Is continuing education in mental training necessary for performing artists?

Is continuing education in mental training necessary for performing artists?

Let’s think about some different professions: physicians, nurses, dentists, social workers, lawyers, CPA’s, physical therapists, cosmetologists, architects, estheticians, paralegals, and social workers. What do all these careers have in common? They are required to periodically attend classes (often known as continuing education) to keep or renew their licenses or certifications. Continuing education is lifelong learning that goes beyond a degree or level of expertise, in which you learn about the latest technology, research, trends, inventions, necessary skills, and relevant discoveries in your field.


My Experience

I have found that the performers who complete my mental skills training program achieve at least one peak performance within a few weeks or months (if given enough time before the performance). Many of my students have walked away from that peak performance having won orchestral jobs, professional championships, and Olympic medals.

Then the normal pattern ensues: I don’t hear from them for months or even years after this success. I am contacted again when things start to go awry. The performer will usually call me and profess a sense of guilt for being out of touch for so long. The story continues: the performer admits to not making mental training a focus in daily practice sessions and performances. They remember some of the old material that we covered, but they haven’t reviewed the details of that material or continued their education with anything new since we left off. This is where I jump back in, and we get back to work.

So the question stands: Is continuing education in mental training necessary for performing artists? I think we all know the answer…YES.

Case Studies

Several years after winning his first professional tournament, one of my golfers fell into a long slump. Although he was working with a famous coach, practiced on the range religiously, and frequently played most practice rounds under par, he wasn’t playing well in competitions. He fit into the scenario I outlined above. When we first talked, I asked him about his mental practice and staying up-to-date on current techniques and strategies. He looked at me with a confused stare.

When we started back into the mental training program, it didn’t take long before he was recalling one of our earlier references, Psycho-Cyberneticsby Dr. Maxwell Maltz. After reviewing his extensive notes, he also started doing the recommended exercises again. One of them was writing out his negative self-talk, which had helped boost his confidence as a young rookie. A few days later we moved to the another book, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Dr. Susan Jeffers, and exercises for strengthening his courage. The next resource was Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel, to intensify his focus. After going through the crash course from A to Z, and getting back in the daily habit of mental practice, he was soon holding another trophy over his head, with a large check in his pocket.


My experience with performing artists is very similar. One of the fellows at the New World Symphony was on a long drought with a string of unsuccessful auditions. He left the orchestra without a job, and was seriously considering leaving music altogether. We began working together through a progression of resources, strategies, and exercises that were tailored to his individual needs. Soon after he completed my program, he won the audition for a section position with the Atlanta Symphony.

Several years later, he contacted me. He was ready to leave Atlanta but needed to win another big audition to do so. Like my pro golfer, he had gotten out of the habit of doing frequent mental training and staying current with the latest techniques. It was understandable, he was now a father and teacher, but not very helpful if he was going to get back on the winning track. We soon began working together again. A short time later, he won a principal position with the Cleveland Orchestra.


Even after professional performers reach a high level of competence, they recognize that they still need to continue practicing and developing their physical skills. For some reason, few of them place a high priority on learning, developing, and practicing mental skills. Unfortunately, the same is true of athletes, who spend the majority of their time and attention working on physical things. Golfers who can easily spend four hours or more on the range or course are reluctant to spend ten minutes doing mental practice.

In my view, professional athletes have an advantage over performing artists (besides just in the money they make). Most pro golfers nowadays have their own team of supportive professionals. These include their coach or swing teacher, caddy, exercise physiologist, kinesiologist, physical therapist, massage technician, nutritionist, strength trainer, conditioning coach, manager, financial planner, spiritual advisor, and sports psychologist. Professional performing artists may have only ONE teacher or mentor if they are lucky, and very little or no mental training. Continued psychological development is rarely contemplated or pursued.

My Recommendation

Look at your own learning and practices as a performing artist in the past year and ask yourself:

  • Did my practice include mental skills training or exercises that help me do better under pressure?
  • Am I able to control my nerves so that my energy level is optimal when I’m performing?
  • Has my focus in distracting circumstances improved in the last year?
  • Am I able to be mentally tough under adverse conditions?
  • Do I feel up to date on the latest methods for quieting the mind and getting in the zone?
  • Do I feel confident in my performing abilities?

