What Should You Think About When You Perform?

Have you ever been guilty of tuning someone out? Like a teacher who keeps harping on the same thing. Or a parent who keeps repeating the same old advice. Or a significant other who keeps telling you to squeeze the toothpaste from the bottom.

Tuning people out comes pretty naturally to us, and it doesn’t even require that much effort. Our brain is often looking to conserve resources, so anytime it senses that what’s about to happen is just more of the same old stuff, it take a mini-vacation.

So when you’ve played the same flute excerpt over and over for 20+ years, it’s hard to fault our brain for going on holiday. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing.

The problem

One of the keys to successfully overcoming nerves and performance anxeity is having the ability to focus exclusively on the things that matter when the moment of truth arrives.

But because we have this tendency to space out when we’re playing the same old thing, we (a) have no idea what we’re supposed to pay attention to under pressure and (b) haven’t developed the ability to keep our minds there – even if we knew exactly what we ought to focus on.

We don’t listen to what we hear

Legendary violin teacher Dorothy Delay once had this to say, which speaks to our tendency to only be partially aware of what we are doing (I quote from Book 3 of The Way They Play by Samuel Applebaum):

“The player should be able to tell you what he heard – and he frequently can’t. It is necessary to hear the sound. It is fascinating to learn what the students actually hear during a playing experience. For example, sometimes a student playing a sonata with piano will be fully conscious of the sound of the violin, both tone and pitch, but from the piano he may hear only rhythm, and be quite unaware of the pitch.”


Most great musicians have figured out that it’s generally most helpful to stay focused on what is happening in the present moment. Not what’s going to happen in 2 lines, or what happened a few bars back, but what is happening right now. Sort of makes logical sense, as after all, that’s the only thing we have any control over.

But being present does not mean we should be focusing on the mechanics and technique of playing our instruments, nitpicking little flaws in our playing, and micromanaging every detail. That’s for the practice room.

On-stage, it means increasing our awareness of what is happening in the moment, by immersing ourselves in the subtle nuances of our sound, the shaping of the line, voicing, blending of our sound with those around us, and so on. The more successfully we do this, the more likely our chances of entering into that peak performance state of flow and having a great performance.

Mindfulness in sport

To that end, sport psychologists are becoming increasingly interested in a concept called mindfulness and how the practice of mindfulness may enhance sport performance.

One of the early pioneers of adapting the practice of mindfulness to psychology is Jon Kabat-Zinn, who describes mindfulness as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment”.

If that sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because mindfulness is conceptually similar to the state of mind Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow” – that state in which we are completely absorbed by the task at hand, and experiening a unity of mind and body.

To be honest, there isn’t a huge amount of research on mindfulness and athletic performance, but what’s there is intriguing. A couple studies, for instance, have found that athletes who have a greater level of mindfuless are also more likely to experience aspects of flow.

Another study found that golfers who implemented the practice of mindfulness into their training showed a greater increase in their national rankings than those who did not adopt this practice.

And in a study of NCAA basketball players, it was found that greater levels of mindfulness was predictive of increased in-game free throw percentage.

Take action

Below is a great video of Jon Kabat-Zinn leading a mindfulness session at Google. It’s pretty long (1:12:05 to be exact), but worth watching if you have an interest in learning more about mindfulness and/or meditation.

You can also give this listening/awareness exercise a try. It’s a helpful way to wake up your ears in the morning so you might begin the day by playing with your ears wide open and engaged in the present moment, rather than to merely going through the motions with your focus and awareness elsewhere.

  1. Identify your favorite note on the instrument. The note that, if you could only play one note for the rest of your life, you’d want it to be that note.
  2. Play the note, nice and slow, taking your time. Take a breath, change bow, etc. as needed to keep sustaining the note.
  3. Listen. Really listen – as if you’ve never heard sound before, and it’s incredibly fascinating to you. Listen to the way the note starts, how it develops, fills the room, resonates, and how the note ends.
  4. Take your time and quietly observe your sound. It’s not about judging whether what you hear is good or bad, just allow your attention and thoughts to be take over by the resonance of the sound and what is coming out of your instrument at this very moment.

For me, it’s almost like flipping a switch. I can almost feel the deepening of my focus as I become immersed in the sound and have no room left to process extraneous thoughts. You’ll probably have moments of this too as you begin practicing. It may be fleeting at first, but with a bit of practice you’ll be able to sustain this kind of focus for longer periods, and under increasingly stressful conditions.

The one-sentence summary

“Be here now. Be someplace else later. Is that so complicated?”  ~David Bader (author of One Hundred Great Books in Haiku and Haikus for Jews, among others)

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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8 Responses

  1. Dear Dr. Kageyama,

    Thank you for your excellent blog entry.

    You write,

    “Identify your favorite note on the instrument. The note that, if you could only play one note for the rest of your life, you’d want it to be that note…You’ll probably have moments of this too as you begin practicing. It may be fleeting at first, but with a bit of practice you’ll be able to sustain this kind of focus for longer periods, and under increasingly stressful conditions.”

    We learn from certain pedagogues that we should hear the SONG in our head PRIOR to actually playing the notes. Yet, if one is focused on that one magical sound in the present during practice and/or performance, doesn’t that create the potential for over-concentrating (or, in a self-indulgent way, reveling) in one’s own current sound at the risk of loss of the focus on SONG which, by definition, must take place in the brain BEFORE the notes are actually played? Hearing that magical sound as an element of the “song in your head” is not the same as sensing the actual, physical, aural, tactile phenomenon. How is this reconciled?

    1. Hi Steve,

      Great question. A couple thoughts.

      The exercise described above is one I like as a listening and awareness-building exercise for trying to retrain ourselves to actually listen again.

