The Importance of Keeping Things Simple Under Pressure

Whenever I went on a trip, I used to pack all of my most important documents and possessions in my violin case. Wallet, passport, keys, traveler’s checks, sunglasses, music, phone, every last critical thing I could cram in would go there.

Friends used to question this practice, pointing out that if I ever lost my violin, I’d really be up a creek.

While that was certainly very true, I figured I was pretty much screwed if I lost my violin anyway, and found it much easier to focus all my energies on keeping that one super important possession safe, rather than splitting my attention ten different ways in order to keep track of ten different important things in ten different places.

Contrast that with my wife, who has been misplacing sunglasses for as long as I’ve known her (and there was even that time she accidentally flushed her sunglasses down the toilet). Sure it’s cute and endearing and all, but with her attention constantly divided between keeping track of her wallet, phone, keys, and sunglasses, the sunglasses inevitably drift to the fringes of her attentional capacity, and get left behind in the most random places.

What does this have to do with performing better under pressure?

Keep reading…I promise I’ll pull it all together eventually.

Pickpockets steal more than your wallet

Magicians, illusionists, and sleight-of-hand artists are keenly aware of the limits of our attentional capacity, and have mastered the art of stealing our attention.

Watch the following video of master pickpocket Apollo Robbins. You know in advance that he is going to be stealing some items, but it’s still a challenge to keep track of everything as it unfolds.

So how’d you do? Did you catch everything? (If you found this intriguing, check out the video put out by The New Yorker where Apollo reveals more about how he manipulates attention; and read Apollo’s fascinating profile; and watch one last entertaining video of Apollo at work.)

You knew what was going to happen, but it all happened too quickly, and there was too much to pay attention to, right?

We encounter the same problem on stage when the stakes are high.

We can juggle only so many balls at a time

In a high-pressure performance or audition, there are dozens, if not hundreds of things that vie for our attention – most of which are not going to help us play better. The nerves and jitters we feel. The new environment we are in. The other people around us, our own doubt and fears, the acoustics, the temperature of the hall, the need to bow, smile, and maintain positive body language – the list is endless. With so much going on around us, it’s easy to get frazzled, to feel scattered, and become overwhelmed by it all.

On one hand, that’s what proper dress rehearsals and preparation are for. But even with all the preparation in the world, it’s not necessarily the case that we will naturally maintain our focus on the most important ingredients for peak performance.

If we want to be assured of staying focused on the most impactful, task-relevant, and performance-enhancing factors, we have to take a bit of time to figure out what these might be in advance.

Take action: create a performance cue

Think back to your best performances and those times when you have played your very best. What factors were common to each of those occasions – as in, what do you recall as being the most important ingredients that led to your great performance? What were you thinking about? Focusing on? Doing physically?

Alternately, what’s the single most valuable piece of advice your teacher gave you in regards to performing your best? As in, if you just focus on and prioritize this one thing, you’ll more than likely end up having a pretty great performance.

For me, the key was simply remembering to keep my fingers in the left hand light, and to stay in the moment by singing or actively shaping the line in my head. So my performance cue would have been “light fingers; sing”.

I have a friend and colleague, who has observed that she plays her best, and all the technical details just work themselves out somehow when she makes it a priority to trust her body to produce what she hears in her head. Or as she puts it, when she “leads with her ears” and trusts herself, everything sounds so much better. So her performance cue might be something like “lead with your ears; trust yourself.”

Assuming you’ve put in the work in the practice room, and you’ve worked out the intricate details, nuances, and technical complexities of the repertoire you’re playing, you have earned the right to keep it simple, let go, and trust your body to naturally produce what you have trained it to do through all those hours in the practice room.

Keeping it simple may be scary at first, but with a bit of practice and experimentation, I think you’ll enjoy the calm and mental quiet that come with this – not to mention the increased level of your playing.

photo credit: Helico via photopin cc

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that it was because I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, if I performed enough, the nerves would just go away and everything would take care of itself.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and start enjoying more satisfying practice days that also transfer to the stage.

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11 Responses

  1. I understand that trusting yourself in a performance is a very important aspect of performing. Can you explain how to increase trusting oneself?

