A Positive Voice

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The way Don Greene sees it, you get to Camden Yards the same way you get to Carnegie Hall:

With raw talent and physical power. With years of training. With the ability to understand weaknesses and capitalize on strengths. With practice, practice, practice.

On the big day, you step onto the playing field. Depending on where it is, there's a bat, or a baton, and it all comes down to how determined you are, how much energy you can muster, how well you focus right now.

But there's one big difference: in baseball, you get three strikes.

Greene walks to the front of a large room and stops next to a blackboard. He takes a long look at the six opera singers who sit in a line on folding chairs then turns and writes one word on the board in large letters: STRESS.

Greene knows all about it.

At 51, he has curly hair touched with silver, a waistline that barely hints at middle age and the moves of a long-time athlete. Not the muscular swagger of a football player, but the balletic step of a gymnast.

He's in Baltimore on this mid-spring day to teach opera singers how to transform performance jitters into adrenalin-fueled creative energy. The two-day workshop is part of the Baltimore Opera Studio, a program run by the Baltimore Opera Company that's designed to prepare emerging singers for the rigors of professional life. More than 125 men and women vied for a spot in the five-month fellowship during which they take master classes, study acting, learn stage fighting and practice auditioning. Six singers aged 23 to 30 were admitted. (They will perform May 12 in a concert titled, "Catch a Rising Star.")

A former Green Beret, a sports psychologist and a faculty member at The Juilliard School, Greene brings an unusual perspective to the performing arts. For years, he trained athletes like Olympic divers Greg Louganis and Michele Mitchell how to excel under pressure. He also coached swimmers, golfers, race car drivers and gymnasts.

Then he discovered the world of performing arts.

Based in Manhattan for the last several years, he has worked with members of the Metropolitan Opera, Chicago Lyric Opera and the New York Philharmonic. He teaches at Juilliard and Miami's New World Symphony, a three-year post-graduate program for musicians, and recently began coaching traders at Merrill Lynch.

"As with anything new, there was a certain level of skepticism at first about Don's approach," said Juilliard's president, Joseph W. Polisi. "Now his courses are over-subscribed.

"The parallels are clear in all sorts of ways between sports and performing arts. These are solid procedures, there's nothing New Age about them, and they have had a very positive effect."

For Greene, switching from sports to performing arts made perfect sense. "It was a fascinating new world of highly talented people under extreme stress with very little stress training -- other than a music teacher saying, 'relax.' "

Concerning opera, he says, "hitting a baseball is a much more simple skill. You pick up a bat and hit the ball. In opera, you have to act, sing, emote and you have do it in German and Italian."

Opera places exceptional demands upon its practitioners. Unlike violinists or tuba players, singers' instruments are their bodies. Stay out too late? Eat too much? Fly in from Paris? Your voice will give you away.

Opera singers' voices may not mature until they reach their 30s. Or 40s. And it takes nearly that long to learn everything they need to know. After studying voice in college and sometimes graduate school, singers may continue taking singing lessons, studying French, Italian and German and mastering repertoire. There's also plenty of opportunity for rejection: There are endless auditions, and, occasionally, long gaps between paychecks.

"Opera is very glamorous for the two to three hours that you are on stage, and when you hear the applause," says Lisa Di Julio Bertani, a retired soprano and artistic adviser of the opera studio.

"Then you go home and realize how hard it is. It's worth it, but it takes a really committed person. Those who aren't committed, aren't going to make it. You need the skin of an elephant to survive in this business."

Some singers cross themselves before going on stage. Some spit, knock on wood, walk backward, count floor boards. There is a singer who regularly visits shrines, one who won't travel without her collection of frogs, and a third who sits in renowned Italian soprano Renata Scotto's dressing room to soak up the artistic vibes.

Still another performer, "who shall remain nameless, can't go onstage before she arranges her crystals in a certain pattern," says Michael Harrison, Baltimore Opera Company general director. "And there was a teacher in New York City years ago who had a bottle that he said was full of Italian air and he would let his students have a sniff for courage."

Before Greene teaches his students how to combat anxiety, he encourages them to talk about it.

Sometimes when Quinn Patrick is on stage, the mezzo soprano from Grand Island, N.Y., says she gets so nervous she forgets to blink and her contacts pop out. Christian Reinert, a tenor from New York City gets nauseous.

Greene nods. He's heard it all before. "No matter how good an athlete or musician you are, stress can affect you," he says. "That's OK. We're here to learn about stress. What it does to your head. How it hurts you. How it helps you."

In class, Greene seems a blend of therapist, Zen master and coach. But there's a bit of the showman in him, too. He knows how to connect with his audience, how to command attention, when to make people laugh. "The way to avoid stress in a singing career is," he announces loudly:

"Don't sing in public."

East and West

Greene's philosophy is drawn from Western psychology, his experiences as a competitive athlete and aikido, a Japanese martial art.

Little about his early life suggested that he would coach artists. Growing up on Long Island, he competed in diving and gymnastics. Even then stress -- and its effects on performance -- intrigued him. "As a diver, I wanted to know why I could dive well on some days, but not on others," he says.

