Adina Mornell: On Learning How to Practice So as to Make Performing Something We Can Enjoy, Rather Than Fear

I was never a very diligent practicer, so I often went into performances with a pretty reasonable amount of doubt and uncertainty about how things were going to go. I wasn’t happy about this, of course, but recognized that this was probably how I ought to feel, given my level of preparation.

So one year, I decided to get serious about practicing, and doubled my practice time.

I assumed that putting in the time would change how I felt before I went on stage. That I’d finally go into a concert feeling totally prepared. With a greater sense of certainty about how things would go.

So I was surprised when I still got the butterflies, and had all the same thoughts about wishing I could turn back time and give myself a few more weeks.

What’s missing?!

It was both confusing and disappointing (I mean, I could have invested all of those extra hours into Mario Kart instead!). But it helped me realize that I wasn’t going to get rid of that per-performance uncertainty by simply adding more practice hours. Evidently, something else was missing.

But what?

25 years ago, finding an answer to this question was a real challenge, as most of this type of information was hidden away in the stacks of university libraries. And even then, very little of this type of research was being done with musicians.

Fast forward to today, and there are more researchers out there with music backgrounds, asking great questions and finding intriguing answers. So today, I thought it’d be fun if we could talk to one such person.

Meet Adina Mornell

Adina Mornell has enjoyed a blended career as pianist, educator, and researcher. A fellow Oberlin graduate (go Yeobies!), you might recognize her name from the reference section of several previous blog posts, as she’s done insightful work on effective practice and performance strategies specifically for musicians. She has been a visiting lecturer in places ranging from Los Angeles to Berlin to Vienna, and is currently a professor and chair of instrumental and vocal music education at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Munich, Germany.

In this episode, we’ll explore…

  • 2:16 – What musicians can learn about preparing for more reliable performances from aviation psychology
  • 4:44 – Adina poses a question that ends up being one of the themes of our conversation. Specifically, what do we need to do in our preparation to be able to genuinely enjoy our time on stage?
  • 6:21 – The challenge (and importance) of identifying what went right in your performance.
  • 8:19 – A glaring omission in the research on stage fright. And the clarifying question we should all be asking ourselves in advance of performances.
  • 10:08 – One of the first things we ought to do after a performance.
  • 12:56 – Adina outlines the four components of stage fright – physiology, cognition, emotion, and behavior – and a few things we can do about each.
  • 15:36 – Component #1 – physiological
  • 18:50 – Component #2 – cognitive
  • 22:14 – The tendency to think that our role as teachers is to find, erase, and prevent mistakes. But wouldn’t it be nice if time and energy could also be devoted to teaching students how to enjoy music?
  • 28:00 – Component #3 – emotional
  • 34:25 – Component #4 – behavioral
  • 42:07 – Adina shares details from a 2018 study which illustrates how difficult it can be to know if we are practicing effectively or not. And how some practice strategies give us the appearance of rapid improvement in the moment – but also lead to rapid forgetting, and gains that don’t stick.
  • 48:46 – Adina shares details from her 2019 collaboration with Gabriele Wulf (whose research on optimal focus and attention for learning/performance has also come up a number of times here on the blog – like here and here). Specifically with regards to what we should be focusing on when we’re performing.
  • 58:21 – Is any of this possible without recording? Or is recording an unavoidable necessity? Adina shares her thoughts.

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Noa
Growing up, I studied with a number of different people. But a woman named Marya Giesy was my primary teacher through most of my formative years, who, incidentally, was an Oberlin grad as well. And so, reflecting on my lessons with her, the older I get, the more I appreciate how remarkable a person she really is. But even as a kid, there are certain things that definitely stood out to me. One of them was the fact that she had her pilot’s license, which I don’t think I knew anybody else who had ever had a pilot’s license. And I remember her mentioning to me once that there were a lot of similarities that she found between flying and play the violin, but I don’t know that I had the presence of mind as an eight or 10 year old to ask her what she meant by that, or to have her elaborate on that in any way. So, when I learned that your dissertation involves applying aviation psychology to stage performance, I was very much intrigued and thought this might be a really interesting place to begin our chat. The first thing I thought maybe I’d ask is, is I don’t know if I know what aviation psychology even is, I wonder if I could just ask you to say a little bit about what that is.

Adina
I’d be happy to. The amazing thing about aviation psychology is that it’s not about finding out who did something wrong, but it’s about learning from experience for the future. So, what I did was I looked into how accidents or near misses, which are much more productive, by the way, how aviation psychologists go out to the scene, look at the bent metal or interview with everybody, or give out questionnaires to find out what kind of mental state people were in and what kind of physical state they were. And they gather all of this information in order to find out what happened, but their main goal, and that’s what I find so fascinating, that’s what makes it completely different than music, is it’s always our fault, you know, you’re on stage, something goes wrong, and sound doesn’t sound good, or you feel as if you’re not performing your best. And when you get off stage, there’s no one else to blame except yourself. And there’s usually no one there who’s going to give you an honest opinion about what actually happened. And in aviation, it’s completely different. It’s not about saying, Person A did something wrong, that’s why it happened. It’s about what are the human traits, what are the human errors, that led to the sequence of events that caused this near miss or this accident? And I found that absolutely fascinating. And I am not a pilot, but my husband is a private pilot. And I just remember some morning sitting at the kitchen table and thinking about this enormous difference between the security you have when you get into a small airplane or a commercial jet that you’re going to land. And I just had this image of, what would it be like if the pilot was standing next to the airplane, when you were getting on, and would be saying to you, “Well, we have a 50% chance that we’re going to land safely.” Nobody would get on that airplane. But when you ask musicians before a performance, you know, how is it going to go? How do they feel? Are they confident or whatever, you usually get sort of a 50/50 answer. Like “I think I’ve done enough preparation,” “I could have done more,” or “I’m not really sure.” Sometimes you get “I’m not feeling quite right today,” people start to build excuses up before the performance, so they won’t be letting you down later. And I find this absolutely at the core of what we should be doing, both as musicians and as music teachers. And that is, finding out what will make musicians…this is called the bulletproof musician…what will make musicians bulletproof? What is it that we as musicians need to do? Or, what can we teach our students to do so that they feel just as confident as an airplane pilot is, if I can use that analogy. You know, we go up in the air in our performance, and we want to be able to enjoy the time up there. And we want to be able to, you know, see the clouds, enjoy the sunshine, and we want to land safely. And we want everybody else to land with us.

