How “Moms” Can Help Us Perform More Courageously Under Pressure

Have you ever wanted desperately to gain the approval of someone? Whether in a concert, audition, or jury, to impress them with the warmth of your sound, purity of intonation, and profundity of musical insight?

How’d it go?

Often, the more intensely we need approval, the more likely it is we end up with disinterest or disapproval instead.

After all, consider what happens when you walk into the room and lock eyes with members of your jury. You notice not the smiles, but the faces which have that vaguely disapproving look (it’s also easy to misinterpret fatigue as disapproval – and some folks naturally look kind of sour, even if they’re all puppy dogs and jelly beans inside).

That tiny preview of the potential disappointment that awaits us can be enough to freak us out. Make us tighten up. Worry about all the wrong things. Get that voice in our head all riled up.

What’s up with that? And what can we do about it?

The impact of disapproval/approval cues on self-evaluation

Researchers at the University of Michigan conducted a study to see if seeing a picture of a disapproving authority figure’s face would be enough to momentarily cause students to evaluate themselves more negatively and critically.

16 graduate students were recruited to participate in a reaction time test.

First, they were instructed to identify three research ideas they were working on, and told that in a moment, they would be asked to evaluate those ideas and participate in a reaction time test.

The reaction time test was pretty straightforward. Participants were instructed to press a button as quickly as possible after seeing a flash of light on the wall. What the participants did not know, is that the reaction time test was a sham. Each flash of light was actually comprised of two pictures shown in quick succession:

  • Picture #1 was a 2-millisecond glimpse of either (a) a blank slide, (b) a picture of their department director with a disapproving look on his face, or (c) a picture of a colleague with a positive facial expression.
  • Picture #2 was a 10-millisecond glimpse of an abstract collage of brightly colored shapes.

The researchers predicted that when presented with a glimpse of the scowling authority figure, participants would be more critical of their research ideas, and when presented with the glimpse of the positive colleague, they would evaluate their research ideas more favorably.

The procedure

All participants were shown the blank slide first. Then they were asked to evaluate their first research idea by responding to a few questions like “How original an idea is this?” and giving their idea an overall grade from 1-100%.

Next, half of the participants were presented with the disapproving face, while half saw the approving face. Then they evaluated their second research idea.

Last, each participant was presented with the other facial expression, and evaluated their third research idea. 12 milliseconds goes by crazy quick (it takes about 300-400 milliseconds to blink, and about 13 milliseconds for our brain to identify an image), so none of the subjects were able to correctly guess what image they had seen, nor did any of them notice there were actually two images, not one.

The results

Despite the pictures being out of their conscious awareness, there was a big difference in how negatively or positively they evaluated their ideas.

When shown the blank slide, both groups evaluated their ideas pretty evenly. One group averaged a 74.2 out of 100, and the other a 71.3 out of 100.

Yet when shown the approving or disapproving face slides, there was a significant difference in how self-critical the participants were. The group which saw the approving face rated their research idea an 82.8, while the group seeing the disapproving face rated theirs a 67.8 – a difference of 15%!

Altogether, across all three trials, the researchers found that students evaluated themselves more harshly when they saw the department chair’s disapproving face (72.7), than when they saw their colleague’s approving face (79.9).

So how can we avoid sabotaging ourselves when we see that one person in the audience whose approval we want so much?

Unconditional acceptance

Diving legend Greg Louganis may be best remembered as the diver who during the 1988 Olympic Games, hit his head on the board attempting a dive sometimes referred to as the “Dive of Death” (it has killed two divers).

He admitted that the incident shook his confidence, and that he experienced a lot of fear and nerves the next day. Yet he knew that playing it safe was not an option. That no matter how scared he might be, he had to go all out.

In those moments, he said he reminded himself that that no matter what happened on the dive, his mother would still love him. That it would be ok. For Louganis, this was a very powerful thought.

And it worked. It kept his mind off of judgment, criticism, and worst-case scenarios, and he became the first diver to win golds in both the springboard and platform competitions in back-to-back Olympics.

Take action

There will always be critics and haters. People who don’t get your sense of humor or your fashion sense. Folks who don’t love your work.

For one, remind yourself that you’re not making art for them. Remind yourself to focus on the third that does get you, not the third that doesn’t.

And then, who is the “Mom” in your life? The one, who, no matter what, will love and accept you just the same? (And yes, it might very well be your mother, but it doesn’t have to be.) How might you prime yourself before performances to remember this person – instead of the scowling adjudicator or intimidating teacher or bored-looking critic in the audience?

I met a telemarketer once who made cold calls all day long, and said she kept a picture of a loved one on the wall right behind the phone, so that she would see it and smile every time she made a call (which made her voice sound friendlier).

In a similar way, many musicians like to keep a picture in their instrument case. Others like to think of playing to this person. Then there are those that like to fast-forward through the concert to their post-performance plans, and remind themselves that no matter what happens, they’ll be able to decompress with this person over a nice meal.

What works for you?

The “Director of Operations” video

If you haven’t seen it already, check out this very Mother's Day-y video  of some young professionals interviewing for what sounds like the world’s cruelest, most unreasonable job…and some emotions as they start to catch on.

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that it was because I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, if I performed enough, the nerves would just go away and everything would take care of itself.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

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15 Responses

  1. Thanks so much for this post. Good for both performer and teacher to realize the impact even the slightest show of disapproval can have, and most probably unrealisticly so (knowing expressions can be misjudged).
    We do all need a “mom” in our lives, don’t we?
    Happy Mothers’ Day.

