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Periodization: The Secret Weapon for Winning Auditions

Periodization: The Secret Weapon for Winning Auditions

Do you ever find yourself peaking for your audition too early or too late? Do you feel yourself drained of energy before you even get to the audition? Or are you feeling so mentally and physically fatigued that you aren’t even motivated to prepare?

If so, you are reading the right article! There is a secret weapon that I teach called periodization, and it has been a game changer for all of my audition-winning clients. This periodization process involves training cycles with four distinct phases: preparation, tapering, execution, and recovery. Periodization is designed to peak the performer’s energy at just the right time (like during the finals) in order to win.

Preparation Phase

Photo Credit: Pixabay

There is a lot of great information on the internet about various approaches to winning auditions. Most of the websites and blogs are by musicians who have won orchestral auditions themselves. These authors are emphasizing the physical, technical, organizational, and musical aspects of the audition preparation and actual audition performance. They usually address only the first phase of the periodization process: preparation.

Preparation involves both physical and mental work. The physical includes the organization of practice, technical work, listening, score study, mock-auditions, etc. The mental preparation includes: Centering practice, mental rehearsal or visualization, and concentration exercises. Long before their auditions, I have my clients complete a thorough assessment of their mental performance skills. We measure their abilities in five main areas: performance energy, confidence, courage, focus, and resilience. After determining their individual mental strengths and weaknesses they can begin working specifically in the area(s) where they will make the most improvement in the least amount of time.

The mental training, which can replace some of the physical practice time, involves the Centering Process and positive affirmations. Centering helps control and channel performance energy before and during the audition process. The affirmations help to build self-confidence. Concentration exercises help musicians to focus past distractions and quiet the mind. They also learn how to become mentally tough and to recover quickly from inevitable mistakes. I don’t believe in perfectionism, especially at auditions. The idea is to continually strive for excellence which means doing your best under any circumstance.

Tapering Phase

 

Photo Credit: Tania Mousinho

A few days prior to an audition it is time to begin the second phase of the training cycle which is the all-important tapering process. At this point you need to spend less time physically practicing, as you increase your mental training even more, and begin to get more sleep and rest. In the last week before the audition it’s too late to cram (although many musicians do). If you don’t have all the excerpts or technical skills down by now you’re probably not going to master them in the next few days. If you try to do so it will be counter-productive.

Instead of fretting over musical things or playing through the excerpt list one more time, there are better things to do. Believe it or not, I often recommend sleeping in, taking short power naps (20 minutes), watching comedy, doing a mental rehearsal session, or having lunch with a good friend (either a non-musician or a friend who promises there will be no audition talk!). In the last few days, the idea is to stay positive and mellow as you bide your time wisely and build up your energy. This is not easy for most musicians who are used to years of constant physical practice. Although you cannot win in the days leading up to an audition, you can lose.

In addition to maintaining the right mindset and conserving energy it’s important that you carefully manage your heightened emotions in the final days before the audition. Due to the extra stress many performers’ nerves get raw and they become “testy” or “prickly” especially, and unfortunately, with those closest to them. For many musicians the looming audition can feel as important as a matter of life or death. Keeping perspective and a sense of humor can be an immense help. Remember that your audition performance is too important to take too seriously.

The most important night of sleep is two nights before the audition. In terms of energy, there’s a one day delay with the effects of sleep. So if the audition is on Saturday, you want to get a great night’s sleep on Thursday. Try your best to go to bed early, or sleep in, or both. If you feel very tired Friday afternoon, take a very short nap (10-15 minutes). After waking up I recommend that you get up, move around, and get some fresh air.

The night before the audition, try to schedule dinner in the late afternoon or early evening. It’s wise to eat something that’s easy to digest, without a lot of spices. Wind down before going to bed (no exciting action movies, musical events, or recordings). Turn off all musical thoughts in your head and get to bed at a reasonable time. Darken the room, lower the temperature, get into bed and find a comfortable position. If sleep doesn’t arrive within a few minutes, don’t worry. Just lie there and relax. Simply lying still provides 70% of the rest benefit of sleeping. Hopefully you will have been getting extra rest, naps, and had a good night’s sleep the previous night. That’s the energy you’ll be using tomorrow at the audition.

