Most often, the stories we hear about confidence are the ones where the athlete (or musician) was certain that success would be theirs. Where they went to the Olympics (or the big audition for principal trombone) absolutely convinced that they were going to win.
That kind of confidence is nice, and it can definitely be an asset in tough high-pressure situations. But if you are having trouble finding the self-assured uber-confident hotshot within, don’t stress out about it too much.
Because that level of absolute certainty, where there is a total absence of self-doubt, is pretty rare.
Confidence is actually a fairly complex and individualized experience – it’s not as black and white as it’s often made out to be. And the good news is that experiencing doubts and worries doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t or won’t perform well.
What does confidence really look like?
Interviews with world champion athletes indicate that they too experience self-doubt, hesitancy and mental chatter as they approach competitions. However, this is balanced out by the following factors.
They consistently demonstrate a willingness to put themselves on the line and risk failure.
They have an awareness of their self-doubt, but also have the ability to remain focused on the immediate demands of the task at hand.
They report a broader perspective on competition and life. Meaning, they see their value as an individual being independent of how well or poorly they perform in any given performance. This is not to say that they are any less committed to their sport. But as so aptly articulated by psychologist Dr. Michael Mahoney,
“The term confidence comes from the Latin con fidere, meaning “with fidelity.” Hence, it appears that people who remain faithful to themselves – positive and affirming in their self-regard irrespective of any specific successes and failures – may ironically be more likely to render more exceptional performances.”
Regarding Factor #1
Cliche though this may sound, courage is developed in much the same way that we strengthen a muscle. Taking baby steps, push yourself to take risks and confront the possibility of failure on stage and off. As you do this, make it a point to remember your successes (and how even the failures weren’t so catastrophic that you’ll still be thinking about them when you’re 80). With time, you’ll have built up a whole highlight reel of courageous moments to embolden you when the next big moment comes.
Regarding Factor #2
The key is to identify what is important to focus on at any given point in time. Is it listening to your own sound? Feeling the rhythm? Paying attention with your whole body to the ensemble around you? Immersing yourself in the kinesthetic sensations of playing freely?
Regarding Factor #3
What are the myriad ways in which you matter outside of any specific performance? Take a moment to remind yourself how you matter to those around you as a sibling, son or daughter, parent, friend, teacher, neighbor, volunteer, member of a community/organization/ensemble, and the countless other ways in which you can and do make a difference to others in the world – none of whom care if you crack a note or have a memory slip.
As Pablo Casals once said, “A musician is also a man, but more important than his music is his attitude to life.”
The one-sentence summary
“If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.” ~Vincent Van Gogh
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.