Perform Better Under Pressure by Tweaking This One Belief

Stress management is a huge business. A quick Amazon search yields 18,558 books, ranging from Stress Management for Dummies to Stress-Free Potty Training.

No surprise I suppose, because we’ve all experienced varying degrees of stress in the last year, on-stage and off. Heck, the last week…day…hour, even.

Kids fighting with each other in the back seat as we try to navigate rush hour traffic to get to a doctor’s appointment. Worrying about how we’re going to pay our rent at the end of the month. Having 15 different windows open on the computer, texting on one phone, while putting out a fire on the other line, having been so busy all day that we’re hungry, tired, and incredibly thirsty…but also have to pee really badly.

Stress sucks.

But could it be that we have it wrong? Is stress really the enemy, or is there something more subtle at work?

Stress kills

We are bombarded by messages about how bad stress is for us. How job stress alone costs the US over $300 billion in medical costs, missed work days, etc. annually.

How it increases our risk of chronic diseases, strokes, heart attacks, even gum disease, and makes us sick, depressed, shrinks our brain, makes cancer worse, ages our kids prematurely, is implicated in 60-90% of the things we go to our doctor for, and so on and so on (e.g. Stress Health Effects).

Indeed, an 8-year study of 30,000 people found that people who experienced lots of stress were at a 43% increased risk of dying prematurely.


But wait! There’s a catch.

This statistic was only true of those who believed that stress was bad. Those experiencing lots of stress who didn’t really buy into the “stress affects my health” notion actually had the lowest risk of dying.

So perhaps it’s not so much the stress that’s killing us…but our beliefs about stress that are the problem.

Check out this video of psychologist Kelly McGonigal at TED

It’s all in our heads

As it happens, this phenomenon is true among performers too. Sport psychologists have observed that some athletes thrive on stress and pressure because of how they interpret what is happening to their bodies.

When your heart starts pounding, when you feel your energy rising, and the adrenaline is pumping through your system, do you start thinking, “Oh, crap. Here we go again.” with a sense of trepidation and despair?

Or do you think “OK, it’s go time. Let’s do this!” feeling excited, and a bit nervous perhaps, but knowing that your body is primed to deliver something spectacular that isn’t possible when you’re in your normal calm state?

Totally calm performances might be more comfortable for you. They might make you feel more at ease, and probably even improve technical accuracy to a degree. But who says performing is all about you and what feels more comfortable?

Doesn’t your audience deserve an electrifying performance that reaches inside and lights a fire inside of them, melts their heart, or impacts them on some emotional level?

If audiences wanted technical perfection, they would stay at home and listen to recordings with higher audio fidelity and expertly engineered audio perfection. They could avoid the hassle of dressing up, fighting through traffic, finding parking, paying for tickets, waiting in line, sitting in an uncomfortable seat that keeps squeaking, squished between people wearing too much perfume, waiting in lines to go to the bathroom, squinting to see the performers, sitting through a piece they don’t want to hear, being stuck in a “dead spot” in the hall, etc.

If you want your audience to have a good time, it may be time to embrace stress as your friend. As your partner in crime. Like that workout buddy who can get on your nerves (ha ha), but ultimately forces you to bring your “A” game, resulting in more rapid gains in the weight room.

What message are we sending our students?

Researchers have investigated this in a range of performance settings, from academia to the military. In one study, Harvard undergraduates were given test instructions that implied stress and anxiety were a bad thing, while others were given the message that feeling anxious was a sign they might perform better on the test.

Students in the stress-might-be-helpful condition scored 50 points higher on the practice test, and 65 points higher on the actual GRE a couple months later.

Take action

It helps to have a strategy, and an understanding of how to utilize stress to our advantage (a pre-performance routine, for instance), but think back to your best performances ever. Didn’t at least one of them occur at a time when you were nervous, but somehow still managed to pull everything together and enjoy one of those transcendent performances that was a great experience for both you and the audience?

Remind yourself that feeling some increased energy or pre-performance activation (aka anxiety) can help you. That it has helped you in some situations. And perhaps this could be the message you explicitly and implicitly send to your students as well. Especially the young ones, who haven’t yet learned that stress is “supposed” to be bad…

Additional reading

Why can some kids handle pressure while others fall apart (@New York Times)

How to turn bad stress into good (@Wall Street Journal)

Ack! 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 perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. 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 learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And 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.


