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.

About Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.

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.

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