How To Perform Under Pressure

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S1: If musicians get off to a good start they’re probably going to play the rest of peace. Well all the problems come in in the first phrases because this is where all the pressure builds up before the weeks to months before thinking about this audition worrying about not getting enough sleep and you don’t know until that first note comes out. If it’s going to come out good enough. So what most people do is they hesitate.


S2: They play it safe and that’s what lose this auditions. Welcome to how to.

S3: I’m Charles Dudek. Each week on the show we help folks figure out how to bring their A game to life’s toughest challenges. And on today’s episode we’ve got a listener with a very special talent.

S4: My name is Michael Martin. I’m a basis. I’m from Allentown Pennsylvania. Mike reached out to us about an upcoming audition. It’s for the Chicago Lyric Opera which is an amazing orchestra in a city that I really love.

S5: My ex-girlfriend lives near Chicago and so landing a spot in the Chicago Lyric Opera that would be amazing.


S3: But in this audition Mike will be competing against dozens of other classical musicians some of them have been playing professionally for years and he’s nervous about performing under all that pressure.

S6: I’m thinking a lot about how much I want this job and how much it means to me. It would mean like a perfect perfect life for me. It’s a dream job in a dream city. I get to be close to my girlfriend so all those thoughts kind of start weighing on me and I keep thinking like I have to do as well as I possibly can. You No no amount of of of error is acceptable in the end. And then I I end up beating myself up for being a like a human being. And that leads to me in the audition feeling all of those thoughts while I’m trying to play an audition.


S7: Mike is going through it all of us experience at some point weight whether it’s getting ready to play in the big game or delivering a big speech or or preparing for that big job interview. How do we get ready. Everyone says just be amazing.

S8: But how do you keep your cool and do your best when there’s so much pressure and so much on the line. On today’s episode we’ll bring in a performance coach a guy who was once a Green Beret and now trains athletes for the Olympics. And we’ll find out. Can you help Mike nail the audition. Stay with us.

S5: Mike first picked up the bass when he was in the third grade. I love the fact that with the bass one year when you’re just playing an open string or something you can feel the vibrations of it like not just in not just where you contact the instrument but like throughout your whole body.


S9: It’s just such a visceral feeling to play the bass. And I just love the sound of it too. It’s really beautiful.

S10: When Mike was in junior high his class took a field trip to the New York Philharmonic and on the program the day was Gustaf Mueller’s Fifth Symphony.

S11: I remember almost everything about the concert. I remember the conductor. His name is Alan Gilbert. I remember who was playing principal bass at the time. I remember everything about the concert hall and I’m sitting next to all my friends and I just thought it doesn’t really get any better than this.

S8: Mike is just a few years out of college and he’s currently a Diversity Fellow at the Cincinnati Symphony it’s a fellowship program so it’s meant to get me a permanent job in an orchestra in the future.


S4: So it’s it’s not a permanent position so I’m there for for the next two years and I’ll be taking auditions and and hopefully getting into a professional orchestra. But so far it’s been there have been some ups and downs and it’s a difficult process. The the level playing is just so incredibly high nowadays again to an orchestra so it’s an inherently a very difficult thing to do.

S6: So tell me about the last time you got knocked down. Was it an audition where you trying out for something. The last laughs like difficult experience I had auditioning was for the principal bass of the Omaha Symphony. I worked for months you know I worked really well really diligently and for every audition. Bass players have to play one movement of solo Bach and I thought I’ve got that in the bag you know I’ve been playing that for less 10 or 11 years and I was feeling super confident. It’s a piece that I know so well and then I put the bow in the string and I play the first note and it it just made an awful squeaking sound it wasn’t in tune and it really got to my head and all the thoughts that had I’d done really well at putting out of my head before that all came rushing back and I just felt like maybe I’m not good enough for this. And I eventually recovered but I I got disqualified after that round.


S12: So and like how many hours a day are you practicing right now.

S13: Currently I’m practicing between four and a half to five hours a day. Okay. And then the rest of the time. Are you like like thinking about the music incessantly.


