What’s the Most (and Least) Helpful Thing to Text a Friend Before Their Audition?

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A few months ago, a friend of mine was preparing to interview for a new job. She prepped diligently, doing mock interviews, until finally, the day arrived.

And as she was on her way to the interview, she received a short text from a former supervisor which read: “Really pulling for you! Don’t worry, just be yourself. You’ll do great!”

Which of course is a really nice thing to hear from one of your mentors. But it ended up backfiring, ratcheting up her nerves and the pressure she felt to do well.

Along these lines, I’ve often struggled with the quandary of what to text my kids or my wife, before important moments. Should I simply say “good luck?” Give them some simple last-minute advice? Tell them I love them no matter what? Ask them what they’d like to do for dinner? Or tell them I found a really gross half-eaten Clif Bar in their shorts when I was doing laundry?

Different texts, different results?

A team of researchers recruited 75 couples, ages 18-30, who had been dating for at least 3 months.

Two thirds of the couples were randomly assigned to one of two texting conditions – the supportive text group and the mundane text group. The remaining third were the control group and did no texting during the study.

When couples arrived at the lab, they were split up into separate rooms.

The male participant received instructions about two text messages they would be asked to send their significant other during the study, and then sat quietly and kept busy by completing a few surveys.

Meanwhile, the female participant was hooked up to a blood pressure and heart rate monitoring device, which allowed the researchers to gauge her stress level at various points throughout the experiment.

They were also asked to keep their phone out, in order to read the text messages that the experimenter would be sending them during the study. They were also told that they were free to read any texts from their partner as well – but that they should not respond.

A baseline measurement

The female participants then sat quietly for a few minutes while the researchers established a baseline reading of their heart rate and blood pressure.

The first text

After completing the baseline measurement, the participants also completed a few surveys – during which time, they received a text from their significant other.

Participants in the supportive text group received a message that said: “Don’t worry. It’s just a psych study. You’ll be fine :-)”

Those in the mundane text group got a text saying: “It’s cold in here.”

A second text

Then, the women were given 4 minutes to prepare an impromptu speech that would be delivered on camera in front of an evaluator.

During their preparation, they received a second text, which either said “You could talk about how hard working you are” (supportive group) or “I’m filling out surveys” (mundane group).

And then, a bit of pressure

When their prep time was up, the speech evaluator came into the room, turned on a big video camera, and then it was go time.

In an effort to induce some nerves and pressure, the evaluator maintained a “stoic facial expression” throughout the speech. And when they stopped talking, the evaluator told them to keep going.

Once the participants had spoken for 3 minutes, they were then asked to count backwards from 2372 by 13 as fast as possible. To increase pressure on this task, the evaluator told the participants to go faster, or indicated that they were making too many mistakes.

A final measurement

After finishing the stressful speaking/math task, the participants then sat quietly for a few minutes so the researchers could take one last set of heart rate and blood pressure readings.

Stress levels

Before the study began, the researchers hypothesized that the two groups which received texts from their partners, would be less stressed than the group which received no texts.

But that’s not quite how things worked out.

As it turns out, only one of the texting groups had a diminished stress response during the study. And it’s not the group you’d think.

Even though they reported feeling significantly higher levels of support than participants in the other groups, the supportive text group experienced a stress response (i.e. an increase in heart rate and blood pressure) that was essentially the same as the group that didn’t get any texts.

Meanwhile, the participants who got those random, boring texts, had the lowest increase in blood pressure of the three groups1.

What…?

Why would mundane, seemingly meaningless texts help participants stay calmer than more “supportive” texts?

Why would boring be better?

The researchers note that the supportive texts may have inadvertently increased participants’ pressure, by implying that it was important to do well on the task.

Furthermore, receiving unsolicited “help” out of the blue may have suggested to the participants that their significant other was concerned that they weren’t up to the task and needed help, unintentionally undermining their confidence.

There’s also the possibility that simply reminding participants about the stressful task caused them to stress about it more, while the boring texts managed to a) subtly distract the participant from the pressure, and b) remind the participant that they have a support network around them, while c) providing an implicit “hey, no matter what happens, life will go on, and we can grab a chalupa after this is over” type of reassurance, without actually saying those words.

Limitations

This exploratory study has some important limitations, of course, in that the messages were all from boyfriend to girlfriend, and there very well could be gender differences in how male participants might respond if the roles were reversed.

