Quirky Pre-Performance Rituals: Do They Really Work?

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A student recently told me of an old Italian tradition among singers, where some would not go on stage to perform until they found a bent nail backstage. Even Pavarotti is said to have engaged in this ritual. Other musicians like Led Zeppelin, John Legend, and Beyoncé have described their own quirky pre-show rituals. And many athletes are known for their unusual game-day or pre-shot rituals as well.

Most of the pre-performance rituals that sport psychologists develop with athletes include strategic elements like breathing, or releasing tension, or visualization of the desired outcome. Actions that are intended to help the athlete get into a more optimal mental or physical state for performing optimally.

But some rituals – like the bent nail – seem totally random. Yet…could even these sorts of rituals enhance performance too?

Don’t Stop Believin’

A team of researchers (Brooks et al., 2016) conducted a series of studies to see if seemingly arbitrary rituals were effective in enhancing performance – and if the reason for this is that rituals of any kind are an effective way to reduce pre-performance anxiety.

In one study, 85 university students were randomly assigned to either a ritual or no ritual group.

When a student arrived for the study, they initially stayed in a waiting room with no idea what they would be doing.

Then, they were taken to a second room, where they were told that they would be singing a Journey song (Don’t Stop Believin’ – which you can listen to here if you’ve forgotten it, or here , if you prefer the Will Ferrell commentary version), in front of an experimenter, and be paid for their performance, according to the accuracy of their singing (the karaoke program they used would calculate a score based on how close the participant matched the original song’s volume, pitch, and note duration).

Ritual vs. no ritual

But before they were escorted to the performance space, students in the ritual group were asked to engage in the following ritual: 

Draw a picture of how you are feeling right now. Sprinkle salt on your drawing. Count up to five out loud. Crinkle up your paper. Throw your paper in the trash.

Those in the no ritual group were simply asked to sit quietly for 1 min.

When the ritual or 1-min wait was complete, the participant was taken to another room to give their performance.

And then they received their singing accuracy score, and were asked a few questions to get a sense of how nervous they were, and what their emotional experience of the situation may have been.

So did this totally random ritual make a difference?

Did it make a difference?

Indeed it did! The participants who engaged in the ritual had higher accuracy scores than those who just sat quietly – with scores of 78.47% vs. 65.70% (on a scale of 0-100%).

In addition, the questionnaire taken afterwards seemed to suggest that a reduction in anxiety may have been a big part of the reason why. Overall, everyone’s anxiety was elevated before singing, with an average anxiety rating of 5.14 out of 7 (1=not at all; 7=very much). But those in the ritual group had lower levels of anxiety (4.15) than those in the no ritual group (5.94).

So while this is pretty intriguing, and self-reported anxiety after the fact is a pretty common way to assess anxiety, wouldn’t it be nice to get a more real-time physiological measure of anxiety too?

Yep, the researchers thought that as well, and is exactly what they did next.

Don’t Stop Believin’, w/HR

In the next study, 167 university students were randomly assigned to either a ritual group, a no ritual group, or a calm down group.

Participants started off by getting their heart rate measured, to establish a baseline of their resting heart rate.

And then they were informed that they would be singing the first verse of the Journey song in front of a group of other participants (😳), after which their heart rate was measured once again.

Ritual vs. no ritual vs. calm down

Those in the ritual group performed the same exact ritual as in the other study. The students in the no ritual group waited quietly for a bit. And the participants in the calm down group were told to “do your best to calm down before you sing.”

And then, before singing, their heart rate was measured one last time.

So did the ritual have any effect on heart rate? Especially when compared to those who were explicitly told to try to calm down?

Did it make a difference?

The average baseline heart rate across all participants was 74.95bpm. And after finding out they’d be singing in front of other participants, their heart rate went up to 80.34bpm.

The heart rate of the participants in the no ritual group who simply sat quietly before singing stayed elevated right up until the moment they sang (81.39bpm). Likewise for the students who were instructed to try to calm down (80.58bpm).

But the heart rate of the participants who engaged in the pre-performance ritual actually dropped to 77.37bpm.

*Note: You might notice that the numbers in the chart are ever so slightly different from those above. I’m assuming it’s just a typo or perhaps one of those weird mysterious Excel things if the chart was generated there.