      Hearing what we are about to play before we actually play it is absolutely spot-on, and seems to help us clarify and realize our intended target. Once we begin playing however, it’s been my observation that if our hearing of the notes goes too far ahead of the current moment, things start to fall apart (much like we are asking for trouble if we sight read too far ahead of what we are playing at the moment). There could very well be some folks for whom singing far ahead of where they are works, but those I’ve worked with find it most helpful to be immersed or “singing” in their head exactly what is happening now, or just ever so slightly ahead of what they are playing at the moment.

      For me personally, the key was to be listening to the singing in my head, combined with a clear sense of pulse-like subdivisions of time – not static metronomic beats, but an organic ebbing and flowing of the underlying fabric of time that held everything in place. Because indeed, the danger of reveling or luxuriating too much in sound alone, is that rhythm falls apart. And from the point of view of focus, the added dimension of rhythm helps to keep our mind occupied on something even more compelling than sound alone.

      Leon Fleisher has an eloquent and profound way of describing his view of rhythm and time, but unfortunately I haven’t found a complete video of him speaking on this subject. The best I can do is to point to some partial (but still worth watching) clips here:

      (1) Click on Macro v. Micro
      (2) Then click on Macro v. Micro – A Unified View
      (3) Then click the “Click Here to Watch Your Selected Topics” button

      Incidentally, I see that you studied with Rex Martin. I had an acquaintance describe to me a concept called “singing brain” that he once shared with her, which I thought was terrific. I’d love to hear more about it – would you mind describing this in a bit more detail? Even just for my benefit, if not that of other readers.

  2. Dr. Kageyama,

    Rex Martin is a terrific teacher and a precise yet expressive musician who plays tuba with a beautiful tone. He was a student of, among other fine pedagogues, Arnold Jacobs. If any of your readers are not familiar with Mr. Jacobs, there are books about him and videos of some of his final Master Classes on YouTube. Probably the best known of those books is “Song and Wind” by Brian Fredericksen. The book contains some biographical information, chapters about Mr. Jacobs’ fascination with the human body, and his use of apparatuses to clearly illustrate to the student AWAY FROM THE INSTRUMENT how efficient (s)he was with use of air.

    Regarding your question about the “singing brain,” the concept of “hearing the song in your head” before “hearing the sound of your horn” was and is one of Arnold Jacobs’ and Rex Martin’s basic tenets. One way that this is made clear is when Prof. Martin asks the student to actually sing the passage out loud, then buzz it on the mouthpiece, and THEN play it on the horn. It’s amazing how much improvement that sequence can sometimes bring about vs. merely looking at the printed page and pouncing on the notes with the horn with limited forethought.

    Of course, Professor Martin brings much more to any lesson than merely parroting the teaching of Arnold Jacobs. He trains his students to tap tempi “out of the blue” and then compares their effort with Dr. Beat’s. I remember him kicking my foot any time that my rhythm was less than precise. Regarding tone, he would ask after the student plays the passage, “Is that the most beautiful sound that you can imagine?” Then he’d ask the student to play the passage again and focus on the tone. If the results were still not 100% forthcoming, he would pick up his horn and demonstrate.

    Rex Martin teaches because he LOVES to teach, not because it is an alternative to something else. He enjoys traveling all over the world giving Master Classes and performing. Likewise, he has fine students from all over the world visit his studio at Northwestern University to drink in some of the concepts such as the “singing brain.”

    I hope that answers your question clearly enough.

    1. Thanks for this expanded description, Steve. Rex Martin is one of the folks on my list of people I’d like to meet and pick their brain someday. It occurs to me that much of what great performers and pedagogues have figured out is consistent with what sport psychologists have figured out too, but since it’s not like they hang out with each other, the ideas haven’t yet been particularly well integrated.

  3. Some random thoughts on this very important question:
    “What to think about” may vary depending on the instrument. Many years ago, to prepare for an important organ concert, I coached with Ray Ferguson (a Detroit area concert artist, organist for the Detroit Symphony at the time, now deceased). When I asked “Ray, what do you think about when playing a major concert?” His reply set it all in stone for me: “Well, you have a lot you must be doing when you play.” For organists, this means managing multiple keyboards, a pedal board, and registration changes (the “mixing board” for an organist), ALL AT THE SAME TIME. And come up with an expressive, musical result. Despite the somewhat mechanical inferences, it worked like gangbusters. I felt in complete control, because I was aware, and “planning evwery move ahead” at the same time. “Next measure take off the Swell flute 8′; beginning next page change, push Piston general #3; Focus on the pedal passage starting in 2 measures; alternate Great & Swell in the next passage; etc.”)
    – ALL practice / preparation was along this line, so by the time of the performance, my perception was completely free to indulge in the expressive elements, with mechanics secondary, but still at a conscious level.
    – The challenging pieces were those I knew best and had played numerous times. Tempting to forego this level of consciousness. However, the remedy was to implement some fairly artificial (though truthful) concepts to force thoughtfulness: “Next section begins in D minor; pedal playing octave scale beginning of next line; etc.”
    – A similar mindset is helpful for classic guitar, based on the layout of the instrument. For the left (fretting) hand, a sense of choreography (patterns of movement around the fretboard grid), etc.
    – One other random thought along this line: Ask jazz musicians what they are “thinking” as they improvise. The answers are very instructive.

  4. This site is an enormous resource for classical musicians, but I tend to disagree with this specific point, not in principle but in application. For all instruments, but especially for pianists, focusing too much on the exact moment (let’s say 250 milliseconds) is probably going to compromise awareness of the bigger picture, whether it’s the entire phrase (some would call it line) or the section or the movement. Attention on the present, yes, but I find it very helpful to try to focus on what’s happening in the next three or more measures while keeping something like a quarter of my attention on the sounds I just made.

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