How Brainwaves Affect Musical Performance

How Brainwaves Affect Musical Performance

Written for AFM Local 802 (NYC) Allegro magazine (February 2020).

There are five different types of brainwave patterns that affect a musician’s level of performance. They are called Delta, Alpha-Theta, Alpha, Beta, and Gamma. Each frequency can be measured on an electroencephalogram (EEG) in cycles per second (cps), from 1 cps (Delta) up through 100 cps (Gamma). Understanding the sleep cycles and brainwave patterns can positively affect the way musicians use their brains.

The first stage of sleep is feeling tired and wanting to go to sleep. The second stage begins with lying down, then the muscles begin to relax, while the heart rate, respiration, and brain activity slow down. Conscious thinking fades away and then stops. In the third and fourth stages, people fall into deeper states of unconsciousness. The fifth stage registers the lowest Delta wavelengths (1 to 3 cps), there is minimal brain activity, with little or no body movements. This
can last from 70 to 90 minutes.

After stage five, sleepers begin to get restless and start to move to find more comfortable positions. As they do, they transition back through the other stages towards a state of near wakefulness. However, instead of waking up, their breathing, heart rate, and eye movements begin to increase. That’s when they enter into the dream state of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. The initial REM period lasts about ten minutes, and marks the end of entire sleep cycle,
which takes about 2 hours. Then another one begins.

With each repetition of the cycle, the REM increases in depth and duration, with progressively less time spent in the other four stages. That’s when the brain switches into the Alpha-Theta pattern (4 – 7 cps). The Alpha-Theta state can happens in two ways. The first is while sleeping and may involve lucid dreams, vivid images, convoluted reasoning, dramatic storylines, or deep emotions. The second way to create the Alpha-Theta pattern is through visualization, mental rehearsal, or guided imagery which engages the brain’s visual cortex with chosen pictures or self-directed mental movies. When these techniques are done in a very relaxed physical state, they produce Alpha-Theta patterns. Studies with athletes and musicians show that when these mental activities are done repeatedly, they result in improved physical performance.

After the dream stage, the mind returns to stage two and the beginning of another two-hour sleep cycle. Ideally you will have four of these sleep cycles on a routine basis, and even five in the days before important performances and auditions. Recent research at a sleep clinic examined the mental alertness and ability to focus in adults who normally got about eight hours of sleep every night. When they increased their sleep to nine and ten hours a night, they were more focused and mentally alert, with faster information processing speed and quicker physical reactions, with more accurate perceptions of changing external conditions.

Upon waking up, before thinking about the long to-do list, some may experience the peaceful state known as “reverie”. While comfortably lying there semi-awake with eyes still closed, the brain is in the Alpha state. Alpha waves (8 – 12 cps) look smooth and flowing. This pleasant state of mind does not last very long. The mind soon switches into Beta patterns and normal waking consciousness.

Beta brainwaves originate in the left hemisphere with frequencies that are measured at 13 – 40 cps. The Beta waves look like a series of rapid, jagged spikes. The highly active Beta state of overthinking is the normal state of waking consciousness in our busy world, but it doesn’t help if you are a performer trying to focus on music under pressure. Simply put, Beta patterns of rapid left-brain thinking cause problems for musicians. These are also accompanied by a loss of rationality and the inability to focus. High Beta is the opposite of a quietly focused Alpha mindset.

Low frequency Beta waves (13 – 20 cps) are indicative of mental uneasiness or mild states of anxiety. Mid-frequency Beta waves (21 – 30 cps) are exhibited in people when they are experiencing extreme anxiety. The highest Beta waves (32 – 40 cps) are associated with panic attacks, anger, and rage.

Concentration cannot occur when the left-brain is actively engaged in Beta. Beta type of thinking includes analyses, judgments, criticisms, blame, worries, and continuous doubting, rationalizing, commenting, giving instructions, etc. This causes the left-brain to race at even higher speeds. The faster it goes, the less you can focus on the task at hand. Beta thoughts jump rapidly back and forth, between past mistakes or regrets, and future worries, with little attention paid to the present moment.

