Everything You Do is an Accident, if You Don’t Do This First

My kids recently took a belt test in their Tae Kwon Do class. One of the last parts of the test is board breaking. It usually takes a few tries for each student to successfully make the break, but it all goes pretty smoothly and everyone gets the job done. On this day, however, there was one student who caught everyone’s attention.

She had successfully gone through her skills and her pattern, and was clearly capable of executing the kick with the necessary force to break the board. Yet, for some reason the board was not breaking. All the other students had already finished breaking their boards, so the room had grown quiet and the eyes of every student, parent, and teacher were on her and this stubborn board.

As the seconds ticked by and attempt after attempt failed to break the board, the little 6-yr old was becoming increasingly flustered. As she fought to hold back tears, she started rushing and hacking at the board faster and faster. You could feel the empathy of all of the parents in the room, as most of us have had similar moments in our lives where we wished we could turn invisible and disappear. Finally, one of the advanced black belts came over, helped her calm down, focus, aim, and make the attempt really count.

When she finally composed herself and broke the board, we all breathed a sigh of relief and gave her a resounding round of applause. At the time I thought it to be a great demonstration of perseverance (one of the 5 tenets of Tae Kwon Do that they work to instill in the students). But as I reflected on the moment, the performance psychologist in me remembers being most fascinated by her natural inclination to begin rushing and hurrying her kicks as her frustration grew.

How often, when we can’t do something, do we impulsively jump back in immediately to correct it? I was often guilty of cutting my teacher off in mid-sentence and playing a passage over before they had fully explained themselves – and before I had given myself a chance to really hear what I intended to change.

Hear before you play

I once had a coaching with Leon Fleisher in which he repeatedly emphasized the importance of knowing exactly what you want to hear coming out of your instrument before you begin to play. Watch the following short-but-sweet video where he says this to great effect (I’ll admit to being a bit biased; I can’t help but feel that pretty much everything he says is incredibly thoughtful, insightful, and profound).

Leon Fleisher: Hear it before you play it

“Quiet Eye”

Sport psychologists seem to be on the same page. Researchers have studied the relationship between how long you spend looking at a target, and how successful you are in executing a skill. In basketball free throws for instance, it appears that skilled performers spend more time with their eyes fixated on the target (basketball hoop) before launching the basketball, than less skilled, and less successful performers. Researcher Dr. Joan Vickers has dubbed this period of gaze fixation “Quiet Eye”.

In 2002, another group of researchers did a study of competitive and non-competitive billiards players. They found that regardless of how difficult the shot was (or how skilled the player was), the quiet eye duration for successful shots was more than 2.5 times greater than that of unsuccessful shots.

It is thought that the quiet eye period reflects the time our brain takes to program, organize, and prepare our motor movements before we actually execute the action.

Take action

Applying this to music, I think it is exactly as Fleisher says in the video: hear before you play (“Quiet Ear”, if you will). A particular sound or sequence of sounds, after all, is our ultimate target. Not merely pressing a certain combination of keys, moving our lips in a certain way, or putting putting our fingers in particular places in a specific sequence.

Whether you are practicing or about to launch into a performance, take a moment to really envision exactly what you want before you play. Otherwise, whatever comes out of your instrument is really more happenstance than planned. (Incidentally, is there some auditory equivalent for the word envision that thesaurus.com isn’t revealing? I’m pretty sure “enhear” is not a real word.)

And if all of this sounds vaguely familiar, you may recognize “Quiet Ear” as one of the key steps in Centering (a skill which allows musicians to get a handle on pre-performance jitters and ensure they get off to a great start in each and every performance).

The one-sentence summary

“Organizing is what you do before you do something, so that when you do it, it is not all mixed up.”  ~A. A. Milne (best known as the author of the Winnie the Pooh books)

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

For most of my life, I assumed that it was because I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, if I performed enough, the nerves would just go away and everything would take care of itself.

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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!).

