Today we have the pleasure of talking with Dr. Don Greene, one of the world’s leading experts and practitioners of performance psychology. In his 30-year career Dr. Greene has coached more than 1,000 performers, including top-tier symphony musicians and Olympic gold medalists.
Dr. Greene has written eight books, two of which we discuss in this conversation, “Performance Success” and “College Prep for Musicians”. He also publishes articles covering all aspects of peak performance psychology for music, sports and all performing disciplines on his website, Winning on Stage.
You may be familiar with some of the ideas in this interview, such as visualisation and positive self-talk. However, If you’re like most music learners, you’ve probably come across these ideas in vague blog posts or conversation. You’re going to find it hugely valuable to hear from a performance psychologist who’s worked with world-class performers across several disciplines for many years.
We talk about:
- Why trying to feel relaxed is not actually the route to reliable performance under pressure
- The five areas you can assess yourself on, to know how best to improve your own performance abilities.
- The importance of a so-called “pre-shot routine” that can help you perform at your best even when your heart is pounding
This conversation is going to equip you with some valuable new insights and strategies to apply in your musical life and open your eyes to what might be possible for you!
Watch the episode:
Links and Resources
Enjoying The Musicality Podcast? Please support the show by rating and reviewing it!
Dr. Greene: Hi, I’m Dr. Don Greene. I’m the author of Audition Success, Performance Success, and College Prep for Musicians. Welcome to this broadcast.
Christopher: Welcome to the show, Dr. Greene. Thank you for joining us today.
Dr. Greene: Thank you so much. Nice to be here.
Christopher: So in the foreword to your book Performance Success, Julie Landsman of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra wrote, “It takes something more than talent to win auditions and perform consistently at the very peak of one’s powers. It takes what Don Greene has to offer.” I wonder if you could tell us in a nutshell what is that? What is that extra something?
Dr. Greene: The extra something is a different approach to performing under pressure. Rather than the alleged approach of a lot of music teachers of just relax, my approach is more that it’s a competition, just like sports, and you’re not supposed to be relaxed. You’re supposed to have your body physically relaxed, but the mind needs to be engaged. And it’s a competition, so I approach it more from an athletic point of view than a musical point of view. So we talk about things like focus, channeling energy, hanging in when it gets tough, go and become fearless. And that’s more of my approach. And it has been very successful in auditions.
Christopher: That was something that really jumped out to me in Performance Success was there was a line along the lines of, “If you feel relaxed right before a performance, something’s wrong.” Which I think runs contrary to a lot of the advice out there.
Dr. Greene: Well, that’s just it, you’re going to feel adrenaline, you’re going to feel it surging through your body. If it’s important at all, you’re going to be feeling that rather than trying to deny or wish it away to accept it and learn how to use it. Thing is, with performers, on stage they have good reason to be nervous or I would call it excited. First of all, they’re on stage, and you’ve got the spotlight effect. Everybody’s watching, everybody’s listening, and they’re probably the only one making any noise or sound. And everybody’s paying attention. And if they’re up on stage, they’re supposed to be good. So you have the expectation, the double whammy. And then if you’re also going with the attitude, “I just need to relax, or my teacher wants me to relax,” then you have the triple whammy. And that’s when it doesn’t tend to go well.
Christopher: So I definitely want to circle back in a moment and talk about that physical experience of stress or anxiety, and what you just said about nervous versus excited. But before we do, there’s something else from that same foreword that spoke out to me, which was Julie Landsman talked also about how she had already become quite competent in performing reliably. Like she was hitting the right notes at the right time, but felt all the joy had gone out of performing. And working with you brought a lot of that joy and sense of creativity back. I wonder if you could give the listener a glimpse into what it is about your process that lets performers not just execute well, but actually enjoy it and feel better about it.
Dr. Greene: Yeah, it’s wonderful if they can enjoy it. There’s a concept of flow, and people in flow tend to do better. There’s a word called “autotelic personality”. And that means that people enjoy it for the sake of doing it. And hopefully all your fans, listeners enjoy what they’re doing. That they do it even if they weren’t paid, and hopefully they can get paid. But autotelic personality is that enjoy doing what you’re doing. But that is based on the foundation of competence and proficiency. You have to have goods in order to enjoy it. So that’s the main key is you work on your skills.