Execution Phase

Photo Credit: Chase Clark

The third phase in the cycle is the execution phase. The first thing to do is to get up with plenty of time to get ready to do your best. I recommend arriving at the audition site early, keeping your mind on the process of what you need to do to execute a peak performance. Avoid thinking about all the possible outcomes. When they come up just imagine your audition going well. Before walking in summon up your courage, stay in the moment, and focus only on the task at hand. Follow your performance routine. (I have watched many clients throw their performance routine out the window the day of the audition.) Trust the process and all of your hard work, talent, and training. Then go for it with everything you have!

Although many musicians try in vain to relax at auditions, I train my clients to channel that extra energy to blow away their competitors as well as the audition panel. In this process they use a variety of peak performance skills like Centering and mental rehearsal techniques. These help them do better in auditions because of the extra pressure and energy not in spite of it. While most of their fellow musicians are trying to calm down I want my clients to get their energy up. My training teaches them how to control, channel, and peak that powerful performance energy when it really counts.

Recovery Phase

Photo Credit: Sid Leigh

After the audition, the final phase is recovery. Take some much needed physical and mental rest away from the instrument and repertoire before you begin preparing for the next big performance or audition. Make sure that you feel fresh, rested, and recovered before starting your next training cycle. Regardless of the final outcome though, you need to reward yourself for the efforts you put in and the improvements that have resulted from those efforts. I suggest
something tangible and permanent as a symbolic reminder of your progress.

After you recover and want to get ready for an even better performance, make good use of the secret weapon known as periodization. Begin the four phase cycle with all the physical and mental work that needs to be done to prepare for the audition or concert. This is followed by tapering in the last days before the important event. Back off from the high level of training in order to build your energy so that you reach a peak in the execution phase at the audition or concert. Once again, you’ll deserve a few days off so you can recover as well another reward. In
the meantime:

● Ask yourself: Which phase of periodization do you struggle with the most when you’re getting ready for an audition or important concert? Be honest. Remember each of the four phases affect each other and the final result. Tapering and recovery are just as important as preparation and execution!
● For your next training cycle before a big performance, plan out your calendar, so you can schedule the four periodization phases.
● Repeat the four phases until you begin to feel like each cycle of the periodization process has improved, as well as the results. Go for it!

Performance pressure never goes away so how do we handle it? (Series – Part II of II)

Performance pressure never goes away so how do we handle it? (Series – Part II of II)

In last month’s column, I discussed beta blockers and their effects. As you know, these drugs are widely used by musicians to lower their heart rate and blood pressure, and to decrease other physiological symptoms of the fight/flight response. Like any other drug, beta blockers have several side effects, including dependence and increased tolerance. While these drugs may produce temporary relief, they do nothing to take away the inner feeling of dread or improve your confidence. They do not solve the underlying causes of nervousness, and they will never produce your best performances.

In the meantime, beta blockers will make focusing on the task at hand under pressure even more difficult. It takes immense energy to concentrate intensely for extended periods of time, like playing three rounds of auditions, the Ring Cycle, or gaining tenure after winning an audition with an orchestra. Beta blockers will not increase your ability to trust your talent and to go for it, while causing a false sense of security. Eventually, the diminished returns and risks of taking the drugs will outweigh the potential benefits.

Dr. Richard Ginsburg at the Harvard Medical School wrote, “Some level of anxiety isgood for performance. It keeps you in your game. A beta blocker can take away some edge, mellow you too much.” Adrenaline is an important hormone for maintaining a sense of vitality, power, and well-being. Blocking it can cause fatigue, lethargy,weakness, and depression.”

Many of my students and clients have asked me about using beta blockers before important events. I never ask them not to use beta blockers, but ask them to considerthat they could perform much better without them.

If they want to wean themselves off beta blockers, I make sure they know that it will take some time and an effective plan. I do not recommend quitting abruptly by going “cold turkey”, especially if they have some important performance or auditions coming up soon. The practical solution is to learn more effective and natural ways to deal with the anxiety that often comes with performing classical music in front of an audience who expect you to do well. Here are some ways that I recommend to you:

Making a Plan – First, make up your mind that over time, you’re going to learn how to use your extra performance energy to achieve your peak performances under pressure, rather than trying to suppress the energy with beta blockers. Set reasonable goals for how long it may take, as well as tangible rewards for doing so.

Next, consult with your physician about your plan for gradually tapering off the drug. You need to learn more about the drug and specifically how it affects you, your body chemistry, and your mind. Tell your doctor about any and all other drugs that you’re taking. Ask about the half-life of the beta blocker and how long it takes to metabolize out of your system. Then find out if you can start taking half the usual dosage for two weeks, and then possibly half of that as the next step, two weeks later.

