I was at a water park earlier this week with my kids, and had an interesting experience waiting in line. The first ride we went on advertised a wait time of 10 minutes. In reality, however, the wait was more like 20 minutes. A few rides later, we were projected to wait for 30 minutes, but got to the front of the line about 10 minutes ahead of schedule. So we experienced the same wait time in both cases, but I swear the latter wait left us in a better mood than the first, even though intellectually, I know that they should feel the same.

If you’ve ever had an experience like this, it turns out that there’s a bunch of research and a whole psychology behind line waiting (check out an interesting NY Times article here).1

It turns out that we like to be pleasantly surprised by a shorter than expected wait. Taken a step further, it seems that the saying “Hope for the best, expect the worst” might actually be a good idea when it comes to performing more optimally on stage. I’m all for positivity and optimism, which are key to facilitating high-level performance, but strategic negativity has its place in preparing ourselves to play up to our potential on stage too.

And no, this has nothing to do with the idea that expecting things to go poorly will stave off disappointment or somehow put less pressure on ourselves. It’s a little more intriguing than that.

How so?

Uh-oh…

I recently spoke with a student (let’s call her Pippa) who utilized a lot of visualization in the weeks leading up to a recent audition. She imagined herself walking into the building, being focused, warming up effectively, walking confidently on stage, nailing her excerpts, and feeling totally calm, relaxed, and in control throughout.

Pippa’s imagery was detailed, vivid, and helped her feel more confident going into the audition, but when she arrived and the adrenaline kicked in, it totally threw her off. It all felt so much different than she imagined it would, and this got into her head, heightening her anxiety as she began worrying about shaking, screwing up, and found it increasingly difficult to regulate her physical and emotional state, stay focused, and trust that she would be able to play up to her abilities when the moment came. The audition wasn’t a disaster, but it was very disappointing, and a far cry from what she was capable of.

She figured that visualization just wasn’t for her, and was looking for a different way to approach her next audition, but we talked about how there was one spectrum of the audition she hadn’t included in her visualization. Can you spot what Pippa missed?

Fear of bonking

There’s an interesting parallel in the world of running – specifically endurance events.

You’ve probably seen this happen in marathons (and other sporting events like the Tour de France), but part of what makes for interesting and dramatic races from the spectator’s perspective is that during a race, some runners seem to slow down and fall back from the others, while others surge ahead. Sometimes those who surge ahead end up bonking and are eventually overtaken, but sometimes they keep up the pace, and the ones who fell back can’t make up the lost ground.

Because each race is different2, it’s said that athletes determine how fast and hard to run at any given point of the race by “feel.” So researchers have wanted to figure out how exactly athletes do this. How do they know how hard to push themselves in races, i.e. when to slow down or speed up, so as to obtain the fastest time they can, yet avoid collapsing and running out of gas before they get to the finish line?

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse evaluated the endurance performance of trained athletes in simulated time trial events ranging from 4 to 60 minutes. You can read the full study here, but the gist is that athletes appear to be constantly engaged in a comparison between how they feel at any given point of a race with how they expect to feel at that point of the race. If, for instance, they are mid-way through the race, and aren’t in as much pain as they expected to be at that point, they will speed up. But if they are in more pain than expected, they will slow down.

Much of an athlete’s expectations will be based on what they’ve learned through prior experience, both in training and in competition. However, this is where visualization might also come into play. As in, if an athlete only engages in visualization that is unrealistically optimistic, where they imagine feeling awesome throughout and winning easily, what will happen when they get a ways into the race, and are suffering worse than they imagined they would? This might cause a bit of worry or panic to kick in, causing them to slow down and ultimately turn in a slower pace than they were capable of.

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So going back to Pippa’s visualization, what did she leave out?

Yup, the adversity bit! She imagined an ideal performance, but forgot to prepare herself for how she was likely to actually feel. And when the nerves kicked in, this took her by surprise, and suddenly increased her worries about whether she was going to be able to play effectively or not – something she hadn’t planned or prepared for.

So yes, do spend time visualizing an ideal performance, and do expect to play great and end the night feeling awesome about the end result. But be careful not to delude yourself into expecting the performance experience to be an easy one. Based on what you remember from previous performance experiences, take some time to visualize yourself experiencing anxiety, a racing heartbeat, cold hands, the less-than-ideal acoustics, the pianist who plays too loud, the audition panel that seems disengaged, not enough (or too much) warmup time – and how you would ideally like to respond to these situations. How will you respond to a shaky bow or sound? How will you stay focused, and recover quickly when you miss the inevitable note or two?

To be clear, this is not about resigning yourself to a subpar performance. It’s about aiming for and expecting to play your best, in spite of the adversity you will inevitably face during the performance, versus expecting to play your best due to the elusive feeling of supreme calm and perfect conditions/playing throughout.

After all, musicians are pretty resilient folks, and while we’d love to feel like every performance is a walk in the park, rarely does that happen. When you talk to top performers (or even reflect back on your own past history), it starts to become apparent that we don’t necessarily need everything to go perfectly in order to have a pretty compelling performance. And besides, isn’t that what makes live performances so exciting?

Footnotes

  1. And there’s even more here if you really want to geek out about the psychology of waiting.
  2. The course, certainly, but also weather conditions, one’s level of preparation, how one’s body feels that day, etc.