Covid-19: A Strategic Plan for Musicians

Covid-19: A Strategic Plan for Musicians

Written for Allegro magazine, official journal of AFM Local 802 NYC.
The current disaster can be really tough on professional musicians in New York who play in symphonies, operas, and Broadway, but are not trained to deal with such a tragic event. It can understandably cause you to feel anxious, worrisome, and depressed, especially if you don’t have a strategic plan for dealing effectively with the current situation.
For more than 30 years, I have worked with emergency first responders, SWAT officers, and disaster relief teams tocope effectively with disasters. After the World Trade Center bombings on 9/11, I was in charge of crisis intervention in New York for Merrill Lynch. As bad as that was for the traders on Wall Street, the present conditions are worse for musicians. All of those terrible events happened in a short span of time. After that, it was mainly about recovering from the attack and repairing the damage done. Unfortunately, you are just starting to experience the potential damage, It’s going to get worse and it won’t end soon. Many things are going to be out of your control, no matter what you do. However, for the time being, you need to focus on what you can control, which is your response to the situation.
First of all, follow the recommendations of the health professionals in your community until this passes. In the meantime, here’s what I will suggest for not only surviving the ordeal, but growing and even thriving as a result of it. You have a choice. A few months from now, you could be much better as a musician or you could be an out of shape musician. It will depend on your mindset and how you approach the unexpected time off from your usual gigs. If you fall into a self-pity or victim mentality, which is really easy to do right now, you will feel helpless. You won’t be able to deal well with the situation. That will cause you to become more anxious, depressed, and zap your energy. You won’t feel like practicing, and your skills will deteriorate, causing real damage. You do not want to allow that to happen. You need an effective approach to the current situation with a plan of action.
You need to set up a calendar to schedule your practice time and other activities for the next two months. Due to the lack of structure provided by your usual work, you need to create daily, weekly, and monthly events to navigate through the extra time that you’ll have. You should also establish specific goals to accompany those activities. The long term goal is to play better than you do right now. Arrange for a performance online at the end of each month to demonstrate your progress to your friends and fans. You should also set weekly goals for your practice, with a recorded, solo performance at the end of the week to monitor your progress. On a daily basis, one of the best things to do is establish and follow a routine in the morning soon after you get up.
A good morning routine will kick start your day, and set you up to make the best of every day. The ritual will quickly get your energy flowing after you wake up, make your body more supple, and hopefully put you in a good mood. It involves getting up a little early, but you have the time now. I’d recommend that you begin the routine tomorrow morning.
You will need to get up about 30 minutes early. As soon as possible, drink at least 8 oz of water to gear up your body’s metabolism. Within a few minutes, splash cold water vigorously in your face at least 7 times. This will shock your nervous system and release adrenaline into your bloodstream. That will wake you up right away. Or, you can take a short, cool shower (not cold). The discomfort will release endorphins, which will make you feel better, especially after you turn the water off.
Get outside within a few minutes, before you have time to talk yourself out of it. If the weather is really bad, you can do the first part of the routine indoors. Get your body supple by stretching slowly, and then increase your heart rate by about 20% by climbing stairs, doing jumping jacks, or jogging in place. However, it’s better to start by going outside. The fresh air and direct natural light will signal your body and brain that it’s time to wake up. Stretch slowly and then take a brisk walk or jog for at least 20 minutes. As you do, breathe deeply.
After you return, sit quietly for a few minutes, so you can check in with how you are feeling, and what’s presently on your mind. Decide on the most important things for you to do during the day. Write them out and then imagine yourself accomplishing them. Be grateful for the opportunity you have to improve, and count your blessings that you are healthy.
Your new Morning Routine is very important, so like the Nike commercial says, “Just do it”. No excuses. It won’t take long for you to realize how effective it can be to get you off to an energized start, in the right frame of mind and with an uplifted emotional state. You need to commit to doing your Morning Routine every day of the week except Sunday. That’s when you need to recover and get ready for the next week. In addition to your morning routine and daily practice, there are other productive uses of the extra time you have. This is a good time to schedule Skype lessons, catch up on emails, texts, phone calls, and unfinished projects around the house. You want to keep active during this time and not become a couch potato. Find new rep to work on, get your instrument in good shape, or improve your practice environment.
You can also explore new creative outlets, such as composing, drawing, painting, and writing. During these few months you can also catch up on books that you’ve been meaning to read, movies you’ve wanted to watch, and touch base with friends and loved ones, without actual contact. Also remember to schedule pleasurable down time for yourself, and try to keep your sense of humor. I hope you stay safe and positive during this time. Dr. Don Greene is offering stress counseling to performing artists at a discounted rate. Please visit this link for more information:
How to Train Like an Olympic Champion for Your Next eSports Competition