Dr. Greene: But then you reach a certain level, not perfection, because perfection doesn’t exist as far I’m concerned with musical instruments, that you reach a certain level of competence and proficiency. And then you switch over from working music to playing music. And I think this is a real key, that too many people get caught up in trying to perfect it and work and work. And it takes an enormous amount of work, 10,000 hours if you want, to get to a level of competence and proficiency. But once you get that level, you need to switch over from working music to playing music and enjoying the process. Being with other musicians, making great music. Hopefully that’s what all the work is about, that you can go onstage and play like a kid just enjoying it, with the freedom to play, and share that with other people who can enjoy it. That to me is what music’s all about. In order to get there you’ve got to work to play. But that’s the essential thing.
Dr. Greene: There’s two kinds of practice. There’s practicing practice, which you need for competence and proficiency. Practicing practice is doing all the things you need with a metronome, with a tuner, stop and start it, record it, play it back, play it slowly. That’s what you need to do for work. But once you reach a level of proficiency, you need to switch over from practicing practice to practicing performing. And that’s where no tuner, no metronome, and you don’t get to stop and start. You have a tape recorder on but you play through it no matter what. And this is practicing performing. And this is the essential switch over from working to playing. And this is where you first start out with a recording, record yourself. And once you start, you don’t stop. And then you invite a friend over, and then three friends over, and then your teacher.
Dr. Greene: And you get used to performing with the adrenaline because you’re not going to feel that when you’re practicing practice. So you’re practicing at a level that you’re not going to do, and then you’re going to do something that you haven’t practiced. So I think it’s important that you practice performing under increasing pressure to get used to it. And the whole goal is to realize that you can perform better with the pressure than you can relaxed in a practice room. And that’s the main key to switch over, to take it to a stage on the way to enjoying it. By getting used to the adrenaline, in a safe environment, with a recorder, then one person, and learning how to channel that adrenaline, because it’s going to be there. And hear that you can sound better. The notes speak louder. You have more direction, more intensity.
Dr. Greene: The one thing you won’t have is comfort. That doesn’t go with the package. You either get high performance or comfort. If you want comfort, stay in a practice room. If you want to proceed for grass as a musician, you got to take it to the stage. And that involves getting used to the pressure, and accepting it, and channeling it.
Christopher: Terrific. Well, what I love about your work is how clearly you present people with frameworks and concepts and tools to actually dig into all of this stuff that can otherwise just feel a bit overwhelming. Like when you talked just now about it not being a comfortable thing, that doesn’t mean you have to have lots of chaos and stress going on in your head, and thoughts whirring all over the place, right?
Dr. Greene: No, not at all. You want to calm that down, chaos. But you’re still going to be feeling the adrenaline in your body, namely heart racing, blood pressure up, butterflies in your stomach, hands shaking, needing to go to the bathroom a lot, all of these things. And just realize that they go with the territory.
Dr. Greene: The only catch is if the heart races, it doesn’t need to affect your playing. The main thing that affects people’s playing under pressure is they get tight, physically tight. Their muscles don’t work the same when they’re tight. And that’s the difference between a practice room and a stage, is people tend to be physically loose in a practice room, and on stage they’re carrying a lot of attention. So it’s almost like practicing on one instrument and then going on stage with a different instrument. You’re working with a different mechanism if you’re working with tight muscles.
Dr. Greene: So I ask musicians under pressure to realize where they’re tight, where they tend to tighten up. And it tends to be in what I call key muscles. In other words, horn players tend to tighten up in their upper body. String players in their hands or arms. It goes with the territory. And so what each individual musician needs to do is look at where they tend to tighten up under pressure, and then under pressure not go to your heart racing. “Oh my god, my heart’s racing. Now I’m not going to play well.” But to relax in their key muscles so that they will play well. Because supple muscles work better than the tight muscles. That’s straightforward. It’s very mechanical. And this is not a head concept, this is a physical concept. It gets your body prepared to play.