29 Responses

  1. I think it’s important here to differentiate between stress that comes from a situation such as a performance, and chronic stress that comes from having an unsustainable, disorganized, or imbalanced lifestyle. The former is definitely desirable, the second I doubt is good for anyone.

    I nailed an audition this week… as I waited to go into the audition room, I reminded myself that fight or flight response has a purpose– to prepare to to, well, either fight or fly. Since I was planning on fighting, feeling its effects therefore poses no problem 🙂

    1. Hi Anna,

      Good point. Though we’re learning that how we interpret things really does make a difference in how our bodies respond – even when it comes to chronic life stress (even chronic pain, etc.).

      Terrific to hear about your nailing the audition!

    2. Yeah — did I choose to be in this stressful position or didn’t I? That can be used to reframe a lot of things, but not everything.

  2. Great post…especially liked the part about “what audiences think.” My teacher in college used to say, “Roger, they’ve dressed up, they’ve hired a baby sitter. Make it special.”

    When I’m feeling especially uptight, I sometimes use logic to calm myself. It’s a series of questions:

    1. Is this piece worth hearing by live audiences?
    2. Is it within my abilities to play it?
    3. Can I play it probably as well as anyone–at least anyone that’s available to play it at this time and place?
    4. If someone else played it, would they play it any better? (If so, then I can always turn it over to them, change majors, change jobs, change careers, whatever.)
    5. If someone else played it, isn’t it likely they’d be just as uptight as I am, or maybe even worse?
    6. Given all of the above, and that someone has to play it because it’s great music worth hearing…

    Why not me?

    It sounds convoluted, the above really does help me accept the fact that I am the one that should play it, and will play it.

    Roger Kaza
    Principal Horn
    St. Louis Symphony

    1. This is great Roger, thank you for sharing these questions (and the story about your teacher)! I really like them all (and am super curious what happens when your answer to #1 is “no”), and I especially like the combination of questions #3 and #5.

  3. Dr. Kageyama,

    As both a classically trained musician (MM from the Peabody Conservatory) and currently a health sciences student, I generally agree with your assertion that performers need to have an arsenal of strategies to help them manage the psychological effects of stress on and off the stage.

    However, I do take issue with your assertion that stress might just be “all in our heads.” As Dr. Robert Sapolsky (Professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Standford University) and other researchers have pointed out, stress (both psychological and physical) does have a direct impact on our physical bodies. In particular, there is a fairly extensive body of research that indicates that stress physically impacts human genetics, telomeres, heart disease, and quality of sleep (particularly Beta brain waves).

    Here are some direct links to this research:
    1) “Stress, Portrait of a Killer” – PBS documentary
    Youtube link:

    2) “Stress Management”- Medline Plus (Website of the National Institutes of Health)

    3) Professor Richard Sapolsky’s homepage at the Stanford University School of Medicine (In particular, this page provides information about his published research articles/studies) :

    4) “Stress Management and Your Heart”- Cleveland Clinic

    1. Hi Hart,

      Thanks for the note and links to resources. You are, of course, correct that stress is not just in our heads, but is quite a complex interaction of a variety of factors both internal and external, and either way can wreak quite a bit of havoc on our bodies, the brain included. I suppose “all in our heads” may not have been the best subheading ever…

  4. This is so right on! I had this realization not too long ago. Just posted it on my blog because once people make this mental shift, and actually be grateful for the stress, and USE IT as a vehicle rather than pushing away, they play great! Great article.

  5. Noa, thanks for your reply. The answer to question # 1 is almost always yes…even if I don’t like the piece, whoever programmed it does! If it’s really music I can’t stand, I liken it to an actor cast to play an unsympathetic character…you just do it as well as you can out of sheer craft. (If it’s part your job obligations, then you can approach it from that direction…working, eating, supporting family…all good things!)

    I suppose it’s really kind of a rhetorical question, but I always start with it anyway, since if there is no point in doing what we are doing, it begs the question of why we are doing it.

