Do We Really Sound as Bad as We Think We Do?

The great violinist Jascha Heifetz once remarked1 that we should always be happy when performing. After all, if things are going well, we should be happy that we’re having a good day. And if things are going badly, each note we play gets us closer to the end, so we should be happy about that too.

That said, it’s still no fun to be stuck on stage, feeling like we’re laying an egg. Cringing at each botched shift, garbled run, and cracked note. Which of course just leads to a downward spiral of negativity and increasingly uninspired playing, as a tiny part of us curls up into a ball and dies on the inside, wondering why we even bother to try.

Of course, a week or month (or decade) later, we screw up the courage to listen to a recording of the performance, and are pleasantly surprised by how decent we sound. How the horrible things we were initially mortified by, are barely noticeable, and how many nice moments there are that we didn’t even remember.

So what’s the deal? Do we sound better in the moment than we think? Or are our recording devices just not sensitive enough to pick up the things we hear?

Dress rehearsals vs. concert performances

To learn more about how we perceive the quality of our performances, an interdisciplinary group of researchers ran a study involving 21 undergraduate and graduate-level piano students.

Each student was videotaped doing a complete run-through of their repertoire in two different situations – a dress rehearsal and a performance (not something contrived specifically for the study, but a real honest-to-goodness performance they would have had to give anyway).

Two evaluations

Following their concert performances, the students completed an evaluation form designed to help them compare the quality of their concert performance to the quality of their dress rehearsal run-throughs. Ranging from memory to tempo to sound quality and expressiveness, they evaluated the degree to which their performance was worse, better, or the same as their dress rehearsal in eight areas (on a 7–point scale where 3=much worse; 0=same; 3=much better).

But the researchers carefully manipulated the timing of their self-evaluations. Each student completed one evaluation immediately after their performance. And then a second one, some time later while watching the recording of their performance. To compare their perception and memory of their performance vs. the reality of how well they played given an actual recording of the performance.

Meanwhile, a professional pianist completed the same comparative evaluation of the students’ rehearsal and concert performances, while reviewing video of the concert performances.

Then, the students’ ratings and professional ratings were compared to gauge the accuracy of the students’ self-ratings.

Student self-ratings vs. expert ratings

You can probably guess what happened.

The highest correlation was between the professional pianist’s evaluation and the students’ evaluations completed with the video (.94). The lowest correlation was between the professional’s evaluations and the students’ evaluations that were completed without watching the video (.79).

So all in all, the data suggests that the performers were able to evaluate the quality of their performances more accurately when they did so based on a video of their performance. When relying on only their memory of the performance, their evaluations were less accurate.

Why the difference? Well, the major difference between dress rehearsal and concert performances, of course, is the amount of anxiety we experience. Might it be that our nerves make a difference in how we perceive the quality of our playing?

Impromptu speeches

A group of Canadian researchers conducted a study of college students to see what role anxiety might play in the accuracy of our self-perceptions.

They took a class of 333 students and gave them a social anxiety assessment to identify those who experience the most and least anxiety in social situations. The high and low socially anxious students were then asked to give an impromptu speech in front of an observer and videocamera, told that the recording would be shown to other students at a later time. Essentially the social phobic’s worst nightmare – like that dream where you get to the concert hall for a first rehearsal and discover that you prepared the wrong concerto.

High social anxiety vs. low social anxiety

Both the high-anxious and low-anxious groups completed self-evaluations of their speech in several areas. The interesting ones were related to performance quality and “presenter impression” (i.e. how they thought they came across to others).

As predicted, the high-anxious folks had lower self-ratings than the low-anxious folks. Ok, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything because maybe their nerves really did cause their performances to suffer, right?

To check this out, two independent observers watched and rated both groups’ speeches.

And after controlling for these observer ratings, it turns out that high-anxious folks do indeed have a bit of a “self-evaluation bias.” As in, the more anxious we are, the worse we think we are performing – even if it’s not necessarily true.

It seems that we let the experience of anxiety, and how it feels, affect our perception of how we are performing in the moment. Like having a pair of anxiety goggles which bias how we see the world.

But the thing is, as tight or shaky or nervous as we might be, we can still play at a pretty darn high level. It might feel like everything is about to fall to pieces in our world, but people on the outside often remain completely oblivious – because we appear much more at ease and in control than we actually feel.

Take action

So if you want to avoid triggering the downward spiral of negativity and doomsday thinking, don’t try to evaluate how well you are playing in the middle of a performance. Save it for later – there will be plenty of time for beating yourself up afterwards, if you’re so inclined.

But speaking of later, maybe don’t dwell on a performance and make yourself feel miserable on the drive home either. Give yourself a day or two to clear your head, and listen to the recording first. Because if you’re going to beat yourself up about something (not that I recommend it), you should probably make sure it really happened the way you remember it.

As Mark Twain once said, “I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”


  1. Take with a grain of salt. After all, Lincoln once said this.

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.