Christopher: Interesting. And on this physical front you mentioned a moment ago there’s a difference between nervous versus excited. And I’m sure for some people in our audience, having just heard you talk through those symptoms, they can understand how those two might coexist, or there might be a choice between them. But maybe you could unpack a little bit more. What’s that about?
Dr. Greene: It’s a question of interpretation. And it’s in the middle of two things. It happens really fast, it’s perception, interpretation, and action. So you walk into a room, go on stage, and all of a sudden your heart starts racing. You perceive your heart racing. You feel your heart racing. At this point you can make an interpretation. The interpretation can go north or south. You can either say, “Oh my god, my heart’s racing. Now I’m not going to play well.” And then you’ll act in that way, defensively not play well, not play out. And yeah. Or you can make the correct interpretation which is, “My heart’s racing. Yeah, I’m up here on stage. It’s supposed to be racing. It’s racing. It’s okay, I’m going to play well.” That’s it. And that’s the correct interpretation.
Dr. Greene: There’s what’s called “task irrelevant cues”. Task irrelevant. In other words, certain other things that happen under pressure can affect your playing, and they are relevant, and that’s muscle tension. Others are totally task irrelevant unless you make them relevant. This is where the interpretation comes in. So if you interpret the racing heart as a bad thing, “Oh my god, I’m not going to play well,” you’ll go south, you’ll prove that. Or you can just pay attention to task relevant, relax your muscles, and the rest of them are task irrelevant. Your perspiration, your hand shaking, dry mouth, butterflies in your stomach, shaky knees, feeling unstable. Irrelevant, doesn’t matter, unless you make it matter.
Christopher: Fascinating. Well, I want to talk a bit later on about your centering technique, or rather, the centering technique that you recommend, which I think factors in some of that physical relaxation. But let’s talk a little bit more, if we may, about the mental side. You made a distinction in your book about left brain versus right brain in this content that I hadn’t come across before. Can you explain a little bit about that?
Dr. Greene: Sure. We have two hemispheres of our cerebral cortex or our thinking mind, most advanced form of our brain. Left brain thinks in terms of words and numbers, analysis, thinking, self-talk, criticism, instructions, counter instructions, blaming, criticizing. This is the domain of mathematicians, attorneys, a lot of business folks. The right brain is where we perceive in images or pictures, sensations like bowing or embouchure, and sounds, like music. So this is the territory of musicians, creative artists, painters. No words, no analysis, creativity. So there’s a constant interplay between them.
Dr. Greene: But for musicians, here’s the thing. In order to learn musical skills, you’ve got to do it left brain. It’s got to be a portion. Somebody’s got to explain in words to how you to form embouchure or how to do correct bowing. It needs to be explained. And it’s preliminary learning. And you can also accompany that with right brain learning, which is watching the teacher, listening, asking what it what it feels like. But it’s more left brain at first, and then it shifts more to right brain as the learning increases. So for accomplished musicians, it’s mostly right brain. They don’t need the instructions anymore, it gets in the way. They don’t need the criticism, that gets in the way. What they need to do before they play is shift to right brain. Namely, hear the music, play the music. Or hear the music and watch your good bowing, or feel your fingering. No words. Words are what causes distractions.
Dr. Greene: And if you practice 10,000 hours so you have the right to start out in right brain. Hear the music, play the music. Not hear the music, think about how you need to play the music, and then play the music. That’s what screws it up. And this is the switch from amateur to professional. You don’t need to intermediate thought, that’s what the 10,000 hours of practice is about so you get the right to hear it and play it.
Dr. Greene: What centering is about, it’s a seven step process. It’s pretty involved. But what it’s about is getting people out of their left brain into their right before they play the first note.
Christopher: Gotcha. And maybe that addresses what I was about to ask which is that process of going from left brain to right brain and going from analytically learning and thinking to just being able to play, is that something that only happens on that 10,000 hour time scale across an artist’s career? Or is that something that happens-
Dr. Greene: I’m sorry, you can do that earlier on, and you need to after the preliminary learning is done.