At each step, you want to notify your doctor about any adverse reactions you are experiencing. It may take two months or more before you notice any remaining symptoms. Your body and mind need to relearn how to deal with stress and adrenaline without beta blockers. Your heart may race at times, and your blood pressure might skyrocket for a while, until you learn how to manage your anxiety by channeling the extra energy into power, presence, and focus. That energy is what wins Olympic gold medals and orchestral auditions. That’s how I train athletes and performers to thrive under extreme pressure, when it really counts, without drugs.

Magnesium and complex carbs – There are several different things you may consider to help you deal with anxiety. You might change your diet to include foods that are rich in magnesium, such as spinach, almonds, halibut, and mackerel. Other foods that can reduce anxiety are complex carbohydrates, salmon, olive oil, garlic, sunflower seeds, dark chocolate, walnuts, bananas (very good an hour before you perform), pomegranates, blueberries, raspberries, apples, strawberries, and pineapples. You can also drink decaffeinated green tea, or chamomile tea. Try to reduce or eliminate caffeine, alcohol, and carbonated or sugary drinks, and replace them with pomegranate juice or vegetable juice, and lots of water.

 

Supplements and vitamins – There are also herbs that may reduce anxiety: Hawthorn, indian coleus, passion flower, kava extract, St. John’s Wort, ashwagandha, inositol, 5- HTP, bacopa monnieri, rhodiola rosea, and lavender. You might consider certain vitamins or supplements like vitamin A, B, C, niacin, calcium, antioxidants (lycopene and beta-carotene), and fish oil, as well as certain amino acids: GABA (Gamma AminoButyric Acid), L-Arginine, Tryptophan, and L-Theanine. Please check with a qualified health practitioner about dosage, proper use, and potential side effects before using any of these substances.

Discussing anxiety – Teaching performers how to deal with their nerves and performance anxiety is a new model of pedagogy. Many music, voice, and dance teachers do not discuss this important topic with their students or offer them viable solutions. Some teachers may need proper training in dealing with anxiety just as much as their students. It is best to surround yourself with people and materials where you can openly communicate about any anxiety felt.

Self-Talk – While beta blockers may help reduce the physical manifestations of performance stress, no matter how much you take, they don’t produce any meaningful mental or emotional changes. This means they don’t decrease negative thinking, mental noise, doomsday thinking, or worrying, nor do they increase desire, motivation, inspiration, resilience, courage, or mental toughness. Creating positive affirmations, writing them down, and repeating them can have a strong effect on your confidence by reprogramming your negative self-talk.

Preparation – Nothing takes the place of daily practice and proper preparation, which are very real and practical solutions to managing one’s performance anxiety. If you need to upgrade your technical skills, find a teacher you respect and follow their guidance. Plan to practice, practice, practice, both physically and mentally every day. There is no substitute or better way to build your confidence and sense of competence. Strive for excellence, not perfection, daily in the practice room.

Natural remedies – In my opinion, the most natural remedies for dealing with performance anxiety are the most effective. These include aerobic exercise, meditation, prayer, mindfulness, zazen, positive affirmations, yoga, Chi Gong, breathing techniques, T’ai Chi, cognitive-behavioral therapy, guided imagery, sufficient rest and sleep, neuro- linguistic programming, Aikido, biofeedback, EFT, systematic desensitization, self- hypnosis, mental rehearsal, autogenic training, the Silva Method, and my personal and professional favorite, the Centering Process. I recommend that performers master the Centering Process to control and channel performance energy without taking beta blockers. It’s the main strategy that I’ve taught to hundreds of clients and students at Juilliard, the New World Symphony, and the Colburn School.

Let’s get real. Performance pressure will never go away. You can just learn better ways to handle it. Some methods are more beneficial (and less harmful) than others. My belief is that beta blockers will prevent you from achieving your full potential as a musician. If you’re interested in doing your absolute best, I suggest that you pursue extra energy and excellence, not the comfort and relaxed state that you may get through drugs. I always recommend to those clients who wish to feel comfortable and relaxed, “Either go lay on the beach in Hawaii or choose to learn how to use your performance energy to do your best when it counts.”

To learn more about my Centering exercises, please visit my website (www.winningonstage.com/products/#online-courses) to find the comprehensive program.

