The date is Saturday, February 23, 1991. Violinist Isaac Stern is in the midst of performing a Mozart concerto with the Israel Philharmonic, Zubin Mehta conducting, only to be interrupted by air raid sirens signaling a Scud missile attack.
The orchestra leaves the stage to put on protective gear; the audience remain in their seats wearing gas masks. Stern returns to the stage sans gas mask, and proceeds to play the Sarabande from Bach’s D minor Partita.
Most of us will never perform under conditions like this, but for a moment, just imagine. How could one continue to focus on one’s performance when the possibility of a missile attack is so very real and imminent?
Our ability to focus – to direct our attention where we want it, when we want, and for how long we want — is a critical ingredient not just in conquering stage fright (or focusing past an impending missile attack) but in optimal and peak performances.
Unfortunately, when we get on stage and the adrenaline kicks in, our attention becomes like a hyperactive puppy on caffeine. For one, our brain goes into overdrive and literally speeds up. Hook your brain up to a device measuring brain wave activity, and under stress you’ll see your brain begin to produce brain waves known as Beta waves which oscillate at 13-30 cycles per second. Makes sense, since if you were in danger, it’d be good to be able to think faster, process more information in less time, and make decisions more quickly. Of course, it’s the slower 8-12 cycle per second Alpha waves that studies suggest are more conducive to creativity and high-level performance.
Not only is your brain going faster, but your senses get kicked up a notch under pressure too. You’re more likely to be sensitive to all sorts of irrelevant stimuli around you, whether it be movement offstage or in the audience, candy wrappers being scrunched, or how your shoes are suddenly feeling too tight. This can be distracting, to say the least, and now you are left with fewer resources available to process the important music and performance-related details.
Contrast this with what we are accustomed to. The practice room and rehearsal hall are very controlled environments where external factors are mostly controlled. Temperature is neither too hot nor too cold, the lights are neither too bright nor too dim, the room is quiet and the acoustics are familiar. The conditions are ideal, and our brain is processing information at a normal rate. It’s a pretty cushy setup, which sets us up for a rude awakening when we step out on stage and everything is suddenly different.
With so much competing for our attention in auditions and performances, how can we train ourselves to be more focused on what matters and remain immune to these external distractions?
We can use the attention-sucking power of the TV to our advantage. TV is going to be your new attention training buddy.
TV is your friend
Here’s the exercise.
Select a piece that you know well and can play at a pretty high level.
Turn on the TV, volume pretty low at first
Standing in front of the TV, center, and proceed to perform the first few minutes of your piece, treating the entire mock performance as if it were a real concert.
How well were you able to stay focused on your performance? When did your attention wander? See if you can figure out why — what led you to shift your attention from your playing to the TV? Keep in mind that if you don’t know what to pay attention to, the TV will win by default. Review the post on clear intentions for ideas on what to focus on.
When this exercise becomes too easy for you, start tweaking things a bit by turning up the volume on the TV, putting on a favorite show or a particularly distracting one (for instance, a DVD of your favorite artist playing a different part of the same piece). You could also try playing pieces you are less familiar with, or ones where you are more likely to be distracted.
Use the TV as a training tool, and you’ll find that you’ll be able to focus past any on-stage distraction like it was nothing.
The one-sentence summary
“Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.” ~Albert Einstein
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.