Build Greater Confidence by Approaching Practice Like a Surgeon

I went to the Aspen Music Festival for many summers to study with Paul Kantor, who wisely (but frustratingly!) didn’t always give me the answers.

As my teacher, I expected him to tell me what was wrong, and how to fix it. But often, he’d flip roles and ask me what was wrong, why I thought so, and how I ought to approach changing things. Sometimes he’d even mimic and exaggerate what he saw me doing (ack, the horror!), and ask me to play the teacher role.

As a kid, I didn’t want to think so hard. This was messy. It involved a lot of educated guessing, stumbling around, trial and error, and periods of frustration.

I enjoyed clarity, and so all I really wanted from a lesson was to be told what to do next so I could go work on it.

I mean, isn’t that what a teacher is supposed to do?

A surgeon’s keys to learning

Ramsey Musallam was a young high school chemistry teacher, with one 2-year old daughter and a baby on the way, when he was diagnosed with a large aneurysm that required open heart surgery.

He admits to freaking out like any normal person would, but that he also took great comfort in his surgeon’s confidence. He asked his surgeon where this confidence came from, and his surgeon responded with three keys.

  1. His curiosity drove him to ask hard questions about the procedure. What really works? What doesn’t?
  2. He embraced the inevitable and messy process of trial and error.
  3. Through intense reflection, he gathered the information needed to design and revise the procedure.

Musicians may not deal with issues of life and death on a daily basis (though it can feel like it sometimes), but it seems to me that this model is just as applicable and valuable for musicians as it would be for surgeons.

How so?

Curiosity and tough questions

Listening back to a recording, what sounds good? What doesn’t sound so good? What’s working? What isn’t working? Why? Why not? What assumptions do we need to question?

Embracing the mess

I didn’t mind tidying up from time to time, but I used to resist cleaning my room, because it meant emptying the closet, dragging things out from under the bed, clearing off the desk, and making everything a lot messier before it got any better.

We like things to sound good even in the practice room, so it can be difficult to be patient and allow ourselves the freedom to experiment and try different things that might sound worse in the short term – but could eventually lead to breakthroughs in our playing.


This is the part that might be most difficult. Not because it’s actually difficult, but because it’s a lot of work! Actually thinking, pondering, and stewing on what we observe in our practice, and what we are learning from our trials and errors can be exhausting!

I didn’t want to think that hard in the practice room. I just wanted things to get better on their own. And they usually would – to a degree – if I just kept playing things over and over.

But not at the rate that I wanted. And not at the level of consistency that I needed. And certainly not in such a way that I felt confident about my ability to reproduce what I had prepared when the stakes and the pressure were cranked up.

But this is where I’d argue that much of the real learning happens. Where all the questions consolidate into a new theory of how things work. How left-hand pizz works. How upbow and downbow staccato works. How playing fifths in tune work. How resonant sound works. How clear attacks work. How playing softly works. How nailing the high note works.

Where things become less about crossing your fingers and hoping it sounds like it did in the practice room, and more about knowing that it’s going to sound like you want, because you know exactly what works and what doesn’t.

Frypans are %&#$ hot!

This process of asking one’s own questions, stumbling around to gather one’s own data, and pondering on the data to discover one’s own conclusions is actually a hugely gratifying process, and while not as easy as simply being told what to do, can be a much more robust process as well.

I remember being about 2 years old, watching my Dad cook pancakes on an electric griddle. Like any 2-year old, I couldn’t understand why my Dad kept trying to keep me away from the griddle. He said it was “hot,” and that it would hurt, but that didn’t really mean anything to my 2-year old brain.

So what did I do? When he wasn’t looking, I touched it. And quickly discovered what “hot” meant.

We can certainly learn a lot from wiser, more experienced folks, and there’s a lot to be said for heeding their advice so we can get to where we want to go more quickly and avoid unnecessary missteps and boo-boos.

