How Juilliard Teaches Musicians to Handle Stress

Their techniques can work for people in many fields, too.

By Daniel McGinn

Few professional experiences are as stressful as auditioning for a seat in a professional orchestra. A big-city symphony may offer tryouts to 200 musicians for a single opening — and unlike in a Ted Talk or a boardroom presentation, when a musician is playing a classical piece, the judges know exactly what they’re supposed to hear. “With public speaking, there’s a lot of wiggle room,” says Noa Kageyama, a Juilliard-trained violinist who’s now a professor there. “But in music, everybody knows what note is supposed to come next, and how it’s supposed to sound.”

Kageyama understands this pressure firsthand. He learned to play violin at age two, eventually earning admission to Juilliard himself. Although he never had a full-blown panic attack while playing, Kageyama often experienced subtle signs of anxiety. Sometimes his hands would sweat excessively. Sometimes his mind would wander during auditions. “There was this frustration over why I couldn’t consistently play the way I was capable of playing, even if I was prepared,” he says.

In 1999, as a graduate student at Juilliard, Kageyama signed up for an elective class called “Performance Enhancement for Musicians,” taught by a sports psychologist who’d previously worked with Olympic athletes. The course taught him that backstage jitters are an unavoidable part of a musician’s life, and that even if you can’t entirely eliminate them, you can systematically develop skills to perform well despite them.

“It was such an eye-opener,” Kageyama says. “It’s not a crapshoot out there. There are things I could do to get better at this.” Kageyama was so taken with the course that he put aside his violin, entered a PhD program in psychology, and eventually returned to Juilliard, where he now teaches the performance psychology course himself.

At 11 A.M. one morning, Kageyama, who is thin and soft spoken, with close-trimmed black hair, stands in Room 102 at Juilliard. Around him in a circle of chairs are twenty grad students, instrument cases — violas, cellos, flutes, bassoons — at their feet.

In one class, he asks each student to play for one minute while being video-recorded. (He doesn’t actually turn the camera on — it’s there simply to increase their stress level — and instead has them play 90 seconds, to discombobulate them.) In another class, he makes them do burpees until they’re sweaty and breathing hard — then asks them to play for the group. “It’s distracting when your heart is pounding,” he says, but if you practice playing while feeling that sensation, it can become a little less unnerving. “It’s the same thing you need in an audition — to see past what your body is saying, and to focus on the task at hand.”

Image courtesy of Unsplash

Much of the course focuses on teaching the students to practice “centering,” a technique popularized by the performance psychologist Don Greene, who was Kageyama’s instructor at Juilliard back in the 1990s. Centering consists of a quick series of breathing and mental exercises designed to reduce anxiety before performing; you can learn more about it in a series of YouTube videos, or in Don Greene’s book on the practice. Kageyama aims to get his students to learn to center themselves in less than 10 seconds.

The culmination of this course takes place during the class’s final exam, in which students perform a mock audition in front of judges from the New York Philharmonic and other professional organizations. The week before the exam, Kageyama shows them the quiet rehearsal space where they can prepare, and the room where they will play, outfitted with a screen that prevents the judges from seeing the musician. (Screened auditions are the norm in many music auditions; they limit the potential for bias due to gender, ethnicity, or other visible attributes.)

One week later, when the students show up for the mock audition, everything he’s told them turns out to be a lie. The musicians are called up to audition in random order, with no warning. The supposedly quiet rehearsal space is filled with weird noises. (Kageyama has hidden a badly-tuned AM radio playing loudly.) When the students enter the audition room, there is no screen; the judges are in plain sight. One of the judges appears drunk.

This “adversity audition” is the traditional culmination of the Juilliard course. It tests whether the techniques the students have learned help them cope not only in a traditional audition, but even in a worst-case scenario. The piano contains ping pong balls to disrupt the playing; sometimes an oscillating fan is set up to blow around the sheet music. “The judges are instructed to be disrespectful, ornery, rude, and difficult,” Kageyama says. By most accounts, they play this role very well.

While the judges do assess the musicians’ playing, they’re also paying close attention to how well the students cope with the circumstances. Do they let the judges’ behavior interfere with their routine before they begin? Do they appear frazzled, distracted, frustrated, or angry? When Caeli Smith, a viola player, entered the room, the various disruptions (especially the noisy rehearsal space) had taken a toll. “I was feeling very clammy, not warmed up, and very nervous,” she recalls.

But Smith closed her eyes, focused on her breathing, and did the centering exercise her professor taught her. “Once you get good at it, you can do it in about ten seconds,” she says. She repeats some simple affirmations, ones that focus not on success, but on doing her best. (An example: “I’m going to feel free to explore all the possibilities of what this music might hold.”)

It was challenging to do this in the audition room. “The judges kept saying, ‘Whenever you’re ready, whenever you’re ready,’” she recalls, and it was clear they were trying to disrupt her. But she still took a few seconds to herself, and she didn’t put her bow to her strings until she was ready. Afterward, she was pleased with her performance. “I did get really nervous… but I was able to deliver what I wanted despite so many distractions,” she says “I had my routine, and I prepared myself before playing,” she says. It’s the kind of coolheaded performance to which we all should aspire.

Daniel McGinn is a senior editor at Harvard Business Review and the author of Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed (Portfolio, 2017), from which this article is adapted.