Natural remedies – In my opinion, the most natural remedies for dealing with performance anxiety are the most effective. These include aerobic exercise, meditation, prayer, mindfulness, zazen, positive affirmations, yoga, Chi Gong, breathing techniques, T’ai Chi, cognitive-behavioral therapy, guided imagery, sufficient rest and sleep, neuro- linguistic programming, Aikido, biofeedback, EFT, systematic desensitization, self- hypnosis, mental rehearsal, autogenic training, the Silva Method, and my personal and professional favorite, the Centering Process. I recommend that performers master the Centering Process to control and channel performance energy without taking beta blockers. It’s the main strategy that I’ve taught to hundreds of clients and students at Juilliard, the New World Symphony, and the Colburn School.

Let’s get real. Performance pressure will never go away. You can just learn better ways to handle it. Some methods are more beneficial (and less harmful) than others. My belief is that beta blockers will prevent you from achieving your full potential as a musician. If you’re interested in doing your absolute best, I suggest that you pursue extra energy and excellence, not the comfort and relaxed state that you may get through drugs. I always recommend to those clients who wish to feel comfortable and relaxed, “Either go lay on the beach in Hawaii or choose to learn how to use your performance energy to do your best when it counts.”

To learn more about my Centering exercises, please visit my website (www.winningonstage.com/products/#online-courses) to find the comprehensive program.

Real talk about beta blockers (Series – Part I of II)

Real talk about beta blockers (Series – Part I of II)

I’ve been fortunate in my career to counsel musicians and athletes on how to do their
best under extreme pressure and achieve peak performances at the right time. One
thing I focus on is learning how to control and channel performance energy. While the
mental training for athletes and musicians is similar, the ultimate results are more
apparent and quantifiable with the Olympians than with performing artists. It is difficult to
objectively measure a peak performance in the arts and it is unclear exactly how music
performance is affected by beta blockers.

In Olympic events, peak performances can be accurately measured (rather than
subjectively judged, as at an audition). Whether it’s the 200 meter butterfly, the high
jump, or the 100 meter hurdles, a new record is soon posted for all the world to see.
Oftentimes when a new Olympic record is set, a world record has also been achieved.
Athletes compete year-round in regional championships, nationals, Olympic festivals,
Pan Am Games, World University games, etc., when they’re always trying to do their
best. So why do these athletes set so many new records only every four years at the
Olympic Games?

Photo Credit: Bryan Turner
In my view, it’s because U.S. Olympic teams have sports psychologists teach athletes
how to make adrenaline work for them. Olympic athletes learn exactly how to channel
extreme levels of performance energy when they’re feeling the immense pressure of the
whole world watching them. Musicians however, are usually encouraged to play their
best “in spite of” nervous energy, instead of being taught how to use the extra pressure.
In a 2012 study at University of Paderborn in Germany, 30% of the orchestra members
who were surveyed said that they suffered from stage fright. More than 13% of the
musicians described their anxiety as being severe. A study of 74 gifted adolescent
musicians, published in 2013, found that one-third of the group was “distinctly
handicapped by their anxiety”.

Unfortunately, in the face of normal performance anxiety, many performing artists turn
to beta blockers like Inderal, Propranolol, Metoprolol, and Levatol. In 1987, a formal
study on stage fright was conducted with 2,000 professional musicians from the 51
largest orchestras in the United States. More than 27% of those musicians used beta
blockers for their nerves at least once, if not more often. Of those, 70% said that they
had not gotten prescriptions for the drugs.

John Beder recently directed a documentary on performance anxiety called Composed.
He surveyed over 5,000 classical musicians and found that 72% of the musicians in his
study use or had used beta blockers.

In my own informal survey a few months ago on Facebook with more than 500
performing artist respondents, I found that 40% of them experienced nerves every time
they perform. At least 56% of the experienced performers indicated that they felt anxiety
on some occasions when they performed. Of that 56%, more than 20% stated they
found beta blockers helpful in dealing with their performance anxiety.

What are beta blockers?
Beta blockers are a category of prescription heart medications that are used to lower
blood pressure, heart rate, and blood flow. They are also used to decrease the
physiological symptoms of the fight/flight response. These drugs prevent or block the
adrenal glands’ stress hormones (adrenaline and noradrenaline) from attaching to the
sympathetic nervous system’s beta receptors. These receptors get activated by fear,
anxiety, or panic. Once the beta receptors are blocked by the drug, the heart rate
begins to slow down.

