Dealing with the chaos

Winning on stage

Volume 120, No. 5May, 2020

Don Greene

By Don Greene

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 New York 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, there will be 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 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 one part of the world can result in a tornado somewhere else

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 the disease 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.

Here are some ideas for handling the five-stage grief process that accompanies the experience of chaos.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 Instagram @winningonstage. In addition, I have also created a free PDF download on my Web site: entitled “Tips for Managing Covid-19.”

Dr. Don Greene, a peak performance psychologist, has taught his comprehensive approach to peak performance mastery at Juilliard, Colburn School, New World Symphony, Los Angeles Opera Young Artists Program, Vail Ski School, Perlman Music Program, and the U.S. Olympic Training Center. During his 32-year career, he has coached more than 1,000 performers to win professional auditions and has guided countless solo performers to successful careers. Some of the performing artists with whom Dr. Greene has worked have won jobs with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Concertgebouw Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, San Francisco Opera, Montreal Symphony, Pittsburgh Symphony, National Symphony, Cincinnati Symphony, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and the Dance Theatre of Harlem, to name just a few. Of the Olympic track and field athletes he worked with up until and through the 2016 games in Rio, 14 won medals, including five gold. Dr. Greene has authored ten books including “Audition Success,” “Fight Your Fear & Win,” “Performance Success,” and most recently “College Prep for Musicians.” In 2017, Dr. Greene was named a TED Educator and collaborated with musician Dr. Annie Bosler to produce the TED-Ed talk “How to practice effectively…for just about anything.” The video went viral and received over 25 million views across Facebook and YouTube. For more information, visit, and