Not to mention the fact that getting a text from a significant other could feel different than receiving the same exact message from a family member or friend.

Takeaways

At the end of the day, I’m still not sure if I know exactly what the best pre-exam, pre-performance, or pre-interview text message might be, but it does seem like sending a text before a stressful event could be a helpful thing. As long as we avoid unsolicited advice or implicitly add pressure to the situation by mentioning it and amplifying it in their mind.

So maybe it really is the random, boring, everyday stuff, like a picture of the washed and dried and lint-y Clif Bar, or a simple smiley face emoji, that is the best way to show loved ones our support and help take the pressure down a notch?

A question…

I suspect that knowing what has worked (and not worked) for others could help all of us get better at saying the right thing at the right time.

To that end, what are some of the most and least helpful messages you’ve received from well-intentioned loved ones before big moments in your life? (please share below!)

Footnotes

  1. Although, it’s important to note that their heart rate was just as elevated as the other groups

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Comments

16 Responses

  1. I think the mundane texts may have worked because they provided a brief opportunity to shift focus from internal to external — a break from the pressure (since we’re talking about internal pressure here). I can’t tell you about text messages, but I have kept a performance journal for *years*, and it turns out I play my best when I am 1) sleep-deprived and 2) my hair’s a mess. 🙂 No, seriously!! I know the lack of sleep ends up ‘dulling’ my anxieties. And when I try to put my hair into a perfect, pretty hairstyle (which usually fails), though it doesn’t generate any direct anxiety for me, it must be some kind of indirect anxiety. When I don’t bother making my hair look nice, I am very much “it’s fine, who cares” rather than “I must be perfect,” and obviously that helps my nerves out on stage. The bad thing is that I hate post-performance photos though. 🙂

    So for me, maybe receiving a mundane-type text message like “Hey, I’m out buying groceries” would calm me down and cheer me up the most!

  2. “You’ll do fine” is usually really unhelpful. It seems to distract me from centering myself and remaining calm, even when I know that I am well-prepared and have every reason to be confident. The more badly I want something the more annoying it is to hear that phrase, and I don’t know why.

  3. The least helpful comment I ever received was from a good friend in the Montreal Symphony Orchestra who was quite a comedian – usually! He came to me minutes before we performed Dvork 9. I was the 2nd Flutist and this piece has several 2nd Flute solos in it. He said, “Now, you will either be the hero or the goat!”.
    Ha! Not so helpful. ( Good guy, just a bad call on his part and he apologized right after the performance. ) I was experienced enough at that point to put the comment out of my mind before playing, luckily.
    The most helpful was something my woodwind quintet members used to say to each other, just before going onstage, “Let’s have fun!”
    Looking back now, I realize that our focus would go to the joyfulness of playing and off our pre-concert nerves.

  4. I was a professional modern dancer and dance professor. The department where I taught was at that time chaired by a forward-thinking woman. Traditionally, dancers and actors say something like “Merde” or “Break a leg” before a show. Nancy Smith Fichter started saying “Do it with love” and this had a similar effect to the above “Let’s have fun”. The training and rehearsal have hopefully been done and what the audience comes to a live performance is the energy!

  5. Hi Noa, the least helpful comments were those that were detailed encouragements and that were self-evident things like “You will do well, focus on relaxed shoulder and being loose.” Now this sort of instruction might be good in my mentor’s studio but not as I am going up on stage. Even as the mentor spoke those things to me, I remember thinking “please keep the comments to a general encouragement” and even thinking “I hope she says nothing”.
    One of the more helpful comments has been something like “remember, these folks are here to encourage you and want you to succeed” which helped me to be more expressive and not focus on the technical details.
    The absolute best pre-stage comment has always been “just have fun” or “enjoy this moment” which takes my mind off the technical aspects of what I am about to do and focuses it outward to very general feeling of enjoyment and excitement.

    Now this is not directly related to the topic but the worst performance I ever had was when someone playing ahead of me had very bad nerves and their bow bounced all over the place throughout their piece. At that time I remember picturing my mentor in the audience saying to me “Ignore what you just heard and saw” which she did not say or do, but mentally that is what I felt she would have said. Regardless, I got up and my first piece was just horrible, same bow bouncing, out of tune and unable to keep my bow arm under control. I felt that my bow arm was not even connected to me!
    By the 2nd piece I mentally said to myself, “To hell with this, I am just going to enjoy this final piece and I don’t care what happens or what anyone out there thinks” which is similar to saying “Just have fun” and sure enough, my daughter who plays professionally said it was the best performance I had ever done, even better than when I was at home with no anxiety affecting me.