Noa
You know, this phrase “to enjoy the time up there,” I don’t think is one that we necessarily think very deeply about in the equation of performing. But I think given, hopefully, where this conversation is going to go with some of the other research you’ve done, I think that’s a really important phrase to keep in mind. Because part of what I think helps us enjoy our time up there is also related to what we do in the practice room, what we think about while we’re on stage, and even results in a better outcome. But even before we go there, tell me more about some of the things that relate to…it almost sounds a little bit like what I’ve read about these so-called pre-mortems, like figuring out all the things that could go wrong in advance and trying to prepare in specific ways. So those aren’t as much of a stress when you perform. Is that a little bit what this is about? Or is it kind of a different thing?

Adina
I would say it’s different in the sense that I’ve tried to emphasize not only that it’s important to analyze what happened on stage in the past tense. But looking forward to what’s going on [right now]. I think it’s also important to remember what went right. And I’ve done a lot of workshops with musicians where I’ve had them question themselves, using questionnaires I took from aviation psychology, beforehand. About how they’re feeling, what they’re thinking, what their preparation was like, whether they really did everything they thought they could to perform. And then I asked them [questions] afterwards, too. Because anybody can do that, anybody can mark the score afterwards and say what went wrong. But I asked them to, to identify what went right. Because, unfortunately, we’re so used to avoiding mistakes, that we don’t use that resource that we have ourselves, which is [to see that] something actually went right. Something I actually enjoyed onstage, something sounded different to me, I was able…classical musicians don’t get to improvise, but I was able to improvise within the score on stage because I was inspired… those moments, they get overshadowed by this frustration of “Well, I didn’t hit that note in the fourth bar of the second theme,” or something. And I find it so frustrating, too, because, and I know I’m going off on a tangent, but I think this is so important. When I worked with musicians, and I had them record the concert, mark the score afterwards with where they think it went well, and where they think it went poorly. Oftentimes, you find out that the mistakes they heard didn’t actually happen. Now, why is that? That’s because when we practice – and this is something that I’m sure that we’ll get to – when you practice, and all you’re doing is making sure that it runs well or that you avoid mistakes, or there’s a measure where you’ve played a wrong note before, so you’re doing this “don’t play that note, don’t play that G, don’t play that G [because] it’s really an F sharp,” your brain has this enormous picture or mental representation of the wrong note, and just a small little picture of the right note. So, it’s no surprise that when adrenaline is flowing through your body, your brain is hyperactive, your brain is accessing the wrong note instead of the right note. Now I’m going to draw a broader circle and say that, although my dissertation was about applying aviation accident analysis to performance, one of the major things that I discovered in all of my work previously on stage fright, and then through this work with aviation psychology, is that we musicians blame everything that goes wrong on stage on stage fright.

Adina
And of the hundreds of studies that I looked at years ago, for my meta study that I did about stage fright, I found out that very rarely, if not almost never, did researchers ask musicians beforehand, whether they were confident that they could play well [on stage].

Adina
So, I’ve broadened my scope, and although I do teach classes and workshops about coping with stage fright, I’m much more excited about teaching musicians how to practice which I know you are also doing through your website, podcasts and workshops, and so on. Because it’s just too easy an excuse to say, “it didn’t go well, because it was too hot in the hall,” or “I would have had more time to practice but my cat got sick and I had to go to the vet.” You know, there are 1000s of ways in which we find excuses for what happened on stage without actually going back and saying, well, was I really in the position to play as well as I can?

Noa
Yeah, there’s a tendency, I mean, even for myself growing up, I always felt like I was underachieving onstage and nothing was ever nearly as close as what I thought it could have been or should have been. And, I always assumed that I just needed to practice more, but it’s a little bit more nuanced and complex, than just adding more time into the equation and reminds me of a quote, I don’t remember where it came from, but something about how in performance or under pressure, we don’t rise to the occasion so much as we fall to the level of our preparation. There’s some really detailed questions that I’m curious about. So, for instance, when looking at what went well, and what went poorly from the recording of a performance, it presumes that you’re recording the performance, which I think as a kid, I would have resisted doing because I wouldn’t have went to listen back. But do you write down what you think went well, and what you think went poorly even before listening? In the example that you gave? Or does that come after? Or both?

Adina
I think it’s very important to, after the concert, to take a snapshot of what did I feel happened? So that over time I can learn to actually hear what’s going on, so that I can differentiate between what was the expectation and what was actual heard. It’s a highly complicated process. As you know, when we’re on stage, we are hearing what’s going to happen next, we’re correcting what happened before. We’re sort of in three different time zones at the same time. You know, we’re in the future, we’re in the past or in the present. And I had a sound engineer in Berlin, who told me that as part of his education, he had this teacher at the engineering school, who had them listen over earphones to their own voice speaking, but with a delay, so that they were hearing themselves twice just to understand what musicians go through. And that’s just, you know, a fraction of what’s going on. But as I said, with time, if you practice not going into denial… I mean, how many times have I said to an audience of musicians, “what do we/ you do after a concert?” Usually, we shake everybody’s hand and try to keep on a good face and smile, and then we go to have a big drink, right? Which, of course doesn’t help us because we’ve got so much adrenaline in our system that would take quite a lot of alcohol to actually offset that. But what happens is denial. And going back to aviation psychology, denial would not help us worldwide to avoid accidents. And as you probably know, it’s safer to be up in an airplane than it is to walk along the street or ride a bike or be in a car. So, given that same safety standard and trying to apply it to musicians, we really need to get honest with ourselves about what did we actually do to prepare? How many excuses have we consciously and unconsciously built in? And to go back to something you said, also, when we go on stage, are we just there to count how many mistakes we make? Are we able to differentiate between practice when I’m trying to learn a piece, and it’s important to hear where I could get better, from a performance stage where I’m trying to be in the music and to express something and communicate with the audience, where music is more than just a sum of lots of right notes.

Noa
Right. Two qualitatively different tasks and challenges, and mindsets for each. Is there a particular process? Let’s take somebody who is preparing for an audition, for instance. Is there like a particular step by step process that one might go through? In terms of trying to utilize what you found? That happens in aviation?

Adina
Absolutely. The basis of aviation accident investigation is looking at all the evidence. And so, I have students, and first of all, I teach them the basics, what I believe are the basics of how the brain works on stage, which are the four components of stage fright. So, we’re talking about physiology, behavior, cognition, and emotion. And with those four categories, I have them not only monitor that while practicing, but also fill out questionnaires in advance, so that they start to see what is my personal recipe for excitement on stage? I try to talk not about “anxiety” or “fear” or “fright,” I try to talk about “activation.” What is that positive energy that I’ve got on stage? And what am I doing with it, and each one of us has a different way of channeling it. So, I think it’s really important to, to know that this is a complex process. And the most important thing is to say, okay, I’m willing to take the microscope to my own state of being and find out what is really my problem: Maybe my problem isn’t shaky hands or sweaty feet, or beating heart [although] I’ve always thought those are the superficial signs of activation on stage. So, I’ve always thought those were the problems.