Dr. Greene: So with easier pieces, once you master a piece, you can start applying this.
Christopher: And maybe we could give people a glimpse into that centering process and what’s going on to help them shift from left brain to right brain.
Dr. Greene: Yeah. It’s a very complicated seven step process. It takes about two weeks to learn. It comes from the martial art Aikido for focus and Western sport psychology. I have a course on my website, winningonstage.com, on the centering course for people to take a week or two or three to learn how to center properly. I could walk you through the seven steps right now, but ti would be like asking you to walk me through music theory. I understand a little bit. I understand one, three, five, and CEG, and the seventh and major seventh or a flat seventh. But beyond that, I don’t understand. But if you could explain solfege to me, go for it.
Christopher: Of course. Well, in that case, maybe we could talk instead about the before and after. So what would people typically be experiencing before a performance, and what might they experience otherwise if they had done the centering technique?
Dr. Greene: Well, before, if they’re not used to the adrenaline or if they fight the adrenaline, they don’t have a coping mechanism or a strategy, likelihood is that before they go on they’re going to get a shot of adrenaline. They can be relaxed before or think, “Yeah, relax, take it easy.” But most of the time it’s going to kick in. Not all the time, that’s the catch. Especially if exhaustion, you stayed up for a few nights, or you got a lot of other things going on. But even then I found with musicians that they started, and like 30 seconds into the piece it’s like, “Boom, there it is. Oh my gosh. I thought I was fine.”
Dr. Greene: So before an audition or a big performance and any pressure situation, it’s probably going to kick in. And once it kicks in, this whole sequence of things happen, a lot at the same time. Physically I’ve talked about it. The increase in heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension. But that’s only the physical part. You got two other parts, which is the mental and the emotional. The mental is people tend to get slammed into their left brain. They’re now trying to figure out how to get their heart rate down, and they’re not going to figure that out before they go on. People tend to get very negative, doubtful, self-critical, and imagine the worst. This will increase muscle tension. And the more you think about the worst, the more likely you’ll cause the worst. People go into blaming, find fault. They should have found a better teacher maybe. Very critical. And they get into avoidance thinking like, “I don’t want to be here. Get me out of here. Fight or flight. Run for your lives.”
Dr. Greene: And it goes into beta processing. It goes into high speed left brain, very high speed. Now there’s a committee meeting taking place in your head. And they’re starting to yell at each other. The faster it goes, the more you’re distracted. The faster it goes, the more you’re in your head, the less you can feel the instrument, the less you’re in right brain. So you can’t hear the music, you’re not feeling your body the right way, and you’re having trouble finding notes on the page. This can destroy a performance. But that’s just the mental.
Dr. Greene: Then we have the emotional, which is fear, anxiety, terror, which will continue to increase the heart rate and increase the muscle tension. So when all three of these things, the physical, mental, and emotional happen to a musician, it will definitely affect their sound. Like on the first phrase. They will hear that sound and it won’t be good. And then they’re going to shift into left brain and how to figure this out, because it doesn’t sound good. And that’s the beginning of the train wreck.
Christopher: And I really enjoyed your artist’s performance survey in the book, which is kind of a self-assessment with a lot of statements that you can rate yourself on how much you would agree with that on different situations, from the practicing privately right through to the performance. And just to give our listeners an idea, we’re talking about things like, “I have a strong will to succeed,” or, “I want to gain other’s recognition of my talent,” or, “I don’t focus very well.” And by going through this self-assessment you get a really vivid picture, I think, of, I don’t want to say your strengths and weaknesses, but your current situation when it comes to performing. And Dr. Greene, you break that down into seven different areas. I wonder if we could just briefly talk those through to give people an idea of not how complex, but how rich this topic is for them to explore and potentially improve in.