    So in general, the bare minimum of encouragements in texts or emails is best.
    I will even go so far as to tell my friends and family gently to not say anything or if they do say something to make sure it is not related to the performance. Not sure if they will do what I ask as it is so ingrained in our behavior to want to say something.

  6. I think “Let’s have fun!” and “We’re going to make spectacular/exciting/awesome music!” are great lines to say to fellow musicians/artists when you’re all performing. “I’m cheering/rooting for you!” and “You worked so hard for this, I’m so proud of you!” from a significant other, family member, or friend is nice too.

    “Relax, you’ll be fine.” doesn’t usually sound right.

  7. My 15 year old son was racing BMX (bicycles) in a national race. This is a very high stress situation, for in addition to wanting to win, it could also determine what race team you may or may not be invited to, and SOMEONE always ends up in the hospital.

    This is actually a nice group of families, but at a national race, you see all kinds. I observed some fathers offering cash payouts for winning, overheard one father reminding his son that 2nd place makes him “a very fast loser”, and one father was actually threatening his son (under 10) with consequences if he lost. So, as a sensitive single mother/artist, I was trying to find encouraging words, and finally came up with, “just ride”. That sounded very cool to me. My son, however, looked at me like I had just told him he’d be racing with flat tires and said,” Oh my gosh, Mom. That’s as lame as “do your best” or “just have fun”. Another mom fail.

  8. It wasn’t a test message, but years ago before a jury, when I was playing a piece I found particularly challenging, the oboist who had to play after me kept talking to me about EVERYTHING. And none of it was music-related. I can’t even remember what we talked about, but it turned out that when I went in, it was one of the most released I felt. After the jury, my teacher came out to ask me what I had done between my last lesson and the jury to make it go so well. All the yapping got me out of my head and into the moment.

  9. Exactly this happened to me as I was walking to a recent audition. I called my wife to vent some feelings I was having and she responded with well intentioned but specific advice about how to deal with the pressure. I was surprised to feel myself feel more nervous, and as this study showed, I suppose with a higher heart rate and blood pressure. It was a distinct change. I believe that it shifted my attention from what I was instinctually focusing on to maintain confidence to something external that wasn’t “me”.

  10. This reminds me of the study, cited in Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion”, in which praying for a person recovering from a surgery, statistically leads to more complications, because the person gets the impression that her or his case is so severe that praying is necessary.

  11. I’ve not received text messages, but so called encouraging comments do add to the pressure. Also, sitting in the wings of a recent competition for over an hour and freezing before going on stage was pretty bad.

    Our quartet performed recently and tried “just smile” and we performed well.

  12. annually i conduct a christmas concert with a church chorus of about 30….every year i have a mix of folks who have done it a lot and folks who haven’t….some that have never sung in public before….they have about 45 minutes of music memorized….getting them to relax and smile and enjoy the fruits of all their hard work is always a challenge….this last year i got them all in position to begin and had some large print notes to surreptitiously hold up to remind them of stage directions between numbers….they had seen them before….this year i slipped in for them to see just before we started a large smiley emoji followed by a picture of bugs bunny as leopold…..there was a visible relaxing and we had two nights of some of our best performances ever……getting them to focus on enjoying and having fun makes a huge difference (calms me down too)

  13. Today I led a (traditional) hymn sing. First time, really, & played the piano instead of my primary accompaniment instrument – guitar. Not being very familiar with many of these songs, I relied upon the singers to 1) determine the key they were singing in (although different than from the key they said it was written in – they did not have the gift of perfect pitch). Fortunately, there are common chord progressions and song structures to many songs in this genre, so listening carefully to a verse, then the chorus, it was fairly easy to memorize that and repeat it for the next portion of the song, but it was a test in focusing and ‘laying down those chord patterns, and throwing in some more sophisticated passing tones and chords along the way!!!! Very understanding, patient, and supportive singers there!!!!

  14. I send my adult children, and my private students texts before important events with the note: “Sending Positive Mental Energy your way!!” My family fondly calls that PME, so we will send each other PME for important events. No advice, just letting the other know that we are thinking positively. We actually stop at the appointed time and literally send positive thoughts aimed at the person at the event. It seems to work, and is a calming influence.

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