We know we’re supposed to suck it up, get back on the horse, and persevere in the face of adversity.
But dang, that’s a whole lot easier said than done. Why is getting back up so difficult? Why is getting discouraged and throwing in the towel so much easier?
The negativity bias
I think we can blame the negativity bias.
Psychologists have observed that bad seems to trump good in a wide range of areas in our lives. From moods and emotions to relationships to health, bad things have a stronger impact, and also have longer-lasting effects than good things.
For instance, one group of researchers found that having a bad day tended to influence one’s well-being the next day. Did the effects of having a good day spill over into the next day? Nope. Not so much.
So to extrapolate a bit, one might guess that a bad performance, bad rehearsal, bad day of practice is likely to affect you more than a good day of practice, rehearsal, or performance. The day after a good performance feels much like any other day, right? But the day after a bad performance? In all likelihood, you’re still going to feel pretty down and frustrated and upset.
And given our tendency to process bad events more thoroughly than good events, all the extra time spent thinking about them works to etch these lowlights ever more deeply into our memory.
No surprise then, that when asked to recall recent events, we are likely to recall about four times as many bad ones as good ones (as found in one set of studies, at least).
So no wonder we remember so clearly all the bad performances and mishaps, mistakes, and miscues that occurred on stage, while we are hard pressed to call to mind the good moments and good performances we’ve had. It’s not that they weren’t there, we just tend not to notice them as much.
Is it any wonder why we get discouraged so easily? We are seeing our world through thorn-colored glasses (or whatever the opposite of rose-colored glasses would be)!
What to do?
Just knowing that we have a tendency to dwell on negatives can help us be more planful about developing a more balanced perspective. That doesn’t mean we have to go into denial and avoid thinking about bad events, frustrations, disappointments, and failures altogether. It just means we have to be sure to also focus on things that are going well, things that are improving, past successes, and optimistic plans for our future as well. And to dwell on these aspects of our experience much more often than we dwell on the discouraging bits.
And be sure to keep in mind that the importance of having a balanced perspective goes for the off-stage parts of our life as much as the on-stage bits.
Another tactic that can help is to experiment with a news diet. Meaning, stop watching the 5pm news for a month and see if you’re really missing anything. After all, most of what they air is really other peoples’ bad news. Stories that makes you more anxious and worried about the future, even though they generally have little to do with your day-to-day experiences.
The one-sentence summary
“It is easier to believe a lie that you have heard a thousand times, than the truth which you have only heard once.” ~Unknown
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.