Adina
The problem could be somewhere completely different, the problem could be failing to visualize what it would be like to be successful. Now I know I’m jumping to something that that’s a rather odd topic, but I think it’s so important. We practice being mediocre in everyday life. I mean, we want to fit in, we want to have friends, we don’t want to be that snobby person who was, you know, the one who’s getting all the first prizes and whatever. We’re basically trained through childhood and through our studies and through our friendships and through our colleagues, even working in an orchestra, to sort of blend in and now we’re on stage. And we’re supposed to be an egoist, we’re supposed to think about ourselves, we’re supposed to be proud of ourselves. And this is counterintuitive if we spent our life sitting in trying to get along with people trying to make friends. So, I think this is really important to know. And I believe that I can say this, after so many years of working with musicians around the world, we do so much worrying about mistakes, and so much fearing whatever failure is, fearing that something catastrophic will happen, that we don’t do enough time, don’t spend enough time or spend enough energy, imagining what it would be like to play well. And then making decisions in our practice that would lead us down that path of optimal performance.

Noa
I wonder if you could elaborate a little bit on that, but specifically, maybe through each of the four components, so what is the behavioral component of stage prior to the physiological component? And then even within each of those, what are some potential ingredients for working on that in advance or strengthening that particular area?

Adina
Yes, I’d be happy to. Well, I’m going to start with physiology, because that’s what everybody knows. The shaky hands, we call it butterflies in the stomach, but it’s not in the stomach, it’s behind [the stomach], like, you know, all of this activation when adrenaline is flowing through the body. The physiological component is of course, that basic animalistic instinct, fight or flight response. And that’s the easiest one, of course. Identifying [physiology is] the easiest one to teach because we have this really neat list of symptoms. And what I found over the years, is that the biggest problem is, that music teachers do not talk about this. You know, it’s sort of a sink or swim attitude because most…I don’t want to [knock them all], I’m sure there are great teachers out there… but all of the teachers that I had never talked about stage fright, it was just something, you know, that they just hoped that it would go well. And unfortunately for little kids, I’m sorry, I’m going off on a tangent, but I think this is important. You know, a little child, a four-year-old or five-year-old gets up on stage, adrenaline kicks in, and they play better. And then we sort of get addicted to this idea that, oh, we just need the right [level of] excitement. And then things are going to go better, instead of saying that’s a phenomenon that’s relatively limited to kids up until puberty. Right, so these physiological symptoms aren’t discussed in regular lessons and learning to identify them and rename them and say, “this activation that I’m experiencing, these cold hands (women’s bodies lose multiple degrees in body temperature, due to the fight or flight response), the cold hands, the shaking, the dry mouth, all of these things, those are great signs. They mean, my body is healthy, they mean my body is reacting to the exceptionalism of this situation, and they are giving me the ability to play my best. That’s, of course, what athletes do. If you’re about to take a jump on your skis, you are thinking about how wonderful it is that you have this adrenaline and you’re not thinking about, oh, boy, my knees are shaking, I’m not going to make it. So, with all of these symptoms that we have, we can say, I want to welcome them. And that’s basically the difference, whether it’s an athlete or whether it’s a musician, the difference between those who do well, and those who are victims of their own symptoms, is to say, “I welcome these.: And to answer your question, one of the most important things is to visualize the performance the day before, and to allow the symptoms to rear their ugly heads and to feel that excitement beforehand, because this goes back to studies in the 60’s with parachutists, because that way I can prevent those spikes of adrenaline from influencing my behavior. And I can also make sure that the overall level of excitement is kept to a minimum. So, for the physiological component, it’s a lot about understanding why I feel the way I feel and that it’s healthy, and that it’s normal, and that everybody has this, whether they discuss it or not, or whether they go into denial afterwards, and that with the knowledge about it, and with the proper preparation, and, most importantly, facing up to the symptoms and saying “I need them,” this is not something I want to get rid of, then we can do can pretty well with that.

Adina
The cognitive component, which is “what am I thinking,” or I call it the “self-talk” on stage, it’s hard not to crack [this problem], to figure out what are those negative thoughts that I’m thinking of, those that I’m accessing when my brain is just full of excitement and the blood is flowing, and I’m activating memories that I haven’t thought about in a long time because of this overexcitement. Where are they coming from? Are these views about myself that are from the age of four, when people have made suggestions about how I am and who I am, or, or [other] early experiences? Or I’d like to point out that we are very strange species, humans, because we store everything negative in high definition. So, if you ask somebody about a bad performance, I’m sure they have an example, right? You ask somebody about when was the last time they were insulted, or somebody said something that they did wasn’t right, there’ll be really fast about it. But ask somebody to recall their best performance, or when was the last time somebody said something nice to them or paid them a compliment? It’s going to be hard for them to remember. And this is of course, based on our biology or because we’ve been programmed, hardwired and have the software to survive as a species. And that means learning from bad experiences. And unfortunately, positive experiences don’t have that sort of value in terms of survival. I talk about this in my classes and with my students and say, well, we have to learn that it’s important to spend time savoring and storing the good things that happen to us, the positive memories, and with time – and I actually use a stop sign, a mental stop sign – with time you can learn not only on stage, but in practice, to stop extraneous thoughts, to stop negative thoughts, to stop undermining yourself with worries about the future and say: “Stop. I love this piece.” [Negative thoughts] always have to be replaced by something positive. And that can become something that’s just as automated as shaking your head when you play the wrong note. It’s about substituting the programs, those programs that we’ve been practicing since we’re very small. The first teacher tells you that you played something wrong. You start to internalize that and then you start to show it in some kind of gesture or facial expression, or, or a mental flogging of yourself when you’ve played a wrong note. And this is very important to stop, because that’s not what you need on stage. Those are the things on stage that are actually going to cause the cognitive deficits or the memory slips if you wish, this being caught up in your own film instead of being in the present.

Noa
And I don’t want to interrupt your flow of going into the other elements, but the thing that’s always been fascinating to me about exactly what you’re describing, is, we don’t really practice doing that on a day-to-day basis, because what we do practice doing on a day-to-day basis, is listening critically, to every little tiny detail of what it is that we’re doing on our instrument. And ,so, I think over time, I mean, if when you’re a little kid, you don’t really know how to listen critically to yourself very well, because your concept, your mental representations, as it were, just aren’t well developed enough to be able to understand all the nuances and details that as an older musician, a more experienced musician, you start to be able to hear and pay attention to notice. But I wonder, yeah, like, how does one separate out the kind of listening critically, that has to happen for effective learning versus mentally where one needs to be to be able to perform effectively without becoming overly analytic in that moment?

