From Beta to Theta: Human Consciousness, Hypnosis and Music Performance
I was curious to see how many people would brave a session with the word “hypnosis” in the title, so I welcome you. As a college music instructor and licensed hypnotherapist, I believe there is a direct link between altered states of consciousness and effective music performance. I hope to examine this relationship today, and to share some of my experiences working with student performers. Hypnosis has gotten a bad rap over the years, thanks to the stage hypnotists who entertain in casinos and on cruise ships, and are seemingly able to entice inebriated audience members to sneeze uncontrollably or bark like a dog. This is unfortunate, because hypnotherapy is a gentle and extremely effective therapeutic tool. I regularly work with students, teachers, and professional musicians who suffer from performance anxiety, or who desire an optimal experience on stage. When I began coaching performers using hypnotherapy, I thought it would be a good pedagogical tool for me to help students deal with pre-recital jitters. I did not expect to be astounded by the transformations I have seen in many of these performers.
Hypnosis is simply an altered state of consciousness that lies somewhere between the waking state and sleep. James Baird, sometimes referred to as the “father of hypnosis,” coined the term after the Greek word hypnos, which means “sleep.” Humans naturally enter a state of hypnosis several times a day. Some examples of altered states of consciousness include daydreaming, meditation, prayer, creative visualization, yoga, massage therapy, and progressive relaxation exercises. When you are absorbed in a good book, movie, or TV show, you are in an altered state of consciousness. If you have ever “zoned out” while driving on the highway, reaching your exit without quite knowing how you got there, you were in an altered state. Biochemical changes caused by drugs, alcohol, or dietary supplements can also cause an induced shift in consciousness.
The four elements of successful hypnotherapy are concentration, relaxation, suggestion, and expectation.1 A client would ideally focus her mind on a single object or mental image, such as her own breath or an imagined scene. Relaxation of both the physical body and the mind allows the subconscious mind to assimilate the suggestions made by the therapist, particularly if the client has a healthy expectation of specific changes in behavior. Hypnotherapy can be used to treat a variety of issues, including insomnia, weight loss, smoking cessation, and for stress management. It is also effective to boost memory and concentration, manage grief or stress, recover quickly from surgery or illness, and for pain management. Hypnoanesthesia, a specific form of pain management, is occasionally used for clients who are unable to be chemically anesthetized. In my experience, however, hypnotherapy is most effective when dealing with anxiety issues such as test or social anxiety, public speaking, various fears and phobias, and, of course, for performance anxiety management.
What do musicians want to feel when they are onstage? Many of our college students experience difficulty answering this question because they would much rather describe, at length, what they don’t want to feel. A disappointing performance experience may include the triggering of the body’s autonomic nervous system, often called the fight or flight response. When faced with a real or imagined threat, a performer may experience increased blood pressure, increased respiration rate, muscle tension, excessive perspiration, cold extremities, digestive distress, or a combination of these. During a suboptimal performance, the conscious mind shifts into overdrive, often triggering the perception of critical voices inside the mind (popularly called the “inner judges” by Eloise Ristad)2 which can easily distract the performer. One may also feel a sense of detachment or dissociation from the music or audience. Students who continually focus on the negative possibilities of performing are actually programming their own minds in the opposite way a hypnotherapist would. When students are able to articulate their desires for a positive performance, most of them report that they want to feel technically secure, well prepared, confident, comfortable on stage, and energized yet relaxed. They want to feel a special bond between themselves and the music, their instrument, and their audience.
During an optimal performance, several changes take place in the body and mind. The body’s blood pressure drops, the pulse rate slows, and breathing slows and deepens. The adrenaline in the body is interpreted by the performer as enthusiasm, not anxiety. In the mind, the brainwave activity slows, the subconscious mind becomes more active, and the critical conscious mind is subdued. In other words, the mind shifts to an altered state of consciousness, the same altered state that is active during hypnotherapy. This is the state referred to as “flow” by eminent psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.3
Studying the effects of hypnotherapy on positive musical performance assumes that the performer is well-prepared, has adequate technical ability, and is not physically or psychologically impaired in a way that would prevent her from performing well. Students have been known to seek out a performance anxiety coach as a substitute for thorough preparation, but hypnotherapy is not a magic cure for the underprepared student.
