Why Musicians Should Train on Their Minds

Winning on Stage

Volume 119, No. 5May, 2019

Dr. Don Greene

Let’s think about some different professions: physicians, nurses, dentists, social workers, lawyers, CPAs, physical therapists, cosmetologists, architects, estheticians, paralegals, and social workers. What do all these careers have in common? They are required to periodically attend classes (often known as continuing education) to keep or renew their licenses or certifications. Continuing education is lifelong learning that goes beyond a degree or level of expertise, in which you learn about the latest technology, research, trends, inventions, necessary skills, and relevant discoveries in your field.

My Experience

I have found that the performers who complete my mental skills training program achieve at least one peak performance within a few weeks or months (if given enough time before the performance). Many of my students have walked away from that peak performance having won orchestral jobs, professional championships, and Olympic medals.

Then the normal pattern ensues: I don’t hear from them for months or even years after this success. I am contacted again when things start to go awry. The performer will usually call me and profess a sense of guilt for being out of touch for so long. The story continues: the performer admits to not making mental training a focus in daily practice sessions and performances. They remember some of the old material that we covered, but they haven’t reviewed the details of that material or continued their education with anything new since we left off. This is where I jump back in, and we get back to work.

So is continuing education in mental training necessary for performing artists? I think we all know the answer: YES!

Case Studies

Several years after winning his first professional tournament, one of my golfers fell into a long slump. Although he was working with a famous coach, practiced on the range religiously, and frequently played most practice rounds under par, he wasn’t playing well in competitions. He fit into the scenario I outlined above. When we first talked, I asked him about his mental practice and staying up to date on current techniques and strategies. He looked at me with a confused stare.

When we started back into the mental training program, it didn’t take long before he was reviewing his old notes and doing the recommended exercises again. One of them was writing out his negative self-talk, which had helped boost his confidence as a young rookie. He read “Psycho-Cybernetics” by Dr. Maxwell Maltz and “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway” by Dr. Susan Jeffers. He did exercises to strengthen his courage. “Zen in the Art of Archery” by Eugen Herrigel helped him relearn how to intensify his focus. After going through the crash course from A to Z, and getting back in the daily habit of mental practice, he was soon holding another trophy over his head, with a large check in his pocket.

My experience with performing artists is very similar. One of the fellows at the New World Symphony was on a long drought with a string of unsuccessful auditions. He left the orchestra without a job, and was seriously considering leaving music altogether. We began working together through a progression of resources, strategies, and exercises that were tailored to his individual needs. Soon after he completed my program, he won an audition for a section position with the Atlanta Symphony.

Several years later, he contacted me. He was ready to leave Atlanta but needed to win another big audition to do so. Like my pro golfer, he had gotten out of the habit of doing frequent mental training and staying current with the latest techniques. It was understandable – he was now a father and teacher, but he would need help if he was going to get back on the winning track. We soon began working together again. A short time later, he won a principal position with the Cleveland Orchestra.

Art: Pixabay


Even after professional performers reach a high level of competence, they recognize that they still need to continue practicing and developing their physical skills. For some reason, few of them place a high priority on learning, developing, and practicing mental skills. The same is true of athletes, who spend the majority of their time and attention working on physical things. Golfers who can easily spend four hours or more on the course are reluctant to spend ten minutes doing mental practice.

In my view, professional athletes have an advantage over performing artists (aside from the money they make). Most athletes have their own team of supportive professionals. For a professional golfer, this team includes a coach or swing teacher, caddy, exercise physiologist, kinesiologist, physical therapist, massage technician, nutritionist, strength trainer, conditioning coach, manager, financial planner, spiritual advisor  and sports psychologist. Professional performing artists may have only one teacher or mentor if they are lucky, and very little or no mental training. Continued psychological development is rarely contemplated or pursued.

Look at your own practices as a musician in the past year. Ask yourself:

  • Did my practice include mental skills training or exercises that help me do better under pressure?
  • Am I able to control my nerves so that my energy level is optimal when I’m performing?
  • Has my ability to focus in distracting circumstances improved in the last year?
  • Am I able to be mentally tough under adverse conditions?
  • Do I feel up to date on the latest methods for quieting the mind and getting in the zone?
  • Do I feel confident in my performing abilities?

Make a Plan

Make a list of all of the mental training strategies that you have used in the past. Draw up a plan for the next month: either revisiting the old mental skills that worked for you in the past or adding new steps to continue your education in mental training.

Make it a priority to not only continue your technical education but also your mental education.

If you need ideas for mental training, check out the terrific books I mentioned above. Or, consider visiting and looking at the online courses and training sessions I offer.

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