Adina
Well, I’m going to say something that may sound a little bit radical, but I do teach teachers how to teach. And I’ve been trying to say we need a new generation of teachers, who do not spend all of their lesson time correcting mistakes. There are many reasons for that. As you know, I’ve worked with sport psychologists also about when feedback is necessary, and so on. That’s a whole topic in and of itself. But the whole mentality of a lesson, which is this critical, finding the mistake, erasing the mistake, preventing the mistake, all of this focus on mistakes, even in the language of saying, okay, let’s go quickly to the “difficult passage.” So, I think we need a new generation, when we say, let’s go to the passage and give this passage a name, but maybe it’s “the challenge.” Or maybe this is “the storm,” or maybe this is “the sunset.” Whatever it is for that particular piece. So that these particular measures aren’t labeled with this negative connotation, which is exactly then what happens, we get triggered, when we’re performing and things are going well. And then the brain says, oh, it’s only three more measures till the space, right, that note or that trill or whatever that is that we’re afraid of. And we’ve trained that fear through practice, by looking for the mistakes and feeling as if we are just victims of them. Instead of saying, okay, I’m going to make the piece mine.

Adina
Now, there’s another problem there, too, which is, of course, for those of us who do not go on to be professional musicians especially exaggerated, this looking for perfection which may seem off place. There’s not enough teaching of how to enjoy music. To go back to what you were saying, this being whether you call it being “in the zone” or enjoying the performance. That’s not what we teach in lessons, we teach, right and wrong. I know, I taught myself and I still teach, just at a different level. But that cannot be our reason for getting our salaries because we find mistakes. And yet, that’s what we perpetuate, and have perpetuated for hundreds of years. Going to a lesson means, somebody is going to correct us. This was a very wide answer to your question, but I really believe we have to change our mindset, in lessons and during practice and then on stage to so that there’s not so much a shift between, I’m in the practice room, and I want to make sure I get everything right. So, I’m going to work on everything that’s difficult to I’m going to work on the passages that are most challenging. I’m going to work on the easiest passages. The late and great jazz musician Walter Norris used to say “there are no easy passages.” And that’s really fascinating. Coming back, by the way to aviation: When you do experiments in aviation psychology, and you look at major events. A major event will overshadow what happened beforehand. It’s the same thing with an auto accident. If you ask people what happened, they say the red car was speeding and hit the black car. And everything else [that happened] shortly beforehand [is gone], because of the crash, it has been basically erased. And the moments right after the accident may be highlighted first and then that drops off. Well, it’s the same thing in music. If we’ve practiced the so-called “difficult passages,” the passage before it has been in the shadow of that passage and has never really been thoroughly enjoyed or explored. And, so, I try to shift ,or I offer this way to practice, where you look at everything in the piece and not just those passages that you feel need attention.

Noa
Could you give an example or two maybe of how one would because that seems like such an obvious but such a novel way of approaching teaching like part of my job is to help you learn how to enjoy playing music, like that seems almost kind of foreign, right? Even though it makes sense that it ought to be a core part of teaching. Yeah, I’d love to hear like an example of what that might even look like.

Adina
Well, one thing that I think is extremely important is not to…, I’ve got to go to teaching children, we teach children. And then we know [for example] in June, that’s going to be the big yearly recital. So, we have lessons, lessons, lessons. And in the lessons, it’s always about learning new repertoire, getting the right notes right, getting the rhythm right, and whatever. And then, a couple of weeks before the recital, it’s, “well, let’s work on interpretation.” And of course, it’s number one, way too late. And number two, that mindset of “I need to get things right” is so ingrained, there’s almost no room for listening to what I’m doing and interpreting it. And in fact, in my years of teaching, I also discovered that many teachers would always take… other teachers were taking new pieces for the recital. And, so, I started to take older pieces for the recital. So, we would have months of “how do I play this piece?” “How do I interpret it?” “What are my options?” “How can I feel it what is what is practicing feel like when I’m not looking for errors, and improving my technique?” So, I think this is a really, really important part of training future musicians to perform, or even having preparing children for recital, that we do not have this major shift between getting it right, and being corrected in the lesson, and “oh, just forget that and go onstage,” it just doesn’t work. And yet, all of us – I want to just point out that it’s the same thing for you, too – That’s how we were brought up. That’s how schools work, too, right? You look at the paper that’s been graded to see what was marked that was wrong. And even if the teacher wrote something, you know, like, “very good” or something, well, you’re still looking to see where it was wrong. So, I believe we really need to change that mindset.

Noa
Maybe that’s actually a good transition into the emotional component of stage fright.

Adina
It’s, of course, very dangerous to have a group of students or even a single student and talk about emotions, if you’re not trained psychologist. And even though I am a music psychologist, I’m not a clinical psychologist. So, I found a way to work around that, in that I present a whole slew of topics for students to think about, or for musicians to think about, that involve emotions. I asked them to think back to where does this the self-criticism come from? Does it come from my motivation to play and I’m dependent on feedback from the outside? And, you know, we have these wonderful ears that measure applause. We can basically, it’s like a decibel meter, you know, [rate the applaus]: “Was it enthusiastic? Was it long? Was it loud? Was it fast? Was it slow?” We’re always taking in this feedback. So, I asked students to think about: “Am I doing this, because I feel insecure, and I need feedback from the outside world,” or am I doing this because “I enjoy the music, and I just want to share that with others”? I ask them to think about… there’s a whole cluster of topics that are extremely important, and I touched on this just briefly earlier, and that is, we’ve been training since early childhood. I mean, growing up in a family, you’re training your role in that family, and God forbid, you have a parent who’s a musician. You are constantly being measured against that musician, and you have your role because you’re the child and where does the transition happen where I know I’m not a child anymore, I may be as good or even better than the adults of the family. Or maybe you’re the smallest child of five in the family and your role has been to play the clown. And suddenly, you’re supposed to go on stage and be the big diva, right? And all eyes are on you and you’re supposed to excel at something, and yet you’ve been practicing this role of being the smallest one of the family, the youngest one, “I’m the one that gets left out or not taken seriously.” And of course, all of the roles that we play in the family, we also find in the orchestra in our relationships with teachers and our relationships in ensembles with other musicians. And to break out of that mold, as I mentioned earlier, we actually need a vision of success. We have to take time to imagine what it would be like to take that risk. And I’m saying that specifically [we need] to take that risk, that risk and even to enjoy the conflict that I’m creating when I play well.