How to Train Like an Olympic Champion for Your Next eSports Competition

Guest blog written for AlleyWatch.
There is only one chance in 562,400 that a person in today’s world will win a medal in the summer Olympic Games. Depending upon the sport and event, the chances of winning a gold medal range from 1 in 3.5 million to 1 in 9 million. I was fortunate to train several track and field athletes and swimmers before the 2016 Games in Rio. Of those athletes, 14 medaled and 5 won gold. Here’s what I learned about these men and women did to train for their success.
The athletes came to the Olympic Training Center in San Diego inspired by dreams held since they were youngThese dreams fueled their burning desire that was aligned with their goals and clear intentions. They knew that their journey would not be easy. It would take a long-term commitment and require discipline, diligence, dedication, perseverance, patience, mental toughness, and a positive attitude. It would also take a support team of experts, including coaches, exercise physiologists, nutritionists, biomechanics specialists, strength coaches, physical therapists, and sports psychologists.
For eSports athletes facing an upcoming competition, here are a few training tips you can take away. Soon after arriving at the Center, the athletes underwent a battery of comprehensive tests to objectively measure their various talents and abilities. They were physically evaluated on their technique, strength, speed, agility, balance, range of motion, body mass index, and diet. They were mentally assessed on their confidence, poise, focus, mental toughness, and resilience. After validating their test results, each athlete understood what their individual strengths were, as well as what they needed to learn and improve.
One of the most important things that many of them needed to learn was how to train not only hard but smart. This involved a proven cyclical training method known as periodization. Periodization uses a four-part training cycle: Preparation, tapering, execution, and recovery. Most of the athletes’ time was spent in intense preparation in the years and months leading up to major competitions. In the final weeks before the Games, they backed off from their usual level of training and began their tapering process.
When the runners and swimmers tapered, they dramatically decreased the number of meters they were putting in every day. The discus and javelin throwers cut in half the amount of effort they put into their throws. In the weight room, the shot putters and hammer throwers were lifting a fraction of what they normally did. All the athletes did this in order to go into the competition fresh and rested. Then they were able to peak their energy and execute their skills at a high level during their events, especially in the finals. Afterward, they needed time to recover before starting their next training cycle.
The athletes also varied their training regimens so that they did not do the same drills or exercises two days in a row. That gave specific muscles, joints, tendons, and ligaments the time to recover from maximal use before engaging them again. Their minds also needed a variety of new or different techniques to turn complex, coordinated skills into habits that could be performed correctly without conscious thought or deliberation.

The athletes worked on the mental skills that were identified by their comprehensive sports psychology assessments as needing more improvement. These skills included channeling adrenaline, building confidence, maintaining poise under pressure, strengthening courage, focusing past distractions, recovering from mistakes, and developing mental toughness.

The athletes learned and used a variety of mental strategies including relaxation techniques, visualization or mental rehearsal, the Centering process, focusing techniques, and competitive strategies.

