In my last newsletter on How to Stop Making Mistakes in Performance (Part 2), I covered performance preparation using Performance Practice. This included the implementation of a pre-performance routine & centering, playing without stopping, playing for expression and enjoyment, and getting feedback after, rather than during, playing. If you missed that post, you can check it out here.
In this final post of the same series, I want to focus on the psychological components of performance that can produce anxiety and on a few essential strategies that will help you minimize errors on stage even more.
According to research, the main reasons performers feel anxiety in performance include worrying about making mistakes or not playing perfectly, being negatively evaluated by others, and not meeting self-imposed, high standards of performance. Although strategic, deliberate & performance practice are essential strategies for reducing errors, if our psychological state is in fight or flight mode, neither strategy will make much of a difference when it's time to perform.
The good news is that we can develop a performance-positive psychological state by practicing a few essential skills related to 3 things: 1) errors and perfection, 2) how we interpret adrenaline, and 3) our performance goals.
Errors & Perfection
Many of us define errors in terms of mechanical or memorization mistakes like missing a note or forgetting the next line. We also evaluate errors within a range of severity. For example, producing string buzz could be interpreted as either an insignificant error or as something fundamentally offensive to your way of life. (Although, I really hope nobody actually feels that intensely about string buzz or any error for that matter!)
So when it comes to music performance, perfection tends to be defined as a performance absent mechanical or memorization errors (big or small). Unfortunately, this definition is highly problematic because this kind of perfection is almost impossible to achieve! In my 30 years of musical awareness, I have yet to see a live performance by any expert musician absent a single error (e.g., Paco de Lucía, John Williams, Vicente Amigo, Ana Vidovic, etc.). At the same time, I have left these same performances feeling excited and inspired despite the fact that errors had occurred.
Performance psychologist Noa Kageyama argues (and suggests) that “perfection” in music performance is, and should be, defined by expressive quality rather than mechanical prowess. And additional research supports this idea arguing that during performances, many concert soloists really do focus on expressive performance cues rather than mechanical cues. If we define perfection on stage in terms of how well we can express our music rather than if we flubbed a note or not we’ll feel way less anxious before & during the performance process. I’ve found this perspective highly liberating and recommend that everyone adopt this view.
Secondly, we need to retrain our reactions to errors on stage. When I was finishing my master’s thesis on expert performance in flamenco, I got a chance to interview and survey quite a few high-level soloists, and what I found was that when they make mechanical mistakes on stage, they don't make a big deal about them. In fact, they don't even really feel jolted by them at all. Instead, they brush off these mistakes as if they had stumbled briefly while walking down the street and quickly get back to focusing on expression. This is easier said than done, but I would encourage you to add this mindset to your performance practice whenever you make a mistake. It will be challenging at first but with consistent practice, you can train yourself to react this way to errors during your performances.
Many, if not all of us, have felt an adrenaline rush right before performing for others. The typical physical responses to adrenaline are muscle tension and an accelerated heartbeat. Progressively intense reactions include chills, trembling, dry mouth, nausea, paralysis, and even fainting!
What’s interesting about adrenaline is that it gets released into our system when we are nervous or excited. And according to behavioral research scientist Alison Brooks, the way we interpret this adrenaline rush can either increase or decrease our feelings of anxiety. Specifically, Brooks found that by reappraising anxiety as excitement and saying “I’m excited” before performing, levels of anxiety and the negative physical feelings that accompany it are significantly reduced. What's even more interesting is this seems to work whether we believe that we’re excited or not!
Although we can control it, it’s important to know that eliminating the adrenaline rush that leads to either excitement or nervousness is almost impossible. Every top-level musician that I have interviewed or read about admits to having some amount of performance jitters before hitting the stage. So rather than try to get rid of your jitters, a better strategy is to accept them and to have effective strategies to help you react to your adrenaline rush in a way that will improve rather than hinder your performance.
So next time you engage in performance practice, make sure to say to yourself, “I’m excited,” before playing your expert or piece. Try the same thing before playing for your teachers and certainly before performing for others. It will feel silly at first, but stick with it and I promise (anecdotally speaking) that you’ll find this simple strategy extremely useful. The goal is to eventually train yourself to genuinely appraise your adrenaline rushes as excitement rather than as anxiety. And like everything else, this is simply a skill we need to practice in order for it to become automatic.
The reason I decided to play guitar (rather than the kazoo or the triangle), was because I thought the sound of the guitar was one of the coolest and most beautiful things I had ever heard. I wanted very much to be able to produce that same sound and thoroughly enjoyed the learning process. My purpose was exclusively enjoyment at first but once I learned how to play my first line of music — which was the first 6 notes of Nothing Else Matters by Metalica, played on a classical guitar — I wanted to show my family and friends immediately because I thought they would think it was super cool too! (Of course, they did!)
My initial goal in guitar was never really to play for others, but eventually doing so just made sense since I almost always found myself wanting to share my excitement about the music I learned with everyone around me. At least, that was true until I started getting serious about guitar and performing started making me money.
Then my ego and fear got in the way and I slowly forgot about my initial motivation to play. I began worrying about making errors and developing a bad reputation that could keep me from getting more work. As a result, I began almost obsessing about technique and my performance goals quickly turned into technical “perfection” (see above). Long story short, I started disliking performance, got injured plenty, and even considered giving up the guitar at one point until I got a much-needed, slap-in-the-face injury called focal dystonia which forced me to reevaluate my goals as a guitarist.
The injury made it impossible to play with the same technical ability I had before and, after plenty of frustration, I decided to give up the idea of technical perfection. Instead, I reminded myself why I started playing in the first place and re-adopted those reasons as my new performance goals (i.e., enjoyment and expression). Since then, playing for others has been considerably and consistently rewarding. Yes, I do still make mistakes as a result of my injury but I no longer place much weight on them at all because 1) I know they’re inevitable and 2) they really don’t matter.
Of course, I still work on improving my technique, but for performance, I make it a priority to express my music the way I hear it in my head and to thoroughly enjoy the sound of that music on the guitar. At the end of the day. the audience connects mostly with the expressiveness of a performance. And, if the music is genuinely expressive enough, mistakes often go ignored or even unperceived.
Performance isn’t about impressing anyone or getting signed to a major label. It’s about sharing your love of the instrument and music with others. So next time you perform for anyone, make your performance goals enjoyment and expression rather than error-free mechanics.
How to Practice
Here are a few ideas for practicing these strategies at home during performance practice only (i.e., NOT during strategic practice):
For errors, pick a short phrase (e.g., 1-4 measures) that you can play pretty well but still needs a little polish. Before you play your phrase, make a plan to brush off any mistakes that may occur and to continue playing with a focus on expression. Start playing and implement your plan if you make a mistake. Repeat this often and soon you’ll be able to implement this much-needed performance skill on stage.
For performance goals and perfection, first, pick the same or similarly practiced musical phrase. Before you start playing say to yourself that you will play as expressively as you can and that you will have fun. Remind yourself that “perfection” is a reflection of how well you expressed and enjoyed your music, not how error-free it was.
For adrenaline, add an imaginary audience and a video recording device to your performance practice. When you feel a little adrenaline rush, first accept it rather than fight it, and then say to yourself, “I’m excited.” Do this every time you engage in performance practice.
I truly hope that these posts are helping you in your practice and performance. Please leave a comment or question about this post at the bottom of this page. And if you’re interested in lessons, please contact me below. Thanks and happy practicing!