S6: I think to some degree you can’t help but think about it incessantly because you’re either thinking about what it will mean for your life if you can get it or you’re thinking about what could I do to make it better.

S12: And that’s why we turn to this guy.

S14: My name is Dr. Don Green. I’m a peak performance psychologist. What does that mean.

S2: Well it means that I help elite performers whether they’re musicians singers actors or athletes to do their best under pressure. That’s it. How did you get into that line of work. Well I grew up as a competitive athlete. I was a gymnast and a diver and I I dove a Division 1 level. I was pretty good but I was very erratic. I could easily be dazzling amazing and hit the toughest dives with toughest looking dives and then then missed the easiest of dives. And it was due to my not understanding about pressuring how to handle nerves or anxiety in competition or under pressure. So I was in the Army for five years after I got out. I went back to graduate school and got my peace in sports psychology to understand what happened to me and when I found out happens to a lot of people under pressure and I did that for about 10 years working with elite athletes Springboard divers Formula 1 race car drivers police SWAT officers professional golfers and tennis players. And then I happened to meet a classical musician. He happened to be a bass player and he wanted my help with his golf game. And I saw that he just always thought his parts like he stood over them for ever and finally jabbed at the button to go well.


S15: I started talking to him about focus and ways to quiet his mind ways to focus and he said that you know everything that we had done with him and his planning pertained to him as a principal bass player and what I’d be interested in working with classmates musicians. I thought yeah that’s really really interesting I’d love to.

S12: Don was incredibly successful working with musicians and he went on to teach for nearly a decade at Juilliard and then he helped coach traders on Wall Street. And after that he started working with runners and shot putters and other Olympians many of whom have gone on to win gold medals.

S15: I don’t know anything about that or about Wall Street. It’s not important. I don’t know how to play the bass. It’s not important that I know it’s it’s understanding the mind behind movement because all of these things involve complicated coordinated movement and the mind either helps in process or gets in the way and is fucked. Yogi Yogi Berra said that 90 percent of sports is mental and the other half is physical because the heart starts racing. Blood pressure goes up breathing changes people stop perspiring people start shaking the ice starts scanning moving around looking for danger that’s a distraction. And those are just a few of the physical symptoms and there’s a mental substance people get very critical self-conscious down on themselves and musicians get out of touch with their bodies and their fingers and they’re bowing in their vibrato athletes get out of touch with their body and start acting clumsy and then this emotional thing is just fear. So it comes down to not whether the pressure’s going to be that galloping. That’s what you do with it whether you make use of it or whether it abuses you. What an Olympic athletes have learned from sports psychologist is how to use that energy to jump higher run faster.


S16: That’s fascinating. So your job isn’t isn’t to teach them to avoid the pressure or to deal with the pressure that’s twice the time.

S15: That’s that’s counterproductive. It’s gonna be there. They can deny it push it away or learn how to use it.

S16: Okay I want to learn how to do that but before I do let me ask Mike one question. Mike when Don was describing that like deer in the headlights the anxiety here heart rate is going up. Did that did that sound familiar to what you experienced.

S17: Oh yeah definitely. Yeah yeah.

S6: That’s the same exact sensation you know you just kind of like freeze up you you start questioning like don’t even know how to hold my instrument anymore.


S17: That definitely rings true every aspect of it.

S3: When we come back we’ll learn how to use that panic to your advantage.

S18: We’re back with performance psychologist Don Green and our listener Mike who wants to win his dream job with the Chicago Lyric Opera and Don’s first role in preparing yourself for big performances. Don’t try to be relaxed. Don’t pretend you can stop your jittery nerves. Instead learn to channel that nervousness and energy into positive momentum. DONALD Mike how to do that when he walks into the audition room. If this is at all important to you. The adrenaline’s going to kick in.

S2: And you’re describing a situation where this is your dream job. It’s a perfect job. It would be the perfect job. The rest of your life. We love the Chicago Opera you love opera your girlfriend lives in Evanston. This is absolutely perfect. Which to my mind is a dirty word.


