What scares you onstage?
How do you reach peak performance all the time?
When you apply psychology to music, you’re using both your mind and body effectively…
Which means: better results in less time and better performances.
I often write about applying psychology to music and holistic practicing because it drastically improves performance.
There’s no fluke or gimmick.
Performing is a (Fun) Sport
Today, we’re featuring Dr. Noa Kageyama, a sports performance psychologist currently on the faculty at Juilliard.
Noa’s also a violinist and a Julliard graduate.
I’m happy to introduce Noa as a guest to Artiden!
Noa has helped a lot of people step confidently onto the stage.
Sports and music have lots in common in terms of performance, so applying sports psychology specifically to music (exactly what Noa’s doing) is smart.
Below, Noa discusses his key practice principles, the biggest performance mistakes, and various techniques that improve practicing.
“[T]he sub-par moments we experience on stage could be prevented not simply with more practice, but with the right kind of preparation…”
What’s the biggest mistake that performers make, and how can they fix this?
There are two complementary mistakes we tend to make – one happens in the practice room, and the other happens on stage.
Your Mean Autopilot
In the practice room, we have a tendency to practice on autopilot.
Meaning, we start at the beginning of a piece, stop when we hear something we don’t like, play that section a few times until it sounds better, then move onto the next thing that doesn’t come out quite right.
Things do improve over time, but it’s an inefficient way of practicing and even worse, we haven’t actually solved anything.
And because we haven’t identified the underlying cause of the problem, nor the permanent solution that would allow us to play the passage as we want it to sound, it’s probably going to happen again. Most likely on stage when we’re nervous.
Your Inner Control Freak
Conversely, when we get on stage there is a tendency to activate our manual override.
Meaning, instead of trusting our body to execute and play freely as we do in the practice room, we try to exert conscious control over everything.
We think about every single note, and the mechanics/technique involved in everything we play.
“When we micromanage our body… we experience a phenomenon some refer to as ‘paralysis by analysis.'”
Unfortunately, this interrupts the automaticity of the complex and sophisticated motor movements required to play at the level we are capable.
Our sensory organs, muscles, and brain simply cannot communicate with each other rapidly enough to coordinate everything smoothly at tempo.
When we micromanage our body in this way, we experience a phenomenon some refer to as “paralysis by analysis.”
“We ought to practice more consciously, to be fully engaged, seeking to identify all of the technical and mechanical details that produce what we want to hear.”
In essence we have flip flopped the optimal practice mindset and the optimal performance mindset.
We ought to practice more consciously, to be fully engaged, seeking to identify all of the technical and mechanical details that produce what we want to hear.
On stage, we must learn to trust ourselves more, to let go of conscious control, and focus more intently on the end result – i.e. the sound, the phrasing, the line, the nuances we would love to hear emanating from our instrument.
What three things or goals that you hope your students achieve/learn from you, if nothing else?
The overarching goal for all my students is to be able to consistently perform up to their full abilities in even the most stressful performances.
There are seven key skill areas that sport psychologists generally concentrate on, from building confidence to attentional focus to mental toughness, but here are the three main lessons that I hope my students take away from our work.
a. Performance anxiety or stage fright is not a pathological condition
We all get nervous.
Some more than others, of course, but it’s not a sign of weakness or a characterological deficiency.
In fact, when we’re talking about peak performance, most performers play their best not when they’re calm, but when their energy or activation level is moderate to high.
“Because peak performance requires some degree of nervousness or activation, our goal is not to eliminate the nerves, but to learn how to perform our best despite them.”
Because peak performance requires some degree of nervousness or activation, our goal is not to eliminate the nerves, but to learn how to perform our best despite them.
In that sense, performing optimally under pressure is a learned skill, something that takes practice like anything else we do on the instrument.
b. How to practice
We all know how important practice is, but nobody ever sits down and teaches us how.
From deliberate practice to practicing for performance, what we do in the practice room plays such a major role in how we respond to pressure on stage.
A lot of the sub-par moments we experience on stage could be prevented not simply with more practice, but with the right kind of preparation in advance.
c. How to trust
There is a big difference between performers who trust themselves, really goes for it and plays freely, and performers who play tentatively, cautiously, and fearfully.
The difference is not so much in the number of notes they miss or the technical merits of their performance, but the emotional experience for both the performer and the audience.
Flipping that switch and developing the ability to trust our abilities, our training, and our preparation may not feel natural at first, but it is something that can most definitely be learned.
“The difference is… the emotional experience for both the performer and the audience.”
For instance, try performing the opening of a piece in front of a videocamera.
Rate yourself on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being complete trust and certainty that you would nail the opening, and 1 being tentative and cautious playing.
See if you can get to consistent 8’s and 9’s and notice how different that feels (and also how much better you can play when you trust yourself).
If there were one ultimate must-have skill for pianists, which would it be, and why?
“[P]eak performance comes down to the strength of our… focus.”
At the end of the day, peak performance comes down to the strength of our attentional control – i.e. focus.
Though the physical symptoms of performance anxiety are distracting and unpleasant, research suggests that the mental symptoms of anxiety have a stronger negative impact on performance.
The Strength of Your Focus
So we may bemoan the cold, clammy hands, butterflies, and tight muscles, but we actually have the ability to play pretty well despite these physical unpleasantries.
It’s the worries, doubts, and critic in our head that predict how well (or poorly) we play.
Because we have a fixed attentional capacity.
There is only so much data our brain and nervous system can process at any given point in time.
The more data we process that is related to performing well, the better we play and the less time we have to be nervous.
“[T]he more we engage in worries, doubts, and thoughts that are unrelated to what we are doing in the moment, the more likely we are to make mistakes or play below our abilities.”
On the other hand, the more we engage in worries, doubts, and irrelevant thoughts, the more likely we are to make mistakes or play below our abilities.
A technique called Centering is a big part of learning how to get into the right mental state for optimal performance.
Granted, developing a more bulletproof focus is not the easiest thing in the world, but it’s the single most valuable mental skill a performer can develop for more consistent performances.