They made their own video highlight films that they watched over and over. They listened repeatedly to their own playlist of personal songs, as well as motivational or inspirational speakers’ programs. They posted positive sayings on their walls and mirrors and frequently recited affirmations to themselves throughout the day. Whether participating in the Olympic Games or an eSports championship, the necessary training involves an intense, comprehensive process that prepares athletes for the physical and mental challenge of competing at such a high level. Athletes who compete at the highest level of their sport must be dedicated, resilient, confident, and extremely disciplined. Most of all, they are apt to take on challenges with a commitment to continual improvement.
Covid-19: Dealing with the Chaos

Covid-19: Dealing with the Chaos

Written for Allegro magazine, official journal of AFM Local 802 NYC.
Although I currently reside in Los Angeles, I am a real New Yorker at heart. I lived in Queens when I was young, went to high school in Brooklyn, practiced diving in the Bronx, and lived in Manhattan for nearly a decade when I taught at Juilliard. The only classes I ever missed teaching in that time were in the months following the 9/11 tragedy. I led the crisis intervention and disaster management teams for Merrill Lynch in NY on a full-time basis. I also provided grief counseling for the widows and families of the Cantor Fitzgerald financial firm which lost more than 600 of their employees. I am a decorated Army veteran, but I cried in my apartment in midtown every night for months after the attacks. Whenever I hear Bridge Over Troubled Waters, written by a musician from Queens, I still lose it.
I was fortunate to be in the city and able to help a lot of people cope with the tragic event. However, the COVID-19 pandemic situation is even worse than 9/11. We have already lost many more of our fellow New Yorkers than in the attacks, and we will continue to suffer even more loss of life for too many months to come. For the rest of us, it will cause profound pain and unwelcome changes in our lives and careers. However, the one thing I know about my fellow New Yorkers is that we are very resilient. We have been through lots of tough stuff before. We will persevere through this ordeal as we have always done. The city will assuredly bounce back and so will the music industry.
In the meantime, musicians need to cope with the unfathomable losses that you are experiencing due to the COVID-19. You may be furloughed or possibly have lost your job entirely. Your orchestra season is most likely over. Festivals, sporting events, and camps may not be happening this summer. Others have taken their career entirely online. Teaching remotely and conference meetings pose new technological challenges. You may also be working remotely, with children at home, and no help. Financial hardship is a major concern.
My goal of this article is to introduce you to a framework that may help you deal with this pain and change. The framework was written by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who studied patients that were terminally ill. She published a book in 1969 describing five stages that many of the patients experienced. We can apply these stages to our losses and sufferings.
The first stage is shock and denial. This is when we initially go numb and refuse to accept what has just happened. Our minds get overwhelmed and go into a confused fog, unable to process the information. We can feel temporarily removed from the reality of the unthinkable situation.
The next stage is anger. Once the initial shock wears off and we start to absorb the new reality, anger starts to set in. We get mad about what happened and the way it will change everything in our lives from now on. We may blame health professionals, the community, the government, or higher powers for the tragic condition.
The third stage is negotiating with what has recently happened. This is trying to come to terms with the extent and scope of the disaster. At this point, we might develop the false hope that everything will soon be back to normal if we behave in a certain way. This is a desperate attempt to resolve or fix the problem somehow with our minds.
The fourth stage is going into a state of depression. We can feel hopeless after losing the regular circumstances with our careers, personal relationships, pursuits, finances, living conditions, preferred activities, and interests. Sadly, with the global pandemic it’s like we all belong to a club that we never wanted to join, and we are paying way too much to be in it.
The fifth stage of the process is acceptance of the new reality. There is a new normal that we all need to get used to. The fog, anger, and depression will start to recede as the mind begins to accept what is. Once you acknowledge that fact, you can start to move on. You can begin your new life, and continue to grow and evolve as an individual. However, it is normal to cycle through these five stages multiple times during the grieving process.