The history of hypnosis is truly fascinating, and I regret that I won’t have time today to delve into some of the more colorful stories. While the origin of induced altered states is unknown, we do know that “sleep temples” were used for healing in ancient India, Egypt, and Greece. Ancient tribal rituals such as fire walking, body piercing, and induced trance states all occur in a state of hypnosis. The first Western attempts at group “healing” (then called magnetic healing or animal magnetism) are attributed to Franz Anton Mesmer in the eighteenth century. From this colorful character we get the term “mesmerized.” This physician believed he could heal large groups of people using magnets or iron shavings, but scientists now believe it was hypnotic suggestion that caused a great deal of mass hysteria and seemingly miraculous cures under Mesmer’s supervision. Modern hypnosis relies in part on the work of Sigmund Freud, who was one of the first to claim that a symptom displayed on the surface could have a deeper cause within the subconscious mind. Carl Jung took this idea a step further, developing a metaphysical theory of the collective unconscious, an even deeper communal subconscious state that any human could access. It was Milton Erickson who brought the use of hypnotherapy to the general public, and who is widely known as the most significant hypnotherapist of the twentieth century.4 The American Medical Association endorsed the use of hypnosis as a valid therapeutic tool in 1958.
In order to discuss the states of human consciousness, it is necessary to examine the characteristics of the various brainwaves. When one is awake and the mind is active, the beta brainwave is the most active pattern of electrical activity in the brain. Here, the frequency of the post-synaptic currents is approximately 14-30 Hz, and the analytical conscious mind is very active. For the average person in a waking state, the beta brainwaves are associated with concentration, arousal, alertness, and cognition. Faster beta levels are associated with anxiety, disease, feelings of separation, and the fight or flight response. The alpha brainwave is slower than beta, about 8-14 Hz. When the alpha brainwave is prominent, a person is still conscious, but very relaxed. This state is associated with relaxed focus, light trance, increased serotonin production, drowsiness, meditation, and subliminal “superlearning.” In alpha, we begin to access the subconscious mind more readily. The easiest way to slow the brainwaves from beta to alpha is to simply close the eyes. Blocking visual stimuli quickly slows the brainwaves and can induce an immediate sense of relaxation.
Slower than alpha, the theta brainwave is active at 4-8 Hz. Characteristics of this brainwave pattern include REM sleep and the state between waking and sleep. Occasionally I call this the “cat brainwave,” because I believe this is the state in which many felines spend most of their time, either dozing while half-awake or vividly dreaming. In this brainwave we see increased creativity, a deep meditative trance, increased retention of learned material, and vivid emotional experiences. Here there is deep access to the subconscious mind, with good potential to change unwanted behaviors.
The slowest brainwave of a healthy living being is delta, 0.5-4 Hz, characterized by deep, dreamless sleep. In the delta state we have a loss of body awareness, and experience the release of human growth hormone. This is where we grow, heal, and have access to the unconscious and Jung’s collective unconscious mind. Of these four brainwaves—beta, alpha, theta, and delta—the middle two are altered states of consciousness associated with the sensation of being “in the zone.” Performers feel most at ease on stage when they are conscious and alert but very relaxed.
Four components of the mind-process model can be associated with the frequency of the brainwaves: the conscious, subconscious, unconscious, and super-conscious minds. The conscious mind judges, analyzes, rationalizes, makes decisions, and is associated with the activity of the beta brainwave. The subconscious mind daydreams and fantasizes, producing vivid imagery which is often a projection of the future or a reflection of the past. In the alpha brainwave state, the subconscious mind is quite active. The unconscious mind, active during sleep, contains memories and emotions that are not readily available to the subconscious mind. The super-conscious mind represents mass consciousness and intuitive insights, that collective unconscious state where Jung believed human archetypes are stored.5
Who are the best candidates for successful hypnotherapy? Children are especially susceptible, and in fact, the ages fourteen through twenty are considered to be peak years for effective hypnosis.6 Notice that the majority of undergraduate students fall within these peak years! Studies have shown that both men and women are equally susceptible to hypnotherapy. People with average or above-average I.Q.s and a strong ability to concentrate have a slightly higher degree of success, as are right-brain dominant people.7 A hypnotherapy session might begin with some gentle guided imagery to relax the client’s mind, and perhaps some progressive relaxation exercises to relax the body. Using suggestive therapy, the therapist may offer positive strategies, visualizations, or affirmations based on the need of the client. The following are examples of positive suggestions I have used with professional and student musicians:
Not everyone will feel comfortable consulting a hypnotherapist, and many students are not able to afford the sessions. Fortunately, many methods of self-hypnosis exist. We commonly refer to these as creative visualization, self-guided imagery, daydreaming, or fantasizing. Specialized variants of these include the “Relaxation Response,”8 “Psycho-Cybernetics,”9 and “Neuro-Linguistic Programming” (NLP),10 among others. The method of self-hypnosis does not usually matter as long as there exists a state of intense, concentrated focus with little regard to external stimulation. When relaxed but focused, the mind can successfully concentrate on most positive suggestions made to it. The essence of self-hypnosis is to focus the imagination on an objective with the intention of achieving it, as opposed to simply daydreaming without the intent. Athletes have known for decades that visualization enhances performance, and many believe that what occupies our thoughts tends to become our reality. To prepare the body and mind for effective self-hypnosis, the performer should be comfortably relaxed in a quiet location. Closing the eyes will coax the brainwaves into a slower frequency, and focusing the mind on the breath or on a simple mantra will help sift out unwanted negative thoughts. After gradually and intentionally relaxing each muscle group, one will be in an especially receptive state for a creative visualization exercise. Not all students are visual by nature, and some of them experience difficulty focusing on mental images. When imagining an optimal performance experience, therefore, it is often helpful to engage as many of the senses as possible. For example, a student can visualize the details of the backstage area or green room, his attire, the brightness of the stage lights, and the appearance of his accompanist or ensemble partners. He should also be encouraged to imagine the feel of the temperature of the stage lights, the sounds of applause, even the scent of his instrument or the taste of the reed.
