The secret weapon for winning auditions: ‘PERIODIZATION’

Winning on stage

Volume 119, No. 9October, 2019

Dr. Don Greene

Do you ever find yourself peaking for your audition too early or too late? Do you feel yourself drained of energy before you even get to the audition? Or are you feeling so mentally and physically fatigued that you aren’t even motivated to prepare?

If so, you are reading the right article! There is a secret weapon that I teach called periodization, and it has been a game changer for all of my audition-winning clients. This periodization process involves training cycles with four distinct phases: preparation, tapering, execution and recovery. Periodization is designed to peak the performer’s energy at just the right time (like during the finals) in order to win.

Preparation phase

There is a lot of great information on the internet about various approaches to winning auditions. Most of the websites and blogs are by musicians who have won orchestral auditions themselves. These authors are emphasizing the physical, technical, organizational, and musical aspects of the audition preparation and actual audition performance. They usually address only the first phase of the periodization process: preparation.

Preparation involves both physical and mental work. The physical includes the organization of practice, technical work, listening, score study, mock-auditions, etc. The mental preparation includes centering practice, mental rehearsal or visualization, and concentration exercises. Long before their auditions, I have my clients complete a thorough assessment of their mental performance skills. We measure their abilities in five main areas: performance energy, confidence, courage, focus and resilience. After determining their individual mental strengths and weaknesses they can begin working specifically in the area(s) where they will make the most improvement in the least amount of time.

The mental training, which can replace some of the physical practice time, involves the centering process and positive affirmations. Centering helps control and channel performance energy before and during the audition process. The affirmations help to build self-confidence. Concentration exercises help musicians to focus past distractions and quiet the mind. They also learn how to become mentally tough and to recover quickly from inevitable mistakes. I don’t believe in perfectionism, especially at auditions. The idea is to continually strive for excellence which means doing your best under any circumstance.

Tapering phase

A few days prior to an audition, it is time to begin the second phase of the training cycle, which is the all-important tapering process. At this point you need to spend less time physically practicing as you increase your mental training even more, and begin to get more sleep and rest. In the last week before the audition it’s too late to cram (although many musicians do). If you don’t have all the excerpts or technical skills down by now you’re probably not going to master them in the next few days. If you try to do so, it will be counter-productive.

Instead of fretting over musical things or playing through the excerpt list one more time, there are better things to do. Believe it or not, I often recommend sleeping in, taking short power naps (20 minutes), watching comedy, doing a mental rehearsal session, or having lunch with a good friend (either a non-musician or a friend who promises there will be no audition talk!). In the last few days, the idea is to stay positive and mellow as you bide your time wisely and build up your energy. This is not easy for most musicians who are used to years of constant physical practice. Although you cannot win in the days leading up to an audition, you can lose!

In addition to maintaining the right mindset and conserving energy, it’s important that you carefully manage your heightened emotions in the final days before the audition. Due to the extra stress, many performers’ nerves get raw and they become testy or prickly, especially – and unfortunately – with those closest to them. For many musicians, the looming audition can feel as important as a matter of life or death. Keeping perspective and a sense of humor can be an immense help. Remember that your audition performance is too important to take too seriously.

The most important night of sleep is two nights before the audition. In terms of energy, there’s a one-day delay with the effects of sleep. So if the audition is on Saturday, you want to get a great night’s sleep on Thursday. Try your best to go to bed early, or sleep in, or both. If you feel very tired Friday afternoon, take a very short nap (10 to 15 minutes). After waking up I recommend that you get up, move around and get some fresh air.

The night before the audition, try to schedule dinner in the late afternoon or early evening. It’s wise to eat something that’s easy to digest, without a lot of spices. Wind down before going to bed (no exciting action movies, musical events or recordings). Turn off all musical thoughts in your head and get to bed at a reasonable time. Darken the room, lower the temperature, get into bed and find a comfortable position. If sleep doesn’t arrive within a few minutes, don’t worry. Just lie there and relax. Simply lying still provides 70 percent of the rest benefit of sleeping. Hopefully you will have been getting extra rest, naps, and had a good night’s sleep the previous night. That’s the energy you’ll be using tomorrow at the audition.

Execution phase

The third phase in the cycle is the execution phase. The first thing to do is to get up with plenty of time to get ready to do your best. I recommend arriving at the audition site early, keeping your mind on the process of what you need to do to execute a peak performance. Avoid thinking about all the possible outcomes. When they come up, just imagine your audition going well. Before walking in, summon up your courage, stay in the moment, and focus only on the task at hand. Follow your performance routine. (I have watched many clients throw their performance routine out the window the day of the audition.) Trust the process and all of your hard work, talent and training. Then go for it with everything you have!

Although many musicians try in vain to relax at auditions, I train my clients to channel that extra energy to blow away their competitors as well as the audition panel. In this process, they use a variety of peak performance skills like centering and mental rehearsal techniques. These help them do better in auditions because of the extra pressure and energy, not in spite of it. While most of their fellow musicians are trying to calm down I want my clients to get their energy up. My training teaches them how to control, channel, and peak that powerful performance energy when it really counts.

Recovery phase

After the audition, the final phase is recovery. Take some much-needed physical and mental rest away from the instrument and repertoire before you begin preparing for the next big performance or audition. Make sure that you feel fresh, rested and recovered before starting your next training cycle. Regardless of the final outcome, you need to reward yourself for the efforts you put in and the improvements that have resulted from those efforts. I suggest something tangible and permanent as a symbolic reminder of your progress.

After you recover and want to get ready for an even better performance, make good use of this four-phase cycle again. These four phases are indeed the secret weapon that I call periodization. Begin the cycle again with all the physical and mental work that needs to be done to prepare for the audition or concert. This is followed by tapering in the last days before the important event. Back off from the high level of training in order to build your energy so that you reach a peak in the execution phase at the audition or concert. Once again, you’ll deserve a few days off so you can recover – as well as another reward.

Remember to ask yourself this question: which phase of periodization do you struggle with the most when you’re getting ready for an audition or important concert? Be honest. Remember, all of the four phases affect each other and the final result. Tapering and recovery are just as important as preparation and execution!

For your next training cycle before a big performance, plan out your calendar, so you can schedule the four periodization phases.

Repeat the four phases until you begin to feel like each cycle of the periodization process has improved, as well as the results. Go for it!

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