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I was going through some old home videos the other day, and came across some clips of my kids jumping off of the diving board at the pool for the first time. Well, not jumping, so much as cautiously inching their way to the edge of the board in a half-crouch position with legs shaking and eyes wide open, and going into a full crouch before tottering over the edge into the waiting arms of their swimming instructor.

Of course, as they grew older and more confident in their abilities, these careful, tentative “dives” were replaced with cannonballs, belly flops, and a whole new repertoire of skills.

The same sort of evolution happens in our playing too, as our confidence grows over the years. Culminating in “one-buttock playing,” as conductor Ben Zander says in this TED talk.

But there’s a tendency for us to regress on stage. To revert to a more careful and cautious version of ourselves, focused more on avoiding mistakes than playing freely.

Yet there are some folks who seem to retain their one-buttock playing abilities even on stage. Whose seeming fearlessness and risk-taking makes the performance all the more captivating, and a real thrill to experience.

How do they manage to do that? And is there anything we could all do to become more fearless, one-buttock performers?

Taking risks

This might seem incredibly obvious, but the first step in playing more fearlessly on stage is to practice taking risks in the practice room.

I know, duh, right?

The problem though, is that it’s easy to get way too preoccupied with practice that’s oriented around playing perfectly and avoiding mistakes, which doesn’t leave much room for experimenting and trying new things that might not work.

But if our practice is centered around a careful, avoid-mistakes-at-all-costs type of playing, this is what will feel most comfortable on stage too. And as athletes and coaches like to say, you play like you practice.

So if you need a nudge, or some permission to devote some of your practice time to taking a few risks and experimenting with new ideas, here’s pianist Leon Fleisher encouraging students to do exactly this.

And then there’s this video of Pamela Frank encouraging a group of students to practice taking risks even when playing scales and arpeggios, which seems like a totally genius idea. 

Another important ingredient?

This part of the equation makes total sense. But one of my students came across a study recently which suggests that it might not be enough to just take more risks in our daily practice. That there may be another factor that we need to add to the equation.

Umm…and what might that be?

A decision-making study

A pair of researchers (Krueger & Dickson, 1994) recruited 153 business majors to participate in a decision-making study.

Everyone was first presented with 8 dilemma-type decisions to make, which involved advising a friend who is in an uncertain situation. For example, 

A neighbor, with whom you have had a friendly relationship for years is bored with his law practice and wants to start his own business around his hobby. Before he can know whether his business will succeed, he will have given up practicing law, his partnership in his law firm, and will have invested most of his net worth and seven years of his life. Should he make a go of it, he will become a wealthy man, as you define and as he defines it. Should he fail, he would have to start over from scratch, borrowing money from friends and family, older and wiser. He has total belief in his ability to make it. What odds for success would you require before you would recommend that he go for it? %____ (Remember, higher probabilities reflect more caution.)

Then they were presented with 8 gamble-type decisions, like:

You are considering a price increase for your product.

OPTION 1: Do NOT raise price.

Expected outcome:

100 percent certainty that the competitors will not raise prices and that you will not lose any customers. Profit = $400,000.

OPTION 2: DO raise price

Expected outcome: 

-50 percent chance that competitors will also raise prices and you won’t lose any customers. Profit = $600,000.

-50 percent chance that competitors will NOT raise prices and that you will lose customers. Profit = $220.000.

Before getting any feedback on whether they chose wisely or not, the participants were asked how confident they were in their decision-making abilities. As in, “if you had to make 10 dilemma type questions in 10 minutes, how many good decisions would you make?”

Performance feedback was provided…

Then they were told that their answers would be evaluated by a computer program “developed by experts to evaluate decision-making skill.”

This was all made-up, of course, as the researchers told some of the participants they did very well (6 out of 8 correct) on the dilemmas while others were told that they did very poorly (2/8 correct). And likewise, with the gambles, some were told that they did well (5/8 correct), while others were told that they did poorly (3/8 correct).

…then a second round of choices to make

Then the participants were presented with two more sets of dilemmas and gambles, and once again asked how confident they felt in their decision-making.

The thing that the researchers were interested in, was whether the feedback the participants received between the two rounds of testing would affect their decision-making confidence, and whether any shift in confidence would lead to any changes in their inclination to take risks.

And what did they find?

Results

Well, the feedback did have an effect on participants’ decision-making self-efficacy. Where positive feedback increased their decision-making confidence, and negative feedback decreased their decision-making confidence.

And as you can probably guess, this change did lead to a different pattern of decisions in the second round.

When participants’ self-efficacy increased, and they had the impression that they were more effective decision-makers, they were more likely to take risks. And when they were led to believe that they were less effective decision-makers, they were more likely to go the safe route and avoid risks.

So what are we to make of this?

Caveats

Well, first, I think it’s important to keep in mind that the study didn’t look at real-life decision-making, but hypothetical scenarios, with nothing at stake. 

That said, a 2008 study of rock climbers looked at the same sort of thing, and found that the climbers who were higher in self-efficacy tended to take more risks. So it does seem that this effect transfers to real-life situations as well.

Another interesting aspect of the decision-making study is that the feedback provided was completely made-up, and had nothing to do with the actual quality of the participants’ decision-making. So this wasn’t even about actual performance and efficacy, but perceived efficacy.

Actually being good at something does absolutely matter of course. But it’s important to remember that our perception of our abilities matters too.

After all, it’s possible to be quite good at something, yet still suffer from doubts and a lack of confidence (e.g. imposter syndrome). Which takes us to how all of this might apply to what we do in the practice room.

Takeaways

For me, the big takeaway is that if our perceived risk-taking efficacy has a role in our willingness to take more risks on stage, merely taking more risks in practice may not be enough.

We have to internalize and own the successes we experience too.

Because even if you get into a really selective music festival or win a competition or have a great performance, if the voice in your head tells you that you just got lucky, or that the judges made a mistake, or that all the people who complimented you after your performance were just being nice, these successes may never translate into greater self-efficacy. 

Where instead of feeling more effective, and more confident, you’re left questioning your abilities and doubting yourself instead.

So how do we internalize our wins?

It might sound a little simplistic, but try making it a point to take a few tiny risks every day in your practice. Like maybe going for a big shift with more trust. Playing out a bit more in a fortissimo section without fear of cracking the sound. Or adding a bit more vibrato here and there in a tricky section in a high position.

And then make sure to write down one instance of your risk-taking. It doesn’t have to have turned out perfectly, or even sounded all that good. The idea is you did something out of your comfort zone, and it was a worthwhile risk, that if nothing else, you learned something from. Not all of these risks will work out – but I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how many do. And how your confidence grows a tiny bit each time. =)


References

Krueger, N., & Dickson, P. R. (1994). How Believing in Ourselves Increases Risk Taking: Perceived Self-Efficacy and Opportunity Recognition. Decision Sciences, 25(3), 385–400. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-5915.1994.tb01849.x