Adina
Too much of our behavior is based on planning the escape route, what is going to be my excuse if it doesn’t go, well? What am I going to say if it’s mediocre? What happens if I don’t connect to the audience? I mean, I could fill a whole podcast with the thoughts that we have. And yet how much time do we spend thinking about: well, I’m really going to transport this music to the audience; I’m going to enjoy it they’re going to enjoy it and we will be in this together. So, these are just a few of these ideas, but especially to examine what role have I been playing for however old I am, 40-50 years of my life, I’ve been playing this role that I’m in: I’m pretty good, but I never really am so exceptional, that I risk losing friends or that I risk others criticizing me in a different way than they usually do. And I feel that’s extremely important to imagine and to think about. And, of course, as I was mentioning before, there’s a whole range of emotions that we have that are, of course, things we’ve been building up during our practice, [these are] thoughts that we’ve had. And it’s so important to say, okay, but I don’t need all of those clouds on my horizon, I want to have a sunny day on stage, I want to clear that out, I want to take these risks. Risks in the sense of, I can do better, I can change. So, those are some of the topics that I deal with [in regards to] the emotional component. And, of course, there are other things that one could talk about, but that’s sort of the essence, in a nutshell. Does this speak to the need to practice taking risks or engaging in some sort of visualization that includes the emotional component in advance. Or what would that look like, in advance of a performance, the whole topic of deliberate practice, and “desirable difficulties,” which is a term that Robert Bjork and Elizabeth Bjork at UCLA have coined in psychology, which is very applicable here.

Adina
That may be too much of a tangent to completely encompass right now. But let me just say that, I do believe that good practice means going beyond your comfort zone. Good practice means testing something new, never feeling as if you’ve reached it, never feeling as if you’ve gotten to that spot, and you just need to maintain the peace. Now, good practice means every day, I’m testing my own boundaries, I’m trying something new, and I’m going out and risking something in the practice room, so that everything will feel comfortable on stage.

Adina
That’s the shortest version, I can give you an answer to that question, because we would otherwise get into practice strategies, which is, of course, a whole other can of worms, which is extremely fascinating. But I really think that it’s important that we stop thinking that expertise is just the top of the mountain. And once we’re up there, we have a great view. It’s like the Sisyphus myth. You know, we are constantly rolling a stone up higher and up higher and higher, and starting over again, and going beyond.

Noa
Which was a little bit disappointing for me to discover. When I got like my second year of grad school. I was like, why am I not close to this place? I thought it would get to where then I’ve arrived. And I started to realize, oh, wait, it’s like going to find the end of the rainbow. Like, it’s always a little bit further out, which eventually came to embrace and see as being one of the great things about being able to be involved in something where that was the case, instead of some other things in life where like, you get there, it’s like, okay, I’ve, I’ve done it. Now what, but yeah, but it can be a difficult thing, I think, at some point, to realize. So, I do want to come back to the deliberate practice and practice strategies and so forth. But I don’t want to leave the behavioral component out of the equation, before we go there.

Adina
I think that’s going to work out just fine. Because the behavioral component is actually my favorite component. And it does lead to deliberate practice. So, we’re doing just fine on our path, that we have a sort of a thread going through this the golden thread through our conversation. When I started studying the behavioral component and looking for evidence about what that is and what it isn’t, I discovered that in terms of music, many people, researchers were looking at the behavioral component as being does he spend a lot of time on stage adjusting the music stand? Or is she pulling on her hair before she starts to play, you know, this kind of behavior. And yet, when you zoom out, and you start to take a larger look at this, you discover some really interesting things about behavior. And let me go to an analogy that I like to take from Shakespeare, you know, we always say “To be or not to be that is the question.” Well, with musicians, it’s “To practice or not to practice.”

Adina
And the funny thing is that everybody, probably people listening to this podcast, people who are musicians, people who are non-musicians: they [all] think that that’s what we do. That’s our job we practice. And yet, if you’re talking to a good friend, who’s also a musician, and you ask them, then they will admit that there are lots of times where they may practice, but they’re not practicing what they should be practicing, or they’re not practicing the pieces that are on the concert program that’s coming up, or they found all kinds of reasons or they’re in that terrible whirlwind of trying to make decisions about what to work on and what not to work on and to. Let me go back to that idea of zooming out and going from the bird’s eye view and saying, okay, what’s happening here? What’s happening here is that we are all victims of our own ego protection devices.

Adina
Right, our ego is so strong in “I need to make sure that nothing bad happens to me” that our ego is consciously and unconsciously (mostly unconsciously) saying, you know, let’s not practice 100% [or] everything of everything we know we could do, because then we’ll be completely exposed on stage. So, if I really do all of these smart things I’ve learned through the Bulletproof Musician, and [through] some of these great teachers I’ve had, and I really put in the hours, and I really face all of these issues, and I create new challenges for myself and practicing is interesting and creative and productive, and everything is perfect. And then I go on stage. What then, right? So, nobody does that. And in fact, people will admit to various degrees that they would not want to do that, you know, that that’s dangerous or something like that. But what we’re doing is we’re undermining our own self, because we are allowing our… I’m just going speak of just say, our ego… our ego, to spend a lot of energy preparing for something less than perfect. So, we want to have somebody or something to blame.

Adina
There was a study done ages ago, with Olympic swimmers, so those on the Olympic team, in Florida. And I remember it was fascinating. Two months before the Olympics, 80% of them got sick, they couldn’t go in the water. And this is something that they call self-handicapping. So, you can’t go in the water, they all got well, in time, they all did some swimming before the event. And now imagine them standing on the edge of the swimming pool, just waiting for the gunshot or whatever it is to go off, so they can jump in with their brain is going “Well, I’m going to do my best today. But I was sick recently. So, I’m not really responsible for my own performance, right?” There’s a whole slew of examples in public life where you can find people who have admitted to this strategy. And I say to my students, and the people who take part in my workshops: We have to get beyond that and start to say, self-handicapping in something that I can play with. I can ask myself: Do I really need to clean my apartment right now? Or would it be better if I just sat in an armchair and did some mental practice and went through the program one more time? Am I on edge? And am I likely to pick a fight with people I love right before performance so that I can get out some of that excess steam or something like this? Or am I able to recognize that sort of aggressiveness and as that edginess as part of my body coping with the experience of adrenaline and excitement, recognizing that and saying, some relaxation, some avoidance of practice, and especially if it’s practice that I’m playing through the program to see where it goes wrong, right? Some of that is healthy, but not all of it is healthy. And I need to start saying to myself: How many times am I distracting myself from the work that I need to do because I’m preparing an excuse if things go wrong. And that is my link back to deliberate practice.