S19: I know I can hear in your voice you either have perfectionistic tendencies where you are a perfectionist and that’s like a triple whammy because there is no perfection in music. It’s too challenging but there’s a difference between perfectionism and striving for excellence. I’m a big fan of striving for excellence that you can do. Desire is very important. But if you’re focused on winning you’re focused on the wrong thing. Fish you really don’t have control over that. Buddha said that attachment to results is the cause of all suffering and you’re already extremely attached to these results.

S13: Mike what do you think of that. I think that sounds sounds very true when you said that I was a perfectionist. You definitely are correct. Yeah I definitely think about about playing things perfectly. A lot as much as I know that that’s kind of a lost cause that’s the next rule.

S12: Don’t strive for perfection strive instead for like a kind of loose sense of control focus on the things where you know you’re in charge and and let yourself explore the freedoms that exist inside those choices. And then all the things that you can’t control like like hitting the notes perfectly or what the judges are gonna think as much as you can ignore those things completely.

S20: One of the things I asked musicians to do is put a piece of music on the stand that’s low difficulty high energy. So what you do is you set it up turn a tape recorder on you leave the room and get your heart rate up far higher than it ever feels in your most anxious state. Get the blood flowing get your heart pumping by like jumping jacks like Yeah. Yeah jumping jacks squat against the wall I like skiers doing just squat like an invisible chair and to your heart’s pounding but also mentally imagine that you’re gonna go into the audition panel from the Chicago Lyric is waiting to hear you play.


S21: So put pressure on yourself. But in spite of that going there pick up the instrument and play with reckless abandon total disregard for intonation pitch tempo. The goal is to find freedom. Perfectionism ties you up in knots fear binds you like rubber bands around your body make a lot of mistakes.

S20: Explore freedom do this two or three times a day don’t listen to the recordings and you get the idea and start to feel the energy start to ride the wave. Start to drive the music and then after you do it seven eight nine times then listen to the recordings from the beginning and you’ll watch your progress in finding freedom and then you can start reining it in and you’re not worried about someone learning bad habits because I like when I listen to this I think to myself now if you’re an elite athlete if you’re an elite musician you’re all about trying to get better and better and better right. You’re supposed to get better control this is how you get control by letting go of control and not over controlling.

S22: That’s the problem.

S3: So here’s how you do it. Start with some jumping jacks or really any physical activity that revs you up in remind yourself you control your body and then play with enough abandon that you can find that freedom you know you have.

S23: I think that sounds like great advice and that’s definitely something that some of my mentors have told me too. They’ll say like oh it sounds great. It’s in tune really good sound. Sounds like you really know it well but it just sounds a little bit held back. It sounds like a little bit controlled not you’re not really taking any chances. And yeah I think my my expressiveness sometimes suffers because of that because I’m not really a. I’m not feeling quietly sometimes so you’re not free. This will give you a sense of freedom that I think you’ll find very fresh. Yeah. Okay. We’re gonna get to the audition in a second but what else does he do to mentally prepare himself for hours.


S24: There’s a lot a lot of things too many people do the wrong things the last two weeks they overplay don’t get enough sleep. Obsess too many lessons and they go in exhausted thinking well if they’re tired enough the adrenaline won’t affect them and then it’s a double whammy. Mm hmm.

S25: So starting now you want to watch your time but not over practice but you do things you’re not normally used to doing like take the whole day off. Yeah on Sundays and an important ingredient how many hours of sleep do you normally get. I try to get between seven and eight but most of the time I get closer to like six. So there’s all sorts of studies showing how important sleep is to optimal functioning and most people think eight hours is it.

S21: Well they did this study was highly functional people and they took the people that normally got eight an astronaut get between nine and ten and they reported their functioning went up dramatically.

S25: So the practicing is done you want to fine tune some things and work over you know the Bach or the openings like we’re talking about but one of the things you need to do is recover from all the hard work you’ve been doing over the last several months.

S12: This is another rule that we hear a lot on the show get more sleep and take care of yourself and other ways to price fighters do not fight the week before a fight.

