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.”

Footnotes

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