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Winter Term Project Fights Performance Anxiety with Don Greene's Optimal Performance Workshop

Story by Claire Chase

Workshop Recitals:

• Friday, January 14
• Saturday, January 15
• Friday, January 28
• Saturday, January 29

All recitals begin at 8 p.m. in Warner Concert Hall.

Famed cellist and legendary performer Pablo Casals was taking a hike one afternoon, seeking momentary refuge from the slew of public expectations that a touring musician routinely endures, and a fellow mountain-hiker asked, "Aren't you afraid of falling and hurting your hands, Pablo, before your big performance?" Casals chuckled, the story goes, and retorted, "My dear friend, wouldn't that be a blessing? Then I'd never have to perform again. No nerves, no disappointments, no pressure!"

Like so many great performers, Casals suffered from a common case of performance butterflies. We've all been there--the sweaty palms and pounding heart; the knees that shake like hummingbird wings; the cotton mouth that turns the tongue to stone; the mind that races from demon to mental demon.

This Winter Term, a group of 22 Oberlin students, each with his own complex package of performance jitters, had the chance to work with one the leading experts on the subject of performance anxiety--Don Greene, a sports psychologist-turned-musician/psychologist - whose work with performers is rapidly gaining recognition in New York and around the country.

Dr. Greene's unique approach to auditions and optimal performance, based on similar work with Olympic and professional athletes, catapulted him to the forefront of the performance arts world. His methods, which emphasize "focusing" and "centering," have enabled a large number of musicians to earn positions with such distinguished organizations as the Metropolitan Opera, the Syracuse Symphony, the Houston Symphony and the National Symphony, among many others.

Conservatory students met with Dr. Greene during the first week in January for a group session, and completed surveys that rated each participant's specific degree of motivation, concentration, level of nervousness, and other performance-related factors. Greene then analyzed the results, and met privately with each student to discuss his/her needs and goals. According to students, Greene assigned different readings, discussed various mental approaches, and suggested specific plans-of-attack for each performer.

"The class was then left to its own devices for a week of reflection, at the end of which each of us performed in a recital. After that we met with Dr. Greene privately again to assess our progress individually," explains senior trumpet player Patrick Gonsalves.

"The key, I discovered, is not getting rid of the things that happen in stressful situations, because that's unrealistic, but instead learning how to work with them positively," continues Gonsalves. "We worked on exercises that released tension and allowed us to concentrate on relaxed breathing. He encouraged us to create a concept, or an idea, a saying that you say to yourself before each piece that says in a minimum amount of words what it will take to play well. You channel this energy first, calmly, and then you play. You're not aiming for a peak performance, but an optimal one."

Gonsalves adds, "This man really is incredible," "His teaching has, even in this short period of time, really helped me pull everything into my own sphere of control. Working with him has been one of the most productive experiences of my life. His insight into the performance mindset is invaluable."

Isaac Stern, one of the greatest violinists of the twentieth century, once said, "Performing is learning to live with fear." Greene firmly stands by this notion. The challenge, Greene asserts, lies in the act of constructively using that fear, not in the act of eliminating it. "My work is about centering, realizing energy that's already there yet needs the right avenue. It's not about being confident. It's not about playing well by being comfortable and wiping out nervous energy. It's about finding the right channel for all that energy."

Don Greene: From Sports to Music

Don Greene was a sports psychologist for ten years. While working with golfers one summer in Colorado, he came upon a musician in need of some practical, clinical advice on the matter of performance nerves. "There was a concert series that came through Colorado, through which I got to know this bassoonist who was interested in my teaching and how it related to performance problems. I became fascinated with this line of work, and realized how much I had to offer to someone from a different field and frame of thought." Greene began seeing musicians on a regular basis, and quickly discovered how clearly the psychology of sports and music paralleled one another. Six years ago, Greene stopped working with athletes and devoted his professional energies entirely to performing artists.

Since then, he's seen over 60 of his students win orchestral auditions. "In the 1997 Metropolitan Opera Orchestra horn audition, my students came in first, second, fourth and fifth places. In the 1999 audition, they placed first, second and fourth." While rattling off the impressive list of success-stories, Greene avoids a boasting tone. Soft-spoken but matter-of-factly, he makes it immediately clear to his listeners that he is simply in the business of helping people. He is in the business of making people realize what extraordinary powers they already possess.

Despite his unquestionable success, Greene avoids judging performance anxiety methods that are not his own. When asked his opinion of Beta Blockers--the common term for Inderol, a popular prescription drug which blocks the adrenaline gland--he responds cautiously, diplomatically. "I'm not opposed to them. I just think that if you want to have an edge, if you want to find that extra sparkle, you'll find it within yourself. You won't have a need to squelch the very energy that can make you play well."

Laura Kuennen-Poper, Dean of Career Development, applauds Greene's visit: "The past month has been an extraordinary experience not only for the students but for me as well. I've observed real changes in the performance abilities of most students in the class, and even though I've been a performer for 25 years, there were very valuable techniques that I learned from him that I've never heard from anyone else. I'm already starting to work on bringing him back again for a future Winter Term."

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