S26: But musicians if they’re pounding away Don’t get me started on brass players that’s worse. But just you did your body of fresh and rested your fingers you need to get all the lactic acid out of your body that’s been building up with this intense training and obsession that you’re doing. So you wanted to start drinking a lot of water a whole lot of water and get your mind in the right place not thinking about results that’s that’s bad thinking you can’t control it’s just going to make yourself miserable and anxious you can’t play the audition to play the audition that you want to keep your head in a happy place and let’s just say it’s going to go fine it’s going to go fine is going to go fine over and over and over. Yeah. OK. That makes sense. Yeah I know you’re very serious but this is too important to take too seriously.


S27: Yeah. No this is a gig. That’s what you do. You show up. Play music. Yes. That’s what you do. Don’t make it bigger than life sometimes.

S6: The one thing that I find myself really attaching to when I’m playing and like with an orchestra or something and I’m nervous before we’re about to do a concert is just like how much I love the music that I’ve rehearsed with them all week or something. And it is it can be really liberating to just lean into that and just just play the music.

S27: Yeah yeah. Play the music.

S3: There’s your magic formula. The next rule is watch a lot of TV sitcoms.

S28: The really funny ones the last two weeks before an audition it’s emotional roller coaster. You go through the whole range of emotions it’s an up and down moment to moment thing.

S29: Yeah. And it’s easy to get into a negative space then the anxiety kids kicks in and the lack of being perfect and you still don’t have everything down right. And it’s kind of rise above it. And that’s why I believe in not what I recommend people the last week before an audition is they spend every morning listening or watching comedy until they’re laughing out loud. I’m absolutely serious. Yes because your mood is going to tank a lot. You’re going to go in that loud negative zone pretty easily. Most people do.

S30: What’s amazing to be done is that all of this is just a passive listener. This seems so counterintuitive to me right. I feel like the same way that Mike would feel which is like there’s this audition coming up if you want to win it you’ve got to earn it.


S16: You’ve got to like work yourself to the person who’s going to perform the best is the one who like works the hardest right is willing to like make their fingers bleed. But but what you’re saying is like no man like you’ve been doing all this work for years like the person who’s going to win is the one who like gets a good night’s sleep and watch some Netflix until they’re laughing and goes in and just plays the thing that they love to play bingo. Am I getting that right.

S21: Bingo. There it is. Here’s the thing under pressure things tend to speed up and people tend to rush it and they start into the first notes again not being ready.

S25: So my advice on the day of the audition starting within the morning is you get up and you start moving slowly talking slowly eating slowly slow showers slow walk. That’s why you want to get there early so you can check in and then take another slow walk and slow things down and you carry this on stage within you take your time.

S12: Here’s another rule on the day of the performance. Arrive early and take everything really slow. Get set up.

S31: Here. The first two bars of the band. Play the Bach.

S32: OK. So we’ve learned on steps and we’ve talked through how to get our head ready for the audition. The only thing left is for Mike to pick up the bass and see what Don says about his playing.

S20: So high energy piece right. High energy low difficulty.

S33: OK. OK. OK.

S21: So a nanosecond before the first note sounded what was going on in your head. I was worrying if my beau was straight or not. So that’s called the left brain doubt. Yeah. So if you were hearing that you weren’t hearing the note now let’s put your base in a safe place we can pick it up real quick okay. Cause you’re gonna get your heart rate up. Don’t overdo it. Just jumping jacks if you want but when you when your heart rate is up pick up the instrument get set. Drop your shoulder tension. Hear the music. No hesitation play the music. Okay.


S34: Write that energy way. How many should I do.

S17: Do you feel your heart anymore. Yeah. Embrace the energy.

S35: Your friend.

S36: Yes. Oh how is that. There’s a lot better way better.

S27: That’s what we’re talking about. There was no thought in there.

S17: You don’t need a thought who it feels awesome.

S21: That’s the way it should show.

S12: Adrenaline is your friend but of course when Mike auditions it’s not gonna be just one piece he performs. It’s only going to be just one audition. There’s round after round of auditions and so I asked on how do you get yourself ready for something like that when you know it’s going to be a marathon. Are there any tips.

S21: Yep yep.

S17: Watch Rambo What do you mean with a fighters mentality is going to be a knockdown drag out fight and you got to hang until the end.