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13 Responses

  1. I recently discovered your blog and am really enjoying it. As an Alexander Technique teacher, this particular post hit home with me. The tendency to rush into things mindlessly without consideration to how best to do them is the very thing that causes many performance related problems. Besides taking us out of the present moment, it creates conditions in ourselves that are less than ideal to carry out our task (performance). Your advice is spot on (love the “quiet ear”!) And I really appreciate what Mr. Fleisher says in this video: It’s not the muscles, but the brain (paraphrasing here) we are ultimately changing as we learn music. Being perfectly clear about what we want, and allowing time to create the conditions in ourselves that best support what we want (again, the “quiet ear”), is key to consistently performing our best, and to staying on a path of continuous growth and improvement. Thanks for a marvelous article.

    1. Indeed, it’s interesting how time distorts under pressure and we feel compelled to rush, and like you say, “fail to create the conditions in ourselves that best support what we want.” (Incidentally, I rather like how that’s worded. Really captures the essence, I think.).

      Which reminds me, I once watched a teacher stop a student in a master class and make them spend an extra 20 or 30 seconds tuning to ensure their instrument was completely in tune. The rationale being, of course, that you’ve spent countless hours in the practice room working to be able to play in tune; why would you throw all that time away just to save a few seconds on stage?

  2. I was lead to this article from a twitter feed and for that I am grateful. What Leon said makes total sense and is something that I will be trying harder to do. How many times have I had students start racing at things before I have finished explaining what they ought to be aiming for.
    I will forward this on to those students with the hope that they take the message.

    Many thanks


    1. Hi Dave,

      As much sense as it makes, it’s quite a tricky habit to break, no?

      I’m curious, have you (or anyone else, for that matter) found an easy way to get students to develop the habit of stopping and thinking for a moment before diving back into the piece?

  3. I believe the word that’s the equivalent to “envision” for hearing is audiation. I first learned of it in the work of Edwin Gordon, although I don’t know whether he made the word up himself or not. It refers to being able to hear imagine music and rhythms in your head.
    Keep sending out these emails, they’re great.

    1. Interesting. I’d never heard the word audiation before. Maybe it’ll start to gain some traction if we start using it.

      And somewhat ironically, spell check keeps trying to change “audiation” to the word “audition”. Although that may be the kind of thing that’s only amusing at 2am.

  4. While not an exact analogy, I am reminded of an article in bostonglobe.com where former world judo champion Kayla Harrison comments on her preparation for the upcoming summer Olympics: “Every day in my mind, when I go to sleep, I win the Olympics. So when I get there, it’ll already have happened a million times.’’

    1. Thanks for the example, Al.

      In a similar vein, baseball player Alex Rodriguez reports engaging in a similar practice before his breakout season in 1996 when he won the batting title and was three votes shy of being league MVP.

  5. In my experience, the easiest way to get students into the habit of stopping and thinking while practicing is to teach it to them as if it were a skill absolutely essential to their progress, a skill integrated into their practice procedure. I teach my students about the art of stopping: when, why and how to stop. I find that even very accomplished musicians are usually unclear about this, and even feel themselves to have failed if they didn’t “keep it going” (after all, that’s what has to happen in performance!) Once they are clear on “when, why and how”, I ask them to spend a certain amount of their practice time (maybe only 15 minutes) with a different intention: implementing the procedures to stop in a constructive manner (as opposed to finishing the etude, etc.) I’ll ask them to aim at first for how many times they were able to stop (again, shifting the intention). Once they’ve learned to stop and redirect effectively in a 15 minute period, they are usually so pleased at the results they get that they just continue to practice this way.

    Some musicians, of course, are more ready and able to do this than others, but by being persistent with them myself (I’ll sit with them for 15 minutes of practice each week teaching them how to stop), I’ve been able to witness some rather remarkable transformations.

    1. Thanks for the added insights, Bill. It is interesting how sometimes we need to practice stopping, and other times we must practice playing through, and how we often fail to make a conscious choice about when to do what.

      I think having someone observe and help us develop more effective practice habits can be a hugely beneficial practice – how great for your students that this is a regular part of their lessons.

  6. The single best advice I have ever received was from a music teacher, but oddly enough that same little piece of knowledge applies to every part of life; if you don’t know what to do, doing the same thing frantically in the hopes of ‘luck’ will be equally futile. Cool off, breathe, and use the training you have, rather than allowing frustration to drive you.

  7. Audialize is the word you’re looking for! I don’t know if it’s an actual word recognized by Webster’s, but I’ve heard it used many times in my jazz improvisation classes in reference to “hearing” something in your head before you play it.

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