Stressed for Success

By Templeton, David | Strings, October 2003 | Go to article overview

Stressed for Success


Templeton, David, Strings


Make stage fright and audition anxiety work for-not against-you

IMAGINE THE WORST AUDITION you could ever experience. Picture a stifling, noisy, overcrowded waiting-room with a malfunctioning air conditioner, with you and dozens of other perspiring musicians waiting interminably before being called out to the stage-where matters grow even worse. You can't find your violin. The sheet music is gone. The music stand keeps falling over. And once you finally start playing, the stage lights suddenly go out, plunging you into blackness at the precise moment that somebody drops a huge hunk of lumber onto the stage-right behind you-with a deafening crash.

Bad, huh? Enough to drive a person screaming out the door, or, at the very least, to cause a good, solid player to melt down mid-audition. That level of stress is simply too much of a bad thing. Right? Actually, wrong, according to Dr. Don Greene, who believes that stress, when properly prepared for, can actually be good for a musician.

A trained sports and performance psychologist who once helped Olympian Greg Louganis withstand the nail-biting pressures of worldclass competitive diving, Greene has for several years been developing specific coping methods for classical musicians-both students and professionals-who sometimes suffer from performance anxiety or who simply fall apart in high-stress situations. The trick, he says, is not to try to control or minimize the level of stress, but rather to welcome it, to count on it, and even-with a little practice-to make use of it.

"One of the biggest mistakes a performer makes is to assume that performance anxiety is abnormal, that it's bad," explains Greene. "It's not good or bad-it's just adrenaline. If you see nervousness as bad, if you believe that performance anxiety is a terrible thing, to be feared and avoided at all costs, then you won't come up with strategies to make it work for you. You'll just spend your energies trying to minimize the damage.

"That," he says, "is not the best way to go about it."

Greene, who lives in Hawaii, first learned to cope with stress as a student at West Point, and then as a Green Beret. Later, while working with Olympic divers, swimmers, top-level golfers, skiers, tennis champions, and Grand Prix drivers, he began to develop strategies to help his clients prepare for the stress of athletic performance by retraining their relationships to anxiety and pressure.

IN SHORT: STOP FEARING FEAR

In his book Fight Your Fear and Win: 7 Skills for Performing Your Best Under Pressure, followed by Performance Success: Performing Your Best Under Pressure and Audition Success: An Olympic Sports Psychologist Teaches Performing Artists How to Win, Greene established himself as a major force-a guru, if you will-in the field of high-pressure performance. He has worked with young players at Juilliard and with the Miami-based New World Symphony, where he launched an adversity-training program in which subjects perform while other students whistle and shout and attempt to distract them. He also developed a system of mock auditions, where players acclimatize themselves to stress by enduring situations like those described in the opening paragraph of this article.

Greene has taught or made presentations to countless musical organizations including the Syracuse Symphony, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the New York Philharmonic. Alongside his current work with the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra and the Oahu Civic Orchestra, Greene has been working with young athletes and musicians at Honolulu's celebrated Punahou School.

The psychology of sports, he has found, is very nearly identical to the psychology of musicianship, identical, in fact, to most forms of performance. "The principle of sports psychology is overcompensation," says Greene. "When practicing, you want to apply more pressure, more adversity than might happen in the actual game or performance. …

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