Brooks, A. W., Schroeder, J., Risen, J. L., Gino, F., Galinsky, A. D., Norton, M. I., & Schweitzer, M. E. (2016). Don’t stop believing: Rituals improve performance by decreasing anxiety. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 137, 71–85.

The importance of calling a ritual a ritual

Why would such random acts like sprinkling salt and counting to five have an impact on participants’ experience of nerves and subsequent performance?

Well, it’s not entirely clear why rituals reduce anxiety, but some think that it’s because performing the ritual is something you have control over. And that this provides a little bit of order or reassurance in what can be an otherwise chaotic moment. Kind of like organizing your desk when you’re stressed out or overwhelmed.

Others have suggested that engaging in a ritual could distract you from thinking negative stress-inducing thoughts.

But either way, the researchers did find that calling the ritual a ritual seems to be an essential factor in whether it has a positive effect or not.

Because when the team conducted additional studies where they referred to the ritual as “a few random behaviors,” the ritual no longer had a calming or performance-enhancing effect.


Since nerves pretty much comes with the territory, if you don’t already have some sort of personal pre-performance ritual for the day of, or for the warmup room, it seems that developing some sort of ritual would be a great first step towards managing audition/performance-day anxiety more effectively.

If nothing else, I feel like this would be kind of a fun thing to think about and experiment with, as you reflect back on some of the quirky things you might have done on some of your best performance days in the past, and sprinkle in new elements that feel like they’d be a good fit – whether they align with a personal superstition or have some kind of meaningful symbolic value.

What’s the quirkiest or most unusual pre-performance ritual you’ve heard of? Would love to hear it if you’re willing to share (might be a fun way for the rest of us to get some new ideas)!


Brooks, A. W., Schroeder, J., Risen, J. L., Gino, F., Galinsky, A. D., Norton, M. I., & Schweitzer, M. E. (2016). Don’t stop believing: Rituals improve performance by decreasing anxiety. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 137, 71–85.

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.


5 Responses

  1. Very interesting. I have not explored rituals, but I am very interested in any technique that will reduce performance anxiety for my students and myself. I have 11 piano students. Whether a ritual or not, I’m not sure, but I never eat before a performance. I, at some point, heard of other performers who said that they never ate before a performance so somehow I adopted that idea. I was impressed by the idea because I looked up to those performers because they were well known recording / concert artist! I felt that not eating helped me in some way? To this day, I will not eat before a performance. I am a piano player / vocalist. I’m 75 years of age and have been “Playing Out” since I was in college. Actually for many years I have ascribed to the principle that the amateur musician learns to play a selection so they won’t make a mistake, but the professional musician learns a selection so they can’t make a mistake. – Same idea as Kenny Werner’s “Effortless Mastery!”

  2. Routine and ritual seem to be closely related. Whereas a string player takes the instruments out of the case, tightened the bow, tunes and is ready to go, reed players have a lot more steps. When I get to orchestra, be it a rehearsal or a performance, I get my reed water out, set up my clarinet stands, put my reed in water, assemble both clarinets, put a reed on the first one I plan to use then finally I’m ready to warm up and tune. I find I can clear my mind for performance if I think about each step as I do it. Add a ritual? Who’s got time? But any alteration in my routine is enough to throw off my concentration so I think for me they are one and the same.

  3. Raphael Nadal has a little stroking ritual he goes through before serving. Many tennis players bounce the ball x times before a serve which is really a habit/ritual as they already know the ball can bounce.

    I think it’s safer if the warm-up ritual does not involve an object you might forget: e.g. clapping your hands five times rather than juggling three squash balls.

  4. Before I warm up on stage I will always make a point of sitting in the house in a few different places, and then walk around the house touching the walls. The original intent was to make the hall feel like “my home” so that the audience would be “guests in my home” and lead me toward a more giving performance. I can see how that is also a ritual, and I will certainly view it that way from now on.

  5. Hi. In my experiences, I’ve sat down for 5 minutes for long breaths ( I’m a flutist) and make humming chants quietly while rubbing my hands together or with my knees, taking in consideration flowing blood circulation to keep the body warm.

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