The smooth, sine-like Alpha waves reflect a relaxed, but highly alert and focused state of mind. Alpha is much better than Beta for concentrating on executing complex musical or artistic movements, especially in front of a live audience or audition panel. Alpha reflects the right brain state of flow uninterrupted by left-brain thoughts, worries, or fears. It is highly conducive to focusing on the here and now in the ever-continuing present moment.

There are ways to move from left-brain Beta noise to the right brain and get into Alpha. These include listening to relaxing music, meditation, mindfulness training, zazen, tapping, biofeedback, yoga, autogenic training, T’ai Chi, Aikido, Zen archery, the Silva method, hypnosis, and Centering. Just sitting quietly and focusing your mind intensely on one thing for any period of time without left-brain interruptions can put you into an Alpha state.

The final measurable human brainwave pattern is known as Gamma. Gamma brainwaves are the fastest in the spectrum, measuring 40 – 100 cps. The Gamma frequency is found in deep meditation, flow states, peak performance, and the Zone. Individuals with high Gamma activity have shown to have strong cognitive acuity, tend to be much happier than most people, and demonstrate superior functioning in highly challenging physical tasks.

Gamma waves originate in the thalamus, located in the midbrain. The high frequency waves move very quickly. First to the amygdala, in the base of the brain, suppressing the fight/flight response, and then to both hemispheres of the cerebral cortex. Then the waves move rapidly back again to the base of the brain. This all happens at least 30 times per second. This very fast “full sweep” action throughout the brain creates a state of “neural synchrony”, necessary for peak functioning. Gamma is the only brainwave that will reliably get you “in the Zone” and keep you there for any amount of time.

Gamma patterns regulate emotional balance and moods. Gamma is associated with feeling calm, happy, joyful, and grateful. This is often accompanied by experiencing deep compassion, unity with all things, and universal love. This blissful state is well known by Buddhist monks, Zen masters, Trappist friars, cloistered nuns, and experienced musicians when they are engaged in the highest levels of free and expressive performance.

How do you generate more Gamma waves? First of all, your body and mind need to be totally relaxed, especially the left side of your brain. It needs to be very quiet. Focus your mind on only positive emotions, like gratitude, compassion, joy, and love, and let go of everything else.
Appreciate your talents, love the ability to do what you do, be totally immersed in the present moment, highly focused in one-pointed concentration.

 If you’re interested in a more technological way to get into Gamma, you can try brainwave entrainment. This method uses aural tones or binaural beats, played through headphones, to induce higher mental states. By listening to the tones or beats played at different frequencies, both on the left and right sides, the entire brain becomes engaged in setting up Gamma waves.

You can find brainwave entrainment on YouTube, iTunes Store, Amazon, and through various apps. They have a range of available frequencies: 40 cps or Hz (the gateway to Gamma), 50 Hz (intense focus), 60 Hz (genius brain), and all the way to pure Gamma at 100 Hz, which is supposedly the level of supreme confidence, oneness, and immense gratitude. There are also audio programs for inducing Delta, Alpha, and Alpha-Theta.

I encourage you to try different ways to get out of Beta as a daily routine, especially when you’re practicing and performing. You need to determine which ones may be useful. I find 40 Hz to be relaxing, the 60 Hz to be helpful for focusing, and anything higher than 90 Hz to be annoying and distracting. There might be ones that are better suited to just relaxing, while others may set you up to get in the Zone efficiently and keep you there to longer.

One of the simplest and best things you can do before important performances and auditions is to get more restful sleep. That means four or five complete sleep cycles the last few nights before your big event. It will help to minimize your Beta thinking beforehand, get you in a good frame of mind, and prepare you to perform your best in Alpha, or even Gamma, for the entire event.

The Secret Weapon for Winning Auditions

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 blog! 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
Lately, there’s been a lot of great info 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 parts of the first phase of periodization: preparation.

Preparation, though, 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, focusing exercises, etc. 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 you control and channel your performance energy before and during the audition process. The affirmations help to build self- confidence. Concentration exercises help you to focus past distractions and quiet your mind. You will 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, doing your best under any circumstances.

Tapering Phase
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. You need to spend less time physically practicing, 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.

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 (less than 40 minutes), watching comedy, doing a mental rehearsal session, or having lunch with a good friend (either a non-musician friend or one who promises there will be no audition talk!). In the last few days, the idea is to keep positive and mellow as you bide your time and build up your energy. This is not easy for many musicians who are used to constant physical practice. Although you cannot win in the days leading up to an audition, you can lose it during that time.

