When I first moved to NYC for grad school I was keenly aware of the constant din of honking cars, sirens, and people. It seemed to go on 24 hours per day, 7 days a week. I missed the peace and quiet that I had grown accustomed to after spending most of my life in rural midwestern towns.

Of course, it wasn’t long before I got used to my new home and didn’t notice the noise anymore. It happened so gradually that I wasn’t aware I’d changed until I went home for the holidays and was struck by how exceedingly quiet my childhood home was. Like, deathly quiet. Not even any frogs or crickets to liven things up.

This is a phenomenon that psychologists call habituation. As in, we eventually get used to the things around us. Whether it’s NYC traffic, snakes, or spicy food, with enough exposure, our brain tags it with the label “same old, same old” and filters it out.

So how does habituation relate to peak performance?

Idle hands (or unused attentional capacity) are the devil’s playthings

We’ve been listening to our sound every day for years, decades in most cases. We’ve also been playing the same excerpts for as long as we can remember. It’s safe to assume that we’ve habituated to our sound, and much of the standard repertoire as well.

With our ears on autopilot, it’s really only the anomalies that stand out – like mistakes, glitches, and other imperfections.

That may be helpful for identifying what to work on in the practice room, but on stage, having “lazy” ears leaves too much of our attentional resources free to wander. And in pressure situations, our focus is likely to drift off to unhelpful thoughts that will derail our performance. Like worrying about a tricky shift in advance. Bemoaning the un-evenness of our tonguing. Kicking ourselves mentally for not having prepared better. Wondering what the listeners are thinking. Wondering if the audition panel is going to stop us soon.

We’re much more successful when we are fully engaged in hearing what we want, blending with colleagues around us, or to quote a colleague, “leading with our ears.” When we are so busy listening that there are no attentional resources left to engage in task-irrelevant worries, doubts, and distractions.

It’s all about developing our ability to listen with “newborn ears”, if you will.

Newborn ears

Ever notice how fascinated newborns are by the world around them? How they can sit and play with the simplest thing seemingly forever? My daughter used to spend hours, happily filling and emptying cups and bowls with water in the sink until her little hands were all wrinkly.

I suspect this is possible because to the newborn, pretty much everything must seem like a miracle. After all, wouldn’t the feel, texture, wetness, temperature, sound, etc. of water be pretty fascinating if you’ve never experienced it before?

Which brings up an interesting question. What do you suppose your reaction would be to hearing music for the very first time?

Hearing music for the first time

Filmmaker Austin Chapman had heard about music his whole life. But he had never experienced it for himself with his own ears until getting a set of hearing aids that enabled him to hear music for the first time.

Here’s what he had to say about Mozart’s Requiem:

“When Mozart’s Lacrimosa came on, I was blown away by the beauty of it. At one point of the song, it sounded like angels singing and I suddenly realized that this was the first time I was able to appreciate music. Tears rolled down my face and I tried to hide it. But when I looked over I saw that there wasn’t a dry eye in the car.”

Can you imagine what this must have been like?

Sound is indeed a remarkable phenomenon. When you listen carefully and really marvel at everything that is there to hear, the subtle nuances and details of pitch, timbre, texture, melody, harmony, rhythm, and so on, you’re liable to get chills and goose bumps.

Give it a try. Listen to the following 9-minute excerpt from Mozart’s Requiem. You’ve probably heard it before, but just close your eyes and listen, as if you are experiencing music for the first time in your life.

What happened? Any chills? Did the random irrelevant thoughts and internal “chatter” quiet down when you dialed your ears up to 11? When you really listened?

This level of focus, of being completely immersed in the task at hand, is one of the keys to peak performance. To be so occupied by the present moment, that we don’t have time to process anything else.

Take action

Practice listening more intently throughout the day.

What do your tires sound like as they roll across the highway? What does your significant other’s voice sound like? What does your refrigerator sound like when you open the door? What does your instrument sound like when you begin playing?

Can you shake the cobwebs off your ears, really listen, and sappy though this may sound, fall in love with your sound and music all over again?

The one-sentence summary

Just remember – the key is depth, not breadth.

photo credit: seanomatopoeia via photopin cc

About Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.

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.

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