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Neurofeedback Tunes the Brain for Better Singing and Performing

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If Anne Graczyk focused on anything during her high school opera performances, it was the fact that her pantyhose were too tight. She thought of pantyhose through Mozart, Sondheim, and Jerome Kern. Other recital-time musings included homework and the weather. As long as the aria continued, she figured no one would notice. She had a larger than life voice, and the sound emitted from her tiny frame could easily fill the Windsor Locks High School auditorium.

Yet, while teachers gravitated towards Anne's raw talent, on stage they saw a schizophrenic energy. "I thought if I learned the song and my voice felt right, that was the end of my practice," Anne said. "Even though I had unfocused eyes and intentions, my voice still came out." But Rae Tattenbaum, a performance coach and licensed clinical social worker, knew a good voice wasn't everything. She saw that Anne, 16, was a talented singer lacking in other aspects of performance. This artful but scattered high school singer would inspire Tattenbaum to modify her career.

After meeting Anne in 1996, Tattenbaum became the first-- and only-- practitioner in the country to specialize in using neurofeedback with singers. Tattenbaum had quit her work coaching in the corporate world in 1994 to become an expert in neurofeedback. She began coaching people towards an attentive mind by "feeding back" information to them about their brainwaves. Sensors placed on a person's scalp fed brainwave information to a TV screen, and over time, a person would learn to improve his focus. Each time a bird appeared on the screen, a person would identify with the attentive state of her brain and learn to maintain this state. A constant tone would also inform her of focused brainwaves, while blips of sound would reveal faltering attention.

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Neurofeedback can be used to improve many conditions, but Tattenbaum, after meeting Anne in 1996, decided to focus on singers and performers. Tattenbaum created her peak performance program called "Inner Act," a five-component program designed to enhance performance, and in the process became the first person to combine the first and most important component, neurofeedback, with four crucial elements: mental imagery, or images of achievement; "inner journey work," an internal visualization technique that removes barriers to singing; "open focus," or attention training; and coaching.

"You're programming yourself," Tattenbaum said in between sessions at her Connecticut office. "Neurofeedback and other techniques I use activate the brain and its connection to the muscles. Then you create a multi-sensory image of the ideal performance and embed this image in your brain, muscles and cells until it becomes automatic." Her work, which started with a few clients in West Hartford, CT, has now reached about 700 performers worldwide, and she commonly travels to the Metropolitan Opera to work with internationally renowned singers like base-barritone John Cheek and soprano Mary Dunleavy.

Tattenbaum's success hasn't come without difficulties-- "she's been sick with Lyme Disease for the past two years. But now she's back to full time, and so far this year has taught over 500 people about her work, given workshops at top universities such as UCLA and USC, and is co-authoring a chapter in a neurofeedback textbook, "Introduction to Quantitative EEG and Neurofeedback, 2nd Edition" due to be published in 2007 by Academic Press.

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"She's the first to use this combination of techniques," said Nancy Anderson, a voice teacher for the Hart School of Music in Hartford, CT, who has sent several dozen students to Tattenbaum and helped her quantify the program's success in a scientific study. "Rae weaves together a tapestry for the individual that addresses all the aspects of performance so many young singers lack-- "she coordinates singing with breathing, body movements, and acting."

Anne Graczyk, now 25 and accepted into the Chicago Opera Theater's Young Artist Program-- one of the most reputable apprentice programs in the country-- tilts back in the leather chair in Tattenbaum's Connecticut office. Covered with a comforter and a couple of electrodes, she watches the TV images. After seeing Tattenbaum for three hour-long sessions per week over two years, she mostly practices on her own, returning to Tattenbaum only before major performances, such as her upcoming performance November 7 as a mezzo intern for the American Opera Projects. Her composer will design a piece based on her performance, which she will then sing at the Lincoln Center Theater. The program has been a starting point for opera singers going professional. Tattenbaum watches Graczyk's computerized brainwaves, standing beside a basket of drums and other musical instruments and a model of the brain. A gong sound starts and stops, indicating Graczyk's level of focus, as the TV images continue.

"There will be a moment when all the noisiness of your brain begins to go away," Tattenbaum says. "Your lack of focus is creating a few stuck points, some irritation." As Graczyk's attention increases, she makes the computerized gong sound constant. She knows she's succeeding as the sound continues, and accesses this state again when she performs.

Tattenbaum commonly uses a second technique along with this neurofeedback that she calls "Inner Journey Work" when performers are wrestling with barriers. Barriers may include anxiety or lack of focus with difficult pieces, physical constraints like allergies, or emotional blocks such as pressure of being the youngest singer in a musical family. While in a relaxed state, the performer recognizes rehearses through constraints. Metropolitan Opera soprano and internationally acclaimed singer Mary Dunleavy remembers what brought her to Tattenbaum. She had just performed in "The Tales of Hoffmann" for the Connecticut Opera in 2002. Her character was a mechanical doll-- on roller skates.

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"My body was tightening up," Dunleavy said. "The challenge didn't hit me until the performance. This doll was so artificial and mechanical I could barely breathe, and I kept worrying about the roller skates." Tattenbaum guided Dunleavy through mental imagery, the third of five parts of the peak performance program. Mental imagery consists of separating out each component of the role and imagining its ideal execution. Dunleavy pictured the movements of the doll's body, the skating, and the place she'd begin singing. Then she imagined everything together on top of the page of music-- a visual movie of the performance attached to the score.

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Erica Rosenberg wrote this article while attending the graduate journalism program at Columbia University. She received her M.S. in journalism there in 2005.

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Neurofeedback Tunes the Brain for Better Singing and Performing