Dr. Greene: Okay. I wrote that assessment when I wrote the book, which is more than 20 years ago. And I’ve refined the assessment, refined my ideas. So I’ve got it from seven to five. I’ve got my website called the performance mastery assessment. It’s updated based upon my learning over the last 20 years working with musicians. So the performance mastery assessment is on my website. And you take it and immediately get it back. But you also, if you want, get a half our session with me to explain what it means and what to do about it. So I would encourage people to take the performance mastery assessment.
Dr. Greene: But here are the five categories on that. The first one is energy regulation, and this has to do with controlling and channeling that energy, because I’m going with the assumption it’s going to be high. I rarely get any clients coming to me saying, “My energy’s just too low. I’m falling asleep at auditions.” It doesn’t happen. So it’s about channeling that adrenaline that we’re talking about and using it with the right interpretation. You’re like, “Yeah, I can play better with the adrenaline than I can calm in practice.” And that’s the key switch. That’s where you want to get to, better under pressure than when you’re relaxed. Because you’re not supposed to be relaxed, other than your body. So that’s the energy regulation, and that is tied to centering, because the centering will help control that energy and channel it. That’s what it does.
Dr. Greene: The second one has to do with mindset or confidence. Because people generally don’t play better than they have confidence in their playing. But confidence comes from three things. Self-confidence or self-belief comes from physical action, of doing the right things. This is where you practice, play for your teacher, set up concerts. You got to put in the time. The thing I love about sports and music is you can’t fake it. You got to put in the time. Yeah. So do the right thing.
Dr. Greene: Number two has to do with the left brain and self-talk. Are you talking to yourself in a positive way or negative? Either one is going to affect your confidence. You talk to yourself in a positive reinforcing way, it’s going to go up. You find fault with yourself, a lot of self-criticism, a lot of blaming, it’s going to go down. It’s as simple as that. Because most people are talking to themselves all the time, and most of them are believing everything they say to themselves, whether it’s right or wrong. So this programming goes into our subconscious mind, and it definitely affects your confidence level.
Dr. Greene: And the third is more right brain programming, which is what you’re imagining. Are you imagining it going well or imagining making mistakes? That will also affect your confidence. If you constantly go over and over the mistakes, you’ll cause those mistakes. Your confidence will drop, you’ll focus on it, and then you’ll manifest those mistakes. So the whole idea is because our confidence level is constantly moving, it’s never static. It’s going up or down based on your last practice, your last lesson. It’s always moving. The idea is to continually move it up by doing the right things, by developing positive self-talk, or mental quiet, even better. And by doing mental rehearsal of imagining it going well, imagining seeing yourself, hearing yourself, feeling yourself playing the piece that you’re struggling with. Rather than focus on it not going well, just imagine it going well. And even if you can’t play it yet, you can imagine, you got a great creative power to imagine … I can imagine myself playing the Brahms. I can’t, but I can imagine it. I’m very in my mind. I can play every instrument in the orchestra.
Dr. Greene: It’s very important that you reinforce the physical learning with mental rehearsal. Because any time you practice, even professionals, you can practice for any amount of time, you’re going to make mistakes. And those mistakes will register in your self-confidence. You’ll remember the mistakes. Christopher, I think you can imagine, remember a mistake you made in a performance two years ago.
Christopher: 2 years ago!
Dr. Greene: So that’s not the concept. The concept is to imagine things going well, and it will raise your confidence.
Christopher: And before we move on to the other areas, I wonder if we could just talk a little more about that one, because you had a fantastic story in the book. And I forget whether it was in Performance Success or College Prep For Musicians, but you were talking about an Olympic aspiring diver who, due to injury, could only practice mentally for a period leading up to a competition. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Dr. Greene: Oh sure. This was before the 1984 Olympic trials in platform diving. Platform diving is 10 meters. It’s three times higher than the high board at the swimming pool. It’s 33 feet up and 100 feet down. You’re going at the water at 35 miles an hour. It’s violent. I used to be a platform diver. When you try to hit the water you try to lock out your arms as hard as you can, and it’s an explosion. You can’t hold on to your hands. When I used to dive platform, it took me about 10 dives before I got a severe headache from pounding my head underwater.