But sometimes, especially when it relates to confidence, we have to figure things out the hard way. Because it’s one thing to be told what to do, and another thing to discover and learn for ourselves.

The one-sentence summary

“I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand.” ~Confucius

Additional resources

Ramsey Musallam on 3 rules to spark learning @ TED

Paul Kantor on Dorothy Delay and teaching vs. learning

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

For most of my life, I assumed that I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, with time and performance experience, the nerves would just go away.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and start enjoying more satisfying practice days that also transfer to the stage.


10 Responses

  1. This is perfectly confusing as it should be. I never give my students answers. I make them give me answers. I make them teach me. If there is something new to learn, it isn’t learned until it can be taught. That is why I also expect my students to “teach” or mentor my less advanced students. If a student cannot think for themselves, or they may as well not be students. AND as teachers we must be willing to risk being wrong in order to inspire creativity and pleasure that is rewarded us as musicians.

    1. This is great, Mary. My 7-yr old has been involved in Tae Kwon Do the last couple years, and one of the things I love is when I see the older kids being put in a position where they have to teach the younger kids (and with the younger kids sometimes teaching the even younger kids, which is super cute).

  2. Mary, we share more than the same first name! When my students enter 9th grade at school we begin pedagogy classes in my studio, which leads to their doing guided practice for younger, less advanced students — for the same reasons you cite in your comment above. This is an excellent win-win situation for all concerned. The in-training teachers grow rapidly in their understanding of learning processes, and the younger students have a helpful role-model to work with. The in-training teachers earn an income that will serve them for many years through university and getting started in the world. Many continue teaching because they enjoy doing it and find the work not only satisfying but very rewarding. The goal to become a certified Music Teachers Association teachers keeps them growing and developing as well as building a resource of excellent music teachers, which every community needs.

    1. Hi Mary,

      You know, I think the notion of “Those who can, do. Those who cannot, teach.” has been really detrimental. Teaching (or “facilitating learning” I should probably say) is such a valuable skill, and one that most of us don’t get many opportunities to learn and practice at an early age. Your system sounds like a terrific idea. In grad school, doctoral psychologists-in-training are not only supervised by licensed psychologists, but also have to supervise masters-level counselors-in-training. Cliche as it may sound, it’s true that I probably learned as much from being a supervisor, as I did from being a supervisee.

      On a practical level, I love the idea of teaching as being an additional income stream as well, as there are surprisingly few truly great teachers, and yet always a need for more, whether it’s music, eco-friendly gardening, or web design for food bloggers.

    2. Hi Mary,

      I am really interested in your system and I am wondering how I can implement it in my own studio. The idea of “teaching kids to teach” is very intriguing; what kinds of things do you cover in pedagogy class?


  3. Absolutely agree on what you said above. I ask a lot of questions to my violin students and sometimes they look more pressured to answer than to be asked to simply play better.
    Since you brought up surgeons truing, I wanted to share – I am guessing you might have read this already – this absolutely inspiring address. I keep reading this everytime I need inspiration.

    BTW, I was lucky to observe your teacher, Prof. Kantor’s master lessons and it was such a pleasure to watch him helping students.

  4. I am a surgeon (my day job). I totally agree with your comments in this blogpost. And there is one more point I’d make along this medical analogy: Internists PRACTICE medicine. Surgeons PERFORM surgery. At the end of that analytical questioning and answering you ultimately go out there and do what you prepared to do.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You'll also receive other insider resources like the weekly newsletter and a special 6-day series on essential research-based practice strategies that will help you get more out of your daily practice and perform more optimally on stage. (You can unsubscribe anytime.)

Download a

PDF version

Enter your email below to download this article as a PDF

Click the link below to convert this article to a PDF and download to your device.

Download a

PDF version

All set!


The weekly newsletter!

Join 45,000+ musicians and get the latest research-based tips on how to level up in the practice room and on stage.



Discover your mental strengths and weaknesses

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.