It’s normal to feel some pressure when we perform in front of others – but not all situations feel quite the same.
Solo performances, for instance, often feel more stressful than chamber music performances. Auditions, in turn, can be more stressful than performances. And some auditions – like the one for your dream school or job – are more stressful still.
So the situation may play a role, but a lot of the pressure we experience is the pressure we put on ourselves. Where the voice in our head says stuff like “You can’t afford to make any mistakes,” or “It’s going to be humiliating if you don’t get first chair,” or “You have to get into this school.“
Although this kind of self-imposed pressure could perhaps motivate us to spend more time in the practice room, it’s debatable whether that kind of fear-based motivation is ultimately helpful.
Because as audition day draws nearer, we can end up being too fixated on playing perfectly. On winning or losing, and how the outcome will make the rest of our life awesome or awful.
Which is a ton of pressure to put on ourselves.
So sometimes we try to flip things 180 degrees and convince ourselves not to care so much. Brainstorming all the reasons why the school really isn’t so great. Or all the negative things about the city we’d have to move to. (Which rarely works, of course, since our brain is pretty good at detecting our BS.)
So how should we talk to ourselves under pressure? Is there an optimal middle ground between “I absolutely must win this audition” and “Meh…whatevers”?
Putting from 7 feet
A team of researchers recruited 57 amateur golfers with an average handicap of 13.
Each golfer started out with 6 practice putts from 7 feet away from the hole1, then took 15 real putts, which counted towards their score.
To add a bit of pressure to the situation, they were told that they’d be competing against all of the other participants in the study, with their scores being visible on a leaderboard in the clubhouse.
A week later, they returned to the golf course for a second putting test. Same green, same location and distance, and once again, they started with 6 practice putts to get warmed up.
But before taking their 15 performance putts, they were given an envelope containing four statements, and allowed some time to read, think about, and practice using them.
Half of the golfers received envelopes with only extreme, or “irrational” statements, that in theory would increase the pressure they felt. The other half received envelopes containing more balanced, or “rational” statements that were intended to relieve some pressure.
What does that mean exactly?
Well, here’s what the golfers had to work with:
- “I want to sink this putt, and therefore I must”
- “If I don’t succeed in this task, it would be awful”
- “I would not be able to stand failing in this task”
- “If I miss this putt, it would make me a failure”
- “I want to sink this, but that doesn’t mean I must”
- “If I don’t succeed in this task, it will be bad, but not awful”
- “If I don’t succeed in this task, I will not like it, but I will be able to stand it.”
- “If I fail to sink this putt, then I will have failed, but that would not make me a failure”
Then they took their 15 putts, while using the self-talk statements they just practiced.
The following week, they returned to the golf course for a third putting test.
After taking their 6 practice putts, the golfers were handed another envelope, this time containing the other type of self-talk.
And after a few minutes to read, ponder, and practice these statements, they attempted their 15 performance putts, using the new self-talk statements they just learned.
So…did the slightly tweaked wording affect their performance?
Rational vs. irrational
The short answer is, yes.
The golfers performed better when using the pressure-relieving “rational” self-talk, than when they used the pressure-increasing “irrational” statements (4.53 vs. 3.61).
The rational self-talk also led to a greater improvement over their baseline performance (4.53 vs. 3.32) than when they used the irrational self-talk (3.61 vs. 3.32).
So even though the wording of the statements above may seem quite similar at first glance, it appears that so-called “rational” self-talk is more conducive to performing optimally than “irrational” self-talk.
That said, there are a couple limitations of this particular study to keep in mind.
For one, the golfers in this study were skilled, but not elite performers. And the stakes involved were pretty minor. Nothing comparable to Olympic competition, auditioning for the NY Phil, or even seating auditions at a big summer festival.
So the question is, could someone who has spent years working towards a goal really tell themselves that failing to get into Tanglewood yet again, or failing to get into a doctoral program yet again, doesn’t make them a failure?
Because it’s one thing to tell yourself something, and another thing entirely to truly believe what you’re saying. And the latter probably matters more – again, because our brain is pretty good at calling us out on our BS.
Feels true? Or is true?