Dr. Greene: So we were getting for the Olympic trials. There’s about two months before the Olympic trials, and we had the best team in the country. We had an Olympic champion, a world champion. We had seven women, two of which were likely to make it, four of which could. But this young 16-year-old didn’t have a chance. She was getting ready just for the experience. She was 16. She was very naïve, and we had a 23-year-old world champion on our team.
Dr. Greene: Anyway, so we’re at practice one day, and she’s on 10 meter, and she’s doing a back two and a half in pike. Back two and a half is where you turn around backwards on the platform, you get ready, and then you somersault backwards in pike, not in tuck, in pike, which is slower rotation. And you have to go aggressively off the platform to make the rotations. It’s two and a half somersaults. And instead of jumping real fast, she just kind of sat back into the somersault. And oh my god, the coach and I were sitting there. We just cringed because there’s no way. It’s a disaster about to happen.
Dr. Greene: So a lot of experienced divers would know that they’re way late and slow, and just curl up into the ball and hope for the best with minimal damage. But she was inexperienced and she stuck with her spots, where you’re supposed to see, and see, and then kick out. Well, normally she would kick out at three meters and have time to bring the somersault in. But she kicked out at one meter, and she just absolutely flat on her back. So much so that she bounced off the water. The water is hard. So that’s why they have stretchers next to the pool. Put the stretcher under her and pull her out of the water, convinced that her back was broken. Had to be.
Dr. Greene: Took her to the orthopedic surgeon, did the X-rays. And he came out and said, “Young lady, I don’t know why your back isn’t broken, but it’s not. But you’re going to be really sore, black and blue, for the next month.” And like any young Olympic hopeful, at 16 she said, “Yes, but can I dive at the trials?” Oh my god. You’re lucky to be standing up. He said, “Well, maybe, but you can’t practice for two months.”
Dr. Greene: So for two months she and I went to the coach’s office, and I laid her down and basically took her through a mental rehearsal. Not just that dive, but everything. Her warm ups, stretching, everything the other divers were doing for two months. So we went to Indianapolis for the trials. We got there two weeks early. She said, “Can I get used to the pool and dive?” And he said, “No.” So for two weeks we were in the trainer’s room. Same thing, we would walk up on the platform and check out the spots in the water and all, but no diving. Came to the trials, she said, “Can I do at least eight warm up dives?” He said, “No.”
Dr. Greene: So, platform diving is insane in the first place. It’s crazy to throw your body off there. And every day away from it it gets crazy. You’re convinced that it was stupid in the first place. Every day it gets worse and the fear builds. But, every other diver that was there had been missing dives and hitting dives for two months. Pam hadn’t missed a dive in two months. Every time she did it was great.
Dr. Greene: So the trials started, and she hit her first dive. And people went nuts because everybody knew the story. And it’s a small community. And she hits her second dive. The surgeon checks her out, she’s okay. The third dive. After the fifth dive she’s leading the competition. It’s the story of the games coming. This 16-year-old who hasn’t been on the platform in two months is beating the world champion, an Olympic champion, and two national champions. She hits her sixth dive. And only do eight dives. Seventh dive, the mondo, the surface of the platform gets wet after that many dives. And she slipped on it. Not her tough dive, but she went in at just enough of an angle that the surgeon looked at her and he said, “You’re out.” It blew my mind, because I was with her for two months. And I think she would have hit that back two and a half. She would have gone to the Olympics. It would have been the story. She wouldn’t have done well at the Olympics, I don’t think. She would have been on the team. And that’s the power of mental rehearsal.
Dr. Greene: And that’s why competent musicians need to spend less time physically practicing and spend some time mentally practicing by going through it, getting it correct so it builds your confidence. Not focus on the mistakes. Or playing mistakes which knock your confidence down.
Christopher: Incredible. Well, I think when I first came across the idea of mental practice, it seemed too good to be true. And when I heard people talk about rehearsing in your mind before the big performance, it just seemed like a kind of stress buster and nothing that would really have an impact. But when you talk in your book about in the College Prep for Musicians book, you split out mental practice and mental performance. And I wonder if we could just hammer that home for the audience. What’s the difference between those two, and how does each help you?