In the meantime, it will help to understand that the initial shock was due to a profoundly chaotic event. Unfortunately, we are still living in the midst of chaos and uncertainty. This is a state of collective confusion and instability. Chaos is defined as a disordered condition in a highly complex system, involving many interdependent parts, like countries, governments, and people.
Chaotic events are predictable for a while, and then appear to become random in nature. Although chaos is impossible to predict, it’s helpful to know that it follows a pattern of repetitive behavior which has an underlying, organizing principle. There’s actually some order in chaos.
According to Chaos Theory, in order for an event to be chaotic, three conditions must be met. First, it needs to be highly dependent on what happened during the initial stages of the potential disaster. This is known as the Butterfly Effect: the radical idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can result in a tornado in Texas.
The second condition of chaos is the irreversibility of the event. The process only moves forward. After different colored paints are mixed, you cannot undo what was done and separate them back into the individual colors.
The third condition is that the event will be repeated periodically, but in a somewhat different way. After it goes through one cycle, it will return to the original starting point. Then it will begin a similar, but unpredictable course. However, with each successive iteration, especially with some form of outside intervention, it will diminish in its intensity and scope until it becomes extinct or relatively inconsequential (like Polio).
The organizing principle is this: in an interdependent system, a change in the early state can result in vast differences in a later state. The evolution is determined by the initial conditions and what was done (or not done) early in the developing crisis. Since chaotic events involve the complex interactions of many parts, they are highly unpredictable over time. There can be no certainty about how they will affect the system, only that it will continue to change.
In reviewing each of the chaos stages, here are some ideas of how to handle them.
Stage 1: If you are still in a state of shock, disbelief, and denial, take your time to come to terms with reality. This is a good time to catch up on sleep. Comfort and take care of yourself. This is not the time to think about long term issues or make important decisions.
Stage 2: If you’re still experiencing negative emotions, such as anger or fear, take time for them to heal. You can help the process by looking for forgiveness rather than blaming, focus on courage instead of fear, and develop sincere gratitude by counting your many blessings.
Stage 3: When you feel ready, begin to rationally address the extent and scope of the chaotic event. Pay attention to ways you try to bargain with the situation in your mind. Remember that you cannot change the situation, but you can control your behavior.
Stage 4: When you are ready, you can devise an effective plan of action to navigate your tendencies when you feel depressed. This should include self-care efforts to exercise and eat healthy. Be mindful of procrastination and find ways to build routines. Stay informed through trustworthy sources, but avoid bingeing on the news, dwelling on problems, or focusing on things that are out of your control.
Stage 5: When you’re able to get up and get moving, you will feel ready to accept your new situation, and you can make the best of it. Try to envision the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity that can come with benefits. It will eventually subside. In the meantime, let go of any attachments you still have to what is out of your control. Embrace the chaos as the new normal.
We are just at the beginning of the profound changes ahead of us. It may continue to be difficult for quite some time before it gets better, but it will never be the same. You need to imagine yourself in this new reality, and rather than just surviving the horrible conditions, start to envision yourself thriving.
Focus on what you can control. Engage in self-care: healthy habits and routines. Eat well, exercise, and stay in touch with close friends, colleagues, and loved ones. Keep in mind that you are not alone in this grief! Many people find great comfort in sharing their unique stories with each other.
As someone who was the head of disaster relief at Meryll Lynch in NYC after 9/11, I have a lot of background in helping people find the new normal. I will be posting stories often on Instragram @winningonstage. In addition, I have also created a free PDF download on my website: entitled, “Tips for Managing COVID-19.”
Own Your Power During Performances

