Let’s start with the two sides of the brain. The left hemisphere of the cerebral cortex is where we think in words and numbers. It’s the noisy critic that will not shut up, the scatterbrain that cannot focus. It never runs out of analyses, comments, complaints, opinions, or worries. Conversely, the right brain is where we see images, hear sounds, and feel correct movements. It is the nonverbal, quiet side of the brain. The right hemisphere is much better than the left when you’re trying to focus your attention on accomplishing the task at hand.
As a musician, you need to be able to quickly shift from your left brain to your right. Working from your right brain, you will be able to clearly picture what you intend to do, hear it just the way you would like it to sound, and sense the way it feels when done correctly. It is critical that you always get into this right-brain state of mind before you perform or execute your skills, so that you can achieve peak functioning. In order to do that, you need to quiet your left brain.
Your left-brain continually speaks in words. This self-talk may include criticism, unnecessary instructions, running commentary, analyzing mistakes, thinking about missing a note or goal, and telling yourself what to do or not to do. The more you think about missing a note (or telling yourself not to miss it), the more likely it is that you will miss it. After that happens, you may get very critical about your mistake and think even more unhelpful things inside your mind.
My graduate students at Juilliard often said awful things to themselves while they were performing, even just in class. I had them write out their self-talk verbatim. “Why do you suck so bad?” an outstanding pianist used to say to herself. “Don’t miss the freakin’ entrance!” a talented violinist would remind herself. “Great! Now everybody thinks you look like a fool,” another student heard in her head after a missed note. Most of them relied on a motivational system that was more “stick” than “carrot.”
Even if you have achieved success through the “stick” approach, from this point forward in your career, you can create less wear and tear on your nervous system by using a more “carrot-like” positive approach. At this point, you need to understand how the negative internal dialogue affects you, not to mention your performance.
The things you repeat to yourself during stressful circumstances register cumulatively in your mind. Since you are saying it to yourself, you probably don’t filter any of it out. Instead, you absorb what you think. Even if you are not beating yourself up, if you tell yourself over and over not to mess up, you hear yourself talk about messing up.
All these words are more important than you may think. Consider the difference between the words “difficult” and “challenging.” These two words can produce very different outcomes. If you view a task or situation as “difficult,” you will likely find it to be exactly that way. Your own thoughts put you into a victim mentality, making you think about the difficulty of the task rather than for your ability to remedy it or solve the problem.
If you view a situation as a challenge, though, you can consider it as an opportunity to develop your abilities in that area or prove your talent. The exact same situation, depending upon the language you use to describe it, can change immediately into an event that you can use to help you improve or just show off. The shift in thinking is important because people tend to talk constantly about important upcoming projects and events. Words are thoughts expressed.
Whether spoken aloud or just said in your mind, these words have a dramatic effect on your subconscious mind and your self-confidence. Although it is extremely powerful, your subconscious will believe anything you tell it, especially things that you say over and over. Your subconscious does not care if you say something to yourself or to others. Each time you repeat something, it emphasizes on producing that result. Furthermore, the subconscious is very literal. Even if you say something as a joke, your subconscious accepts it literally as a matter of fact.
There is one more important fact about your subconscious. This very powerful part of your mind, where your self-confidence resides, does not process the words “don’t” or “do not,” only what comes after the command. Consider the implications of such often-repeated statements as “Don’t get off to a bad start,” or “Don’t mess that part up.” As a result, your subconscious mind only hears, “Get off to a bad start,” or “Mess that part up.” That is not the message you want to be sending. These thoughts happen a lot during stressful circumstances, and they tend to cause problems. The good news is that you can change negative thought patterns into more helpful ones.
The first step in developing positive self-talk is to examine the specific language that you use when you are performing. Monitoring and changing the content of your thoughts takes motivation, willingness, and an effective plan of action for how to do it. The solution starts with a written exercise. Today and during this step, write out all of your negative self-talk word for word, and then convert it to more positive language.
As you go about your daily activities, simply notice the negative things you say over and over to yourself. Write these comments down in your journal or notebook, but, as I explain in the next paragraph, leave space next to them to convert them to more positive thoughts and instructions. Rather than saying, “Don’t miss it,” use a positive cue such as “Nail it,” or “Focus.” Instead of thinking about what you don’t want to happen, say the positive cue to yourself and focus on the process. You can handle those critics, blamers, and naysayers!
Each page should have two columns. In the left-hand column, write out anything unhelpful that you said to yourself. In the right-hand column, across from those comments, rewrite the unhelpful statements as positive instructions or thoughts. Keep this up for the next several days, and you will find that you have replaced your worst cynics with a supportive team of encouraging allies and friends cheering you on.
One of the best ways to shift your mind in the direction of peak functioning is by repeatedly verbalizing the right kind of positive thoughts to yourself. These powerful words, known as affirmations, can have a dramatic effect on your confidence level and focus. Affirmations deliver clear directions and succinct messages directly to your subconscious. This amazing programming tool can help you overcome doubts, silence your inner critics, change your outlook, and keep your mind focused on what’s important.
If you have never used affirmations before, saying them to yourself may seem a little corny at first, especially if your inner dialogue has been predominantly pessimistic, self-critical, or preoccupied with failure. Affirmations are optimistic and self-supporting declarations focused on progress or success. The language may be similar to assurances that you would give to a good friend before their big event. Or it could be like encouraging endorsements that you would want to hear from a respected colleague or teacher before you go on.
There are four types of affirmations. The first is a statement of perceived fact, such as “It’s getting better all the time,” or “It’s going to go well.” The second is a stated claim of ownership, like “My skills are getting better and better day-by-day!” The third type of affirmation is a “you statement,” as if it were someone else: “You can do it,” or “You’ve got this!” Saying these positive things to yourself, rather than scattered and negative left-brain noise, will improve your confidence and focus.
The fourth and final type is the most powerful thing you can say to your subconscious, and it begins with the words “I am.” Whatever you say after “I am” defines you and your limitations, as well as what you can achieve. These pronouncements need to resonate as true for you right now and in the near future. They should not be unrealistic (“I am the best in the world,”) or final (“I will never be better than this.”) They should be said with deliberate intention and enthusiasm.
Affirmations work best when they are written out and then said aloud on a daily basis. You need to continue reciting your affirmations until you totally believe what you are saying is true now or about to happen in the very near future. You want to find ones that truly resonate with you, that you can say with strong conviction. Try lots of them out until you find the right ones. The right affirmations can have a very powerful influence on your level of self-confidence and functioning.
Dr. Don Greene’s latest book is Train Your Own Hero. Dr. Greene, a frequent contributor to Allegro, is a peak performance psychologist and 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 www.trainyourownhero.com, winningonstage.com, winninginsports.com and collegeprepformusicians.com.