Dr. Greene: Well, like we were saying before about practicing practice or practicing performing, you should do mental practice for practice. In other words, going through it to make sure that you get all the pieces in your head right in a practice room, or working on things in a practice room to get better. But then you need to imagine yourself walking on stage nailing it, going to an audition nailing it. All the different things, what I call contingency planning. In other words, if they say, “No, don’t start with that, start with this solo,” well, what if the conductor asked you to do … Whatever, because things happen. It’s chaos. And rather than being caught off guard, this is the time to practice contingencies of anything that could possibly happen. Like in an audition, like having to wait half an hour to play. Or you get there and they say, “You’re on next.” Or, “Don’t start with the solo, start with the Mozart.” Okay. You need to go through every kind of contingency that could happen so it’s not a surprise and you’ve already worked it out. And this is easy to do just sitting at home going through this.
Christopher: Fantastic. I so enjoyed reading your work, specifically applied to that case of a high school musician preparing themselves for college auditions, because in a sense it’s the epitome of nerves and emotional insecurities and high stakes from the musician’s perspective. And you equip them not just with centering and that mental practice and mental rehearsal that we’ve talked about so far, but there a few other tools I wonder if we could share just briefly to give people and idea. One is the idea of a mental boundary to protect yourself from the judges or the chairs in the room.
Dr. Greene: Yeah. I believe that it’s a hostile environment, like people are shooting at you. Shooting nasty looks or asking to play ridiculous things. It’s a war zone. So what I believe is you put on armor around you. You put up a shield, a protective boundary to protect you from people’s thoughts or nasty looks and all. So things just bounce off of you, and you’re protected within this. And it can be a cone, an egg, a force field. One my horn players has tigers or lions facing out. The woman from the Met had a ring of fire. And the whole idea is that you have some sense of security within this boundary, and also to keep your focus in.
Dr. Greene: That’s the other part of it, because it’s easy to look out at the audience or the audition panel and get pulled out of your boundary. And this is to keep your focus in, because it’s all about what you do within your boundary and let your sound go out. Because you can’t control it after it goes out or whether people are going to like it. Maybe they don’t like your sound, maybe they don’t like your instrument. It doesn’t matter. You have to take care of what you do within your boundary and focus in there. That’s why I’m a big fan of it.
Christopher: Absolutely. And I think it’s one of those ideas where you hear it and it’s like, “Oh yeah, that will work. I will try that.” One of the others that jumped out at me was, I think, borrowed from the world of sports, which is the idea of a pre shot routine. Could you give the listeners an idea of how that works?
Dr. Greene: Oh sure, yeah. The last five or seven minutes before a big event, an audition or recital, in the last five minutes you can’t win it, but you can lose it. You can take yourself right out there. And by not having routine, a set or sequence of events that you do to get yourself ready, physically relaxed, mentally engaged in your right brain ready to play and handle what comes at you. So if it’s haphazard, you’re just going to be in left brain trying to figure things out, which is not going to happen. You won’t pay attention to your body. All the wrong things.
Dr. Greene: So a routine that you practice at home when you’re practicing practice and practicing performing, that you go through a sequence. And whether that’s focused on your breathing, doing a mental rehearsal, warming up your body, your embouchure, seeing it go well, all the things leading up to the first note. And it needs to do that because the first note or phrase is really critical. Because all the pressure leads up to the first note or phrase. And you can’t play it till you play it. And there’s no guarantees that it’s going to come out right. Nobody can guarantee. It’s always got an unknown factor in there, so the fear kicks in.
Dr. Greene: So you want to practice coming out of the silence, of breaking the silence. And again, when you’re practicing performing, I believe on working a lot on starts. If you’ve got 10 pieces in your repertoire, just practice the first two bars of every piece over and over. And then switching it from this piece, the first two bars, and first two bars, first two bars. Because my experience with musicians is if you get off to a get start, you can probably play the rest of the piece well. However, all the pressure builds up before the first note. It’s all right on that note. And if that doesn’t come out well, you’ve got the rest of the piece to think about it. So I’m a big fan of first notes, first notes.
