Want to Perform Better Under Pressure? Why Autopilot May Not Be the Answer.

I visited Cambodia over the holidays, where my wife and kids have been spending the year.

The kids are starting to pick up the local language (super cute), and I found it really remarkable how un-self-conscious they were about trying new words and talking to people.

It seems like kids don’t worry if they are mispronouncing words, or using them incorrectly. Me, on the other hand, I’m much more sensitive to whether I’m saying things right.

Case in point, we went to a Japanese restaurant, and my kids asked what everyone was cheerfully shouting out as we left. I repeated the phrase to them and explained what it meant, but as I tried to repeat the words more slowly for them, I started getting confused and questioned whether I was saying it right or not (my Japanese is pretty rusty). At this point, I’ve thought about it enough, that I’m honestly no longer sure what the correct pronunciation of this very basic phrase that I ought to know.

A similar thing can happen on stage, under pressure. Where we think too much, and get to a point where we become a bit paralyzed and question our ability to do something we’ve done hundreds of times before.

So what are we to do? How do we avoid getting in our own way on stage?

Ignorance is bliss

As kids, I don’t think we know enough about the mechanics of playing to get in our own way.

We just kind of play. And things usually go pretty well.

Of course, as we get older, and the stakes increase, we start micromanaging all the little details – what our fingers should be doing, what our mouth/tongue/lips should be doing, our elbows, wrist, shoulders, and so on.

However, most studies suggest that explicitly monitoring technique, or thinking about mechanics in this way does more harm than good.


Our brain, sensory organs, and muscles can’t communicate with each other quickly enough to play fluidly and execute the complex and sophisticated motor patterns we’ve worked so hard to “program” in the practice room.

It interrupts the automaticity of the complex motor movements required to play at a high level, and can lead to “choking.”

So that’s not the answer.

Is autopilot an option?

Recalling how easy things were as children, it can be tempting to try to find one’s way back to that place, looking for ways to perform on autopilot, without thinking.

Maybe that’s doable in the practice room, or when there’s no pressure, but it is tough to think about nothing for very long – especially when we’re on stage at a big competition or audition and are being bombarded by all sorts of inner dialogue and chatter.

So apparently that’s not the answer either.

What to think about?

A recent paper proposed that thinking about higher-order or big-picture elements in the music is more likely to lead to a higher level of playing under pressure.

As in, focusing on the line, shape, sound, or pulse (to name a few). The idea being, that if we focus on the big picture, we can play at an even higher level than if we are in mindless autopilot mode.

The key point, of course, is that we need to create, test, and practice specific “mental scripts” that we will be utilizing during our performance in the practice room, just as diligently as we work on the physical aspects of our playing.

For instance, if you tend to find your thoughts drifting to the big make-or-break shift, and psyching yourself out before you even get there, what would be a more musically helpful element to focus on instead, in the measures leading up to the scary part?

The problem with performing like you don’t give a hoot

This is, incidentally, the problem with performing casually, or allowing ourselves to scan the audience, and decide to perform as if we don’t have a care in the world when we determine that the opinions of those present don’t matter to us.

In such situations, we will often have easy, effortless performance experiences where we’re not really thinking about anything at all, and things sound pretty darn good. It feels like the practice room, or maybe even a tiny bit better. And then we wonder why we can’t recreate this experience when the stakes are higher.

The answer is not to try to figure out how to care less, or get back to that mindless state. The answer is to take every performance much more seriously, to bring your full mental and physical efforts to each performance as if it were your Carnegie Hall debut, and to use every one as an opportunity to execute the mental scripts as successfully as the physical scripts.

So when you do walk on the stage of Carnegie Hall, you will have the confidence of knowing that you have an established and proven game plan, and are totally ready to do exactly what needs to be done – both mentally and physically.

Additional reading

The neuro-pianist @Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience

Going from Good to Great with Complex Tasks @Scientific American

photo credit: Fly For Fun 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.

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4 Responses

  1. … what would be a more musically helpful element to focus on instead, in the measures leading up to the scary part?

    Something PAST the scary part — aim through the target. Helps me, anyhow …

    1. Hi David,

      Scripts would generally be highly specific to the phrase and notes you are actively playing. Whether it’s simply sound, shaping a phrase, awareness of line, or timing/pacing/rhythm, you want it to be relevant to what you’re trying to achieve musically.

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