In our last issue, VAN published Elena Cheah’s honest audition diary. The process is critical for professional musicians, but can also leave them discouraged about their career prospects or disconnected from their art form. For this follow-up article, we spoke with Dr. Joanne Loewy, director of the Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine at Mount Sinai Beth Israel, a leading New York hospital, about the physical and emotional reactions to the audition process.

Dr. Joanne Loewy · Photography Satch Photo 
Dr. Joanne Loewy · Photography Satch Photo 

VAN: Some musicians who experience no problems when performing in concert freeze up in auditions. What is the physiological explanation for this?

Performance anxiety can come up in many other circumstances such as public speaking, but it’s a special brand with musicians. We’ve worked with musicians who have spoken of blanking out or who have lost sight or hearing [during auditions]. When people are pushed to the point of trauma, the response system can shut off. It’s a physiological reaction that is meant to respond to a potentially dangerous threat. It’s not exactly the same, but there are similar mechanisms at work. “Fight or flight” is a term developed years ago by the physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon. The body senses that it needs help, such as when an animal attacks.

When you’re performing, you’re already accepted. Once you have that acceptance, you’re confident. But to gain that acceptance brings up psychology from all the childhood and high school years—when you didn’t get chosen for the good team in basketball or to sing a solo because you were nervous at that first audition. Performance anxiety really relates in a psycho-dynamic way to our history of both failed auditions; acceptance from parents and siblings; and, ultimately, of the way that we see ourselves in the world. This gets tweaked every time we’re asked to make the grade, which is what an audition asks us to do. It’s a finite measure of being accepted or being rejected.

What can a musician do to prepare for that moment, which in some cases they have been working toward for years?

We encourage musicians to find out as much as they can about the audition. The more context in which a musician can gain confidence, the more the musician will then learn to take on that confidence. Some people feel more comfortable behind a curtain, whereas others instantly become the alter-ego ear. Some people like that there is no bias in terms of race or age when they are not seen, but it also adds to the pressure of just [being judged by] the sound.

In our work, we ask musicians to get off their usual instruments so that they develop the fluidity of mechanism in rhythm, harmony, and melody in other contexts. We want to create new performance experiences so that they can be in a meditative state and concentrate on the part of the body that gives them comfort. We use visualization and a breathing warm-up to a favorite place that’s safe. We might encourage them to do five minutes of drumming before the audition, just to release all of that nervous energy. And then the deeper work is role play, which is looking at the psycho-social history of the person and how they’re projecting power outward rather than working within themselves to create their personal desire of how to play.

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How can musicians condition themselves to deal with competition or intimidation by other players during the audition process?

We offer an opportunity to enact who is the bully. The bully is an archetype. It could be someone in third grade or your father. That bully gets internalized and projected. But sometimes there are instances of actual bullying, so it becomes an issue of self-protection—especially when it comes to performance anxiety, where the physical and cognitive [senses] are constantly interchanging. Concentrating just on the symptoms can actually make them worse. But putting a situation into context physically and emotionally and creating experiences that we can control helps. That’s when our body’s extreme reaction to stress can actually fight the response and control things like fast adrenaline or a pulsing heart rate. It might mean putting words to the music; visualizing the score; making a scene in your imagination of what the music means; role play; or taking it out on different instruments.

We’ve had people who went back to audition somewhere else and succeeded. We’ve also had people who changed careers. I worked with a pianist who said that at the moment of performance, he could not see, so I worked with him on what he wanted to see—using musical visualization. I’ve worked with opera singers who had anger either toward conductors or fellow singers. It took a lot of role play to figure out the projection—that they’re making these people more important and, in doing so, are feeling defeated. Using release techniques and spontaneous singing, they’ve gained more clarity, authority, and pleasure in their singing.

Could the education system or music industry do more to take the edge of performance anxiety?

Musicians in conservatories and generally of the world are taught to believe that the more they practice, the better they’ll play, and the better they’ll perform. That is not the case in our experience. We have a “three-P” model. Rather than put practice in the middle, we put play in the middle. The other “P” is performance. Play is something that we see less and less of in school curriculums. Many schools have cut out music programs altogether. In those early experiences, children are provided with the opportunity to play so that they develop freedom, character, and development of ego and safety. Only then do they have the confidence to perform because they’ve created the kind of art within themselves that they wish to project.

Conservatories should also foster better musicians’ health, which means warming up. The warm-up should not be repeating scales over and over or [focusing on] what note you can hit, but really working “play” into aspects that will make people feel safe onstage and, in particular, during auditions. Improvisation is critical in the work we do. If someone comes in who can play Stravinsky but not play with Stravinsky—meaning improvise their own interpretation—that is a critical level of instruction in therapy. The jazz players have that down better than classically trained musicians. A lot of the work is freeing up the mind and moving the work into muscle memory and the body. ¶

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