Soothing the savage beasts

Richard Cox, MD, PhD, DMin, is a man of many passions, as his degrees in medicine, psychology and theology suggest.

"It became evident early in my career that any single discipline did not offer me the understanding of the whole person that I sought," says the founding dean and former president of the Forest Institute of Professional Psychology. His list of accomplishments includes four APA awards, a number of emeritus and other faculty positions, and many more.

Music, though, is what holds all of these worlds together. "It's bookends of everything I do," he says.

Richard Cox, MD, PhD, DMin (credit: Vera Olcott)It plays such an important role, he believes, because it helps him and others transcend life's more disturbing and disabling aspects. For him those include growing up in a dysfunctional family where he was considered a "mistake" — his mother had wanted twins, and at least one girl — and starting life with limited vision, deafness in one ear and partial deafness in the other. (He learned to hear chords and music in his head, and has recently benefited from new hearing-aid technology.)

Cox, who started playing piano at age 8 and who continues to play piano, as well as trumpet and pipe organ, is as accomplished musically as he is professionally and academically. He has toured in the United States and Europe, playing trumpet and some of the great pipe organs of the world, including the 350-year-old organ in the Queen's Banquet Hall at Oxford University. He has held invited workshops at some of the world's most prestigious music programs, including the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Interlochen, Michigan, numerous schools of music and the International Trumpet Guild.

But perhaps what gives him most meaning is helping other musicians address their fears and physical limitations — among them performance anxiety, and vision and hearing obstacles.

"Seldom does a performer have a single problem, but rather one that involves all three of my disciplines," says Cox, who has written books on performance anxiety and stage fright. "It's been a joy watching so many people transcend their own circumstances through music, and find a lifelong release and connection with the energy of musical conversation."

Returning the joy to performance

As a dancer for the New York City Ballet for over a decade, Linda Hamilton, PhD, witnessed the performance roller coaster firsthand: Along with the highs of gracefully dancing in front of an audience came such lows as performance anxiety, perfectionism, self-doubt and injury. She was thrilled at the chance to live her childhood dream, but she also saw her colleagues' insecurity, pain and constant sacrifices. One close friend from dance school had to have a kidney transplant, for instance, the result of complications related to anorexia, a condition that is all too common in the world of ballet.

Linda Hamilton, PhD"It made me wonder why there weren't more [psychological] resources available to help performers," Hamilton says.

When an ankle injury sidelined her from dance for several months, she decided to become that resource, returning first to college, then to Adelphi University to earn a doctorate in clinical and research psychology, all while performing full time. Her training taught her more about the challenges performers face, including injury risks and the so-called "female athlete triad"— disordered eating, menstrual irregularities and brittle bones. Today, she's the New York City Ballet's wellness consultant, and has reduced incidents of injury by as much as 46 percent.

She also helps opera singers, classical musicians, comedians and other performers learn healthier ways to prepare for performances emotionally and physically. Challenges for many are learning to be easier on themselves, to gain more effective coping skills and to enjoy training and practicing more. She might encourage a musician to play regularly in front of others so he isn't obsessively focused on a single performance, for instance, while with a dancer, she might suggest trying out several dance styles if a body type is not naturally suited to classical ballet.

"If you're always looking at the glass as half empty, it can spoil the joy of performing," Hamilton says. "I try and help people reframe what they're doing so they can learn and grow from every experience."

To watch a video in which Dr. Hamilton discusses performance-related issues, covering such topics as weight, body image and injuries, go to YouTube.

Hitting the right notes

In the late 1980s, then sport psychologist Kate Hays, PhD, started thinking about applying the principles of her field to arts performance.

"I was singing in an auditioned chorus in Concord, N.H., at the same time I was learning about mental skills training for athletes," she says. "Somewhere along the line I made the leap of saying, ‘Well, this is really all about performance.'"

Making that connection led Hays to a long and fruitful career developing and applying psychology principles and techniques to improve the performance of elite athletes, singers, musicians, dancers and actors. As founder of a Toronto-based practice called The Performing Edge and as consultant to the National Ballet of Canada, she uses cognitive-behavioral techniques, breathing, imagery and deeper therapy work to help performers maximize their strengths and minimize performance-related tension.

Kate Hays, PhD (credit: Gordon Hawkins Photography)Hays tailors her work to different types of performers. For example, singers may understand the right way to breathe to make the most of their sound, but not to relax their tension. Dancers, meanwhile, shy away from breathing techniques that require expanding and contracting the belly, but appreciate strategies that don't interfere with their stage appearance — for example the technique of expanding the rib cage to the side or back.

"If you're going to work in this area, you need expertise in particular domains," says Hays, who founded a section on performance psychology for APA Div. 47 (Exercise and Sport Psychology).

Hays also applies these principles to herself. As a singer with the 80-member Orpheus Choir of Toronto — an avocation she shares with her husband, hospital chaplain Jeff Brown — she may use self-talk if she is concerned she doesn't know the music well enough or is unfavorably comparing her voice to a fellow choir member's.

