That’s out of tune! Now it feels rushed. Hmm…the sound is a bit forced; doesn’t ring enough. 

Whether it’s the voice in our head, or a trusted teacher, conductor, or colleague, we spend a lot of time focusing on all the imperfections in our playing. And not just with regards to all the little details in every piece we play, but with every facet of our instrumental skills and musicianship too. From finger tension, to breath control, rhythm, concept of sound, intonation, or our musical instincts, it’s easy to obsess about all the areas in which we struggle.

Pinpointing and working on our weaknesses isn’t all bad of course, and there are indications that the best athletes and performers spend a greater percentage of their time targeting their weakest areas than do intermediate-level athletes.

But there are some who have concerns about the “deficit-based” approach, and argue that we should spend at least as much time cultivating our strongest attributes too. Because it’s our strengths which allow us to stand out and make the greatest contribution to our community and the world at large.

So which is it? Should we focus on remediating our weaknesses? Or enhancing our strengths?

What is a strength?

Let’s say you’re good with numbers. But you enjoy math about as much as you enjoy cleaning the leaves and gunk out your gutters. Would math be considered one of your strengths? Well, maybe not…but it’s not exactly a weakness either, right?

Indeed, a strength is not just something that you do well; that’s just one part of the equation. For something to be a strength, it must also be an activity or skill that you find energizing to engage in. Something you enjoy doing not for fame or fortune, but for its own sake.

Or, more precisely:

“a pre-existing capacity for a particular way of behaving, thinking, or feeling that is authentic and energizing to the user, and enables optimal functioning, development and performance.”1

The Realise2 Model

And when you put these two criteria together, you end up with four categories of activities we could be engaged in (the Realise2 Model, developed by the Center for Applied Positive Psychology).

Our realized strengths are things that we are pretty awesome at, and get energy from doing.

Unrealized strengths on the other hand, are things that we don’t get to do so much, but represent the areas in which we have the greatest “upside” or potential for future awesomeness. We find these pretty energizing as well, even if we’re not as strong in these areas quite yet.

Our learned behaviors are those things we are good at, but find draining. Doing too much of these things can lead to disengagement and feeling burned out, so ideally, we wouldn’t have to engage in these activities too much.

Our weaknesses, are the things we do least well, and perhaps more importantly, also seem to suck the energy and life out of us. In theory, it’d be nice to minimize the time we spend in this area too.

The idea being, if we spend too much of our time engaged in learned behaviors and weaknesses, we will find ourselves underperforming because our greatest strengths aren’t being leveraged. And maybe worse, we’ll be prone to feeling emotionally out of sorts as well, from spending so much of our time engaged in activities that we find draining and unengaging.

So does this mean that it’s better to focus on enhancing our strengths?

Signature strengths and goals

A team of researchers in the UK recruited 240 college sophomores to take place in a goal-setting study.

They started out by taking a strengths-identification assessment to identify their top five “signature strengths.”

Then, they wrote out their top 3 goals for the semester – things like “Attend most of my lectures” or “Make the university football team” or “Stop drinking alcohol during the week.”

Next, they were asked about the degree to which they have used their signature strengths so far during the semester, with regards to their life in general (not their goals, per se).

And then they were asked to what degree they have used their signature strengths in working towards their first, second, and third goals.

Six weeks later…

At the six-week mark of the study, the researchers checked in to see how things were going. Participants were asked the same questions about their usage of signature strengths and also reported on the progress they were making towards their three goals for the semester.

Ten weeks later…

And then at the ten-week mark, the researchers checked in again to see if anything had changed.

Lo and behold, using signature strengths was associated with greater progress towards their goals. Furthermore, using signature strengths seemed to be connected with greater feelings of well-being too.

So it’s not just about gritting our teeth and white-knuckling our way to big goals at the expense of our well-being and emotional health. It’s about realizing these goals, but feeling engaged and energized along the way too, which in turn makes us more likely to achieve our goals, which improves our sense of well-being and life satisfaction, which helps us persevere and achieve our goals, in an “upward spiral of success.”

Take action

So how can you utilize a strengths-based approach to achieving your musical goals?

Well, the first step is to identify your strengths. Because while you can probably rattle off a list of at least a few of your “areas for growth” without a moment’s hesitation (and no, the ability to instantly generate a list of your weaknesses probably doesn’t count as a strength…), try to name 2 or 3 of your biggest strengths. Not so easy, eh?

Step 1: ID your strengths

Here are a couple examples of questions you can ask yourself from a study which looked at developing mental toughness in cricket from a strengths-based perspective (and in the off chance you are a cricket fan, cricket-centric answers from the study are included):

Question: My strengths are…I feel strong when I am… (doing this)

Answer: “My strengths are my hands, slip catching or catching in general”

Question: What is your best delivery? How do you get most of your wickets? (Or in more musician-friendly terms, What is your best attribute? What is the most compelling aspect of your playing? What kind of music do you care about the most/feels like it was written just for you?)

Answer: “By building pressure on batsmen and executing my bowling plan. Reading batsmen and their game plans. Breaking partnerships.”

Step 2: Figure out how to use these strengths more often

Question: Things I can do to build on my strengths, put myself into situations where I am in my element are…

Answer: “Ritualize my pre- and post-delivery routines through simulated pressure practice at the nets.”

Takeaways

At the end of the day, I don’t think the question of strengths vs. weaknesses is an either/or proposition. It’s one of those both/ands. And a matter of finding the right balance.

The idea isn’t to ignore and neglect the things we struggle with, but to get them to a level at which they are no longer liabilities. Given that we only have so much time in each day, trying to be awesome at everything is going to leave us feeling exhausted, burned out, and lacking in many areas. It sounds like the more optimal path is to target our weaknesses, and showcase our strengths. Investing our limited energy in those areas that are going to give us the most return on investment – both in terms of the level of our playing, and in how engaged and energized we feel by working on aspects of our craft that we find inherently meaningful and which are truly and authentically us.

Want to find out your signature strengths?

You can take the same survey that the participants in this study took. It takes about 15 minutes, and it’s free (there’s even a different version for ages 10-17).

The VIA Survey of Character Strengths

Any surprises among your top strengths?

Footnotes

  1. Average to A+: Realizing Strengths in Yourself and Others

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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