4. MENTAL and PHYSICAL PREPARATION
“The jury wants you to do your best! They are not out to catch anyone, or to find some tiny mistake so that they can eliminate you”
Being well prepared for an audition as far as the music is concerned, of course, goes without saying.
Being well prepared mentally and physically is also a vital aspect of doing well at an audition. In my experience, many candidates often report after an audition of having felt too nervous or stressed to come anywhere close to playing at the level they could achieve. In this section, without in any way trying to appear as a psychologist or expert on mental skills training, I shall draw from my own techniques which I implement to support students mentally and physically. I shall also refer to techniques which I have discovered through research, documented here, which I believe could also be immensely helpful.
Although there are various techniques available, it is important to find a way to increase your concentration, which will help to relieve stress and which works for you personally. Certainly an unexpected area which I have discovered through research, is the application of sports psychology for performance with musicians.
As I have discovered in my research about mental preparation for auditions, sports psychology has proven a valuable support to musicians in this regard in the last few years. It is clear that sports psychology applied to musicians can be very helpful in dealing with stress.
According to Certified Consultants from the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, many of the mental stresses they help performers cope with are similar to those faced by athletes-maintaining focus, performing under audience scrutiny and coping with injury. The targets are similar: enjoyment, flow, confidence found through improvement/effort. Developing mental toughness in the sports world uses techniques readily transferrable to performers: controlling the controllables, self-talk, setting goals, imagery and routines.
Kate F. Hays, Sports Psychologist
These techniques are well-described in Kate F. Hays work. As a sports psychologist in Toronto, Canada, she has worked extensively with athletes and musicians. The description in her book of different methods to achieve relaxation mentally and physically, are vivid. Focusing attention away from negative thinking to something else and helping to decrease cognitive aspects of anxiety are useful. It is possible to learn to activate muscles that need to be activated and turn off muscles not needed. Letting go of unnecessary tension can be practised.
Self-talk is a technique to interpret and reframe situations into a more positive and constructive fashion. It is also very helpful in eliminating distractions, already described in Chapter 3 and in Chapter 5, as something one definitely has to cope with at auditions.
It is important to set goals for yourself. Sometimes the goals are too far-reaching. More immediate goals are very effective in planning something like preparation for an audition. It is useful to have “event goals”. Having a plan for day-to-day routine well ahead of an audition can be compared to an athlete having a strict schedule of training and relaxation before a large event.
“Imagery involves mentally rehearsing aspects of your performance.” This is a technique widely used by athletes, but can also be helpful for performance preparation and also auditions. “It allows you to practice in your mind before you perform, and to see yourself perform at your best. It helps clear your mind of distractions and think positively about what you are doing.” This is also connected to visualization, (described further on in this chapter) which can also be helpful. However, using imagery involves all of the senses and not just seeing. It is best to try and practise this technique in a quiet place, sitting quietly or perhaps lying down.
Certainly, the similarity of an athlete preparing for a peak performance to a candidate preparing for an audition makes the application of sports psychology techniques very apparent.
All of the aspects mentioned above, relaxation, self-talk, goal skills, and imagery help lead to better concentration, and these techniques used by athletes can readily be applied to musicians.
Sports Psychologist Abra Garfield describes techniques used in sports psychology which he uses in his practice with musicians: replicating pressure and hard training, dealing with slumps, motivation, planning and working on balance in your life. He feels that regular sleep and nutrition are also important for musicians, as is regular exercise to reduce anxiety.
Developing Mental Skills
As mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, there are various techniques which will help to increase your concentration and also help to reduce stress. A few of these techniques, mindfulness, centering, task concentration skills and visualization techniques are discussed in this next section.
"Concentration can differ and vary in duration and intensity. High concentration is an unwavering awareness of a specific subject to the momentary exclusion of other subjects. For musical performance, such concentration should ideally take the form of a relaxed state of being alert.” Alex Kerr, former concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra has an interesting outlook on this.
Achieving this state can be practised and accomplished in various ways. As previously mentioned, it is important to find a method which works and suits you best.
How does one build confidence when it comes to auditioning? One can of course learn from previous experiences, but here below are some other techniques and ways of thinking worth considering to improve mental capabilities and improve confidence.
Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. It means accepting thoughts and feelings without judging them. A simple mindfulness exercise of focusing on your breathing, without trying to influence it in any way, can help to create a more tranquil feeling in your body and mind. A few mindfulness exercises throughout the day can help reduce stress and strengthen and expand attention when you need it.
“How we breathe has a considerable impact on our mental and physical state. Deep-centered breathing from the abdomen can be relaxing and energizing. Stopping to take a few slow, steady breaths can help to center focus on the here-and-now and to check mental state.”
Feeling confident and having an expectation of success is very helpful for one’s concentration. Expecting not to succeed generally means you will not. Feeling confident also helps one to deal with mistakes better during a performance. Make a point of practising positive thought in your daily routine. It is important to be well-disciplined in a positive manner.
An initial important point to consider is what you have control over in your audition and what not.
