The Key to Better Performances and Crispier Waffles

I was a big fan of the X-Men comics growing up, and thought that having a cool mutant power like moving objects with my mind would be pretty sweet. So naturally, I spent some time practicing that elusive skill.

My efforts centered around trying to get leaves to fall from tree branches or specific blades of grass to move, and as I accumulated hours of practice, there were times when I thought I succeeded!

Of course, I eventually realized that I had no gnarly mind control powers, and it was just the wind that moved the grass and leaves…but it took me a while to figure this out.

A similar illusion of control occurs in performance situations as well. Meaning, there are times when we think we have controlled something that we actually don’t have much control over. Like whether we win the approval of an audience, whether we get a good review from the local music critic, or whether we win over an audition panel.

What is this crazy talk you say?

Well, we like to think that we have absolute control over these key outcomes, but in truth, our control is oblique, or indirect at best. And when we devote our limited attentional resources to things we don’t fully control, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot and setting ourselves up to experience a lot of frustration.

So…what do we control, anyway?

Four levels of control

Level 1: Audience approval, winning a competition or audition

Generally, our thoughts go to outcomes – like whether we gain the approval of people we respect, or whether we win or lose an audition.

Much as we’d like to, we can’t directly manipulate others’ thoughts and opinions. Besides, they often don’t match up well with how we perform anyway. Sometimes we feel great about our performance, but get a lukewarm reception. Other times we feel horrible, and others love it.


Level 2: Playing our best

Hmm…so if we can’t control how others think, perhaps we should just focus on doing our best? After all, if we play our best, it maximizes the likelihood of winning a job or gaining the respect of our peers, right?

That’s better, but this isn’t something we have direct control over either.

Our hands might be cold and sticky. Maybe we don’t have a great reed. The acoustics might be horrible. Temperature changes could wreak havoc on our instrument.

Double argh!

Level 3: Getting into “the zone”

Ok, fine. So if we can’t just decide to play our best and will ourselves to have a peak performance, perhaps we should just focus on getting into “the zone,” or that state of flow where things feel easy and effortless, as if we are in control without controlling anything, and we sound great?

After all, getting into the zone maximizes the likelihood of playing our best, which in turn maximizes the likelihood of favorable outcomes, so maybe this is the key?

This is better still, but getting into the zone isn’t something we have direct control over either.

Like those infuriating magic eye pictures, the harder you try to get into the zone, the less likely you are to get there.


Level 4: Control the controllables

So what else is there? What can we control?

Quite a lot, actually.

We control our breathing, the release of key muscle tension, whether we have a clear intention, what we choose to focus on, how we recover from mistakes, etc., etc.

The problem is that these key behavioral and attentional factors seem so small and trivial in the grand scheme of things, so we feel that it’s not enough and yearn to control bigger things. Yet if we nail these key details, we maximize the likelihood of getting into the zone, which then maximizes the likelihood of a great performance, which in turn maximizes the likelihood of a favorable outcome.

Make great waffles

It’s a lot like making really great waffles (ala The Greatest Waffle Recipe Ever).

You’ll notice that the recipe calls for separating the egg whites. Sheesh, how much of a difference could that make?

The recipe also suggests mixing the dry ingredients and wet ingredients separately before combining – which means one more mixing bowl I have to wash. Is that really necessary?

But as I discovered the last few times I tried to cut corners on this recipe, these are the small, but crucial factors that represent the difference between awesomely crispy, chewy waffles and waffles that quickly become soggy as they cool down.

Stated another way, these are the key controllables that make all the difference in the world.

The one-sentence summary

“It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.” ~John Wooden

Question: What are the key controllables that seem to make all the difference in your performances? I suspect it may be slightly different for each of us – but perhaps there are common themes? Leave a comment below…

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.

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11 Responses

  1. One principal controllable is the ‘choreography’ or ‘setup’ – the intention, the physical setup, and the breath – and practicing that as part of the piece every single time.

  2. Dear Dr. Kageyama,
    I found this very helpful. Sometimes in the past getting no feedback has thrown me off, and now I figure – well it’s in my head and I can keep playing. Seems obvious, but it isn’t, and it’s great to actually read about that. Thankyou!

