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?
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 uphill) putt as accurately as possible.
Every participant was given 300 practice putts, before engaging in a putting competition to win some prize money.
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 all.
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.”
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.