-Delay, day three: Don Greene on practicing for performance stress

May 28, 2009, 10:05 PM ·

NEW YORK - Yesterday, violinists learned techniques for dealing with performance anxiety from psychologist Don Greene, and today, we learned how to practice stressing out (not too much of a stretch for me) and then how to deal with it.

"You and your students know how to practice practice," said Greene, but "to play your best when it really counts, you have to practice performing."

That means simulating how you'll feel before performing, and then "centering" and playing.

"Centering is not meant to be done under relaxed circumstances, it's meant to be done under extreme stress," Greene said. To create that feeling, he had a volunteer go out of the room, run up two flights of stairs and back, come in the room, and immediately start playing a high-energy piece. While the volunteer was out of the room, Greene said that no one plays well the first time they try this; it's extremely hard to play with your heart pumping, lungs panting, sweat glands going, etc. Indeed, the volunteer was able to play, but he said that it was very difficult.

In this condition, one needs to know how to "center."

"You have to earn this word, and it takes 50 times "centering" before you can use it effectively," Green said. "After you learn to do it, you can do it in less than five seconds." That means that when you have to act under pressure, and you have only five seconds to formulate your action, you can slip in the word "center," and it will call up an entire coping mechanism for you.

Greene he had the audience try it: he told everyone to get their heart rate up by either standing against the wall, running steps or doing something physical. Then participants were to "center" themselves using the seven steps he described yesterday: pick a focal point, form a clear intention, breathe mindfully, scan and release tension, find your center, repeat a process cue and direct your energy.

What an experiment! Here's how to do it, with symposium participant and violinist Keenan Fletcher of Marble Falls, Texas, kindly demonstrating:

Greene said that it takes at least seven times doing this kind of practice before a student begins to improve.

The other factor that performers have to plan for is adversity. "Things happen in auditions – cell phones go off, all kinds of distractions can occur," Greene said. In his classes at Juilliard and with the New World Symphony, Greene devised a final exam meant to train for adversity: an audition, filled with surprise distractions. Here's how he described it:


May 29, 2009 at 09:32 AM ·

as much as there is the acknowledged issue of performance anxiety,  i think the fundamental issues are still fundamentals and techniques and effectiveness of practice.  for instance, assuming mr greene is not an expert golfter or violinist, "running the stairs", even if perfected through practice, imo, will not elevate his aptitude or level of performance with golf or violin.   in fact, i am not sure if pumping up prior to performing can effectively and helpfully apply to everyone or with every piece of music.  when some deconditioned violinists walk onto the stage short of breath, it may not be a great thing to be anoxic. 

further, i think violin performing is a mixture of both right and left brain activities ( if such terminology is scientifically accepted).   it is a state of thoughtfulness and mindlessness, not one or the other.  not many in this world are capable of offering performances that can be considered as totally let go.  to learn to totally let go prior to mastering the instrument may be counterproductive.   it is better to err on the side of being thoughtful if one cannot achieve being mindless yet or ever.  imagine you walk into perlman's masterclass and all of a sudden he proposes you play the piece differently than you have prepared.  which side of the brain do you use to make the adjustment?   doesn't that happen every time you pick up the violin in search of improvement?  if the right brain allows one to keep a critical eye on one's playing during play,  then the right brain is capable of being both overly critical and just-right critical.  if the right brain is shunted over,  it is like throwing the baby out with the bath water.   perhaps the use of right vs left or the preference of left to right for violin peroformance is too simplistic.   it kinda gets a point across in a funny way.

i have seen much success with people who remain calm and thoughtful walking into stressful situations, such as rushing into a code situation to resusitate someone whose heart has stopped pumping.  the last thing on their minds is go to kick some ass.. very american if i may add:)   i think the best mindset walking onto the stage is:  allow me to share.

do i think mr greene's suggestions not helpful?  just the opposite.  i think there are very important issues to be addressed, BUT, each situation must be evaluated individually.  some may need to "center", others are perhaps too centered already that they need to take a hike away from the center. 

May 30, 2009 at 11:25 AM ·

Great topic! 

May 31, 2009 at 01:54 AM ·

I believe the point in running the stairs is to try playing when your heart is racing, as it does when you are nervous. Then you can practice playing with that physical condition, which is similar to being nervous. He was not proposing "running the stairs" before a performance to get "pumped up."


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