Beta blockers also prevent the kidneys from producing a hormone called angiotensin.
Without this hormone in the system, there is a resulting drop in blood pressure and
blood flow. Beta blockers are specifically used to treat cardiovascular conditions like
irregular heartbeat, angina, atrial fibrillation, and congestive heart failure, as well as
hyperthyroidism, chest pains, and glaucoma. They are not intended as the primary
treatment for anxiety, but physicians prescribe beta blockers “off-label”, meaning that
the drugs are not officially approved for use for anxiety by the FDA, but are prescribed
anyway. The result of decreased heart rate, blood pressure, and blood flow give the
performer a sense of calm and security. Beta blockers are often obtained from alternate
sources, like friends and colleagues.

The list of potential side effects of beta blockers include: irregular heart rate, dry mouth,
shortness of breath, low energy, drowsiness, dizziness, swelling of extremities, brain
fog, physical weakness, impaired circulation, cold hands or feet, blurred vision,
headaches, insomnia, muscle cramps, unexpected weight gain, upset stomach,
vomiting, depression, and loss of drive. These side effects are usually mild but can
become severe for individuals who have other medical conditions.
If you are going to take them, here is what you need to know.

Photo Credit: FreeStocks

If you are going to take them, here is what you need to know.

Those who have low blood pressure, low heart rate, diabetes, asthma, Raynaud’s
Phenomenon, emphysema, or allergies should not take beta blockers without consulting
with a physician. These drugs can mask the signs of low blood sugar or cause
significant changes in blood sugar levels. They can cause severe asthmatic reactions
and cause extreme metabolism changes in a short amount of time. It’s important to
avoid taking beta blockers with alcohol or caffeine, as the drug interactions can cause
an adverse reaction.

Although beta blockers are not physically addictive, they have the potential for
psychological dependence. Like all drugs, more than occasional use of beta blockers
will increase tolerance. Over time, the dosage and/or frequency will need to be
increased to produce the same effects. I knew an orchestral musician who told me in
confidence that she needed 50 milligrams just to get through every rehearsal, not to
mention what she took for concerts. After a while, some users may feel that they can’t
go on stage without them.

Beta blockers are not a cure for nerves, they just mask the problem. Beta blockers do
not alleviate anxiety or inner nervousness, they just block the outward, physical signs of
anxiety. The drugs only block the physiological action of adrenaline, they don’t stop it, or
solve the underlying causes of the anxiety.

Talk to Your Physician

If you still want to try beta blockers or continue using them, talk to your doctor. This is
critical if you have any medical conditions. List what prescription medications you take,
especially for blood pressure, antidepressants, diabetes, asthma, chronic bronchitis, or
allergies, as well as any over the counter drugs for coughs or colds you take. Your
doctor may require a blood test or electrocardiogram before writing your prescription.

Then you need to experiment with them in a safe performance environment (not a big
performance or audition) to learn how they affect you. The usual dosage is between 10
and 60 mg. They can take anywhere between 1 and 4 hours (depending on dosage,
tolerance, body weight, and chemistry) to reach their maximum effectiveness. You also
need to determine how long before the effects wear off, and what you would do after
that if you needed to play another audition round later in the day, or in the finals in the
evening. By that point, will you still have the vital energy left to play with excitement,
presence, and focus so you can win the audition? Or will it be buried under a heavy
blanket of beta blockers?

You can guess how I feel about performers taking beta blockers. I have never
suggested to an Olympic swimmer or 100-meter runner that they drink some vodka to
calm down before their race. Nor have I ever recommended beta blockers to any of the
performing artists that I have counseled to win auditions for more than 30 years. It just
doesn’t make sense to me. Why would any athlete or performer want to mess with their
energy before an important event with alcohol or drugs?

Beta blockers may give performing artists a temporary sense of comfort, but comfort
should not be the goal. The goal is to win the audition. That takes a lot of energy, over
several rounds. Beta blockers may get you through the first round, or even past the
semifinals, but they won’t help you to win the audition. In fact, they could cause you to
lose in the finals. You don’t want to start the finals with suppressed or depleted energy.
Not if you want to stand up and blow the audition panel away with your energetic
performance. You want to still be going for it with power, until the last note, long after
your competitors have fallen away.

In the last Olympic Games in Rio in 2016, fourteen of the track and field athletes I
counseled reached the awards podium (top 3 in their events), while 5 of them won gold.
In the same year, several of my clients and students won big auditions, including
principal positions with professional orchestras and dance companies. Not one of the
Olympic athletes, professional musicians, or dancers I had trained used beta blockers
on the way to their awesome victories.

In my article next month, I’ll discuss natural alternatives to beta blockers, including what
I call a real powerhouse solution to performance nerves.