Whether it’s a music theory placement exam, orchestral audition, or recital, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of going into important moments with total confidence.

Such moments don’t happen as often as we’d like, but when they do, everything is so much easier and fun.

Of course, more typically, we go into auditions and performances battling doubts and fears for days or weeks in advance. Especially when it’s a really important, high-stakes kind of challenge that we’re preparing for.

These are the times when it can be really difficult to eradicate doubts. No matter how hard we try to maintain positive self talk and imagery. Especially as the big day draws nearer.

Confidence can indeed be an invaluable asset on stage. And you’ve surely heard stories of musicians who have admitted after a big audition success, that deep down, they were already convinced they were going to win.

But is that level of absolute confidence necessary in order to play our best? Or is a little bit of doubt maybe not the worst thing in the world?

A jump-rope challenge

A team of British researchers recruited 28 participants to take part in a simple skills challenge.

After being assigned to one of two groups, everyone was asked to jump rope for 1 minute, while responding out loud with the word “now” every time they heard a beep (the practice trial).

After a 5-minute rest, one of the groups (control group) was asked to repeat the task – except they were informed that this one would count. As in, the person with the most skips and quickest reaction to the beeps, would win a prize of $45 (the competition trial).

The experimental group was asked to do this as well, except they were given a different jump rope to use – one that they were told might “interfere slightly with performance due to differences in weight, length, and stiffness.” Unbeknownst to the participants, the rope was actually identical to the first one in every way (except the color). This was just the researchers’ sneaky way of injecting a little self-doubt into the competition trial.

How did self-doubt affect performance?

The researchers had the participants complete a confidence assessment before each trial, and indeed, the participants who were asked to use the “challenging” jump rope did indeed experience a small increase in self-doubt (their confidence scores decreased from 73.79 in the practice trial to 65.14 in the competition trial; compared with scores of 75.86 for practice and 76.79 for competition in the control group).

But interestingly, as participants’ confidence dropped down a notch, their performance improved.

The experimental group improved their performance from 75.93 skips in the practice trial to 85.57 skips in the competition trial.  Meanwhile, the control group’s performance stayed pretty much the same from practice to competition – 71.43 skips in the practice trial vs. 72.29 skips in the competition trial.

Why?

It’s not clear exactly what caused this effect, but the researchers suggest that this seemingly counterintuitive confidence-performance effect is related to complacency.

The idea being, when we’re too confident, it can lead to feeling that we don’t have to bring our “A+” game, which can result in being a little too casual about the task at hand.

I’ve certainly been guilty of this on more than one occasion – not just in terms of my preparation for a performance, but also in how I approached the performance on the day of, and during the performance itself.

And maybe this is just a total rationalization, but I have a couple friends who have admitted to deliberately “underpreparing” a slight bit on occasion – before performances they are starting to feel too lackadaisical about – to ensure that when the time comes, they’ll be really motivated to turn their focus and effort up to 11.

Caveats

Of course, jumping rope while responding to beeps is on a whole different level of complexity than, say, nailing the octaves in the opening of the Beethoven violin concerto when your left hand is freezing cold and stiff (or the opening of the Paganini or Mendelssohn concertos – which garnered a higher difficulty rating on Nathan Cole’s fun list ‘o the most difficult violin concerto openings).

But, researchers studying medium-handicap golfers, and pistol shooting competitors have observed this as well.

So the relationship between confidence and performance may not be quite as simple and straightforward as it seems at first.

Takeaways

Of course, there is a big difference between a little bit of “healthy” self-doubt, and the full-on plumb-the-depths-of-your-soul-as-you-question-all-your-life-choices-and-suffer-that-churning-feeling-in-the-pit-of-your-stomach variety of self-doubt.

So yes, we do need to work on building confidence through the right kind of practice, cultivating clear musical ideas, productive self-talk, imagery, and more, but if you know you’ve done your best to prepare as best as you can, and still can’t shake that little bit of doubt still hanging around in your head – maybe that’s ok.

Rather than fighting what is a pretty normal way to feel, it may be more productive to remind yourself of those times when you went into a performance feeling less confident than you’d like, but ended up playing better than you expected.

After all, that tiny little nugget of uncertainty may turn out to be the little motivational boost that keeps you dialed in and focused when you need it most.