Is It Helpful or Harmful to Perform a Piece Before It’s “Performance-Ready”?

Performing can be fun when you know you’re prepared, walk on stage feeling confident that things are going to go well, play your heart out, and not only sound great, but experience that feeling of being in “flow.”

And then there are those performance days when you wake up the morning to a nagging feeling deep down (or possibly, a bloodcurdling scream), that you’re not ready. That you hadn’t given yourself enough time to really get comfortable with a certain piece, or hadn’t practiced diligently or smartly enough in the time you did have.

Playing poorly in front of other people is never fun. And the downward spiral of doubts and doom that can kick in after a disappointing performance is no picnic either. So logically, it makes sense to avoid performing until we’re at least somewhat performance-ready, no?

But what does the evidence suggest? Should we avoid any sort of pressure situation until we’re pretty confident that we’re performance-ready? Or are there any benefits to performing even before we feel totally comfortable?

300 putts

A team of British researchers recruited 32 non-golfing college students to participate in a putting study.

They were given the simple task of hitting a straight (but uphill1) putt as accurately as possible.

Every participant was given 300 practice putts, before engaging in a putting competition to win some prize money.

4 groups

Previous research has shown that we can reduce the potential for choking by introducing a bit of performance pressure into practice sessions. That we can learn to execute complex skills in real-life performance pressure conditions more effectively, if we experience a tiny bit of anxiety during the learning process (the “you perform like you practice” principle).

But the authors note that there aren’t any studies that have looked at when to introduce performance pressure. Does pressure need to be present throughout learning? Or is it best to introduce it somewhere in the middle? Or maybe just before we perform?

To tease apart the different effects of pressure training in the different phases of learning, the researchers randomly assigned the participants to one of four groups.

The control group practiced like normal. No pressure.

The anxiety group was told that each practice putt was being recorded for later analysis by a professional golfer. And that they have been awarded $60 – but would lose $0.20 for each missed putt.

The anxiety-control group did their first 150 practice putts under the same conditions as the anxiety group (except starting with $30 instead of $60), and their last 150 putts with no pressure.

The control-anxiety group had the order switched – no pressure for 150 putts, and pressure conditions added for the next 150 putts.

A putting competition

After a 15-min break, participants engaged in a 25-putt accuracy competition.

They were given their average score from the last 25 practice putts, and then informed that they would be able to win $60, if they improved their performance by 15% over the next 25 putts – and had the highest score of all the participants.

Which group putted most accurately under pressure?

Using the “mean radial error” (the distance between the ball and the center of the hole) to gauge putting accuracy, the researchers found that there were some interesting differences between the groups’ performance.

The control group, which practiced without any pressure, performed significantly worse under pressure (MRE for the last 50 practice putts = 342.21 vs. 466.20 for the putting competition, where lower scores means better performance).

The anxiety-control and control-anxiety groups that practiced with and without pressure performed about the same under pressure as they did during practice (341.88 vs. 335.93 and 323.57 vs. 302.09, respectively).

And the anxiety group that performed with anxiety throughout, actually performed better in the final test than they did even in training (425.88 vs. 300.89).

Anxiety early in practice vs. late in practice

Of course, it’s not really practical to learn a skill with a low level of performance pressure present throughout. And I don’t think it’s conducive to the kind of creative boundary-pushing experimentation that is an important aspect of effective practice either.

So I think the most useful take-home from the study is reflected in the control-anxiety group’s performance. This is the group that started out practicing like normal, with no pressure, but then added performance pressure to their practice putts half-way through.

While they did experience a drop in competition performance from practice to performance, it was significantly less (-54.89) than that of the participants in the control group (-108.96) who did no pressure training at all2.

Or to hear the authors describe it, “The more participants practiced in non-anxious conditions the more they were dependent on the presence of those conditions for successful performance.”

Takeaways

Violin pedagogue Ivan Galamian once said that with regards to performance practice, we tend to do too little, too late. I think the results of this study support this sentiment, suggesting that when we wait too long to add performance pressure to our practice, we actually become more vulnerable to the effects of stress and pressure when we ultimately do have a high-stakes performance to give.

But how do we get around the unpleasantness of playing below our standards, yet still put ourselves out there to perform before our repertoire is totally performance-ready?