7 Responses

  1. “…the downward spiral of negativity and doomsday thinking …”

    That sounds familiar (and not just with respect to music)

  2. This is SO me. During the performance and right after, I am so critical of my self. Even if I listen to the recording the next day, I hear every little flaw. But a month down the road, it’s a different story. That was Me? Wow, I sounded pretty good. The same way with my sketches. Immediately after drawing, I’m meh, but a few weeks later I run across it and Wow! I drew that! Now if I can just figure out how to turn off that critic in my head while I play….I’ve done it with quilting. I stick in my ear buds and listen to classical music! Maybe I should watch someone quilting while I perform! haha!

  3. Nice column, Noa!
    Anxiety does bad things to brain function, mainly causing bloodflow changes that shut down the brain from the outside in (new to old), leaving us with emotion and not able to judge.
    We also have an “inner critic” that is part of what we learned as youngsters during the first few years of life — a habit structure that represents our “how to” of the best behaviors to maintain important attachments, here enlivened by wanted to connect with the audience and have them want to stay connected with us.

  4. Thanks, Noa! I’ll try to keep that in mind. My problem appears to be adrenalin. I start off ok, not overly nervous, and a few minutes in, the adrenalin rush is so strong that I lose control over my fingers. Instead of concentrating on the music, now I’m concentrating on breathing… and trying not to beat myself up as I hear my performance deteriorating. It doesn’t happen every time, which makes it even more difficult. I never know when it’ll happen and so sometimes it takes me by complete surprise.

  5. Right on. I was fortunate to grow up with a number of different recording devices in the house, and I think this helped reduce the shock factor when I started playing live and recording my own stuff.

    I think self-reflection and is one of the most important things. Some people I know are terrified of negative criticism, others embrace it and even chase it. Running my own business has been an exercise is rapid failure and learning; I’ve gotten to really enjoy hearing the “bad” news with my efforts because it means I’m closer to getting it right.

    This applies to learning an instrument as well. I play the drums, guitar and try to sing. I guess I have a high tolerance at this point for criticism and don’t take it personally, but what I’d like to know is – how come some people have no tolerance for criticism at all? Is there any way to ‘train’ that?

    It seems to be the cornerstone to an attitude of self-improvement – and my friends who think that way seem to be making more progress in their endeavors, and are happier warriors to boot.

    1. I do think this sort of openness to criticism/feedback mindset is trainable, and the research seems to bear this out.

      Carol Dweck’s book “Mindset” gets into the nuts and bolts of our sensitivity to criticism, and Josh Waitzkin’s book “The Art of Learning” also addresses this, referencing his own experiences in chess and Tai Chi.

  6. I can highly relate to this article and it did additionally helped me tremendously with the notion of that I’m not the only, “self-beating” musician after a “terrible” performance. One event in February highlights my experiences along with the article.

    So I’m not sure if people have heard of this or even do this program outside of my state, but I had attended the MHC Instrumental Solo Contest, performing Ballade by Carl Reinecke on my flute with my piano accompanist. Of course, my old flute holding me back to play much better than I intended to (but hey, I’m going to purchase a new one at the Flute Fair this weekend!) yet trying my hardest from my rehearsals and practices, I was quite out of tune (often flat), missed a few notes (expected from of course my high-anxiety nerves and my finger shaking), and could barely make a rundown due to my shortness of breath because, again, I, was, nervous. As you can probably guess, that was my “negativity meltdown”, with even more criticism of my performance as I performed and after on the ride home, which felt extremely unpleasant. Like every year, I always “did” horrifyingly terrible, even with the assurance and positivity that my parents/relatives gave me that I did exceptionally really well. I always had thought, “well, how could they know better? They’re not a flutist like me,” although my mother was a flutist once like me (I surpassed her beyond, or so she says when she was my age).

    A week (or even a few days) has passed, and I received a result from my judge by a substitute (but also a musician) band director at the high school. Well, I couldn’t believe my eyes, for one. I scored a 94/100, was ranked “I” (one, the highest you can receive), AND placed a fourth place yellow ribbon for my recognition. WHAT??? How could the ribbon be mine? I’m still a freshman playing the flute for only three years, how was this humanly possible? It has to be a mistake. But after my real band director came back, he still said, confirming, that indeed that fourth place ribbon was mine, and additionally congratulated me.

    Well, I didn’t do so bad, right? I listened to my recording, and, like the studies and examples in the article has shown, it wasn’t bad. It was decent and even good enough to say great.

    From this experience and article, it has proven me twice, with reassurance that I don’t play as bad as I don’t think. Maybe my best friend was right, he texted me right before my performance, “‘you are a amazing player which made me think you did amazing (which you did)'”. This motivated me to practice even more, cultivate with dedication, and don’t beat yourself up too much. That’s what my best friend constantly reminds me NOT to do, which I also find it quite amusing and humorous.

    What I also think is, this doesn’t apply to only musical experiences (like the speech research in the article). We all know this idea: any subject of exams and quizzes, speeches and presentations, performance on music or any other notion. No matter how the variation goes, the solution is similar to all of us: listen or see what you did, and THEN beat yourself up if you really want to. That’s what I learned, too.

    I have read Mindset by Carol Dweck, pushing me even more to my motivational goals. I hope to become a better musician AND person in the future I desire to be. Thank you for this article, Mr. Kageyama. I can tell that it lightened up the window from some of your readers.

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