As much fun as it can be to play music you love, performing that music for an audience can be an even more fulfilling experience. Or at least, it can be on those days when you feel prepared, walk on stage with confidence, and play freely while experiencing that sense of “flow,” where you’re completely engaged and immersed in the music.
Because of course there are those other days. The days where you wake up the morning to a nagging feeling of dread deep down, and a voice in your head that says you haven’t given yourself enough time to get comfortable with a certain piece. Or that you started memorizing too late. Or didn’t record yourself enough.
Playing poorly in front of other people is never fun. And the downward spiral of doubts and doom that can kick in after disappointing performances can really drag our confidence down as well.
So what does this mean for timing performance practice?
As in, should you hold back on playing for others until the piece or excerpt you’re working on is at a near-performance-ready level?
Or are there benefits to performing even before you feel totally comfortable?
A golf study
A team of British researchers (Lawrence et al., 2014) recruited 32 non-golfing college students to participate in a putting study.
They were given the simple task of hitting a straight, uphill1 putt as accurately as possible.
Every participant got 300 practice putts, and then it was time for a putting competition, where they could win some prize money.
The timing question
Previous research suggests that practicing performing in advance can reduce the potential for choking in performance. That we can learn to execute complex skills under pressure more effectively if we are exposed to a tiny bit of anxiety during the learning process (kind of like being inoculated to certain strains of seasonal flu with a flu shot).
But the authors note that there aren’t any studies that have looked at when we should introduce performance pressure into our practice. 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 divided the participants into four groups.
4 different approaches to performance practice
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. They were also given $60 at the outset of their practice session – but told that they would lose $0.20 for each missed putt.
The anxiety-control group started out their practice just like the anxiety group. With $30 and the first 150 practice putts recorded, and $.20 deducted for each missed putt. Then they did their last 150 practice putts with no pressure.
The control-anxiety group had the order switched – they started out with 150 no-pressure practice putts. And then their next 150 putts were with pressure added.
A putting competition
After completing all 300 practice putts, the participants were given a 15-min break to “ice” them a bit and allow some forgetting to set in.
And then it was time for a 25-putt accuracy competition.
To add a little pressure into the competition, they were given their average score from their last 25 practice putts, and then told that they would be able to win $60 – if they improved their performance by 15% over the next 25 putts, and also had the highest score of all the participants.
So which group did the best under pressure?
The researchers used the average distance between the ball and the center of the hole as a measure of putting accuracy (“mean radial error”). And as you might expect, there were some interesting differences between the groups’ performances.
The control group, which practiced without any pressure, performed significantly worse in the competition. Their mean radial error for the last 50 practice putts was 342.21, while their MRE for the putting competition was 466.20 (where lower scores means better performance).
The anxiety-control and control-anxiety groups, which did half of their practice with pressure and half of their practice with no pressure, were significantly more “pressure-proof” than the control group. They performed about the same under pressure as they did during practice – 341.88 (practice) vs. 335.93 (competition) for anxiety-control and 323.57 (practice) vs. 302.09 (competition) for control-anxiety.
And then there’s the anxiety group, that practiced with a bit of pressure thrown in for the entirety of their practice. They were the most resistant to performance pressure, and actually performed significantly better in the competition than they did in practice – 300.89 (competition) vs. 425.88 (practice).
So what are we to make of this?
At first glance, these results suggest that maybe we should always practice with a tiny bit of pressure. Like, videotaping every minute of practice. Or putting a nickel in a “mistakes” jar every time we miss a note.
But I’m not sure that it’s really practical or even desirable to learn with a low level of performance pressure present throughout. In that this doesn’t seem like it’d be compatible with the kind of creative boundary-pushing experimentation that is also an important aspect of effective practice.
So perhaps the most important takeaway from the study is the idea that we would likely benefit from practicing with a bit of pressure far sooner than we otherwise might.
As the authors explain, “The more participants practiced in non-anxious conditions the more they were dependent on the presence of those conditions for successful performance.”
A good place to begin?
Indeed, legendary violin pedagogue Ivan Galamian once said that when it comes 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 get in front of an audience.
So it probably wouldn’t be such a bad thing to integrate more tiny doses of performance-like repetitions into practice from Day 1, even if it’s just a 15-second recording of a random challenging passage we worked on that day.
And at the very least, perhaps the control-anxiety group’s approach to practice could be a good place to start. 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 slight drop in performance from practice to performance, it was significantly less than that of the participants in the control group who did no pressure training at all2.
But how do we get around the crappy feeling of having played below our standards, when we 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? Perhaps we could think of them as learning activities, as opposed to evaluative activities. As potentially uncomfortable, but ultimately productive opportunities to foster a particular kind of mental and physical capacity that can only be developed with the benefit of some performance pressure. Rather than as tests or indicators of our ultimate ability or worthiness as musicians and people.
Easier said than done, perhaps, but this reminds me of the Perlman Music Program’s WIP (“works in progress”) concerts, which give students an opportunity to perform pieces that are very much in the learning stages, but ready to be tested 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 much higher, we’ll be better prepared to play up to our full abilities.
A version of this article was originally published on 8.6.2017; revised and updated on 10.2.22
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Lawrence, G. P., Cassell, V. E., Beattie, S., Woodman, T., Khan, M. A., Hardy, L., & Gottwald, V. M. (2013, October 27). Practice with anxiety improves performance, but only when anxious: evidence for the specificity of practice hypothesis. Psychological Research, 78(5), 634–650. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-013-0521-9
- More specifically, it was a 225cm putt, with a 22° slope that spanned the middle 90cm of the distance.
- 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.