So the big moment has finally arrived. As you take your place on stage, ready to play the repertoire that you’ve practiced diligently for months, the nerves really begin to kick in, and your thoughts begin to race. What if I screw up? Did I practice enough? Wait – what’s the first note? Did I turn off the iron in the hotel room?

Inexperienced performers often succumb to the pressure of such a situation, and, not wanting to make the audience or audition panel wait, rush into their performance without taking the time to settle down and get focused. This can lead to some rough sailing in the early going, as they stumble into the opening and need a few moments to play themselves into a more comfortable state. One might be able to get away with this in a performance, but not likely in an audition or competition.

More experienced performers are less likely to rush into a performance – but some take too much time and end up botching the opening anyway.

What? Taking too little time leads to mistakes and taking too much time leads to mistakes? Argh!

So what is the ideal amount of time to have between the moment you are finished tuning/adjusting your instrument and the moment you produce your first note?

Research suggests that it is 7.36 seconds.

Just kidding. Research says no such thing. The issue is not so much the time one takes, but what goes on in your mind during this time that impacts whether you nail the opening, or crash and burn.

A musician’s perspective

I had a chamber music coach at Oberlin who once had us put our instruments in the ready position, close our eyes, and then with no auditory cues (i.e. no loud sniffing or breathing to give us a clue), begin playing when it just felt like the timing was right. It was surprising how often we started at approximately the same time.

This makes some intuitive sense, as we have all observed performers stall or hesitate, whether it be a golfer getting ready to tee off on a crucial hole, a speaker collecting their thoughts before an important talk, or a musician about to begin their big audition. We can sense the trepidation and fear, and feel slightly uncomfortable when someone is taking too much time. It’s a bit like the awkward silence that can happen on a bad date. Something about it just feels…off kilter somehow.

A performance psychologist’s perspective

From a performance psychology perspective, the problem with taking too much time is that the longer we stand or sit there, the more likely it is that we will begin worrying or over-thinking. The doubts and fears start creeping in, we start thinking about our technique, and we tighten up and try to exert too much conscious control over our playing.

Attempting to exert conscious control over our playing is problematic because our brain, sensory organs, and muscles cannot communicate, interpret, and incorporate feedback quickly enough to orchestrate the complex motor movements involved in high-level playing with the precision and exquisite timing that is required. Want to try an experiment? Get up, walk across the room, and come back. Don’t read any further until you’ve done this. Hey! Seriously, stop reading – if you read past the end of this sentence it’s going to mess up the experiment.

Are you back? Ok, now get up once again and walk across the room and back a second time, but when you do so, pay attention to what each of your toes are doing as you stride across the room. Stop reading now and give it a go.

What did you notice? You walked slower the second time around, right? This is a small illustration of the kind of inhibitory effect that conscious thought can have on automatized motor movements.

Why does thinking too much disrupt motor control?

The cerebellum is a fist-sized structure located at the lower rear end of the brain. Given it’s location, you could think of it as the brain’s butt if you wish, but it’s Latin for “little brain” and is more often referred to as the brain within the brain. This is the command center that orchestrates complex muscle movement, and is the part of the brain which makes playing your instrument at a high level possible. When you are first learning how to play a passage, there is a great deal of activity in the cerebral cortex (the part of your brain that is responsible for conscious thought and higher-order processes). However, as you begin to get the hang of the passage and are able to do it more consistently, up to speed, and accurately, control of this motor movement sequencing is passed along to the cerebellum which is then entrusted with the responsibility of executing these movement patterns at the appropriate time.

Unfortunately, we don’t have conscious access to the cerebellum, so when we begin thinking too much about technique and attempt to exercise too much deliberate control over our muscles, we disrupt the cerebellum’s ability to run off these motor programs automatically, and end up making mistakes.

Take action

1. Avoid taking too much time before you begin playing.

How much is too much? I know this doesn’t sound very scientific, but see if you can tune into what intuitively feels like the right time to begin the next piece or excerpt. You might record yourself on video and see what it looks like when you are an observer. Or recruit a few friends to give you feedback on what they see – often it is easier for us to pick up on other peoples’ hesitation or over-thinking than our own. The most telling criteria of whether you are taking too much time or not, is when you notice your thoughts beginning to turn to the dark side. If this happens, it either means you are taking too much time, or don’t have a reliable way to stay focused, which leads to…

2. Develop a consistent pre-performance routine, or ritual that you go through before each piece or excerpt.

Notice, for instance, how the most effective free throw shooters in the NBA have a pre-shot ritual that is consistent and does not vary much from situation to situation. Whether it is the third quarter of a blowout or the potentially game-winning free throw in a crucial playoff game, the ritual they go through before each free throw attempt remains exactly the same. Everyone’s routine may look different, but they all incorporate the same key elements, and most importantly, are automatic and require little (if any) conscious thought. Centering is an example of one pre-performance routine that has been effective for many musicians.

The one-sentence summary

“Take time to deliberate, but when the time for action has arrived, stop thinking and go in.”  ~Napoleon Bonaparte