  2. Hi and thanks for the interesting post! I am curious how the research area of self conceptualization vis-a-vis relationships has developed since the article from 1989 cited here, and would be grateful for pointers. We are interested in developing insights into the relevance of attachment styles and their development and music performance, possibly including research on music and oxytocin. Thanks!

  3. At present I am ruminating over the University of Michigan study wherein students were asked to respond to specific images presented as flashes of light not perceivable to conscious awareness, and generally responded favorably to the positive images, (colleague’s approving faces), and responded significantly less favorable to certain negative images, (department chair’s disapproving faces); with regard to the ideas they were working with at the same time. I realize this was an, if I may, ‘indirect’ study; in that the participants were misled and unaware of the conditions and goals of the testing. I’m just wondering what conditions would constitute a reasonable control element in such a study, and would that be useful. Would the result be the same if the actual images were clearly presented? I know this full disclosure would constitute a somewhat different study; still I’m curious if elevating conscious awareness would change the results.

    In general, honest and scholarly studies are extremely useful, and quite necessary, if we hope to advance our understanding of any particular discipline. Of course, many, if not most studies, are provisional to various degrees; and it remains to be seen if the studies reflect reality. Without controls, where applicable, their application in real terms is less viable. At the very least relevant and contrasting views make for a greater comprehension of the issues discussed. Furthermore, if the student already has the favorable approval of their respective department chair’s, how could a singular disapproving image, blindly flashed as a light image, or even presented clearly, affect their critique of the material they were at present considering? IMHO, this is precisely why the results only showed a 15% difference. Significant, but not entirely convincing to make the case offered; “The impact of disapproval/approval cues on self-evaluation.”

    The idea of performing well because a special person is present, or not, is perfectly understandable, especially if that person was instrumental in the artistic development of the musician, in this case. The sad fact is that this special person may not always be around. Therefore, this kind of potential co-dependency has obvious limitations, if not harm. Ideally, musicians must be trained to become their own inspiration, as well as draw their inspiration from many sources. We must, I think, strive to transcend approval, as long as we are achieving the requisite result, with respect to the demands of our particular calling. I truly love the idea of my immediate family, and close friends, and certainly colleagues appreciating my efforts. Still, at the end of the day, my performance is entirely self- generated. Of course, I laud every helpful influence, and give thanks to any advantages and opportunities provided. Still, at some point, I must claim my relative autonomy as a performer; else wise my efforts are potentially chained to particular influences external to my own being. I offered these opinions for your consideration. Thank you.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, John.

      @John & Elizabeth
      Thought you might enjoy the follow-up study the researchers did with a larger sample of students, where they addressed some additional questions and found (utilizing a picture of the pope) that it wasn’t so much the facial expression that impacted the direction of students’ self-evaluation, but the facial expression of someone whose opinion mattered to them, whether they knew that person or not.

      The theory is that our self-concept is based not just on our own experiences, but in part on how we think others see us. And so when we’ve been “primed” with some figure or relationship that matters to us, it can have an impact on our own experience of self.

      Of course, it’s not a very stable way to build our self-concept as artists, and at some point, the hope is that we can move away from worrying about what others will think, and focus more on creating the art we believe in, scary though that can be.

      1. Thanks for the follow-up study and for the lucid post by John with your reminder of the satisfaction of being true to one’s own musical identity. Understanding the intersection between music and relationships, I can learn when as teacher and coach to best support the students by stepping closer and when I can best support them by stepping back.

  4. Great Article! I never really thought about this but growing up in a very non-musical household with a very cold and critical mother, it’s no wonder that I had such a slow and painful start to learning how to play music. On the one hand it was hard that I didn’t keep up with my friends but I’m grateful for it now as I’m one of the only ones still playing and growing and can remember every bit of progress on the way. That being said, support is HUGE and I didn’t first find that until I met my future-wife! This article makes me all the more grateful for her, thank you!

  5. What an amazing article!!!

    My Mom passed away years before I took up pipes,. She never knew I became a professional musician, composer, and teacher. Pipes are not part of my culture. I have no idea how she would have reacted, but I’m going take a huge risk and believe that she would have been thrilled about it. She loved music. She never missed the Metropolitan Opera on the old radio she had in the kitchen. She listened patiently as I tortured her for hours with Mozart and Hindemeth on my flute. I think she deserves to go with me as I rejoin the bagpipe world. We’ll just skip the haggis.

  6. Dr. Kageyama,
    As someone who is relatively new to the worlds of performing and self-confidence, I want to thank you for the effect your blog has been on me. I have a couple of performances coming up, and I know that in past performances, it really helps to have a smiling, supportive, friendly face out there in the audience. The one performance that sticks out in my mind as being really “good” was the one where my friend encouraged me and cheered me on. I saw her with this huge grin on her face as I performed, and it completely changed my attitude about performing. Like I said, that was the one performance I had where I really felt like it had turned out awesome! Just like this column/post suggests, I will try to channel that image when I have to perform next. Thanks, Kayeli for providing that image, and thanks, Dr. Kageyama for the suggestion!
    I appreciate all you have unwittingly done for me over just the past month. Your writing style is exactly how I want mine to be (I am also studying journalistic writing besides vocal performance). You provide so much good and useful content that is laced with enough humor to keep your readers reading, chuckling, and applying.
    Brilliant job on everything! It really sounds like you know exactly what success tastes like. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience.

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