It makes no sense to fight against things over which one has no control. These aspects have been discussed already throughout this paper as “unknowns’. Be prepared to accept the situation at an audition as it presents itself.
Centering, an ancient visualization technique, has been championed by sport psychologists. It has been used with great success by Dr. Don Greene. It could help you to relax and improve your concentration. Basically, this entails trying to clear your mind of extraneous thoughts. This is practised in conjunction with breathing techniques. A short description of centering:
1. Focus on Breathing
- Spend some time focusing on deep breathing
2. Locate your center
- Your physical center of gravity, approximately two inches below your navel
- When you feel stressed, go to your center
3. Channel (negative) energy to your center, and then release.
- Imagine center filled with calm
- Fill center with positive thoughts
Try to practise this in your own practice sessions at home to feel comfortable prior to the actual audition. Mock auditions are also an ideal occasion to try out this technique.
Task Concentration Skills
A helpful technique is also to practise focusing on a certain aspect of your playing: phrasing, interpretation, technique, dynamics, articulation, breathing, bowings, fingerings, sound, vibrato, tempo, rhythm, intonation, and ensemble. Train each aspect for a short length of time and then try in the end to have a broad approach to get into a flow. This can be useful when one is performing if one feels distracted. If this occurs, try focusing on a certain aspect of your playing until you feel the flow again. It is important to feel completely absorbed in the moment and focus on the task at hand.
There is an excellent chapter on Mental Skills Training in the book “Musical Excellence”. Many exercises described here could be very useful in developing better concentration and being able to focus on essentials in exclusion of irrelevant factors. Again here, focus on breathing is important. Identifying your own drifts in attention will help you improve being distracted. A simple technique described as “The present moment technique” takes very little time but can help to bring you back into the moment of performance and help you to refocus.
Visualization techniques are very useful. It is helpful to visualize not only the situation ahead of time but also the sound of your instrument. These are techniques which I have developed myself and have used successfully before my own concerts and have passed on to my students. Try to imagine yourself waiting backstage before the audition. Then, imagine yourself walking on stage, walking towards the piano, take in the hall, imagine the screen, imagine the committee sitting behind the screen. Try to visualize yourself turning your back to the hall to tune your instrument (this is good practice as your tuning will not sound so loud in the hall) and then turning towards the hall to begin playing. If you have visualized this in different imaginary halls, then when it comes time to actually walk on the stage, it will feel familiar. Try to imagine yourself making a good impression!
Although visualizing your sound may appear to be a strange thing to do, it is also very helpful. Try to hear yourself playing your concerto just as you wish it to sound. Do the same with the orchestral excerpts. Go through all of your repertoire without your instrument and without the music. This will help to consolidate exactly how you want everything to sound, so that when the time comes to play, it will feel like second nature.
Helpful Mental Thoughts
It is helpful not to strive for absolute perfection, but for performing at your very best. Of course, it should be possible to play your whole program perfectly, but if the ultimate goal is perfection, this could stand in the way of playing with great energy and expression.
Try to concentrate on the task at hand and not only on the result. This of course does not mean that you should not have any goals, but it is important to be “in the moment” when performing.
Try to think of the audition committee as friends, not enemies. Remember that audition committees have come together to actually hire somebody! They are looking forward and hoping to hear wonderful, inspired playing.
A helpful technique which I have developed myself which works quite well with my students is this: imagine your own podium in your room when you are practising. Make the podium round and big enough so that you feel a lot of space around you. When you have finished practising at home, imagine folding up the podium and taking it with you. When you arrive at the audition venue, or at any concert situation for that matter, take out the imaginary podium, unfold it and play on that podium. This could be helpful, as you always feel “safe” and “at home” on your own podium.
Try to embrace feeling nervous, instead of trying to push it away and ignoring it. Find the techniques that work for you to deal with nervousness.
Everybody feels nervous. You are definitely not the only one.
Try not to only compare yourself to others, especially at an audition.
Try and look forward to playing at an audition. Although this sounds like an impossible task, looking forward to the playing is a better attitude than dreading it. As described in the Harvard Business Review by psychiatrist, Edward Hallowell, “having fun” helps to build your brain and stimulate nerve growth. Having fun or being at “play” will show activity in the right hemisphere of the brain-where your spontaneous, intuitive thinking occurs. This will also help to get into a feeling of flow, which will lead to a better, more interesting performance.
“Remember that your arms are alive and not completely solid, will allow you to release tension and express yourself more freely”.
Practise positive thoughts. It is so easy to be too negative when trying to improve your performance. Be critical, but in a positive manner. This will also help to build confidence. Positive emotions are associated with broadened recognition, enhanced awareness and the ability to solve problems more effectively.
It can be quite easy to turn negative thoughts into positive ones, but it does need some practice and attention throughout the day. The following are examples of positive thinking that I have developed myself.
The quotes on the left represent what I often often hear from students. The quotes on the right hand side are a simple way of turning negartive thoughts into positive ones.
“I have never auditioned before, I can’t manage it”-----“This is a great new challenge”
“I am just not good enough”-----“I am well prepared and I shall just do my best”
“These excerpts are much too complicated”-----“This music is wonderful to learn"
“That is wrong again”-----“Let me see how I can improve that”
Sometimes it is just a matter of eliminating the negative word in a thought for it to become something positive.
