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 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)