I wonder if it might help to reframe the way we see these kinds of pressure-proofing performances (recording a run-through, playing for a friend, studio class, master class, mock audition)? Perhaps we could think of them as learning activities, as opposed to testing activities. As potentially uncomfortable, but ultimately productive opportunities to foster a particular kind of mental and motor skill capacity, that can only be gained in the presence of performance pressure. And not as tests of our worthiness as musicians and people.

For instance, the Perlman Music Program runs regular WIP concerts (“works in progress”) to give students an opportunity to perform pieces that are very much in the learning stages, but still ready to be played through and tried out in front of a supportive group of friends and audience members.

Does it still make students nervous? Of course, but I think that’s kind of the point. To manufacture a little bit of pressure – but where the stakes are still very low – so that when the pressure and stakes are both much higher, we are ready to demonstrate what we’re truly capable of.

Footnotes

  1. More specifically, it was a 225cm putt, with a 22° slope that spanned the middle 90cm of the distance.
  2. Note that this finding was only statistically significant at the 90% confidence level, not the standard 95% level. Meaning, we can be 90% confident that there is a real difference between these groups, and that this wasn’t some sort of fluke. Generally, most studies will use the 95% confidence level, but depending on the situation, 90% might still be worth considering.

Ack! 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 perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. 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 learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And 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.

Comments

9 Responses

  1. Ah……this explains a lot…..maybe. I’ll practice a difficult piece/part for ages before the next band practice, then make the same mistakes all over again. The other week, I started adding in metronome for all my difficult pieces….up to the point where it was difficult to keep up – I was getting annoyed that I couldn’t do it….but band practice has been ?easier and the difficult passages negotiated with a little more success…..

  2. When I studied the piano, my professor was one of the only teachers in faculty who asked us to perform “not-ready” pieces in student recitals regularly, and especially “extra” pieces which were not part of our exam program. His argument was: “you will never have one or two years to prepare a concert” (very true) (which is what the other teachers were doing – letting students play only their exam program pieces in student recitals).

    What I learned from that is to step on stage with confidence, no matter what the development phase of the piece is. Is a piece ever “ready” anyway?? Don’t we discover new layers every time we take it up? When do we draw the line between “worthy of presenting” and “unworthy”?

    For me, it’s the moment we can touch the emotional content of the piece. And emotion is possible to grasp and enjoy even from the very early stage of development. Not play the notes correctly first, feel the music after. But feeling through the piece as you go and making it your piece.

    1. Indeed! My wife’s teacher in college once told her that it didn’t matter how long she worked on something or how good she became – that there would always be more one could say and do with each piece.

  3. Noa, you read my mind! Now going into my second year of grad school, I decided to work on my recital pieces during the summer. To hold my feet to the fire, I scheduled an informal performance of one of the pieces. In the last few weeks leading up to the concert, I questioned whether I had made the right decision, since the piece still felt very new and not ready… But the performance was last night, and it went pretty well! Now that I’ve gotten the notes under my fingers, I feel I can start going in more deeply on a musical level. Plus, having already performed it in public when it was not fully ready, I feel less anxious about performing it after a few more months of work!

  4. Isn’t a lesson sort of a performance? Sometimes a very not ready for prime time performance. Taking lessons probably builds in a little of that, although I am sure it depends on how comfortable a student is with their teacher.

  5. More of a question really but I wonder how the ability to handle pressure during on task transfers to another task. For example, someone who is a competitor in on arena like sports whether or not that translates to music which is unrelated.

    1. Hi Brian,

      Great question. The answer is a little tricky, because people often experience pressure differently in different domains. There are folks who have no trouble speaking to a crowd of thousands, but totally break down when playing an instrument in front of a dozen of their fellow students, for instance.

      I do think that the skills we use to handle pressure in one domain do transfer to other domains – but we still have to practice using these skills. So it’s not our ability to handle pressure that is transferrable, so much as the skills we use to handle pressure that are transferrable. Does that make sense?

  6. This is the beauty of what my university called studio class. Once every week, all the vocal students and faculty would convene and students would perform WIP and get feedback from faculty. Low pressure in the sense we weren’t be graded, but enough pressure because performing for peers and other faculty members is always a little daunting.

    Really love your blog! Thanks so much for what you do!

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