Which Is Better – A Verbal Pep Talk or a Visualization Pep Talk?

It’s been many months now since musicians and audiences have been able to come together for live music. But as restrictions begin to lift in many parts of the country, and as friends begin to gather, diners return to restaurants, and sports fans begin attending live games once again, hopefully live music events won’t be too far behind.

Which made me think of Met Opera Orchestra timpanist Jason Haaheim’s post about the physical and mental aspects of his experience returning to performing after 9 months away.

Which then made me think of a story I once heard about a famous musician1 who was one of those rare folks who never had (or at least admitted to!) any issues with nerves – except for the time they returned to the stage after a long break from performing.

Which also made me wonder if a lot of folks might find their pre-concert routines and backstage rituals feeling a little rusty or unfamiliar for the first few performances…

Which made me think that maybe this could be a good time to take a closer look at one particular tool that is often used to help manage nerves and boost confidence on the day of a performance.

And what tool might that be? The good ol’ backstage pre-concert self-pep-talk.

That thing you do when you sit yourself down and tell yourself that you can do this. That you’ve done this dozens/hundreds/thousands of times before. That you’re totally prepared and totally got this.

Of course, sometimes, no matter how many times you repeat these words to yourself, they just don’t seem to sink in.

Could there be a better way to do this?

An imagery study

A team of European researchers (Nelis et al., 2012) recruited 78 college students to participate in an imagery study.

Participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups – a first-person imagery group, a third-person imagery group, and a verbal group.

Then, everyone was asked to take an assessment – the PANAS (Positive and Negative Affect Schedule) – designed to gauge their mood at that very specific point in time. This is a pretty short and simple assessment, where you’re presented with a list of 10 positive mood words, like “strong” or “enthusiastic,” and then asked to rate how much of this you feel at the present moment on a 5-point scale from “very slightly” to “very much.”

The two imagery groups…

The two imagery groups were then given a tiny bit of training on how to do imagery from either a first-person or third-person view.

The first-person group was asked to imagine cutting a lemon, with the following instructions: “Imagine it happening to yourself, as if you are there and you are actively involved in the situation and seeing what is happening through your own eyes.”

Whereas the third-person group was instead asked to: “Imagine it as if you are observing yourself taking part in the situation, as if you are watching a film of yourself.”

After trying this out with the imaginary lemon, they were given a few more examples to practice with, before it was time for the study to begin.

And the verbal group…

Meanwhile, participants in the verbal group received no imagery training, and were simply asked to concentrate on the “meaning of the words and the sentence.” Which I know is a rather odd-sounding set of instructions, but I think this was their way of trying to get participants to avoid engaging in any sort of imagery, without explicitly telling them to avoid using imagery. Because as soon as you tell someone not to use imagery, of course that’s going to be the thing that naturally pops into their heads, right?

100 positive scenarios

So once everyone was clear on what their instructions were, they were presented with an audio recording of 100 descriptions of various positive scenarios.

Like, “You switch on the radio in your kitchen to a popular music channel. The songs make you feel lively and you want to dance around.”

Or, “It’s your birthday, and your partner reaches over to you with a present. You open it and feel incredibly happy.”

Again, the imagery groups imagined seeing these scenarios in their minds, while the verbal group just thought about the words, and the description of the scenario without actually visualizing it.

After they were finished listening to these scenarios, they took the mood assessment once again to see if anything had changed.

And was there any change?


Well, as you’ve probably already guessed, there was no change in mood for participants in the verbal group.

On the other hand, participants in the imagery groups did experience a positive boost in their mood.

And was one type of imagery more effective for shifting mood than the other?

Well, in this particular study, the type of imagery used didn’t seem to have any effect on the participants’ changes in mood. But some previous studies have found internal or first-person type of imagery to be more conducive to more positive mood. So if the first-person perspective feels comfortable to you, it might be better to go that route, just in case.

So what are the main takeaways here?


Well, before we get to that, it’s important to note that the participants were all first-year psych students, and on average, 19 years old. Nearly all were women as well. And this particular study was oriented around cultivating positive mood, rather than the kind of excitement or confidence that one would want to cultivate backstage before a performance. And it wasn’t so much that the participants created their positive scenarios in mind, or their own mantras, but rather, listened to positive scenarios created for them.

So it’s not clear how generalizable the results are to everyone, or performance settings specifically.


Nonetheless, this seems like something that might still be worth a try.

Because while there can certainly be some value in having a backstage mantra to repeat to ourselves, whether it’s “I got this,” or “I’m excited,” or “I’ve practiced for this for months, and am as ready and prepared as I’ve ever been,” previous studies do suggest that visualization can have a positive effect on mood and confidence. And I’m intrigued by the idea that a pep talk might work even better if it’s more visual than verbal.

Where instead of telling ourselves we got this on an intellectual level, we take some time to imagine and visualize times where we were in the zone, and remember the feeling of being present and engaged. Of being totally connected to our instrument and completely immersed in our sound. And experiencing the excited type of butterflies, rather than the panicky kind.

We’ve all heard the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. Maybe the same is true when it comes to shifting our mood and mental state into a more optimal place as well?

* * *

And speaking of optimal mental states – registration for the summer Performance Psych Essentials for Educators starts next weekend! Err…and what’s that about? The tl;dr version is that it’s a live, online 5-week workshop series where you’ll join a cohort of like-minded educators and spend a few weeks experimenting with some new practice and performance-enhancing tools that you can add to your toolbox and share with your students in the fall. I’m totally biased, of course, but it’s not just educational, but funner than you might think too. =) You can get all the details and dates here: Performance Psych Essentials for Educators



Nelis, S., Vanbrabant, K., Holmes, E. A., & Raes, F. (2012). Greater Positive Affect Change after Mental Imagery than Verbal Thinking in a Student Sample. Journal of Experimental Psychopathology, 3(2), 178–188. https://doi.org/10.5127/jep.021111


  1. Sorry, not going to name names!

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, with time and performance experience, the nerves would just go away.

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.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and start enjoying more satisfying practice days that also transfer to the stage.


One Response

  1. I thought 2nd person would be watching yourself in a film, while 3rd person would be once more removed or meta. Such as being in the control booth watching yourself in the audience watching yourself in the film.

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