Take Action

  • Make a list of all of the mental training strategies that you have used in the past.
  • Draw up a plan for the next month: either revisiting the old mental skills that worked for you in the past or add new steps to continue your education in mental training.
  • Make it a priority to not only continue your technical education but also your mental education.

If you need new ideas for continuing mental training, keep checking this blog. I will be delving into more of these in the future. In addition, check out the books I mentioned above; they are great. An online course that I have created called Performance Mastery will be available in the very near future.

Meditation versus Centering: What is Best for Performing Artists?

Meditation versus Centering: What is Best for Performing Artists?

There are all sorts of mental training strategies and methods available for performing artists. These include meditation, biofeedback, visualization, neuro-linguistic programming, hypnosis, autogenic training, and the Centering Process. Which of these are you familiar with? Do you practice any of them?

I find that many performing artists are most familiar with two of these strategies: meditation and Centering. I’ve done both, and I need to say upfront that I’m very partial in recommending Centering, especially for performers. Both strategies are used to help deal with nerves and performance anxiety. However, many performing artists don’t really understand the differences between the two processes.

What is Meditation? 

Meditation is a practice to regulate or train thoughts and clear the mind. The goal is to get to a state of inner silence, heightened awareness, and deep calm. Meditation provides a way to shift from the noisy, scattered left brain to the quiet, focused right brain. There are various forms of meditation, including many from ancient religious traditions and spiritual practices, as wells as numerous modern day techniques.

Meditative practices go back many centuries. The earliest forms were practiced by the Egyptians around 4,000 BC and the Hindus in India around 1500 BC. There were Taoists in China in the 6th Century BC, and then the Buddhists in India around 500 BC. The ancient Hebrews were meditators as well as the early Christians. In the middle ages, Roman Catholics had meditative prayer and Gregorian chants. In modern times, we have Progressive Relaxation, Guided Imagery, Relaxation Response, Brainwave Entrainment, and Mindfulness-Based Stress Response.


Types of Meditation

Among the countless forms of meditation, there are three main types: focused attention, mindfulness, and effortless presence. Each provides a different approach to getting physically relaxed and into the meditative state of mind.

Focused attention is directed towards a single thing. This could be one’s breath, a candle flame, a specific word, mantra, image, sound, or physical sensation. The idea is to turn off the left brain’s executive functioning (analyzing, problem-solving, planning, etc.) and shift to the quiet right brain’s continuing presence in the here and now.

Mindfulness (or the process of mind-monitoring) involves paying full attention to either an internal or external event that you focus on without judgment. The internal events would include a specific thought, memory, or feeling, that you contemplate without personal attachment. The external events would include a specific sound, smell, or perception, that you become fully aware of, without reacting to it.

Effortless presence is a form of meditation that is all about emptying the mind of its incessant thoughts in order to reach a state of mental quiet and total presence. The attention is not focused on anything in particular, but it is removed from judgments, analyses, opinions, suggestions, recommendations, resolves, and left brain processing. It is a state of choiceless awareness, free of any mental attachments.

Scientific studies have proven that all these forms of meditation result in health benefits. They lower blood pressure, heart rate, and anxiety. For example, a study by Dr. Linda E. Carlson published in Scientific American in 2014, showed how 88 cancer survivors who used meditation reduced stress levels and were even able to help alter their DNA over time. 


The Brain and Meditation

Meditation causes an important shift out of left brain processing. The left hemisphere thinks with lots of words, like a large committee meeting going on in your head. The left brain is also capable of thinking very rapidly (13-40 cycles per second on an EEG). This pattern is known as Beta. The faster the Beta thinking goes, the more one’s focus is scattered, which frequently causes an unwelcome increase in anxiety. 

The right hemisphere perceives through images, sounds, and sensations. It is free of words, judgments, worries, self-criticism, doubts, and other distracting thoughts. The right brain is capable of much more focused, slower Alpha thinking (7 to 12 cycles per second). In addition to quieting the mind’s rapid and incessant chatter, Alpha is usually accompanied by a welcome sense of calm and well-being. 


Meditation and Performing Artists

Most meditative practices require at least 20 minutes a day, if not more. Meditation is best done in a quiet environment, wearing comfortable attire,  sitting in a proper posture. It’s also recommended that practitioners meditate at a time of day when they have sufficient energy to stay alert and focused for longer and longer periods of time. 

