In a previous post, I suggested that mental toughness is just as relevant to musicians as it is to athletes. I promised to revisit the topic in subsequent weeks, so here is the first in a series of short posts which will outline some of the ways in which one can develop greater mental toughness as a musician.

When conditions are less than perfect

High-level performers can be a finicky bunch. So much of what elite athletes and musicians do requires tremendous precision and timing. With such a small margin of error, and with so much at stake, we can use all the help we can get.

Naturally, we try to identify all the things we can do to increase our chances of success, and in controlled settings like the practice room, optimize our environment for maximal success. We tune our instruments carefully, make sure our hands are clean, and our key muscles warmed up and loose. We wear comfortable clothes, look for a quiet place to practice – ideally with flattering acoustics, and make sure the lighting is adequate. Pianists often pick a piano they like, with an action that suits their preferences, while the rest of us gravitate to the same set of rooms that we always practice in.

In short, we make things familiar and comfortable.

This is not always a bad thing, of course. During the learning process, it helps to minimize the number of complicating factors. That’s why scales and etudes can be so helpful – they make it easier for us to focus on and isolate a specific skill that needs work.

However, when it comes to performing under pressure, being a control freak doesn’t prepare us well for reality. It makes the quality of our performances overly contingent on environmental conditions that are largely out of our control. Perhaps you’ve heard stories of actors or popular musicians who stipulate in their contracts that they be provided a certain brand of water, a particular kind of gummy bear, a specific temperature range and humidity level in their dressing room, and so on?

Having some consistency is important, but the performer who believes that everything must be controlled in order for them to play their best, is too easily thrown off their game.

A “no matter what” mindset

Contrast this with the mentally tough performer, who firmly believes they can perform optimally under any circumstances – whether the conditions are perfect or not.

To quote one of the participants in a recent study of Olympic and world champion athletes by several British sport psychologists (Jones, Hanton, & Connaughton, 2007):

When suddenly thrown or faced with an unpredictable situation, something that was not planned for, the mentally tough performer actually turns it around. Competition is an ever-changing physical state, which you have to adapt to mentally, and the mentally though performer can adapt whatever. You can just flow with it even though you are dead serious about what you are doing.

The mentally tough performer takes pride in their ability to perform well no matter what, and sees adversity as a challenge to be overcome, rather than as a barrier that will hold them back. They do not dwell on the unfairness of the situation, or the notion of bad luck. If anything, they redouble their efforts and become even more determined to perform at a high level. After all, anyone can play their best when conditions are ideal; only the mentally tough have prepared themselves to do so in the face of adversity.

Take action

1. Adopt a mental toughness mindset

Avoid the victim’s “woe is me” mentality. See the conditions as a challenge, or a cue to redouble your focus, determination, and energy. Pride yourself on being the kind of performer who doesn’t need things to be perfect in order for you to do your best. Say “Bring it on!” instead of “Why me?”

2. Seek out opportunities to test yourself in suboptimal performance conditions

Strengthen your ability to perform in suboptimal conditions through practice (like you would any other skill). Practice performing in substandard lighting, with a pianist who doesn’t listen very well, without your favorite mallets, with your backup bow, with your hands cold and not completely warmed up, early in the morning, immediately after waking up from a nap, in unflattering acoustics, with an audience that is actively trying to distract you (recruit some friends to be nuisances while you try to get through your repertoire), and so on. Prove to yourself that you can perform optimally despite the conditions, and that you have the mental discipline to stay focused on the music and not get caught up in protesting or fighting against the conditions.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you always practice in suboptimal performance conditions. Please do tune your instrument, use your best equipment, practice when you’re well-rested, etc., when you are doing the day-to-day work of improving your skills. However, when the opportunity arises to test your ability to perform in adverse conditions, all bets are off. Just got a tetanus shot and your arm hurts? Instrument is in the shop and all you have is a loaner? Go get some friends and stage a mock audition, or record yourself doing a run-through in concert attire. Use it as a training opportunity, a chance to develop greater resilience, focus, determination, and the invaluable knowledge that you can do this.

Cell phone ringing off-stage?

Conductor suddenly taking a radically different tempo?

String just popped in the warm-up room, and the new string won’t stay in tune?

No problem. Bring it on!