In the end, it is not thinking you can do away with feeling anxious or nervous about an audition, but finding techniques to deal with it!
And perhaps helpful to know that the Chinese character for joy is the same as for music!
As previously mentioned, preparing for an audition could be compared to preparing for a sports event. In this way, the physical aspect of preparation, although perhaps not readily thought of, is also important.
“Physical activity has recently been identified as the most important factor in reaching optimal functioning”. Exercise releases endorphins which help stimulate happy thoughts. Although you may think you just do not have any time to exercise, strengthening muscles, improving coordination, improving balance and clearing your mind are all positive results of some form of physical activity.
Studies with athletes have shown sleep deprivation severely affects performance.
Why would this not be the case for musicians? Try to establish a routine of getting enough sleep each night weeks before the audition. In this way, one bad night will not matter so much.
Of course, one could say that a proper diet is always important, but nurturing your physical well-being through eating well is even more important when one is dealing with a stressful situation. Try to eat a well-balanced diet, with a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables and protein-rich foods.
It is helpful to establish a practice routine well ahead of the audition. Try to have a physical routine, meaning sleeping approximately the same amount each night, eating well and practising consistently. Developing a good routine leading up to an audition can offer great benefits, as previously mentioned in the section about sports psychology and its application for musicians.
YOGA AND MEDITATION
Although practising Yoga is not for everybody, it is worth mentioning as an added possible benefit. This could also be listed in the section about “Mental Preparation” as being involved in some kind of yoga also involves breathing techniques which could definitely help control the stress aspect associated with auditions. Yehudi Menuhin, a child prodigy, became involved with yoga and meditation after experiencing physical and mental difficulties in his career. He studied with B.K.S. Iyengar in India. There is an interesting book in which Menuhin demonstrates poses with his violin. This particular type of yoga, Iyengar yoga, is particularly to be recommended, certainly not only because it was practised by Menuhin, but by the fact that the goal of this type of yoga is to bring the body and spirt in harmony through concentration and meditation. This could be a powerful instrument to help reduce stress.
Mensendieck is a therapeutic movement technique that is both corrective and preventive. It involves many exercises aimed at strengthening and revitalizing the body through awareness of incorrect posture and incorrect use of muscles. Many musicians find this helpful in strengthening the muscles associated with playing their instrument. It is worth taking part in a session once to discover if it is something that would possibly work for you if you are experiencing stiffness and muscle pain.
Alexander Technique is a method which helps a person discover new balance in the body by relieving unnecessary tensions. Many institutions, including conservatoria, now offer classes in Alexander Technique and Mensendieck. This is a great opportunity to take part in a few classes to see if either one of these methods will be helpful in your preparation for auditions, or just in your life in general. Many musicians practise Alexander Technique and are very enthusiastic about the benefits it brings to their artistic life and their life in general.
In summary, “Musicians have to remember that love of music is what got them started in the first place. Physical or mental problems can lead to a loss of enjoyment. These need to be addressed and rectified in order to restore the balance.”
 Interview with Nosh Bendix-Balgley, First Concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic www.auditioncafe.org
 Sportspsychology is the study of how psychology influences sports, athletic performance, exercise, and physical activity. Professional sports psychologists often help athletes cope with the intense pressure that comes from competition and overcome problems with focus and motivation. https://www.verywell.com/what-is-sports-psychology-2794906 accessed 28-4-2017
 Hays, Kate F. (2009) Performance Psychology in Action: Casebook for Working with Athletes, Performing Artists, Business Leaders, and Professionals in High-Risk Occupations. Washington: American Psychological Association
 Frisch, R. (2017) Mastering the Orchestra Audition. Minneapolis: Kairos Publications
 William, A. (2004) Musical Excellence Strategies and techniques to enhance performance Oxford University Press, p. 233
 William, A. (2004) Musical Excellence Strategies and techniques to enhance performance Oxford University Press, p.233
 Greene, D. (2001) Audition Success An Olympic Sports Psychollogist Teaches Performing Artists How to Win. New York: Routledge
 Citroen, L & Loo, M.H.M. van der (2011) Podiumangst. Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Boom Task Concentration Exercises (freely translated by J. Krause)
 William, A. (2004) Musical Excellence Strategies and techniques to enhance performance Oxford University Press Chapter 12
 William, A. (2004) Musical Excellence Strategies and techniques to enhance performance Oxford University Press, p.237
 Bruser, M. (1977) The Art of Practicing A Guide to Making Music From the Heart. New York: Bell Tower pg. 203
 C.Mah Extra sleep improves athlete’s performance. Annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies June 14, 2007
 Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999) American-British violinist, violist and conductor.
 B.K.S. Iyengar (1918-2014) Founder of Iyengar yoga
 Menuhin, Y. (1986). Life Class Thoughts, Exercises, Reflections Of An Itinerant Violinist. London: Heinemann
 https//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mensendieck systen accessed 5-4-2017