Dr. Greene: So the last piece I do is called simulation training. And this is when you’re practicing performing, when you’ve got the piece or pieces up to speed, what you do is you turn a tape recorder on in a room and set up the room with your instrument and music, leave the room, get your heart rate up higher than it would be under the most pressure you’ve ever felt. And then start developing your routine. Maybe slow breathing, or shaking out your body, or hearing the music. Go into the room. The recorder’s already on. Pick up the instrument, take a deep breath, and go for it.
Dr. Greene: At first, play with reckless abandon. Just let it fly. Because it’s not going to be good. It’s just not going to be good for at least six or seven times. Don’t listen to the recording, it will sound like crap. But after you get used to starting with this extra energy, focused, you can watch your progression through those seven tapings. This is simulation training. This is how you get used to practicing performing with the assumption that you’re going to be nervous. You’re supposed to be nervous. People are watching you and listening to you. You’re the only one playing. You’re supposed to be good and there’s no guarantee it’s going to be perfect. That makes people nervous, or as I say, excited.
Dr. Greene: So if you can see that you can play better with this energy under control, then can when you’re, quote, relaxed. Then you become a fan of what I’m saying, that you can play better with the energy and adrenaline than you can when you’re relaxed. And when you hear that, it will make you a convert.
Christopher: And that little routine right before you dive into it, how important is it what goes into that routine versus just the mere fact of having a set routine that you’re going to do each time?
Dr. Greene: When I work with professional golfers, I spend the vast majority of time working on their pre shot routine. Their putting routine, their short game routine, and their driving routine. I don’t go on the course with them, I just, on the range, “Let’s get your routine down.” And they’ll go out and use the routine. So I spend a lot of time. It needs to be individualized, and that’s where some of the things from the assessments come in. Depending upon your scores, you should do that.
Dr. Greene: By the way, speaking about the assessments, we’re only up to number two, of confidence. The third one is courage. Fear, anxiety. And building courage, because that’s the solution to anxiety and fear is you build courage. And musicians have the ability to build courage. Opportunity every day in a practice room by going at something, or on a lesson, or on stage and set up a recital or a performance, and get used to performing. If you’re a performer, you need to perform and put yourself under increasing pressure until you see that the pressure is your friend. Your friend that can make you play better, sound better, with more focus.
Dr. Greene: Number four is focus. The ability to be in right brain, mental quiet, focused on a task at hand until it’s done. Otherwise, you cause mistakes. And the fifth one is resilience. The ability to hang tough, to be mentally tough. To persevere, to continue when they’re shooting at you, until it’s done. And this is something you build. Like courage, you build this. So, what you do in your daily life, and you practice. So those are the five parts of the performance mastery assessment. I found they’re more up to date, more helpful, more practical than the old.
Christopher: Tremendous. Well, I want to be respectful of your time today, Dr. Greene. And I said to you by email we couldn’t hope to cover all of your work in a short interview, But I hope we’ve given people a taste. And if I’m not wrong, winningonstage.com is the place to go for more information about your books and your courses. Maybe you could share a little bit about the courses that we haven’t talked much about so far.
Dr. Greene: Well, winningonstage.com has the centering course, the performance mastery assessment, and the half hour one on one session with me. The centering course, which is a two month self-study course. We have more coming, like on power learning, but they’re not up yet. But those are the two I’d recommend.
Christopher: Tremendous. Well, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading your books and taking on some of these ideas for my own music ideas and practice. And I’m sure our listeners will have got a lot from this conversation. Thank you so much, Dr. Greene.
Dr. Greene: Very welcome. It was a pleasure. All the best.
Want to become more musical?
Whether you want to sing in tune, play by ear, improvise, write your own songs, perform more confidently or just make faster progress, first you need to know where you're starting from.
The Musicality Checklist will quickly reveal your personal musicality profile and how you can improve your natural musicianship.
Available FREE today!
Musical U provides in-depth training modules, an easy-to-use personalised planning system, a friendly and supportive community, and access to expert help whenever you need it.