Author: Vivian Williams

Performance psychiatrist addresses stressed students

St. Olaf musicians often talk about the culture of perfectionism that pervades their social and academic environment. The general attitude is that with enough hard wor ak, perfection is achievable, and a good musician should not strive for anything less. The emotional stress caused by this attitude was one of the first things that Dr. Bonnie Robson M.D., addressed in her talk on Thursday, Oct. 29, entitled “Performance Psychiatry: Imagery for the Performing Artist.”

Although Dr. Robson has quite an imposing professional background (she has 30 years of experience as a clinical psychiatrist, and has held important leadership roles in the Performing Arts Medicine Association), her manner was friendly and personable. She made it clear at the outset of the presentation that her goal was not to help her audience achieve “perfection,” but instead to help them more easily achieve an optimal level of performance for themselves.

Optimal performance for musicians tends to manifest itself as a “flow state,” which is difficult to describe accurately even when speaking from personal experience. When Dr. Robson asked audience members to describe their experience of flow, people described it as both timeless and perfectly grounded in the present. In the flow state, the performer is free of any conscious concern about technical accuracy, yet somehow is able to achieve it nonetheless.

Robson was careful to emphasize the fundamental importance of knowing one’s own limits. Different personalities have different thresholds for stress tolerance; some people do not perform well unless they tell themselves that there is a lot at stake, whereas others are very easily pushed over the boundary from beneficial excitement to detrimental fear. Gathering this information is the first step towards knowing how to handle stress, and determining which types of stress are beneficial and which are harmful.

After laying this groundwork for the audience, most of Robson’s presentation talked about strategies and skills that musicians can practice in order to help deal with negative stress. Some of these were common knowledge to most musicians in attendance, like breathing deeply and trying not to be judgmental of oneself; however, Robson also delved into more advanced performance optimization techniques including visualization and imagery. She cited studies of internationally competitive athletes in fields like alpine skiing, golf and bobsledding, which provided evidence that practicing the visualization of success has a clear positive effect on performance, above and beyond the amount of improvement that can come from physical training alone.

Robson recommended that students use a three-fold approach to visualization practice: they should imagine how their successful performance will feel inside their body, what it will look like from their eyes as the performer and what it will look like from the eyes of an outside audience member.

Robson also gave examples of how to correct negative self-talk, which is one of the more pervasive and persistent problems that musicians face. This is another area where visualization could help; imagining the negative thought as a physical thing and then moving to swat it or throw it away could be an effective tactic.

However, merely shutting out problematic thoughts is not enough; to truly change one’s thought patterns, the negative thought must be replaced by a positive one. This positive thought does not need to be about a huge accomplishment – as Robson said, it could be as simple as “I called my parents today because they wanted to hear from me,” or “I went outside and got a few minutes of light exercise today.”

Goal-setting is another thought strategy that can help an individual shift to a positive mindset. Expectations of perfection can do serious damage to self-confidence when the musician, being human, inevitably falls short of their own high standards. Setting reasonable goals is not an ability that some people “just have” and others do not: it is a skill that musicians can (and should) practice.

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“Mapping the Planets” crosses disciplines

Astronomy may sound like an intimidating field, what with its heavy reliance on upper-level physics and mathematics. But according to Anne Collins Goodyear, former curator of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, planetary science can have a more accessible artistic dimension:

“The choice of colors in these pictures we get of outer space – that’s an arbitrary decision and an artistic one,” Goodyear said.

Based on her exhibit, artist Mary Edna Fraser agrees. “Mapping the Planets in Silk and Sound,” on display at the Flaten Art Museum through Oct. 20, is a multimedia exhibition that features silk batiks, or dyed clothes.

The exhibit includes works ranging from an image of a moonrise over the Pacific Ocean to a view of the Helix Nebula, a trillion-mile-long tunnel of glowing gases about 700 light-years away from Earth. Fraser is the top master dyer currently working in the U.S. and has worked in collaboration with geologist Orrin Pilkey on an exhibition about global warming that premiered at the Flaten Art Museum in 2008.

According to Dr. Jill Ewald, visiting professor of art at St. Olaf and former director of the Flaten Art Museum, the interaction between science and art could be beneficial to audiences.

“[Fraser] makes…more accessible some pretty data-heavy scientific explorations – global warming, space, oceans,” said Ewald.

Dr. Ted Maxwell, Senior Scientist Emeritus at the National Air and Space Museum and one of the chief collaborators on this exhibition, agreed about the inspiring possibilities of the project.

“I hope that people will read two or three of these labels [by the artworks] and go home and look up one thing on Google or Wikipedia,” he said.

Dr. Ewald, who made the decision to put on this exhibition while she was still director of the museum, said she chose to bring these artworks to the college campus because, “the college has been increasingly interested in interdisciplinary work. So has Flaten Art Museum. Such collaborations are important at St. Olaf and are important in order to solve world problems.”

There are benefits to the people who work in these collaborations, too. “[Artists] don’t necessarily have the same received ideas as scientists,” Ewald said. “Interdisciplinary work between art and science can help scientists to ‘break out of some of those received ideas in the field’ of science.”

While Fraser is apparently awed by the vastness of space, with her art she tries to bring a more appreciable, more human dimension to these images of space. For some of the works, like “Eye of God” the aforementioned picture of the Helix Nebula and “Dark Spot” a view of the Great Dark Spot on Neptune, a centuries-old storm, Fraser chose to paint the images on patterned silk to help make the image more relatable and remind us that “It’s all one creation. It’s all one gift.”

Fraser said in her talk that for some of the stranger or less identifiable images, she “humanize[d] them by associating them with a human being.” For example, an asteroid that looked like a floating burka or mummy wrapping reminded her of her daughter’s struggle with bipolar disorder that was encasing her the same way the asteroid seemed to be encasing something.

In the notes posted by each artwork, Fraser draws creative connections between the image depicted to other cultural images, such as Van Gogh’s sunflowers and a spacecraft launch she once witnessed, as well as to more whimsical images such as “a ballerina’s lacy skirt viewed from a balcony seat” or “a meditative state.”

Fraser openly admitted the exhibit’s indebtedness to modern technology. She wrote that her work draws on NASA’s “many years of outer space exploration and recent advances in photography,” which make the works shown in this exhibition possible.

Dr. Maxwell said that the collaborators didn’t meet in person until they arrived at St. Olaf a few days before the exhibition opened.

“Communication had been mostly by email, with a couple of phone calls,” he said.

Mark Mercury, the composer whose sounds provide an auditory dimension to the exhibit, said that he is “lucky that I have those tools to make the sounds I want.” His music combines orchestral and electronic sounds to express the majesty and strangeness of space, as well as the universal and timeless inspiration that humanity draws from space. The musical dimension pulls together the entire exhibit, just as in return the visual and intellectual parts of the exhibit lend a richness and meaning to the music that it would not have on its own.

The exhibit is on display in the Flaten Art Museum in Dittmann Center. It will be open through Oct. 20, 2013 closing from Oct. 12-15 for Fall Break.

Photo by Becca Rempel

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