“Not good enough!” was my inner mantra most of the time that I held a violin in my hands.

After all, much like the ability to discern the pronunciation nuances of a foreign language is key to developing an accent-free level of fluency, a good ear and high standards take years to fine-tune, and are essential to honing one’s skills as a musician.

It’s one of the products of musical training that I’m most grateful for, as I feel that an understanding of what excellence looks like has served me well in everything I’ve ever spent any time on – from psychology to parenting to even my decidedly sub-mediocre tennis skills. But if you asked my kids, they might would totally express a little less enthusiasm about daddy’s standards of excellence, and wish I’d overlook more details.

I certainly don’t want to discourage my kids or take away from their learning experience. But then again, I’m afraid to let them get away with subpar work, and internalize lower standards of excellence too. So it’s been a challenge to figure out where the right balance point is.

In teaching as well as parenting, what is the solution? Should we lower our standards to make things easier at first? Or insist on a high level of performance even from the very beginning?

Easy vs. difficult

A group of researchers recruited 34 college students with little to no prior golfing experience, and created a putting green of sorts, using artificial grass and a square 2x2cm cardboard cutout as a target to aim for.

The participants were randomly split into two groups, and given 5 practice putts from 15 meters away (to make sure they were evenly matched in terms of skill).

Then, each participant was given 50 practice putts (5 blocks of 10 putts), with the goal of getting the ball to stop as close to the target as possible. But the researchers added a small twist to make this task seem easier or more difficult.

They marked out two concentric circles surrounding the target (like a bullseye). One circle had a diameter of 7cm. The second circle had a diameter of 14cm.

One group was told that any putt landing inside the larger circle was considered a “good” putt. The other group was told that putts had to land inside the smaller circle to be considered good putts. The ultimate goal or target remained the same in both cases. The only difference is that the standards for success were simply expanded a bit to make it easier for one group to accumulate more tiny wins.

How much did they learn?

The next day, everyone came back to the lab for a putting test, to see how much they had learned from their practice session the previous day, with both circles removed from the putting surface.

The test was pretty straightforward – a) 12 putts from the original 15-meter distance and b) 12 putts from 18 meters away (a “transfer” test to assess their ability to adapt their skills on the fly to a different distance).

Who did better?

Both groups started out with virtually identical accuracy scores on their first 5 practice putts – with the ball stopping an average of 53.3cm and 53.9cm away from the target.

But on the putting test, the large circle group performed markedly better, hitting the ball consistently closer to the target (28.6cm) than the small circle group (37.2cm).

And when asked to putt from 18 meters away, the large circle group once again outperformed the small circle group – 30.4cm vs. 37.9cm.

I wouldn’t have guessed it, but it seems that individuals learn (and perform) better when success appears easier to come by.

But why? Why does the perception of success lead to enhanced learning?

Getting tight

Well, imagine you’re taking driver’s ed, and consider how you might feel driving for the first time in your parents’ brand new car vs. driving an old junker that’s already dented up and rusting. Wouldn’t you be likely to feel much more tense in the new car, and drive much more carefully and cautiously?

The authors surmise that when success is perceived as being easier to achieve, we putt more freely. We’re less controlling and tight, and don’t try to micromanage every muscle to the point that everything becomes robotic and rigid. Thereby leading to greater success not just during our practice, but in subsequent tests of our ability to execute these skills too.

Take action

So ultimately, the question of high standards vs. lower standards isn’t really an either/or situation. It’s about keeping one’s standards of “excellent” performance high, but adjusting one’s standards of what constitutes “good” performance.

I imagine that over time, as one’s skills progress, one could make the definition of “good” increasingly more challenging, but in the early stages, it seems that making things seem too difficult inhibits learning.

All of which makes total sense to me now, but before reading the study I might have guessed the opposite to be true. That making things more challenging at first would result in greater learning. What do you think? What have you found to work best when learning or teaching a new skill?

About Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.

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.

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