“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” ~Aristotle
We are usually pretty diligent about avoiding bad habits in the practice room. We know that if we slouch in the practice room, we’re probably going to slouch on stage. If we rush in the practice room, we’re going to rush even more on stage.
That’s fine and dandy, but it’s important to know that one of the most detrimental habits can actually develop on stage during performances.
All performances are not created equal
We might say that all performances are important, but we all know that our brain considers some to be more important than others.
So naturally, when we find ourselves in an easy, low-pressure performance, we tend to relax and “cruise” a bit. With so little at stake, it’s easy to let our mind wander and perform on autopilot.
Funnily enough, we often end up playing pretty darn well this way. We feel a sense of ease and freedom, and start wishing we could play like that in a big audition or performance.
Of course, we all know it just doesn’t work that way. Under pressure, our minds gladly fill themselves up with worries, doubts, criticism, analysis, and other paralyzing thoughts.
So if you get into the habit of putting your mind on cruise control in easy performances, you end up being ill prepared to combat the inevitable negative thoughts when the pressure is on. For one, you won’t know what to replace your negative thoughts with, and two, you won’t have much experience staying focused on the right things for very long.
What are we supposed to think about anyway?
When asked what they are thinking about during their best performances, great performers will often say “nothing.” But when pressed to provide an answer, they will admit that this is not exactly true. Their minds aren’t completely blank. They’re not daydreaming. They’re not thinking about the gastrointestinal consequences of the 7-bean salad they had for lunch or wondering who will get killed off on the next episode of Game of Thrones. They’re intensely focused on the present moment (on sound, for instance).
But if we have developed the habit of zoning out and going on autopilot in low-pressure situations, we may have a difficult time flipping the switch and focusing deeply enough to max out our limited attentional capacity when there’s more at stake.
Keep your eye on the ball
When I took tennis lessons as a kid, I was told to keep my eyes on the ball. I thought this was pretty obvious advice. I mean, of course I was going to watch the ball – how else was I supposed to hit it?
It wasn’t until many years later that I understood what this meant. One day, my teacher drew a red X on the ball and told me to focus all my attention on the X. To see if I could see the X as the ball left his racket, spun over the net, and dropped into my court. That was keeping my eye on the ball.
This took “keeping an eye on the ball” to a whole new level. As you can imagine, it’s tough to think about much else when you’re busy watching the ball this intently. You can’t simultaneously make dinner plans, or think about whether you’re going to win the match or not. You’re too busy playing tennis, completely immersed in the moment.
Sure, you can develop this intensity of focus in the practice room, but your focus will be even more bulletproof if you hone this skill in live performances situations. Make it a habit to use those less stressful performances as an ideal opportunity to practice turning the intensity of your focus up to 11, and you’ll thank yourself for it when the big performances arrive.
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.