    1. Hi Annie,

      The simple answer is that it’s like practicing anything else – we start easy, and work up to bigger challenges. As in, see if you can trust yourself more in the practice room, then in rehearsals, lessons, small performances, then in higher-stakes performances. I suppose this might be worth writing about in more depth in a future post…

  2. My company had a great keynote speaker at our conference once, a brilliant woman with the improbable name of Cherri Pancake. She talked about tsunami monitoring and response, and one of the things she said reminds me of your violin case.

    She said that towns at risk for tsunamis always have these drills and procedures for what to do when there’s a tsunami. Mostly it’s just “get to high ground.” People follow them religiously, study and learn them … and then when a real tsunami strikes they totally ignore them. They head for the school instead, like a laser.

    That’s where their kids are. And no amount of drilling and training will shake it. A million years of evolution tells everyone GO GET YOUR KID, and that’s what they do, like clockwork.

    I said to her, “Why don’t the towns just build the schools on the high ground?” She nodded her head, grinned, and said, “Yes! Yes!”

    Putting your wallet and whatever into your violin case is like building the school on the high ground. If you’re going to be going cross-eyed to keep that one possession safe anyhow, you might as well coattail the other things on that one overriding instinct.

  3. And to actually address the topic, I’ve found that the most important and hardest thing to do in terms of staying focused on the stuff that matters is …

    Forget what’s behind you. It’s in the past. You can’t affect it. Move on.

    That is so, so hard to do — not to stew over a mistake once it’s passed. But you can’t DO anything about it. If you focus only on what you can positively affect, that mistake isn’t in that category anymore. It’s over and done with. All you can do is put a fence around it so that that mistake in the past doesn’t bleed forward into the present and make you screw up what you’re doing right now. That is so incredibly hard.

    One of the best hockey goalies in the world used to phrase it as, “Don’t let a bad period become a bad game,” and “Stay square to the shooter.” Quarantine the past. It’s over. Don’t let it infect the present. And don’t pay attention to things that aren’t your job.

    IMO, hockey goaltenders have a lot to teach musicians; all of the Maxwell Maltz/Don Greene centering/visualization stuff that musicians are only just discovering is stuff they’ve been doing since I was born, and it shows. They’ve had to put new rules in place to hamstring that one position and keep it from becoming so overly dominant that no one else on the ice matters anymore because these guys have been doing this sh*t for decades.

    I think it’s like rock climbing, too. They always say don’t look up and don’t look down. Just look for your next finger or toe hold. Do that enough times, and you get to the top. If you look up or down, you’ll freak yourself out.

    1. Good stuff. That’s actually one of the interesting things about research. Sometimes research leads to new discoveries, other times it simply confirms or validates what the really great athletes/musicians already know and do, and lets us know that it’s not just an isolated case but is based on sound principles that we can all benefit from.

      1. It’s also as a result of good teaching and mentoring. That goalie in question didn’t pick this stuff up on his own — he was very, very lucky to be taken under the wing of the Isaac Newton of goaltenders, Jacques Plante. Plante was brilliant and also articulate, and pretty much turned his student from a farmboy into a Jedi knight. The difference was night and day — pre-Plante, he was so-so to decent. Post-Plante, he was a completely different goalie.

        So often, we define as “geniuses” people who were simply lucky enough to stumble on this stuff on their own, or lucky enough to find good teachers early. The truth is that, with the right information, a lot more people would be much better than they are at what they do, even if they don’t become legends.

        1. On the Hockey Goalie stuff…I played this position for many years and won many accolades…I’m trying to piece together what I can take from Goalie experience to my musical performance. There were two parts to successful performance in the goals … I think. The pure instinct reaction saves and the reading the play saves…making a decision to intervene in the play. I clearly remember playing a grand final, in which we were the underdogs. I was hyped and played in a kinda “zone” the whole game. No matter what anyone did… Nothing got past me. It went to penalties and everything worked. I threw myself everywhere that day, mostly on instinct and everything worked. Each save led to more confidence and I almost become indestructible. Player of the grand final award and tonnes of confidence. Now if I can just harness that in my playing 🙂

  4. As I was reading this post again, I began to think about the thin line between putting all the technical worries on autopilot in order to stay focused on the music and playing on full autopilot, hoping for the best. The latter usually ends up snowballing on worrying about that missed note there and oh god I can never nail this next section, while the former always let’s me ENJOY the music I’m playing more, with or without mistakes.

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