Own Your Power During Performances

Even though I’m an eternal optimist, I know that mistakes are inevitable. Live musical events often happen in less than ideal conditions. There are many factors involved that can result in random accidents and unforced musical errors.
Accidents are unwelcome events that happen due to external circumstances in the physical world. They just happen. However, many musical mistakes in live performances and recording sessions can be anticipated and hopefully prevented. Prevention requires a better understanding of these unforced errors and exploring potential ways to diminish them.
Some of the mistakes that musicians make on stage or in a recording session are not accidents. These mishaps are created consciously or unconsciously by individual performers, and what they do, or fail to do, in the time leading up to the performance. A lack of readiness, confidence, focus, emotional stability, and especially insufficient personal power, will cause you to create mistakes in reality. For example, you might entertain thoughts about the worst possible scenarios long before you show up to the gig. These potential errors will more likely happen when thought about beforehand.
So what takes your personal power away? Many things, including fear, doubting yourself, not trusting your talents/training/abilities, negative thinking, feeling helpless, or claiming that things are out of your control. Those ideas argue against your own personal power and ability to make the right things happen. Arguing against your capabilities will negatively affect your inner drive, self-confidence, and perceived competence to accomplish the things that you need to do to be successful. You can strengthen your personal power by being accountable for all of your thoughts, beliefs, emotions, actions, and results. Taking full responsibility for all of these things is not easy. It takes a paradigm shift from thinking that many things are out of your control to believing that you are solely responsible for bringing your conscious intentions into reality. Choose to focus on doing your best regardless of external circumstances, or anyone else around you. Realize that your real power does not come from outside of yourself, but from within. It is fueled by a strong desire for excellence, with confidence in yourself beyond any doubt. Decide that you are going to take full responsibility on a daily and continuing basis for everything that you have control over. Focus on the specific activities, projects, tasks, thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors that will lead to performing your best. These include your physical and mental practice habits, your daily routine, are well as diet, exercise, sleep, and rest.
Once you become accountable for everything under your control, you can stop looking for excuses or someone to blame for your mistakes. When you’re willing to acknowledge your role in making mistakes, you will make less of them. Imagine ahead of time just the way that you intend the performance to go. Create it flawlessly in your mind first then realize it in reality.
When you’re speaking to friends or colleagues about the upcoming event, use only optimistic language. Don’t even joke about anything other than doing your best. Commit ahead of time to being responsible for everything that will be under your control at the event, and accept the rest. Arrive at the venue early. Get ready. Focus on performing your best. Trust yourself, as well as your talent, training, and experience. Once you start, keep your mind in the continuing present moment and on the music.
Performing Music in a Good Mood