Adina
So let me just tell you one little story. When I left the university in Graz [Austria] and took on the job in Munich, there was a transition period. I started in Munich in March. And I knew that in June I was going to be performing in a live radio broadcast and I was going to be performing in Vienna. It wasn’t a whole program. But it was still it was an important event. And I wanted to do my best. But I had no instrument there except that there was a room with Clavinova next to my office; my new Steinway grand piano hadn’t been delivered yet. And I was working nonstop because it was a new university, new people new everything. And, so, the only time I had left to practice was between 11 and midnight in the evening. So, I took my own medicine and I said: Okay, I’m only going to practice deliberately. And I’m going to keep a practice log. And I’m going to come up with desirable difficulties, I’m going to come up with challenges for myself, so that I’m always practicing something that I don’t know what that I can do, where I’m testing my limits, but I’m not running through the piece. In fact, I, I said: I don’t have time to run through the pieces. I’m just going to come up with a new idea, come up with a challenge. Play the piece. Good. I’m a pianist, so [I would] play the piece [with hands] further apart in the octaves, hands crossed, or without the third finger, or transposing the piece. I came up with all kinds of ideas, and I actually wrote them down. And I had this one hour of concentrated practice, only creating new challenges and only creative practice. I have that concert on DVD. I’ve never been that secure.

Adina
So instead of saying that it is my excuse “I don’t have an instrument. I only have an hour to practice. I’m tired. It’s evening. I’m not even a night person.” I said, “Let me make the best out of it.” And that’s what I think needs to happen with every musician in everyday life and not just when they’re up against adverse circumstances. We need to say that what I’m doing in the practice room should be enjoyable in the sense that I’m using my brain to come up with new assignments. And it shouldn’t be the routine of, I’m going to practice more and put in the hours. And I’m going to play through this piece. And that, of course, relates to the study that you read, before you contacted me, where we found out that musicians who practice routinely and put in the time and rehearse, rehearse, rehearse with no other goal other than to make it better, achieve less and actually play much more poorly to innocent and unknown blind reviewers than those who are coming up with new challenges and coming up with innovative ways to practice.

Noa
That is a perfect transition. This is where I was hoping it would go. So, it’s awesome that you did that on your own. I wonder if we could transition real quick to that 2018 study with Margaret Osborne and Gary McPherson, because one thing that kind of blew my mind when I came across it, was this idea that we are not actually very good at evaluating or judging whether we’re learning effectively or not. And the rapid improvement that we often experience when we’re doing rote repetition or mindless repetition, it’s very misleading in terms of how much of that improvement is actually going to be retained in the long term. And it seemed in your study that this is one of the things that you discovered. And it seems to overlap a little bit too with the idea that, you know, even if we didn’t know whether we were learning effectively or not, like there’s a part of us that that hesitates to go all in to some things that are not just more challenging, but also would give us fewer excuses at the end of the day. So yeah, I would, I would love for you to describe a little bit what you guys found in that study and what you did.

Adina
Sure, let me just give you one piece of background information that is that, especially in sports psychology, the late Richard Schmidt was a great leader in this field with his books on motor learning. Richard Schmidt was the first one to say there’s a difference between the momentary performance, so, the achievement I have in the moment, the how good is it right now, and more long-term learning. And that we actually cannot measure long-term learning in the moment, we can only see that I’ve done the work. And now let’s see two weeks later, [whether] have I retained that, which is going back to what you were saying. But yet, we live in a society where we’re always evaluating “What did I just do?” “How was that?” We’re not grading or commenting on things as if this was the path towards the future and this is just one step forward. We’re saying, “I’m not there, yet.” And fascinating, and I’ll try to stay on track with that, so the one thing is that when musicians have a practice session, and we asked musicians… we didn’t tell them what to practice, we didn’t tell them how to practice, we didn’t tell them how long to practice, we just asked them to evaluate how they felt their practice was going in terms of did they do what they were planning? How difficult were the strategies that they adapted? Were they easy to adapt hard to adapt with the effective were they not effective? And this momentary success was blinding to many of these musicians, because they felt like, well, I’ve practiced for 20 minutes this same Chopin etude, and it’s sounding better now. Whereas, when we listen, and the jurors listen to the recordings, it was 20 minutes of repetition, where you couldn’t even tell that it was that becoming better. You couldn’t even tell what was the focus of the practice, or what was the reason for repetition. And, by the way, there’s a series of videos that I’m allowed to use when I show this to audiences that are just fascinating to watch this, to listen into somebody else’s practice. And to see how there’s one example I have, where there’s a buildup of tension that leads this musician later to just shake out his hands because he keeps trying, trying, trying, but it’s not even evident to us what his goal is or what it was even that he was trying to improve. And then we have the other kind of musician. It was pretty much “those who did and those who didn’t.” We had another group of musicians, who were constantly trying different articulation, they were – in the sense of desirable difficulties – playing lying down on their backs, to see whether they could still get a good sound. They were stretching their own technical skills. There was one: I had one wonderful example of an organist and she was working on a piece (and of course for me as a pianist it’s already amazing, you know how many extremities are working at the same time), and she added to that she spoke the words to a German folk song while she was playing something in 5/4 time. And it sounds crazy and you can’t really tell what she’s doing. But when she stopped speaking, suddenly the 5/4 time was smooth. She had created an extra challenge for herself, that was allowing herself to feel the rhythm in a way that she hadn’t felt it before. However, at the end of her practice session, she said, “Well, it was a new strategy. But I don’t think it was very effective.” Because she couldn’t see that she had laid the grounds for long-term learning that was much more secure than if she had just repeated it, or taken hands and feet apart, whatever. So, the study was, in that sense, was a real surprise to us. Because there was such a discrepancy. And it was, I’m sure you saw that the graph, it was a real, an algorithmic comparison between those who said, “Well, I’m not really sure I achieved much” [and] when they did this desirable difficulty ([i.e.] creative practice), further away from repetition and from the norm. The effects, even for the jurors, listening to the end of the practice session, were much more striking were much more positive than those who had been stuck in the grind of repetition.

Adina
I just have to get this out, because it’s one of my favorite word games. You know, I like to show a slide that shows the word “rehearse.” And then I separate it out and say, yes, if you just repeat, repeat, repeat, which is the definition of rehearse, that comes from farming, going over and over again, the same field to have ever deeper grooves with your plow. And I said, “Well, if that’s your idea [of rehearsal], you are actually using a hearse and taking your piece to the grave, because you’re not getting further, you are engraving the motor patterns that you have, you’re saving them to a part of your brain that can only be pulled up as an indefinite sort of global blob of information, instead of having differentiation in the piece and what you’re storing, so that you have all of the different components and all of the possibilities to actually play it louder or slower on stage when the acoustics of the hall are different. I don’t have to tell you, every hall is different, every audience is different, every moment is different every day is different onstage, so we need that flexibility.

Noa
And I wonder if this even speaks to the phrase that used very early on today, when we started chatting about enjoying the time up there, right, when you’re flying, you will enjoy the time up there. When you’re performing. Ideally, you enjoy the time that you’re up on stage. And it would seem that this type of practice would not only make for maybe a more effortful practice session, but a more gratifying and creatively satisfying and meaningful practice session as well, which presumably would also translate into being able to have a little more fun and enjoy oneself and performance as well.