Her approach as a psychologist and a musician tends to share an analytical base, she adds. "I really enjoy the process of sight-reading music — particularly the shift from experiencing what I'm seeing on the page as utterly unknown, to being able to turn it into a lyrical line — and all of that happening very rapidly."

Fostering the inner life

If on an airplane, you spot a woman busily painting in watercolor, you have probably seen Ellen Langer, PhD.

Langer has trained herself to paint pretty much anywhere, an experience that allows her to produce her scores of distinctively whimsical portraits of people, dogs, chairs, tango dancers and more.

"It took me a while not to be self-conscious, but now I paint wherever I am," says the Harvard University psychology professor and researcher, whose paintings are shown in galleries in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and New Hope, Pennsylvania.

Ellen Langer, PhDOvercoming the fear of what others think is one of the obstacles to living a mindful, creative, authentic life, says Langer. Her definition of mindfulness is "the simple process of looking for novelty," she says, whether it's noticing five ways your friend looks different from the last time you saw her or writing about the images you conjure up from smells you notice when your eyes are closed.

"Once you recognize that you don't know whatever it was you thought you knew, it becomes interesting again," she says.

In her research over the last 40 years, Langer and her students have found that this strategy influences artistic and other outcomes. In one study, she and her team instructed symphony members to play pieces they had played many times before — first, in the way they'd always played them, and then, in subtly different ways that only they would notice. Listeners overwhelmingly preferred the mindfully played pieces, and musicians preferred playing them that way.

Which brings us back to her art. Langer never considered herself artistic, until 17 years ago, at age 50, when the combination of a personal whim and a dare from a friend enticed her to pick up the paintbrush and apply her "novelty" concepts to the canvas.

Now she can't stop, and she loves sharing her findings, captured in part in her book "On Becoming an Artist: Reinventing Yourself through Mindful Creativity" (Ballantine, 2006).

"People are living sealed lives," she says, dominated too much by outside influences and too little by inner ones. "I try to help them break that seal."

See Langer's work online.

Colorful character

The paintings, designs and jewelry crafted by early career psychologist Kristen Ohlenforst, PhD, say a lot about their maker: Bold, colorful and direct.

When she paints, for instance, "I execute [the painting] with quick energy and ample color, and then enjoy the completion and delivery of the final product," the Dallas-based practitioner says. "This approach is similar to how I approach numerous other projects in my life."  

Kristen Ohlenforst, PhD (credit: Allison V. Smith)Ohlenforst loved drawing as a child, but she didn't start painting until high school when an inspirational art teacher introduced her to the technical side of color theory and painting techniques and the pure joy of the creative process. She majored in studio art and design at the University of Notre Dame and continued painting afterward, supporting herself through graduate school at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center by painting for others, starting with an unexpected commission by a colleague of her mother's. During and after graduate school and on fellowship, she painted on commission for many Dallas and San Francisco private collectors, also showing her work in small galleries, restaurants and shops in both cities.

"I was stunned to learn that people would pay me to do what I considered a relaxing yet energizing hobby," says Ohlenforst.

These days her painting is a bit more in the background as she pours her creative energies into growing her group practice. At Therapy Dallas, she and three associates treat children, adolescents and adults with anxiety disorders using tools from cognitive-behavioral and play therapies. She's also used her artistic talents to design the office space, build the group's website, and create their print and marketing material.

Creativity underpins all of her interests. "Whether I'm sitting with a patient or standing before a canvas, I'm captivated by not knowing where or how things will unfold," she says. "I'm always eager to begin the creative process."

For more of Ohlenforst's work, visit her website.

More than a rose

Art Shimamura, PhD, is fascinated by photography's ability to make the ordinary into something new.

"When you see a painting, you know it's constructed, that it's put together by someone's creative mind," says the University of California, Berkeley, memory researcher. "But with photography, you take something that people are expecting to appear as it does in real life and you make it into something artistic."

Shimamura's aim is to bring together aesthetics, emotions and concepts.

"Some works only generate ideas, some generate only emotions, and some generate only ‘eye candy,'" he says. "But if you do all three, I think it gives you that ‘wow' experience."

An example is "Graceful Aging," the detailed portrait of a fading rose that APA members may recognize from the January cover of American Psychologist.

"My goal was to show that even in its later adult stage, the rose is still beautiful."

Another thought-provoking sample of his photography is "Broken Memories," a colorful mélange of ceramic shards from someone's life — broken tea cups, plates and other objects — left lying by a dumpster.

Art Shimamura, PhDThen there is "Subway Stories," which shows people silhouetted in black across several subway windows, with a woman in the last window in color.

"You can imagine a movie of each of those people's lives," he says, "but for me the central person is the woman on the far right." In essence she is a portal to the viewer's imagination, evoking different interpretations for different viewers. 

Shimamura is also taking his artistic interests back to the lab, examining the intentions behind filmmakers' choices and how people respond to them in a new field he's calling "psychocinematics."

"I'm trying to advocate a more scientific look at why we like movies," he says. "It should be a lot of fun."

To see more of Shimamura's work, visit his online gallery.