  3. Looking back on it, the best times have been when I’ve concentrated on the left hand, so that it sets the stage for the right. The analogy that comes to mind is that the left hand is the male ballet dancer in a pas de deux; he’s just there to keep the ballerina looking great, and not letting her fall.

    I’d be interested in hearing what you think of that.

    1. Hi Ted, I’d be curious to know what you were thinking about as you concentrated on the left hand – as in whether you were focused on a particular kinesthetic feeling, or focused on hearing what the left hand was producing, or adding inflection and nuance via the left hand. I’m guessing there may be an even deeper level that helped produce your positive results.

  4. The time I take before a piece is very crucial to me.. Or to maybe just take my hand of the keys and put my hands in the lap one last time. It will take an extra 10 seconds, at most, but it can really be do or die for me. I remember that I once played some pieces from a romantic suite. The first and the second piece went so well that I thought that I should just continue into the third, without a pause. Theoretically, I think I was right (like, I enjoy the idea of a suite being a suite, and not a separate bunch of pieces), but that third piece.. Ayayay… My mind was always a bit behind, because I haven’t had time to “recover” from the last piece. It really wouldn’t have taken a lot of time to just breathe and think just about the first few notes.

    Thanks for yet another great post!

  5. I really don’t know what gives a great performance. I think
    I know that Practicing hard and Trying hard doesn’t. Even planning
    to enjoy the performance doesn’t always work. Last week one was
    beautiful and one was ghastly and I can find no reason why. It just
    seemed to happen that way. Then today was pretty successful. What
    USUALLY helps — not always though. Scales help get the fingers
    doing the right things. What OFTEN makes is worse Too much
    practice. I like to flaunt it, go and enjoy and share a beautiful
    piece of music. My husband really helps me to play better. He
    boosts my confidence. Usually he listens and enjoys it no matter
    what comes out. If I say. “Wasn’t that nice?” he says yes. If I
    say, “I blew that!” he also says yes. He never seems to mind how it
    comes out. We have stereophonic speakers and listen to a Classical
    music channel a LOT. I make jillions of mistakes, stops and repeats
    while I play. Yet the other day he said that he prefers listening
    to me playing those that wonderful classics, because it’s live
    piano music. It sure makes a girl want to make beautiful sounds.

  6. I think the answer is, how do you WANT your performance to go? How crispy do you want your waffles?

    I was in a callback earlier tonight where I had no control over: who else was called back & why; which of the songs in the score the auditors might wish to hear; which of the 14 pages of sides they might wish to see & hear; what they might ask us to do; who was already cast (turns out two roles were cast before I got there); how long it would take before I was in the room…..

    What I DID have control over was: doing as much homework on the script and score as I had time and space to do; working with a coach as much as I could afford & schedule; my imagination and what choices I wished to make that I knew no one else would or could make; what I was gonna wear; how much preparation I did earlier in the day; letting go of how I thought it ought to go, and just lettin’ it rip.

    What I know for sure right now is: I did much of what I wanted, and what I envisioned for the role, in the room – not all, but much – and I know that they know that I did what I could do. However the outcome of this audition goes… I brought my waffles the way I like ’em.

  7. I have enjoyed all your writings and this one is no exception.

    On the subject of what can be controlled in performing, here is my “secret” trick.

    To begin, I am of the opinion that I tend to create what I keep my attention on. Therefore I apply this principle to musical performance in this way.

    After all the usual mechanical prep work leading up to the performance, I take a minute or two and clear my mind to focus only on the outcome I desire; what it feels like, what it looks like, etc. I get a clear mental image of the result of the performance would be.

    This way, everything leads to accomplishing what I have already decided will happen (in my mind, it already has happened).

    I put my attention on this aspect of the performance that I feel I can create and control. And, I can say with equal certainty that it works for me to lower my stress and increase my certainty and confidence.

    In fact, the only time it does not work for me, is when I forget to do it.

    1. Hi Dan – what you describe is very similar to what athletes do before a big performance. Indeed, the trick is to make it so much of a habit that we don’t forget to do it when it matters most!

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