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 with those around them. For musicians, the looming audition feels more important than a matter of life or death. Keeping perspective and a sense of humor can be an immense help. The 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. So if the audition is on Saturday, you want to get a good night’s sleep on Thursday. Go to bed early, or sleep in, or both. If you get very tired Friday afternoon, you should take a very short nap (10 – 15 minutes). After waking, I recommend you get up, move around, and get some fresh air.

The night before the audition, schedule dinner in the late afternoon or early evening. It’s wise to eat something 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 and get to bed at a reasonable time. Darken the room and find a comfortable position. If sleep doesn’t arrive within a few minutes, don’t worry. Simply lying still provides 70% of the benefit of sleeping. Hopefully, you will have been getting extra rest and naps lately, and had a good night’s sleep last night. That’s the energy you’ll be working off of tomorrow at the audition.

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

Although many musicians try in vain to relax at auditions, I train my clients to use their extra energy to blow away their competitors and the audition panel. They use a variety of mental skills, like Centering and mental rehearsal techniques, that help them do better at the 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 and channel their performance energy when it counts.

Recovery Phase
After the audition, the final phase is recovery. Whether you won or not, you need to reward yourself for your efforts and improvements. Take some much needed physical and mental rest away from the instrument and repertoire before preparing for the next big performance or audition. Make sure that you fresh and rested before starting your next training cycle.

Once again, you should make good use of the secret weapon known as periodization. You will begin the four-phase cycle with the all the physical and mental work that needs to be done for several weeks or months to prepare for the audition or concert. This is followed by tapering in the last days before the important event. You will back off from the high level of training in order to build your energy, so that’s it reaches a peak in the execution phase at the audition or concert. After that, you’ll deserve a few days or more off so you can recover.

Action Items:
● Ask yourself during what phase of your periodization do you struggle with the most when
you’re getting ready for an audition or important concert.
● For your next training cycle, plan out your calendar, so you can schedule your
periodization cycles.
● Repeat the 4 phases until you begin to feel like each cycle of the periodization process
has improved.

Preparing for Big Concerts vs. Important Auditions

Preparing for Big Concerts vs. Important Auditions

Written for Overture magazine (January 2020), official journal of AFM Local 47 Los Angeles.

Concerts and auditions should be approached very differently. They require their own unique preparation, mindset, strategy, focus, and commitment. A few weeks before an important audition, things begin changing, which is stressful in and of itself. Your daily schedule shifts as you put in time on the excerpts. If the audition is not local, you need to make arrangements for travel and lodging. The week before an audition, you will feel the extra pressure of having limited preparation time. You may get fixated on the pieces that are not totally ready. Worrying about those things before an audition may cause insomnia, as will thinking about the extra money, energy, and time that you’ve been spending.

On the other hand, the week before a concert is much less stressful than an out-of-town audition. Even if the concert has an exposed entrance or long solo, you’ll be performing it on familiar ground and operating from your home base. During the week before, you’ll be sleeping in your own bed and have access to your own kitchen, TV, and computer. There’s no place like home.

Performing an audition on the road is stressful. There’s packing, getting to the airport, managing your luggage and instrument, getting to the hotel, finding a place to practice, eating, adjusting for jet lag or altitude, and waking up in a different place, all by yourself. In the morning, you will probably experience an adrenaline rush, with a racing heart and rampage of thoughts about the audition, with lots of unknowns in the meantime.

When you arrive at the audition site and check in, you need to find out the time that you are supposed to start, what the list will be, where you can warm up, where the green room is, when you are allowed to go in there, how long might you be in the green room, how much notice will the proctor give you, and where are the bathrooms located? When you’re waiting at the audition, it feels immensely different than waiting before a performance.

At concerts and operas, musicians perform for large audiences that are mostly appreciative, respectful, and quiet (other than coughing and candy wrappers). The performances last from one to three hours. If you make a mistake or two during that time it’s rarely big deal. At most auditions, the panel may not seem very appreciative, and might make noise or seem distracted while you perform.

