Research Suggests That You Can Learn to Perform Well Even When You’re Nervous. Here’s How.

Let’s say you stumbled across a genie in a bottle, who granted you the wish of an ideal practice studio. If there were no limits, what would you request?

Soundproofing? Adjustable acoustics? Precise temperature and humidity control? A huge window with a view? A Fanta (grape flavored, of course) drinking fountain?

Like the importance of having a quiet, uncluttered, dedicated study area in which to do homework, creating a practice environment that allows us to maximize our focus on learning is a good thing.

But humor me for a moment, and let’s consider a slightly different question.

Let’s say the genie wanted to help you build not a practice studio, but a training room specifically designed to improve your ability to perform optimally in high-pressure performances and auditions.

What would be different about that space?

Context effects

I’m betting that the two spaces would look different and include different elements. Because when it comes to performing, a practice room isn’t very realistic, in the sense that it’s wildly different from the conditions in which a performance takes place. All of which puts our mind, our emotions, and our body in a very different state.

And as anyone who has ever taken piano lessons has discovered, the context in which we play matters. Ever notice how foreign your teacher’s piano feels, and how things tend to be a little less reliable when you have to play on a different instrument than the one you’ve practiced on? That’s a context effect.

So while quiet, comfortable practice rooms are great for practicing, they don’t help us simulate the demands of a performance, and we end up struggling to transfer our skills from the practice context to the performance context.

Can we become more immune to pressure?

This is as true for athletes (or surgeons or police officers) as it is for musicians, so researchers have been curious to see if there might be a way to “inoculate” us to pressure. To prepare in a way that enables us to maintain our effectiveness even when the anxiety kicks in.

Dutch researcher Raôul Oudejans has conducted several studies in this area – and they suggest that yes, we can indeed train ourselves to perform well even when we’re nervous.

Dutch basketball

One study involved two comparable Dutch national-level basketball teams.

Both teams started off with a baseline test of their free throw shooting abilities, with 20 free throw attempts under regular practice conditions (i.e. no pressure).

Then, they repeated the test – but with some pressure thrown in. To induce some anxiety, each team was split into two sub-teams, which competed against each other for a prize of €25. Their shooting performance was also videotaped, and they were told that experts would be reviewing the footage to evaluate their shooting technique. They were asked to imagine that each pair of free throws were the decisive points in a close game. And the coach and other players watched each shooter throughout the test.

During the next five weeks, over nine practice sessions, both teams took an additional 96 practice shots (which worked out to basically a few extra free throws after warmups, and again at the end of practice).

The only difference between the two teams, is that one of them (the anxiety-practice group), practiced their free throws under the same anxiety-producing conditions as their baseline test. While the other team (the regular-practice group), practiced their free throws in normal practice-like settings.

Then, the athletes retook the shooting test – 20 shots without any pressure. And then another 20 shots with the competition, videotaping, and other anxiety-producing elements added back in.

Does practicing with anxiety help?

During their baseline test, both teams performed worse when anxious. The regular practice team regressed from 75.4 points to 70.2 points1, and the anxiety practice team went from 77.1 points to 72.7 points.

After five weeks of training, however, things changed. The regular practice team again performed more poorly under pressure (73.1 with no anxiety; 67.9 with anxiety). But the team which practiced free throws under anxiety-provoking conditions not only didn’t regress under pressure; they performed even better. Specifically, 71.3 points with no anxiety, compared to 78.0 points with anxiety.

Fear of heights, anyone?

The researchers then did a second study, this time with expert dart players, which I have to mention because my reaction upon learning how they created anxiety in their subjects was “Wait, no…seriously?”

The players started with 24 throws at a target.

Then, they made another 24 throws while standing on a climbing wall, their feet on footholds about a foot off the ground.

Next, one group of players (the no-anxiety group) took an additional 48 practice throws at that same position on the climbing wall. The other group of players (the anxiety group) took their 48 practice throws much higher up the rock wall – with their feet on footholds 12 feet up, and one hand clinging to a handhold 17.5 feet up.

darts-setupThen, everyone took a final test: one set of 24 throws at the low position, and another set of 24 throws at the higher anxiety-provoking position.

How’d they do?

Both groups of players performed comparably when tested at the low position on the wall. However, once anxiety kicked in, the players in the no-anxiety group struggled to maintain their level of performance, and saw their performance at the high position on the wall suffer.

On the other hand, the players who trained with anxiety did equally well at both positions, even when anxiety kicked as they clung to the wall at the higher position.

Takeaways

I would be curious to see how this training translates in real competition settings – not just in experimental settings. However, there is certainly a good bit of anecdotal evidence about this practice, and the theoretical premise makes good sense, so this remains a promising strategy for “pressure-proofing” our skills.

Take action

The dart study made me really curious about what creative strategies musicians might be using to create pressure in the practice room. I’d love to compile a list of these in the comments below.

Whether it’s practicing in a moving car2, to busking in the subway3, to a run-through on China’s scariest new walkway 4, what are some of the best ways you’ve tried (or heard others use) to create anxiety in the practice room?

Footnotes

  1. Each shot was scored from 0=5, ranging from an airball (0) to misses off the backboard (1), rim (2), and makes off the backboard (3), rim (4), to a clean swish (5). Based on this scoring system, a perfect score would be 100.
  2. Yes, this has really been done – but depends on the instrument, of course.
  3. This has been done too.
  4. Yeah, no, this has not been done as far as I know – and for obvious reasons, is probably a pretty terrible idea.