Well, while it may not happen overnight, I do think it’s possible (and valuable) for performers at any level to use this type of balanced self-talk.
But how do we get ourselves to actually believe what we’re saying when the stakes are really high?
Take a closer look at the rational and irrational statements above. Granted, in the heat of the moment, the irrational statements will probably feel more true. But when you step back and take some of the emotion out of the equation, aren’t the rational statements actually more truthful?
I mean, does it suck to miss a big shift in the most important audition of your life? Yeah, it totally does. But is it verifiably true to say that you must nail every single shift, or else you’ll never have a meaningful and satisfying career, and will end up living in a van down by the river ?
Of course not; “perfect” auditions or performances don’t always equal success, and seemingly imperfect auditions sometimes result in job offers (and if the voice in your head is having a hard time buying that, it might be reassuring to read this or this).
We have a habit of over-awfulizing things in the moment. And underestimating our own resilience. And imagining that our future happiness depends on flawlessness today. All of which ratchets up the pressure and paradoxically makes us more prone to falling short of our abilities.
So for me, the takeaway from this study is that we can make subtle tweaks in our language to potentially change the pressure we feel in important moments, and help ourselves perform more optimally.
Where, by acknowledging that an audition is important to us, but reminding ourselves that we have what it takes to bounce back even if things don’t always go our way, we can better navigate that line between making each tricky passage or shift a life-or-death event, and pretending that we don’t care.
Or in other words, to care deeply about our performance, but not get too attached to the outcome, as I think actor Bryan Cranston is suggesting here: Advice to Aspiring Actors .
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Noa, I always enjoy and get many takeaways from your articles. Before I started playing music and writing full time, I was a Counseling Psychologist. I feel compelled to tell you that this team of researchers have essentially “re-packaged” Dr. Albert Ellis’ Rational Emotive Therapy. It’s not the first time it’s happened. Dr. Wayne Dyer took Ellis’ work and made it more “palatable to the public.” Lastly, instead of the term “over-awfulizing,” Ellis came up with the term “catastrophizing.”
Keep up the great work. I look forward to reading The Bulletproof Musician!
Thanks for the note, Bernie. In all fairness to the study authors, they did frame the study as an application of REBT in sport settings and credited Dr. Ellis in the process, so I think any oversimplification or repackaging is probably all on me!
This is good stuff. I think the trick is to make rational self-talk a regular part of your self-talk. I have a Pilates instructor who is helping me heal some IT band issues, and she told me me to make sure my self-talk about my injured leg is positive. I think you’ve mentioned this in previous articles, too. If you wouldn’t say it to a friend or a child, don’t say it to yourself, and monitor yourself until that becomes habit. It’s amazing how much we musicians abuse ourselves when the stakes are high. I know I’m bad about it.
Hi Noa. Many thanks for writing/speaking about my work – this is a great Blog and I am pleased to see the work being applied outside of sport. Bernie Schallehn rightly points out that we draw on REBT here. I have been using REBT in my work with athletes and other performers for 5-6 years now, including doing research and working in the field. Its a really usable and effective approach to dealing with pressure and adversity and I am always keen to promote the work of Albert Ellis. There are some further blogs at this website (www.thesmarterthinkingproject.com) that focus on REBT in performance settings too. I like you point about “our brain is pretty good at calling us out on our BS”. In my work I talk to athletes about double-think, an Orwellian concept. Some of the better adjusted athletes I have worked with are capable of believing one thing in the moment, and then believing something completely different when they are out of the moment. It might be enough to convince the mind to believe whatever it takes to produce a performance, and then be free to abandon that belief when you are away from the performance environment. In psychology this is called cognitive dissonance. Anyway, I hope this stimulates further thought/discussion.
Martin J. Turner
Thanks for the additional thoughts and input! That sounds like an interesting phenomenon – to be capable of adopting whatever mindset is needed to perform optimally in competition, but then not necessarily sustaining it outside of competition. It’s not the same thing exactly, but reminds me of a friend who found it helpful to recognize that in an audition, you only have to play great for 10-20 minutes. That you don’t have to be awesome for a long time, just for a short burst, which can be easier to manage.
That clip at the end was so interesting and wonderful……