Have you ever heard the phrase “perception is reality?” I read a book the other day in which the author described one such experience.
During a ride on the subway, a man and his young children entered and sat down near him. The children were yelling, being rowdy, and disturbing the other passengers, while the man stared off into space, seemingly oblivious to their antics and rudeness. After he had seen enough, the author asked the man if he might do something to control his children’s behavior. The man looked at him, apologized, and explained that they had just come from the hospital where his wife had died about an hour ago, noting that he wasn’t sure how to deal with this and that the kids probably didn’t know how to handle it either.
Imagine you were this author. Can you imagine how quickly your feelings would have shifted from irritation to compassion?
Admittedly, that is a pretty dramatic example, but what if there were a way to “reframe” the way you see performances, competitions, and auditions, and by doing so, feel differently about them? To feel more positively about them, and perhaps even to enjoy them?
I think you can — it’s just a matter of finding a believable framework that allows you to go into a performance situation with a more positive mindset. Whether the framework is objectively “true” or not is beside the point — try to resist the temptation to evaluate its validity. In other words, whether the man’s wife really died, or if he had lost his job, or if his sister was in a severe car accident doesn’t matter. The point is that when we change how we see things, it changes the way we feel.
Here are a couple that you might try on for size.
A framework for performances
Have you ever heard people say that they see performances as an opportunity to give the audience a gift? If that works for you, terrific. Somehow that never worked for me. I did, however, see opportunities to play for people as a rare and welcome privilege.
In fact, I was talking to an acting coach recently, who illustrated this even more clearly. He said that being able to act in front of real people was always a joy, since the alternative is basically to talk out loud to himself and play make believe with imaginary characters all by himself. Think about it, would you want a career in which you could practice and play music every day to your heart’s content, but could never let anybody hear you?
A framework for auditions or competitions
Call me crazy, but I always enjoyed competitions and auditions more than performances. Did I get nervous? Absolutely, but I loved it anyway.
How did I become such a nut case? Well, in my mind, juries, audition panels, and competition judges were an ideal audience (remember, we’re looking to adopt a helpful framework, not prove whether this is objectively true or not).
How do I figure?
For one, jurors are a captive audience. A regular audience is free to leave mid-concert, fall asleep, read program notes, or compose snarky Facebook status updates on their phone. A panel of judges could do the same I suppose, but since it’s their job to sit there and listen to me, I’d like to think that it’s a little less likely.
More sensitive ears
Second, they know the music better than anybody else, so they are capable of noticing and appreciating every intricate little detail. The cool little bowing you came up with, the little slide you used to get from one note to the other, the subtle shading of dynamics, the extra time you took, the control it took to play the whole phrase in one breath, the accents, the phrasing, the articulations, and so on. All of this is more likely to be noticed by a panel of true experts.
Why this is a good thing
Admittedly, this is a double-edged sword. If you aren’t prepared, if your playing is devoid of ideas, or if you’re just trying to get by on technical proficiency alone, you’re probably toast. But assuming you have put time and thought into preparing your music, and have “made it your own” as teachers like to say, who else is going to notice these nuances? The average concertgoing music lover will probably not. In fact, the average musician will not. Unless the listener has played your instrument and knows the piece well, these things will go unnoticed and underappreciated.
For instance, I was listening to a percussion mock audition the other day. The percussionist was playing the soft snare drum excerpt from Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije Suite. I had heard that this was a difficult excerpt, but would never have guessed from how easy this individual made it look. Later, he tried to explain to me some of the differences between mallets and the reasons for some of the choices he made in other excerpts. Could I have identified these details on my own? Nope.
Want to see another more startling example of just how much of your performance probably goes unnoticed by most concertgoers and musicians? Watch this video, and notice how few people stop to listen (or look for that matter), even though from the audio, this seems to be a pretty skilled musician.
Who is this street musician? Click here to find out.
One implication of this experiment is that most people can’t tell the difference between a great performance and an ordinary performance, in much the same way that I may not be able to discriminate between differing levels of percussion playing. Sure, there are other ways to interpret the results of this experiment, but again, we’re just trying to find a reasonable framework that will help you feel differently about an audition panel, not determine what is true or false.
A super duper privilege?
If it is a privilege to be able to play music for real live people, wouldn’t it be an even greater privilege to play for not just one listener with a high degree of sensitivity and appreciation for the nuances of your performance, but a collection of such individuals? When else are you going to have the opportunity to have such an audience take time out of their day to listen to you? You can’t buy a more perceptive audience.
When I took the time to really work out a piece, I was pretty opinionated. I had definite ideas about how things should sound, and liked experimenting with unconventional fingerings and bowings. Having done this much work, I wanted someone to notice all of these details. I wasn’t thrilled if the listener disagreed with or disliked my choices of course, but this was far better than the details going unnoticed. It was like telling a joke, and nobody realizing that I just told a joke.
Create your own
Keep in mind that these frameworks are just suggestions, and you are free to take them or leave them, depending on how they resonate with you. The idea is to create one that helps you adopt a mindset that is more conducive to performing your best. There is no prize for having the most accurate view of reality (well, actually the prize seems to be a state of mild depression – read this brief explanation that is either depressing or encouraging or funny, I’m not sure which).
If these particular ones don’t fit, you can totally invent some of your own — and please do share in the comments if you have one that really works for you. It’s likely that someone else could really benefit from it too.
The one-sentence summary
“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” ~Albert Einstein
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.
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