His athletic prowess led to an appointment in 1966 to the U.S. Military Academy, after which he received commando and paratrooper training and was selected to be a Green Beret. He earned a master's degree in forensic science from George Washington University and a doctorate in psychology from the U.S. International University in San Diego.

All along he asked the question: What does it take to ensure a great performance? He tells the singers, "I'm not here to change your personalities. I don't care what your childhood was like. If you guys weren't good you wouldn't be here, so the idea is to find strengths and play to them."

According to Greene, the key is to use the right -- intuitive, creative -- side of your brain, instead of the left -- analytical -- side. A baseball player who thinks "keep your elbow up!" is using the left side of his brain, he explains. By contrast, a batter who sees himself slamming the ball out of the park is using the right side.

Visualizing. Hearing. Feeling. These are right-brain activities, Greene says. "When you hear the first two bars of your aria before you begin singing, you're in the right brain, and that's a better place to be."

Using a seven-step process he calls "centering," Greene teaches the singers to switch from the left sides of their brains to the right.

First, choose a "process cue," or a word that sums up what you want to do, he says. Patrick picks "joy."

"No, you want cause words not effect words," Greene says. "Pick something like 'punch it' or 'free.' "

"I see this," Patrick says, and makes a spiraling motion with her hand.

"There you go! You're visual," he says. "That's perfect. You can have a visual process cue."

He tells the singers to breathe deeply. In through the nose. Out through the mouth. "Take three breaths then release your upper body tension. Identify where the tension is, focus awareness on it. Breathe it out. It's gone."

Now focus on a "place two inches below the navel and two inches inside the body," he says. "We're not looking for a mystical experience or the skies to part," he says. "We simply want you to sing from a centered place."

"LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA."

"OOHHAHAHAHA AH AH AH AH AH."

A cacophony of arpeggioes, scales and bits of arias fill the room. Reinert, the tenor, simultaneously jumps up and down and sings a few lines in Italian. A few feet away, Michael Reder, a bass-baritone, hops from one foot to the next, then begins to warm up his voice.

They're trying to elevate their heart rates. Because most singers get nervous before auditions -- and experience increased heart rates -- Greene figures they should practice while their hearts are pounding.

The exercise is just one of many in Greene's repertoire. Before coming to class, the six opera singers filled out questionnaires. Each was ranked by a computer according to characteristics such as drive, determination or competitiveness. Based on these profiles and on interviews, Greene tailors his advice to individual needs.

Like athletes, singers should get plenty of sleep, he says. They should eat correctly. They should set goals. And they should avoid negative thinking.

"Quiet the voices. The voices that say, as you step on stage: 'Don't trip.' Or, 'Don't miss the high note.' Your subconscious doesn't hear negatives. It doesn't have a sense of humor. All it hears is: 'Trip!' "

He tells Kathleen Stapleton, a soprano from Arlington, Va., who wears high heels in auditions, to practice in higher heels. He suggests that Kenneth Vancura, a baritone from San Antonio race up and down the stairs before auditions.

Once he told a timid singer, "Be a fighter."

At his urging, the singer watched "Rocky" movies and wore boxing gloves while practicing. Greene also assigned her a process cue: The "ding!" of the bell that rings after every boxing round. The singer followed his advice -- and landed a job with the Chicago Lyric Opera.

At Miami's New World Symphony, musicians undergo what Greene calls "adversity training," or mock auditions during which music stands fall over, lights flicker and judges chat.

"We realized that simply playing for staff members during mock auditions didn't put the musicians under the same stresses as a real audition at the New York Philharmonic," says Patricia Nott, dean of musicians at the New World Symphony. "And we wanted to simulate conditions of real stress. We wanted to test their ability to focus."

The exercise worked for bass player Joel Reist.

Imagining perfection

Two years ago, Reist was preparing for an audition with the Nashville Orchestra. At Greene's suggestion, Reist recorded himself practicing, then used the tape to identify potential trouble spots. He "mentally rehearsed" the sticky passages by imagining himself playing perfectly.

Then he performed in the mock audition. "They make you wait in a hot room for an hour, then you go on stage and it's freezing," he says. "Then flash bulbs go off. Then the stage manager dropped a pile of two-by-fours on the floor."

In the weeks before the audition, Reist continued to follow Greene's advice. Like a runner preparing for a marathon, he tapered the length of his practice sessions. He got plenty of sleep. He ate pasta. He thought positive thoughts.

"I was really able to concentrate," he says. "A lot of people go to auditions and play well, but I really think that it comes down to how well you can focus."

He got the job.

Baltimore Opera Studio

What: "Catch a Rising Star" (program includes concert, hors d'oeuvres buffet and a post-concert reception)

When: 6 p.m. Friday, May 12

Where: LeClerc Hall at the College of Notre Dame, 4701 N. Charles St.

Tickets: $85

Call: (410) 625-1600, Ext. 337

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