Adina
Right. And I’m sure that you also saw that I’ve worked with Gabriele Wulf, who is a sport psychologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. And she is a specialist on attentional focus. And this is the answer to what you just said, basically: The idea is that when I’m on stage, I need to focus on the effects of what I’m doing, and not on the small details. The moment that I shift my attention away from I’m hearing it, as you write “I’m in the zone,” and I go back to “Well, I better control this, it better be perfect,” even if it’s out of a good place where you say, “Oh, gee, this has been going well, let me make sure it stays that way.” You know, in that moment, I shift gears and I go from, “I’m enjoying the music, I’m hearing the music I’m sending, I’m broadcasting the music,” to “I better control what I’m doing. I’m going to be back in my body, I’m going back to the physiological component of what am I doing, which finger is going where.” And of course, you start to tumble in that moment, because anybody who tries to think about how to tie shoelaces will not be able to do it, you have to [just] do it in that moment.

Noa
I wonder if you can speak to that 2019 study that I think you’re referencing, the idea of the difference between an external focus of attention versus an internal focus and even degree of externality. I don’t know if that’s even a phrase, I’m just making it up. But you know, the degree to which our focus is, you know, more distal or more proximal, even at the external level. And what you guys found that, that seemed really, again, tied to this idea of having more fun and enjoying oneself more when you’re up there.

Adina
Let me just put it this way. This this study, we actually repeated a total of four times before we got it right in the sense of [it took us that long] before the data was clean enough, that the musical examples were short enough, that we knew that the reviewers were listening to the same thing. That’s a whole other topic, of course: How do we rate music? The first times we did it, we had longer pieces. And then the problem was, one juror was grading the performance on how many notes were perfect. Another one was grading the overall picture. And somebody else would get caught up… because there was some bad intonation in the fourth measure, but the 150 measures after that were just perfect. So, it took a lot of tweaking until we got to the point where we felt as if the data was representing what we wanted it to be. But in every single case, when we asked musicians in this concert atmosphere, but yes, it was our lab where we had a small audience and we tried to create the excitement of a performance. And we asked them to play the piece multiple times one time just we said, that it’s just to set the microphones up, that was sort of our control. And then randomized, of course, we asked them to play with an internal focus, meaning we told them, you’re going to be graded on the perfection of this, make sure that you pay attention that every note is crisp and clear, and that you’re doing everything right. This is about the accuracy of your performance. That was the internal control condition, then we had the external control condition that was you’re going to be rated on your musicality, on how you reach the audience, and think about the effects of your music and keep focused on what the composer wanted to express. And then we had another condition, which was hysterical, because we said, “Play the way you usually play” we had so much feedback… because I did post performance interviews with people… and it was just so fascinating, because they didn’t know what they usually focused on! And some of them were completely nuts, because they didn’t know what that was. And depending on when that [condition] came up in the list, they were more or less confused. And then also in the interviews, I had some really funny things, especially among jazz musicians, they said … because the most important thing was to make sure people follow the instructions… and when I asked jazz musicians, “Did you follow the instructions?” often, they said, “Well, I refuse to focus on my fingers and the accuracy of my playing. That’s just not how you make music.” Whereas, as you can imagine, our classical musicians were, you know, just great little soldiers in line where they said, “Okay, this is going be the exam. I’ve had this since I was a little child, that I get graded.” You know, I grew up in Los Angeles. So, I had that Music Teachers’ Association exam once a year, you know, where I knew that was going to be a report card, and there were going to be checks, and crosses everywhere, depending on how I played. So, it was totally fascinating, in that respect, independent of the results we had. And in the results – we had for the blind reviewers – it was totally obvious that the trials where they [the participants] had focused on the effects of music, were much better performances than those where they tried to be perfect.

Noa
So internal being where they’re focused on, like the minutiae of technical mechanics of playing their instrument, you know, the fingers, what’s my thumb doing, and bow control and so forth? Whereas external, being really focused more on the goal of the body movements, you know, hoping they can produce a certain kind of sound and focusing on how that fills the space and so forth. And maybe you already said this, and I just missed it when I was thinking about something else. But was there any sense of the musicians enjoying those performances more where they’re focused on communicating to the audience and focused on sound as opposed to their own internal mechanics?

Adina
Well, they definitely, we had them rate their own performances. And yes, the ratings of those performances were much higher, much better. And let me sort of tie this back to our airplane analogy. The important thing when I’m flying high, and I’m in the zone, or I’m externally focused, and I’m performing, I’m in a… I like to describe it as sort of an attentional focus bandwidth, where there are differences with some levels of control, some levels of influence, as I said, because the acoustics in the hall could be different. Or if you’re playing with other musicians, of course, you have to react to them. So. it’s not just letting go. I’m very careful, I do not use the word flow. Because.. .I don’t believe it’s possible to just flow, if you’re in the middle of a performance. Actually, it’s hard work. So, you’re in this bandwidth of external focus. And yet, you’re still working on your performance without sabotaging yourself. And then there’s a bandwidth where, because you want to be perfect, and because you believe that there’s a reason that the piece needs more attention in this particular measure, because you’ve built that up and now is the difficult passage, [and] we tend to leave that zone and we go back down to this sort of basic “nuts and bolts” level, and we may not have been at that levels for years, we may not have looked into the score for years, we may not have taken a good hard look at what we are actually doing. And even, literally, we may have not looked at that particular hand in a long time because we’ve just been making music. And when that happens on stage that I shift my focus away from the music, the composer’s intention, the audience and come back to the sort of visceral level of what am I actually doing here? The cogs get stuck, because I’m interrupting this motor pattern that that is still can still be influenced, but I’m interrupting it with a totally different mindset. And so that’s, of course, a practice strategy to say to musicians, it’s all well and good to, to practice external, but you also have to make sure that you practice enough of the internal stuff that you go back, even if you’ve been playing the piece for years, and you make sure that your basis, your foundation is so fixed in cement that even if something like that happens to you, you can quickly bounce back up because you know that, that it’s there.

Adina
My husband has a very good friend who is an actor, a Swiss actor and he once said to me, when you’re onstage as an actor, the next line just has to be there. You can’t think ahead to the next line, because you won’t be able to emote in the moment that you’re doing. And I believe that’s the same thing for us, we have to have reached that level of performance security in our practice, that we can just trust that the next measure is going to be there that the movements are going to be smooth, and that I take my attention away from my own body and my own ego, and projected out through the music to the outer world.

Noa
Would that be the way in which the performance focus or the external focus, complements or intersects in some way with deliberate practice and self-regulated learning? Which my impression is that that does at some point involve some understanding of the underlying mechanics of a skill and understanding Oh, my thumb is too tight here, I need to practice making it more of a habit to release when I shift into this position, and so forth. I wonder if you could speak to how those concepts might interact with one another or relate?

