How the Right Habits Can Save Us Under Pressure (or, Why Is There Cream Cheese in my Freezer?)
By Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.
I found a tub of cream cheese in my freezer this week.
I didn’t put it there. My wife says she didn’t either. But what probably happened, is that in the morning rush to get the kids changed, fed, and out the door, we cleared the table and put everything away without really thinking about what we were doing.
Like putting milk in the pantry or our keys in the fridge, usually we catch ourselves and chuckle at our absent-mindedness. But a similar thing can happen under pressure, when it’s not quite so funny…
The class was working on some gun defense techniques, and when each student’s turn was over, the instructor told them to drop the gun on the ground and let their partner pick it up themselves instead of simply handing it over.
Why do such a thing?
The instructor explained that if you get used to handing the weapon back to the attacker after disarming them, you might accidentally do this in a real situation too.
Sounds ridiculous, right?
But then the instructor showed a surveillance video in which the victim does exactly that.
In critical high-pressure situations, when we’re either preoccupied with whatever is happening in the moment, or our mind has simply gone blank, our actions tend to be guided mostly by the habits or default “scripts” that we’ve cultivated over time.
Forgetting to bow
My mom likes to tell the story of one of my early performances when I was 3 or 4 years old. As the story goes, I walked out on stage, turned to look at the pianist, played the whole piece with my back to the audience, and walked right off stage without a bow. The audience might have thought it was cute, but my mom thought it might not be so great when I was 13 and still playing with my back to the audience.
So, my mom started making me practice my walk on stage, my smile to the audience, my bow, announcing my piece to the audience, and starting the piece over and over in the days leading up to every performance. No detail was too small, from how I walked, to how long I would stay down on my bow, to making sure I was still smiling when I straightened back up (because it’s a little disconcerting when someone smiles, bows, then straightens up with a very serious look on their face).
I thought this was all very silly, so I rolled my eyes and dragged my feet through the whole rigamarole. But I never again forgot to bow or tune or anything silly like that.
As I grew older, I got better at weaseling my way out of such drills. And then one day when I was 17, I performed a concerto with orchestra…and walked off stage without a bow. I turned to shake hands with the conductor, turned a bit more to shake hands with the concertmaster, and then turned and walked through the orchestra until I was off stage.
How could I forget to bow, at age 17?
It wasn’t the first time I’d performed with an orchestra, but in the moment, I just wasn’t thinking! And since I hadn’t spent much time programming the right scripts into my autopilot to guide me, I did whatever came naturally. To be honest, I didn’t even remember forgetting to bow, and had to see the video to believe it.
It’s the little things
Often, we forget the silliest things, because they seem so trivial that we don’t bother to work them into our autopilot scripts.
What do you do to cultivate the right habits and program the right scripts, so that the little things aren’t forgotten when you walk out on stage and get caught up in the moment?
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.