What Does It Mean When We Have a Bad Dream about an Upcoming Performance?
By Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.
You know that dream? The one where you wake up late and miss your audition? Or get there and realize you’ve prepared all the wrong excerpts? Or arrive only to discover that your instrument case is empty (which actually happened to me once at a master class – in real life)?
What does it all mean? Should we be worried? Especially if we have one of those dreams the night before a big performance?
Or could it possibly be a good sign?
The normal response
When we have a bad dream that puts a bit a fear in our thoughts, it’s tempting to dwell on it, or let the dream get to us a bit. We feel uneasy, anxiety ratchets up, and the worries kick in.
All of which puts us in an emotional state that is neither pleasant, nor helpful.
But don’t these dreams come true sometimes? I mean, it can’t be good to have dreams of crashing and burning the night before, right?
2324 students in the health studies track at Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris were slated to take an entrance exam, which would determine which field of medicine they would be eligible to continue in.
Meaning, each student would be given a ranking based on their test scores, and those ranked first to 313th would be eligible to go to med school. Students with scores in the top 430 could enter pharmacy school, those up to 460 could enter midwifery school, and 499 was the cutoff for dental school.
Needless to say, this was a high-stakes test with some pretty significant consequences for one’s career and life.
After completing the exam, students were asked to complete a short survey.
Of the 719 students who responded, 23.8% dreamed about the exam the night before, and 73.4% reported having dreams about the exam at some point in the semester.
Some students had positive or neutral dreams about the exam, but the vast majority of the dreams were bad ones, centered around some sort of problem or failure on the exam. Being ranked 2,300th, for instance, or being late, running out of time, or not being able to answer the questions.
You know, those nightmarish dreams that wake us up feeling freaked out, uneasy, our heart pounding in anticipation.
Interestingly, the students who dreamed about the exam the night before scored higher than those who didn’t.
In fact, the more frequently students dreamed about the exam during the semester, the higher their scores tended to be.
And if you’re wondering if this had anything to do with whether students had dreams of success vs. dreams of failure, the nature of the dream didn’t seem to matter much. The 177 students who had “good” dreams of exam success didn’t score any higher on average than the 519 students who never dreamed of success, and instead had “bad” dreams of problems and failure.
In fact, the students who got the five highest scores all dreamed of problems on the exam.
So are bad dreams good?
Bad dreams may not be much fun, but the results of the study suggest that far from being an omen of doom, dreaming about an important upcoming “performance” may actually be a good thing. A sign that you are taking it seriously, and are more likely to do better than if you don’t have dreams of the upcoming event.
The authors of the study surmise that this “negative anticipation” might help us “optimize” what we do in our waking hours.
For instance, if you dream about having a memory slip, what’s the first thing you’re likely to do upon waking up? Flip to that section in the score, and refresh your memory, right? And probably even play it through in your head a few times, test yourself, and work on it some more in your practice session?
So the next time you dream of messing up in an audition or performance, remember that this doesn’t mean you’re screwed, and should throw in the towel. Far from it.
Just do what you need to do to be as prepared as you can, and remind yourself that this is just your brain keeping you on your toes.
And that if anything, you’re probably going to do even better than if you didn’t have that dream. That feels better, no?
Reality is never as bad as a nightmare, as the mental tortures we inflict on ourselves. ~Sammy Davis Jr.
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.