Performing Music in a Good Mood

As we all know, it can be stressful to live in or around a big city. Musicians working in that environment are subjected to even more pressure than most people. As you’re well aware, there are auditions, live performances, competitions with colleagues for the same job or position, self-promotion, financial instability, scheduling nightmares, maintaining personal relationships while working odd hours and spending time on the road. Then there’s the need to perform at a high level under the scrutiny of teachers, audition panels, section principals, conductors, and personnel managers.
A recent survey of 1,500 independent musicians reported that more than 70% of them had experienced a variety of negative effects which they attributed to their stress as performing artists. These unwelcome effects included general anxiety, performance anxiety, depression, fatigue, and difficulty focusing, as specifically related to their musical careers. The other symptoms of the occupational stress that they cited were negative emotions like frustration, irritability, anger, and constantly feeling overwhelmed.
Besides the normal stress of modern life, musicians face two additional types of stress. Unique to performers are short term, periodic performance stress, and long-term, chronic stress. The first is the immediate reaction to a sudden and stressful situation, known as “the startle”. This is the alarm reaction that accompanies things like surprise calls to perform with little or no notice, or being asked to play a principal role in a concert at the last minute.
Musicians also cope with stressful conditions over an extended period of time. This distress may seem endless for many musicians. There is the stress over one’s finances, career, and reputation. Long-term stressors might include trying to win an audition after several failed attempts, establishing tenure in an orchestra, maintaining a large enough teaching studio, or searching for a full-time teaching position.
Responses to stress involve three neuro-chemicals moving through your system. While the reactions may be helpful in some hazardous situations in life, they all have serious and unwanted side effects, especially for performing artists. The startle reaction to a threat first releases adrenaline, a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands that increases heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration to deal with a perceived threat or escape from the dangerous situation quickly. Soon, norepinephrine signals the brain to become alert, aroused, and focused on a potential threat.
Stressful conditions over an extended period of time cause the body to produce cortisol, which is a steroid hormone. Cortisol works more slowly than adrenaline and norepinephrine, after the initial shock has worn off. Cortisol stimulates glucose production, which supplies extra energy to the body and brain after the initial threat is over. Cortisol is released in response to the extra stress experienced over the months before important performances. When all three performance-related stress neuro-chemicals are in the nervous system, they can cause a variety of physical, mental, and emotional problems. These include coordination difficulties, insomnia, cognitive deficits, inability to focus, lack of enthusiasm, loss of personal power, increased doubt, worry, depression, irritability, intolerance, and being in a really bad mood. Being in a bad mood will never produce a great performance. I contend that happy musicians sound and perform much better.
Fortunately, there are four happy substances built into your nervous systems that can counteract or minimize the negative effects of the stress chemicals. These neuro-chemicals are serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins. They regulate emotions, anxiety, pleasure, perception of pain, energy levels, personal perspective, moods, confidence levels, and the sense of competence. They are associated with physical connections, personal bonds, and love.
Serotonin comes from the pleasure/reward center in the brain. The release of serotonin is affected by many things, including one’s surroundings, sunlight, fresh air, walking, sensory pleasure, fun, humor, completing challenging projects, being grateful, and enjoying music. When it is triggered, serotonin provides a sense of satisfaction, competence, and happiness. It simply puts us in a great mood.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that is released whenever we expect to have a desired experience or receive a reward, praise, or appreciation. It enters into the system with the anticipation of the actual feeling of satisfaction, competence, pleasure, or happiness. It signals that the desired event is on its merry way. Dopamine is also released when we are fully engaged in highly challenging activities that require our total attention.
Oxytocin is a special neuro-chemical that is also known as the “love hormone”. It is secreted into the bloodstream by the pituitary gland, located at the base of the brain, in response to physical contact, affection, petting pets, pleasurable activities, social bonding, close personal connections, and feeling respected and appreciated. All of these put us in a happy mood.
Endorphins cause the “runner’s high” as a response to pain, discomfort, and vigorous, extended aerobic exercise, endorphins are released into the bloodstream. They activate opiate receptors in the brain, causing analgesic effects, as well as minimizing negative emotions and anxiety, as well as fostering positive emotions, resulting in good feelings and a sense of well-being.
Serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins all counteract or minimize the negative effects of the stress chemicals. In order to control stress, you must first recognize that there is no real risk of physical harm. Although it may hurt your ego, reputation, or sense of pride, especially if you fail, there is no real danger. Keeping yourself from feeling like you’re on high alert will reduce the negative neuro-chemicals in your system.
You can increase the happy neuro-chemicals in your body to counteract the stressors. To increase serotonin levels, you can start by being grateful for all your many musical accomplishments. Complete projects in order to gain a sense of satisfaction and competence. Sunlight, fresh air, and walks around bodies of water will increase this neuro-chemical. So will exercise and rewards like tokens, favorite foods, or desired trinkets for your efforts.
Dopamine levels will increase in your system with increased rest, relaxation, and more quality sleep. After a few weeks, this will cause feelings of happiness and bring a sense of well-being to your body and mind. Dopamine is triggered by the expectation of rewards and by celebrating personal accomplishments.
Oxytocin enters your bloodstream in response to being connected with close friends and loved ones, feeling appreciated, participating in favorite activities, and bonding with trusted and caring people. Physical contact also triggers the hormone, including affection, hugging, petting animals, and getting massages. Being in love with music and what you are able to do and share with others will increase your oxytocin levels.
You can release endorphins into your system and experience the “runner’s high” the old fashioned way if you choose by taking up jogging or training for a race. You could try bungee jumping, skydiving, or base jumping, but I don’t recommend that for musicians. A much less dangerous way would be getting a deep tissue massage. Certain scents, especially vanilla and lavender, will also trigger the release of endorphins. Dark chocolate has been scientifically proven to release endorphins, especially if it’s more than 70% cocoa. It only takes about 7 grams or 3 small squares.
The physical act of smiling affects us mentally and emotionally. Even if you’re just faking a smile, the act of consciously smiling has the same effect on your emotions and mood. It can literally trick your brain into believing that you are happy. You get extra value if you show teeth, with a wide smile. It works even better when it’s genuine, with an attitude of gratitude about your opportunity to share your music with other people. One last thing that can trigger the release of happy neuro-chemicals is music. It doesn’t matter if it’s listening to live or recorded music, singing in or out of the shower, or playing an instrument, your favorite tunes cause serotonin to be released into the nervous system. Just the anticipation of your favorite music, especially before the peak moment of the song, causes dopamine to be released. Your mood responds to preferred music the same as it does to your favorite foods or other pleasurable activities.
In order for you to perform your best as a musician, you need to be in a really good mood. You need to go into important performances and auditions with happy chemicals in your system. Now that you are aware of how brain chemicals affect your mood, see how you can increase your body’s output of positive neurochemicals.