Although meditation can provide significant benefits to performing artists, I found that very few of them had an extra 20 to 40 minutes a day to meditate. While meditation can quiet the mind and lower anxiety levels, I don’t think that it’s  a functional strategy for performers to use right before important events. It can result in a performer being too relaxed or even too right-brained (the left brain still needs to consider the repertoire, fellow performers, technique, etc.).

My Recommendation: Centering

Like meditation, Centering causes the important shift from the noisy left brain to the quiet right, from rapid Beta to slower Alpha. There is also a decrease in anxiety and muscle tension, and an increase in focus and presence. Furthermore, Centering  can be done anywhere, sitting, standing, or even walking, in less than 10 seconds. That’s why I have found Centering to be an ideal strategy for performing artists to use right before practice sessions, rehearsals, concerts, recitals, auditions, and even between excerpts at auditions. 

The Centering Process was adapted from the Japanese martial art of Aikido in the 1970’s by Dr. Robert Nideffer, a world renowned sports psychologist. Aikido is one of the most mentally oriented of all the martial arts. After attaining his black belt in Aikido in Japan, Nideffer returned to the U.S. and earned his PhD in Psychology. He then combined this powerful knowledge to develop a sophisticated focusing strategy, known as Centering, to prepare Olympic and professional athletes for peak performances under pressure.

Types of Centering

There are two different forms of the Centering Process: Centering Down and Centering Up. Each is a focusing strategy, but Centering Down reduces anxiety, while Centering Up raises energy. Thus, whether performers are either too up or too relaxed before going on, they can quickly change it to get in the optimal energy zone where they do their best. Both Centering Down and Centering Up can be learned in less than two weeks. 

Centering Case Studies

I first learned the Centering Process in the 1980’s during my PhD program in Sports Psychology. Dr. Nideffer was one of my highly esteemed professors. He was also one of my advisors on my dissertation. As part of my research, I tested Centering vs. Progressive Relaxation with police SWAT officers who participated in a live stress-shooting course. The SWAT officers who had learned to Center, and used it right before starting the course, performed significantly better than the other officers.

In 1984, Dr. Nideffer was working with both the Olympic Track and Field Team and the Mission Viejo Diving Team. He recommended that I take his place working with Olympic diving coach Ron O’Brien and his elite divers. Each of the divers on the team was trained to Center. At the Olympic Trials in Indianapolis and then at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, I witnessed first hand how powerful Centering was in helping the athletes perform their best under extreme pressure. Every one of the divers on the ‘84 Olympic team won at least one medal; Greg Louganis won two golds.

Fast forward to 1995. I was still working with Olympic and professional athletes, and I also began training performing artists to win auditions. The first two, a horn player and a mezzo-soprano had both struggled with auditions and their nerves. Centering was an important part of their curriculum. I worked with each of them for two months, and they both won their auditions: Houston Symphony and Chicago Lyric Opera.

A few years later, a professor at The Juilliard School asked me to work with four musicians preparing for a MET Orchestra audition. Again, Centering was an integral part of their training. Of the 59 candidates who played the audition, these four musicians came in 5th, 4th, 2nd, and 1st. I then started teaching at Juilliard, the New World Symphony, and later at the Colburn School. Since then, my students and clients have learned to Center and have won positions in orchestras and ensembles all over the world.

Action Items

Performing your best is about finding the mental training strategies that help you to work well under pressure. 

  • Interested in meditation? Check out musician Kenny Werner’s book and meditation tracks through Effortless Mastery. A new app called Headspace now has meditation series for everything from health to relationships to sports. 
  • Interested in my favorite, Centering? Get ready, because my course Performance Mastery is coming out very soon! I will be teaching Centering Down and Centering Up, as well as covering high energy Simulation Training and Mental Rehearsal Techniques.
  • Interested in my favorite, Centering? Get ready, because my course Performance Mastery is coming out very soon! I will be teaching Centering Down and Centering Up, as well as covering high energy Simulation Training and Mental Rehearsal Techniques.

  • Other great resources:

I support meditation in your life but encourage you to use Centering every day in your practice room and on stage.