S20: Then you take the next day off but not until then you’ve got to hang in and that takes kind of a soldier’s mentality.

S16: And I personally like Rambo. What do you read the soldiers mentality like.

S21: Like if you’re telling me how to do that what what advice are you given me or Mike so I’ll tell you a story.

S25: After I graduated from West Point I went through Ranger School and Ranger School is some of the toughest in the military. It’s about the equivalent of SEAL training. So the first three weeks of Ranger School is at Fort Benning in Georgia. It was very hot August and you wake up at probably five thirty in the morning and you run this incredible obstacle course not a fun one. And by the last day it’s a five mile run. I remember getting within a half a mile from the barracks and seeing the barracks and thinking Oh my God if I can I can just make it that last half a mile.


S26: I’ll survive and then you get there and I say you guys think you’re tough. Yeah we’re tough. Then have you hold your rifles over your head and jump up you guys a ranger tough. Yeah we’re range itself.

S37: No you’re not. Yeah we’re Ranger tough. We are we are. Well you want to go again. Yeah let’s go again.

S21: No no. You’ve got to be kidding and they start out at another five miles.

S36: Well and within 100 yards guys is just dropping like flies. I mean it left it right there done just that drop you gone and I still don’t know how I made it another five miles that day but I found out.

S26: Is this always reserve in there more energy more there. Unless your thinking goes the opposite way. And once you’re thinking goes negative you’re done you’re out. And what it taught me is there’s always more there. Worth fighting for worth hanging to.

S24: And that’s when I say soldier’s mentality I’ve learned it the hard way. But you don’t just need to go through Ranger school because you battle it out every day in the practice room. Wouldn’t put in the back on the stand and go in for it and just take that same mentality into the audition that you’re going to dominate and hang in and that your Rambo.

S3: So so after it’s all over after he doesn’t have to have soldier mentality everything is over. He he’s in recovery. Is there anything special he should do in recovery.

S19: Yes to celebrate that he survived to write down all the good things because by then you’ll have processed over and over the negative things. No Jamison all that to really focus on the positive things and right out you know that good. Got a good start on the Mendelssohn and the the end of the Bach went really in all the positive things to remember versus reinforcing and repeating the negatives you know recognize them analyze and figure out what you need to do but then focus on the right things and give yourself a reward for all the effort you put in you need to drop the energy down recover take some naps sleep and get your attitude back and then get yourself ready for the next one and this is the rule that’s maybe easiest to overlook but it’s so important.


S3: If you showed up and you did your best. Celebrate that no matter whether you won or lost. You need to let yourself remember what you did right. Because as long as you did better this time than you did last time you are a success. And that’s how you get ready to perform and deal with the pressure. Next time.

S38: A quick update from Mike who left us this voice memo Hi Charles this is Mike Martin. I just finished my lyric opera audition. I did everything that Don told me to do. I was super energized super focused and I felt like my audition went very very well. But I did not advance to the next round. So I did not win this audition.

S39: However I definitely got a lot better from doing what Don asked me to do and I got much better from preparing this audition in general. So thank you so much for your help. By.

S8: It turns out that later Mike did get a job with the New World Symphony in Miami which is fantastic. Thank you so much to Mike for sharing your story with us and a performance coach Don Green for All of his amazing advice. Make sure to look for Don’s books and other programs at his Web site. Winning on stage Scott. Do you have a problem that needs solving. Send us a noted how to at Slate dot com and we might be able to help. That’s how to at Slate scone. Also if you found any of our advice helpful we want to hear from you about it. You can tweet us at hashtag how to pod or call and leave us a voicemail at 6 4 6 4 9 5 4 0 0 1. We might even play your voicemail on the show. Finally we would love it if you would please subscribe for free and give us a five star rating and a review and Apple podcasts. That really helps people find the show and that means we can help more people and you know it’s just goodness all around. How tos executive producer is Derek John Rachel Allen is our production assistant in Merritt Jacob is our engineer. Our theme music is by Hannah’s Brown. June Thomas is the senior managing producer of Slate podcast and Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for audio. Special thanks to Asha solution. I’m Charles Dudek. Thanks for listening.