But as useful as these strategies can be, they all take some time, planning, or effort. Meanwhile, there’s one pretty obvious thing that has been conspicuously absent from my list of suggestions. So obvious, in fact, that once you find out what it is, you may be tempted to stop reading.
But this should probably be the first thing we try if our mind starts feeling fuzzy and we’re having difficulty staying on-task.
What is this thing exactly?
A drink of water.
Yeah, I know. Totally boring. But here’s the thing. We all know how much of an impact hydration can have on physical performance, but we tend not to think of its impact on mental performance.
And research suggests that being slightly dehydrated could have a more noticeable impact on our ability to concentrate, make decisions, and problem-solve than you’d think.
How much of a difference, you ask?
A pair of researchers scoured the literature for all the studies they could find related to cognitive performance and hydration. Altogether, there were 33 that met their criteria (e.g. healthy adult subjects, measured before/after changes, etc.).
After combining all the data from these studies, they found that being mildly dehydrated (which is probably where you’re at if you’re thirsty) had a significant impact on some aspects of cognitive performance.
Lower-order processes, like reaction time, weren’t affected all that much. But higher-order processes like attention, executive function, and motor coordination – the kinds of processes that are needed for effective practice –did take a hit.
Ok, but how meaningful of a difference was there? Are we talking about a tiny, statistically-significant-but-practically-trivial difference? Or a difference that’s meaningful enough to affect our productivity in the practice room?
A couple clues
There aren’t any studies (that I’m aware of) that have looked specifically at the impact of hydration on practice room effectiveness or on-stage performance. But there are a couple in some other areas of performance that could give us some inkling of the potential impact.
One study had a dozen participants engage in a variety of card-game-like challenges ranging from easy to difficult.
They were first tested on a typical day, asked only to make a note of whenever they drank water.
Then, weeks later, they were tested again – but while deprived of water.
Some weeks later, they were tested a third and final time – but with water provided to make sure they were properly hydrated1.
As expected, being dehydrated led to a significant drop in performance. Specifically, they made about 12% more errors. But when they were properly hydrated on the final test, their performance went back to normal.
In another study, this time of 447 university psychology students, researchers found that those who brought water to an exam scored about 5% higher (i.e. half a letter grade) than those who didn’t.
I’m not sure what adaptations would have to be made for musicians. But a friend once experimented with drinking a glass or two of water a couple hours before performing, and then a few sips shortly before. It’s hard to quantify the difference, but they reported feeling much better on stage, and thought it was an important element to add to their day-of-performance gameplan.
Everyone’s ideal hydration “formula” will obviously be a bit different, but I’d be curious to hear if you’ve ever followed a hydration plan for performances, rehearsals, or practicing. What have you found most helpful for you?
Or, perhaps more intriguingly, has anyone experimented with having a student drink some water before a lesson to see how that might affect their level of concentration and focus? Especially if they’re coming from a long day of school, after which their brain is already a little fried?
Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.
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 a few tweaks in your approach to practicing. 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 discover the 7 skills that are characteristic of top performers. 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.