Adina
Well, let me go back to the beginning of our interview and say, if I’m looking at a performance afterwards, and I’m saying, here’s a moment where there was some kind of slight near miss, and I started to ask myself, why was there a near miss? Was it a passage that’s similar? And I was about to take the wrong exit? Or was it something that I haven’t heard? Because it’s an easy passage, and I haven’t given it enough attention. These are all moments where I can say, alright, what can I do in my practice to make sure that these blind spots aren’t left unseen? And that is the basis of deliberate practice is to say, what are the challenges I can face for myself? What are the new assignments I can give myself so that I move on and that I move on in a way that’s not threatening because I’m not trying to erase mistakes, but I’m trying to set new goals for myself.

Noa
I think we did talk about this before. But more and more, as we’ve talked seems like, recording oneself on some regular basis would seem to be a non-negotiable aspect of being able to do a lot of the things that it sounds like you’re describing to prepare for performance.

Adina
Yes, absolutely. I mean, when, when I was a child recording meant, you know, reel to reel, and it was very difficult. And you need microphones. And now everybody has a smartphone, almost everybody has a smartphone. and can record themselves in the practice room. And I try to encourage, and even require, that sometimes they take a good hard listen to what they’re doing when they’re practicing. And so that they’re not surprised by the external hearing that we have when we’re on stage. Because at the latest, when you climb onto that stage, or go on to the stage, depending on whether there are stairs involved or not, in that moment, when you are in the spotlight, you have to be sure that you’re hearing as best you can, what the audience is hearing. And that’s a different sort of listening. And the only way to reach that is of course, through recording yourself. Absolutely. And that, of course, is one of the goals that I set myself when I’m doing deliberate practice is I say, okay, I’m going to record this, and then I’m going to listen to it with respect to with mixed ability or with respect to variations in articulation, not just I’m going to listen and hear if it’s right or wrong.

Noa
So even being very specific with what your listening intentions are, which I think speaks also to that 2018 study where, if I remember correctly, it seemed like a lot of the participants weren’t especially specific about what their practice intentions and goals were, they just wanted to sound better.

Adina
Exactly. I love giving… whether it’s professionals and I’ve done this with fellow teachers and professors, or whether it’s musicians or small children… I love giving them the assignment of “Come up with three short term goals that you can achieve within a 10-minute practice session.” And I tell you, adults flop at this, because when I asked them for a goal, a goal always means improve intonation, improve rhythmic stability, be more expressive. And I say: Those are lifetime goals! That’s coming back to our picture of “You never reach it, you’re always reaching further.” And when I say no, I’m being something really specific, something that you can achieve today, something that is doable in 10 minutes. And I believe that that’s a skill that we all can work on ,in saying: What is it that is an effective use of my time? And what is such a specific assignment that I know when I’ve achieved it? Because as I’m sure you and your listeners know, in that moment, when I have that experience of “Oh, I did what I said was going to do I had success” even if it’s just a mini success, even if it’s just recording my own music and listening back to it, the brain releases dopamine and the learning is improved and the body is happy and then you can go out and take that walk that you deserve.

Notes

We allude to a couple different studies along the way. Here is a link to the 2018 study (Evaluating practice strategies, behavior and learning progress in elite performers: An exploratory study) that came up at 40:56. And here’s a link to the 2019 study (Adopting an External Focus of Attention Enhances Musical Performance) that came up at 47:35.

An upcoming conference!

Adina organizes a multidisciplinary international symposium – Art in Motion – where every two years, researchers, educators, and practitioners in sport, dance, and music gather to share their perspectives and insights on topics related to performance excellence. If you’ve been looking for an excuse to visit Munich, Germany (either in-person or virtually), mark your calendars – the next one will take place on June 2 & 3, 2023 (15 months from now), and the theme is motivation!

Art in Motion 2023

More joy in the practice room and on stage?

The live, online, 4-week Performance Psych Essentials class for students and life-long learners starts March 19th.

Registration begins TODAY, and runs through Sunday, March 13th. You can see all the class dates and find out the cool things you’ll learn at this link: Performance Psychology Essentials for Learners

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.

Comments

5 Responses

  1. This was great. It’s almost the first time I’ve heard any interviewee really hit the unspoken things — first off, the importance of flexibility, which helps with error recovery, and second the way that other life experiences can create mental obstacles on stage where you’re supposed to stand out instead of stay safe.

    The error recovery thing is I think especially important. In classical music there’s this high-wire mental picture where, if you make a misstep on the wire, you almost don’t have to worry about what happens next because what happens next is that you plummet to your death. That’s why making mistakes is so terrifying — there’s no recovery process. You can’t be musical when it’s “do it right or die.”

    But in reality, you CAN recover from errors. I think that’s the biggest difference between aviation and being onstage — in aviation, if the pilot screws something up, they can’t just let go of the controls and say, “Oh well, I blew it, I might as well give up.” You’ve got a planeful of lives behind you, so if you mess up at any point, you MUST find a way to recover. You don’t have what’s almost the luxury of making a mistake and thinking to yourself, “Well, I’ve blown it.”

    And I think practicing flexibility does that, along with knowing music theory. Teaching music has to be about more than just how to hit that part that you have trouble with but really, what to do constructively if you don’t. Well okay, you’re transitioning to D minor here, and if that C# is giving you trouble, maybe you can use an A or an E instead. If people are already going to go looking for excuses for failure, then maybe what they need instead are constructive OPTIONS that can replace the excuses. Having the security of a fallback that won’t send you plummeting can give someone the confidence to try for that C#.

    Maybe a good way to put it is that instead of trying to ERASE errors altogether, teachers should try to work on teaching students how to COPE with them. Because errors are inevitable, at least from time to time.

  2. Thank you, Noah! This is one of the best interviews I’ve listened to from many podcasts.
    I loved how you guys dug into the importance of challenges, almost creating to make mistakes to nail no-stones-unturned. Emphasis on external focus was very helpful too. I just wish you guys spent a bit of time on how to transition from deliberate practice to the external focus phase. Dedicating certain amount of time recording mock performance may be a good place?

    1. The research suggests that an external focus can be useful in the early stages of learning a skill too. But if you think of external focus as being especially important when it comes time to perform, yes, I suspect that practicing switching to an external focus on a regular basis in recorded run-throughs or mocks, can make it easier to trust that type of attentional focus when it comes time to perform.

  3. Excellent interview and extremely relevant content. Short of making a trip to Munich, I wonder if Ms. Mornell makes any other resources/training available. I’d love to explore these topics more deeply.

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If performances have been frustratingly inconsistent, try the 4-min Mental Skills Audit. It won't tell you what Harry Potter character you are, but it will point you in the direction of some new practice methods that could help you level up in the practice room and on stage.

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