At auditions, the listeners will be actively judging and critically evaluating everything that you do. They will be noting any reason to dismiss you as soon as they have justification. Numerous qualified candidates need to be screened before they’re done. If you get off to a bad start, you could be there less than a minute before you hear the dreaded words, “Thank you. Next.”

If you approach an audition with the same mindset as a concert, you are setting yourself up to hear those words. A professional audition is not like performing under a conductor and interacting with an ensemble when you l have time to get into the flow of the music. It’s very different at an audition, where you are required to perform a series of self-initiated short excerpts, that may be radically different from one another, or actually repeat an excerpt with technical or stylistic changes if requested by the panel.

Another major difference between a performance and an audition is how the adrenaline affects you. This hormone will likely be surging through your nervous system by the time you reach the green room. It will be much more than you’re accustomed to at regular performances. The adrenaline can be  released just by thinking about the possible consequences of the audition.

The difference in the adrenaline levels is related to outcomes. With performance, there is no winning or losing, only degrees of competence. Unless you have a disaster, there are no real consequences for one less than stellar performance. At auditions, you only get that one shot: you either win the audition and sign the contract, or you do not.

Every audition is a competition, pure and simple, and needs to be treated as such. The other candidates are there for only one reason: to win the competition. They also spent considerable time, money, and energy on the audition, without any compensation, or guarantee of success. Only one competitor wins. I encourage my clients to train for auditions the way athletes train for important competition.

In the 2016 Games in Rio, the athletes who I trained reached the Olympic podium with 14 medals, including 5 gold. Since then, over fifty musicians that have trained with me won positions in major orchestras around the world. Learn more about this proven training technique in my next article!

Dealing Effectively with Performance Stress

Dealing Effectively with Performance Stress

Written for the International Musician (April 2019), official journal of the American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada.

During my thirty-five year career as a peak performance psychologist, I have helped countless performing artists learn how to perform their best under pressure. My clients have won major auditions and competitions all over the world. I have never met a performing artist who has not felt some kind of performance stress. Whether they call it “nerves”, “stage fright”, or “performance anxiety”, the stress comes from fear. Fear of how it will go, fear of how people perceive them, fear of not performing at a high enough level, and so on. My goal is to help performers break down this fear and give them tools to combat it.

When musicians encounter highly stressful situations they tend to react instinctively. It does not matter whether something is really threatening their safety or if it is just a perceived threat (like an audition panel or an angry conductor). The perception of potential harm triggers the part of the brain known as the limbic system or emotional (not rational) mind.

If you are like my clients, then you have felt yourself getting nervous at an audition or performance. Your limbic system responds to your nerves by releasing adrenaline into your bloodstream and triggers physical changes to occur. Within nanoseconds, the heart starts to race and respiration increases. You become very alert and your senses become extra sharp. You start to feel shaky as you scan your environment for danger. Your muscles tighten and you begin to sweat. Sensing the extra energy surging through your system, your mind goes into overdrive. You may begin obsessing about the potential results and feel things like dread, self- consciousness, self-criticism, loss of focus, and confusion.

If a real danger was present, you would be ready to fight for your life or run away at record speed. But for many musicians, the physical and mental changes caused by this flight/fight response deteriorate their normal performance skills. The goal is to learn to use this extra energy to your advantage.

There are several things you can do to prevent your nerves from progressing out of control. First, try to figure out what are your most common symptoms of performance stress (i.e., racing heart, shakiness, butterflies, perspiring, cold limbs, racing thoughts, dry mouth, unfocused mind, etc.) Then, start keeping track of your sleep, food, hydration, and preparation level before the stressful performances. Adequate sleep helps quiet and focus the mind. Try to limit or eliminate caffeine, sugars, alcohol, and heavy meals. Proper hydration helps with dry mouth, jet lag, and adjusting to changes in climate for traveling performers. Feeling prepared always boosts confidence and, in turn, helps decrease performance stress symptoms.

Next, learn to accept that you may feel nervous. You can expect to feel a huge rush of energy before important performances or auditions. Instead of viewing adrenaline as a negative thing to overcome, you want to use it to your advantage by channeling it into the music. The energy will allow you to deliver exciting, intensely focused, and powerful performances that can move audiences and sway audition panels. Start to practice performing with that extra energy.