Although the goal of a self-hypnosis session is to cultivate a peak performance experience in the mind, it is sometimes counterproductive to attempt to imagine each piece from beginning to end. While this is an excellent practice technique for security, a mental memory slip can actually create additional anxiety during an exercise meant to cultivate a sense of peaceful relaxation. Ten minutes of intense visualization should be sufficient for most people, and should include imagined feelings of excitement and satisfaction felt after the performance. A student can easily reinforce the experience with one or more positive affirmations, which can serve as helpful post-hypnotic suggestions. Examples of affirmations written by musicians include:
In 2005-2006 I conducted an informal survey of the effects of hypnotherapy in my own practice. All participants were volunteers from a public university in the Southeast, and all were graduate students in music, most pursuing a MM or DMA degree in performance. After an average of six hypnotherapy sessions, a surprising 100% of clients reported some degree of relief from stage fright, and 80% experienced a remarkable improvement in their ability to control their performance anxiety on stage. While the results of a formal study would undoubtedly yield far less dramatic statistics, hypnotherapy is clearly an effective tool for certain performers.
To locate a qualified hypnotherapist, a student should look for one who is certified (C.Ht., M.Ht., or D.C.H.) with at least one hundred hours of training and experience. In addition, many licensed mental health practitioners are also trained in hypnotherapy. Check with the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis or with the National Guild of Hypnotists, and consult state laws regarding the practice of hypnotherapy. The possible effects of hypnosis include the conscious and conditioned control of the various brainwave states, the alleviation of performance anxiety, and the ability to remain “in the zone” during a performance. With self-hypnosis, musicians can cultivate a powerful tool to quiet the body and mind, transform stress, anxiety, low motivation, distorted self-image, and to enhance the quality of performance overall.
Andreas, Steve and Charles Faulkner, eds. NLP: The New Technology of Achievement. New York: Harper, 1994.
Benson, Herbert. The Relaxation Response. Harper Paperbacks, 2000.
Chips, Allen. Clinical Hypnotherapy: A Transpersonal Approach. Kill Devil Hills, NC: Transpersonal Publishing, 2004.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Perennial, 1991.
Hall, Calvin S. and Vernon J. Nordby. A Primer of Jungian Psychology. New York: Signet, 1973.
Havens, Ronald A. and Catherine Walters. Hypnotherapy Scripts: A Neo-Ericksonian Approach to Persuasive Healing. East Sussex, UK: Brunner-Routledge, 2002.
Maltz, Maxwell. Psycho-Cybernetics. New Psycho-Cybernetics. Prentice Hall Press, 2002.
Ristad, Eloise. A Soprano on Her Head: Right-Side Reflections on Life and Other Performances. Boulder, CO: Real People Press, 1981.
Vanessa Cornett-Murtada is the Director of Keyboard Studies and Associate Professor of Piano and Piano Pedagogy at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis-St. Paul. An international clinician, she has presented workshops and master classes around the United States and in the U.K., Canada, Ireland, Italy, Serbia, Croatia, Greece, Argentina, and Taiwan. She is an active clinician for national conferences of the Music Teachers National Association, National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy, and College Music Society. She has also presented at the World Piano Conference, International Society of Music Education World Congress, International Conference of the Arts in Society, Annual Symposium of the Performing Arts Medical Association, the Centre for the Study of International Governance, and at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum.
Her publications include book chapters in the fourth edition of Creative Piano Teaching, papers in American Music Teacher, the MTNA eJournal, Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education, College Music Symposium, Clavier Companion, and The Canadian Music Teacher / Le Professeur de Musique Canadien. She received outstanding teaching awards from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and the Music Academy of North Carolina.
She earned her D.M.A. in piano performance from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and her B.M. in piano performance and M.M. in piano pedagogy from West Virginia University. She is a licensed hypnotherapist and a certified meditation instructor who specializes in the treatment of performance anxiety for musicians. Her current research focuses on mindfulness, musician health and wellness, and mental skills training for performers.