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.

NOTE: Just FYI, the annual 2-for-1 event begins this Friday (Dec. 10)! So if you’re thinking about signing up for the course, I’d actually suggest holding off for a few more days! What?! Why?

‘Cause if you sign up anytime Friday through Sunday (Dec. 10-12), I’ll include a second bonus account at no additional cost that you can gift to a friend, colleague, family member, student, teacher, or practice buddy of your choice. 😁

Click below to learn more about the course and the holiday 2-for-1 offer.

Comments

26 Responses

  1. I have five kids, ages 10 and under. I do practice after their bedtime in order to hear specifics like intonation and consistent tone quality. However, there are times I specifically practice focusing in the midst of distractions. Energetic kids are the perfect fit for that training room!

  2. Nothing exciting or new at all about this method of producing performance-like anxiety, but it’s often very effective: press record! There is just something about that little red light being on…

    I had a teacher who said, “If you think you’re having a great day in the practice room, record yourself.” Meaning, if you are feeling good about your performance level in the practice room, get out your camera or phone and press record, and you will see where your performance level really lies.

  3. My day job is as a surgeon, and I can remain calm, even in the midst of a surgical complication. No butterflies when speaking in front of 300 colleagues, which is essentially an expectation of academic medicine. In any audition situation I am a basket of nerves. Clearly, I need to get the anxiety to a useable level in this situation.

  4. I am tennis player and your insights has helped me a lot. I practice hitting on the wall inside my house trying to hit a specific target all the time. Anxiety and pressure always increase when my wife watches me do the practice and my hitting accuracy drops at least 10-15%. Sometimes when my guests(I mean more eyeballs here) ask me to show what I do in practice, my accuracy of hitting further deteriorates. So for me somebody watching me practice certainly creates more anxiety.

  5. “Hit record” definitely induces anxiety for me! The other one I’ve heard, and this is an old classic, is run up and down the stairs a few times to raise your heart rate and simulate the physical aspects of anxiety.

    1. Yes! That simulates the shortness of breath and difficulty getting my voice-the very thing that happens with stage fright!

  6. To get ready for a performance, I sit in my living room and “perform” while my husband slams doors, turns the tv on and off, walks around and takes flash photos, anything to cause a distraction.

  7. Having my husband listen while I’m practicing is a stressful situation. He has no problem telling me when anything doesn’t sound right, but will also let me know when I am doing well.

  8. Recording myself helps me out because I feel pressured to play well. I have also found that practicing to perform with lots of noise around me also helps me to focus in a performance setting. I’ve found this out because I recently put together a piano recital independently and was practicing for it in my family’s house. On the recital day I was able to focus no matter how nervous I was.

  9. Dear Mr. Kageyama,

    I think it’s worth investigating if playing under any tension-inducing circumstances (such as riding in a car), really has a substantial effect on playing under the specific kind of pressure involved in live performance. If not, I would categorize this as a sub-category of being in performance mode, wouldn’t you agree?

    Apart from performance mode strategies and those others have already mentioned, I recommend playing in front of your teacher(s), and students if possible (for me the latter is much more straining). Also, playing with, or for, other musicians. Playing after mentally going through how your performance day looks like, how you enter the venue, etc.

    Thanks for the interesting writing, as always!

  10. I had a terrible audition experience once where one of the other candidates was sitting outside my warmup room and chatting with someone. I was so nervous about her hearing me play I could hardly warm up. The other day, I was practicing while my daughter had a friend over. I decided to use this opportunity to practice some of the Courage strategies while they were there. They worked! I think I’ll take the opportunity to practice more often when she has friends over.

  11. I’d say record yourself playing and also post what you recorded somewhere on the internet. It always stresses me even more to know other people will see/hear that.
    Practicing with other people listening always makes me nervous too. Sometimes (if the time of day allows that) I play near a window because I know people passing by my house will listen.

  12. A bit special, but often effective method is to practice, even if you really have to pee. It’s pretty hard to concentrate – and it is precisely the exercise.

  13. As a church organist, I practiced while playing a YouTube video of crowd noises to simulate performance conditions.

  14. I practice running fresh concert programmes when I’m not yet warmed-up. So as soon as I sit down, I play through the first half, take a short intermission and keep going. This usually gives me a good idea of what is solid or not, and what will hold up in front of an audience.

  15. I did it only once, when preparing for a graduation recital, and I think it worked well. I practiced each day in a different place. Subway stations, parks, shopping malls, even cemeteries were places I found useful for this purpose. And the different feel in each one of these places helped me to improve in different aspects.
    Thank you for the post and for all the shared comments!

    1. Wow, what an interesting way to practice! Just curious, were these “practice performances” (playing through your repertoire) or were you doing slow practice and stuff like that?

  16. Sometimes I record myself (which can bring a little pressure to do it right) and then I send it to my teacher. It gives me more pressure than just practicing alone, but isn’t as much pressure as a performance.

    On a side note, I really enjoy playing violin in the car. To me, it isn’t stressful, but a fun way to ride in the car. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Get the (Free) Practice Hacks Guide

Learn the #1 thing that top practicers do differently, plus 7 other strategies for practice that sticks.

Do you know your mental strengths and weaknesses?

If performances have been frustratingly inconsistent, try the 4-min Mental Skills Audit. It won't tell you what Harry Potter character you are, but it will point you in the direction of some new practice hacks that could help you level up.

Share377
Tweet
Email