Set up your instrument and music, then turn on a recording device in a room. Step out of the room and do something to get your heartrate up like jumping jacks or run a flight of stairs. When your heart is pounding, enter the room and pick up your instrument. Take a slow, deep breath and relax the muscles that are actively involved in your playing. Ignore your racing heart and focus on what you need to do. Shift to your right brain by hearing the first phrase just the way you would like it to sound. Then, without hesitation, let it fly with reckless abandon, riding the extra energy that you feel. Stop after the first few phrases and turn off the recording device. Do not listen to the recordings until you’ve completed the exercise five to seven times. By then, you’ll get the idea and be ready to listen to your progress. You will have practiced performing your best with at least some of the symptoms you feel when you are under real pressure.

Dr. Don Greene’s Centering method is another great tool to help channel the mental and physical effects of performance stress into powerful performances.

How you can use the “Dimmock Line” to make your holiday shopping easy this year

How you can use the “Dimmock Line” to make your holiday shopping easy this year

The holidays are fast approaching with fewer and fewer shopping days left. Even if you are shopping online instead of waiting in long lines at the store, there are countless important gift choices for those in your life that probably need to be made soon. With everything else going on at this time of year, […]

Guest blog written for

The holidays are fast approaching with fewer and fewer shopping days left. Even if you are shopping online instead of waiting in long lines at the store, there are countless important gift choices for those in your life that probably need to be made soon. With everything else going on at this time of year, it’s easy to put off making very complicated decisions about who gets what gifts and how much to spend, not to mention those who are not on your list this year. That’s where another kind of line comes in.

Putting off these inevitable decisions just makes problem worse—take it from a reluctant shopper.

Thankfully, here’s a military strategy that may help you reach decisions sooner than later, as your window of time for holiday shopping and mailing is closing. It is known as the Dimmock Line and it is related to making good decisions under pressure without wasting time.

I first heard about the strategy in classes my senior year at West Point. Near the end of the Civil War, the Confederates in Virginia were manning a long fortified wall of earth with placements for 55 artillery batteries known as the Dimmock Line. During the siege of Petersburg, Union Troops attacked the emplacements the first time with almost 6,000 soldiers. Due to the fortifications and cannons, they were not able to breach the line. They did not realize that there were only 125 Confederate troops inside, and they were boys too young to be in the army or too old. They were also not well supplied.

After the first thwarted attack which lasted only a few days, the two Union generals began wringing their hands, thinking about different tactics to employ, as well as calling for reinforcements from up north. The generals were not able to reach a decision about how to attack until after the Union troops arrived in Petersburg. By then, the Confederates had reinforced the line with 18,000 soldiers and resupplied their depleted munitions. The result was a ten-month long battle that caused more than 70,000 casualties and prolonged the entire war—all because two people could not come to a timely decision.

At the Academy, I learned about the Principles of War or ways to prevail in serious conflicts, like competition and also making it through the holidays without injury to myself or my friends and loved ones.

The four relevant strategies to this challenge are Mission, Offensive, Maneuver, and Decisiveness.

You can use these principles to successfully navigate the minefield known as holiday gift giving.

If your mission is to get the appropriate gifts to those on your list on time, you need to take the offensive right now or ASAP. The clock is already ticking. You need to maneuver to get yourself in position to make purchases. Go to the bank to determine the funds available, or go online to check out your credit card balances or Amazon account. Then you will be in position to make many correct decisions in a short amount of time.

You can start by gathering all the other relevant information and laying out on a table in front of you, or on a spreadsheet or screen. Determine the amount that you will spend on each person, and the total amount for all your gifts this year. Make adjustments if the funds are not available. Then think about each person in order of their importance and the time it will take to get their gift to them. Imagine at least three possible gifts that would be appropriate, that they would like or love, and that are within your budget.

While contemplating the three gifts, trust your gut to choose the best one. This is the one that feels right to you. As soon as you do, be decisive and act on your intuitive sense and inner guidance. Without hesitation, order the gift or plan on how you will buy it and get it to the person in time. Once you’ve made the final decision and acted on it, don’t look back. Move on to the next person on your list and follow the strategy. Once you have maneuvered successfully through everyone on your list, you can hopefully start to enjoy the holiday season. Now that you’re finished with your holiday shopping, you can spend even more time with friends and family—free from stress and distraction.