  6. I’ve been in Toastmasters for over twenty years; public speaking is, after all, a performing art. I sometimes remind new speakers that being nervous before a speech is a good sign because it means that they care about doing a good job. Plus, they can learn to channel that nervous energy into their presentation. As they say in Toastmasters, “You’ll still have butterflies in your stomach, but you’ll get them to fly in formation.”
    (Note: I’d give credit for that quote, but variations of it are ascribed to many different people.)

  7. It’s so funny-I read this right before a performance that had a premiere of a piece starting out with solo horn. I felt alright about it, but this reminded me how much I used to love “stress”! Perfect timing. I had a great performance, couldn’t have gone better. Thanks!

  8. I have discovered that defining or otherwise codifying a particular mental or psychological function, such as stress, can be a useful and often necessary exercise. At the same time I realize that the actual experience is, of course, qualitatively differently. Therefore the question arises, if the idea of stress is not the same as the experience of stress, how can we accommodate the differences for the purposes of, in this case, a musical performance. Though stress has been shown to be a potentially useful, if not a necessary and preparatory function, it is fundamentally a thought mediated operation, therefore the process of thinking and methods of influence this appear key to enhancing performance. Thus it appears that the goal to achieve a ‘stress free performance’ is the same as the goal of ‘arresting’ negative thinking. As well, the question arises as to the possibility of training musicians to practice and perform music in a way that minimizes negative thinking during practice and performance. It is absolutely clear that if we could control our thought processes, we could eliminate or otherwise limit the kind of stress that frustrates performance. Because we are individuals with different, though similar thought processes, the methods for achieving an acceptable performance must be individually tailored. Thusly, the essences of performing music free of intrusive thinking, and therefore stress, operate within the same domain as meditation or similar techniques. In short, if we can learn to relax our thought processes, we can achieve a musical performance consistent with, if not better that achieved during our best practice sessions.

  9. I’m truly sorry, my last sentence should have said; In short, if we can learn to relax our thought processes, we can achieve a musical performance consistent with, if not better than that achieved during our best practice sessions.

  10. Thank you for so much wonderful information! I’ve only recently been guided to your website, and have read several articles. Many quotes and tips have already made it to my notebook! (I’m old school. I like the pen & paper thing.)

    Utilizing “good stress” is something that has (and continues to) served me well. I’ve been diagnosed with Severe Anxiety Disorder, but at performance time, I get in the “zone”. I use the adrenaline rush to focus on playing the way I know I can. That’s not to say I play my very best at every performance; we all have days that are… not the best.

    Thank you for so much great advice!

    Also, thanks to Roger. I can identify with your list! Love it! If you don’t mind, I’ll be implementing these things with my students.

    For now, though, I’m focused on this week: playing principal horn in the pit for Les Mis!

    Thanks again, all!

    Amy Morgan

  11. There is an inherent flaw, namely that once you call a stressful situation a “challenge,” you are no longer dealing with the construct of stress. I made the same point in my recent NY Times Best Seller: Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most (2015). I found elite athletes like LBJ, Jeter, Brady, do not even use the word “pressure” –they use challenge and opportunity. Creating a different mind set creates a different internal reaction and thus, among academics, is a different construct. If you change the subjective experience, you are changing the emotion feeling. There is only one upside of stress and that is its evolutionary function: to arouse us to action. Nobody ever comes home and says to their partner, please give me stress and I have never heard anyone from in the hundreds of companies I have consulted to or executive education programs I’ve taught in, we need more stress. They do say, I want a challenge -but that is not stress. The author is really speaking about the process of “cognitive appraisal” and how changing a threatening appraisal to a more friendly one changes behavior. Show me a cardiologist who says to a patient with a heart problem, “Go climb a mountain and call it a challenge.” The author should of called this book, “The Upside of Cognitive Appraisal.” Furthermore, there is nothing conceptually new, except for some new studies that are making the round in current books–including mine, that were not said in the 1970s, when I was a graduate student. Telling people there is an upside of stress shows a lack of understanding of stress and could be a dangerous message to the public. There are major studies that stress is something to reduce–calling it a challenge reduces stress because it creates a new construct–The Challenge –might be a title for one of my upcoming books.

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