Taking Stock Before Taking the Stage

Note: This post is cross-published on my “Live…In Concert” blog on the Psychology Today website.

When great musicians are on stage, I am amazed by how naturally the music seems to flow from them. There’s great energy in what they’re doing, but it seems to happen without much obvious exertion. The performers communicate through their music, and it moves my thoughts and emotions as I watch and listen. It would seem that in the ideal performance situation, this process happens almost organically, naturally driven by the musicians’ inner passion, and free of contrivance and strain.

In an ideal world, all musicians would perform with the goal of heartfelt expression that deeply moves audiences. Unfortunately, this may not be the norm in most of our concert halls. Some musicians are so preoccupied with the work involved in giving a public performance that they lose sight of their expressive goals. They would love to take the stage with clear minds and more fully channel the emotion they wish to communicate. But this can be an elusive endeavor. To make matters worse, sometimes the only emotion a musician brings to a performance is fear, as stage fright takes hold.

Because of the ideas described above, some may come to believe that performance success depends on shutting off the intellect. It can be an appealing prospect: quit thinking and planning and analyzing, and just trust that your love for music will guide you to an expressive performance, right? Perhaps not. Research in the psychology of music suggests otherwise. Our thinking may be our most powerful resource toward fulfilling performances. It is our thinking—specifically our beliefs and attitudes—that guides our motivation patterns in our musical activities. It is mindful and deliberate practice that most efficiently builds performance skills. And there is great value in our mind’s capacity for reflection, that is, our ability to monitor our musical behaviors and even change the way we think.

Let me start with an example of how beliefs and attitudes can affect the way musicians approach performance. Some psychologists who study motivation have suggested that there are two broad orientations that people can have when pursuing something like music: ego-involved and task-involved. If I have an ego-involved goal orientation, I’m primarily concerned about how I am judged through my musicianship. Performances are opportunities to garner favorable recognition…or to lose it. If I have a task-involved goal orientation, I’m thinking about the musical activity itself. Thought processes center on producing a performance that measures up to a self-set standard.

In a 2005 study of the goal orientations of collegiate instrumental musicians, beliefs about musical talent emerged as an important underlying factor (Smith, 2005). Those who thought of musical talent as an inborn stable trait (“either you got it or you don’t”) were more likely to take an ego-involved approach to performance. They thought about how they would compare to other musicians and expressed concern about looking bad. This came in contrast to those who believed musical ability is acquired through effort and practice; these musicians were more likely to embrace new challenges and to do so out of personal interest. Further, task oriented musicians tended to take more varied and in-depth strategies in their practicing.

I think there’s much to be gained by examining our motivations as performers, perhaps even using the ego- and task-involved goal designations. Past research suggests that musicians driven by ego goals—without much task involvement—are more likely to experience negative feelings in their music making. Their orientation may actually hinder the effectiveness of their practicing and make them more susceptible to stage fright. I know I’ve gone into performances primarily concerned about how my musicianship would be judged by others. Instead of focusing on my expressive aims, I’m worried about wrong notes. Performance is no longer an opportunity to enjoy, but an ordeal to endure.

Just being aware of our thought processes heading into a performance can be beneficial. In another study with college music majors, two researchers asked their participants to complete “diary” before 15 performances during a school year (Sadler & Miller, 2010). For each entry, always done within an hour before performing, they described their thoughts and feelings heading into their performance. Over the course of the 15 performances, there was a significant decrease in performance anxiety reported by the music students. And note, these musicians were not directed to use any particular strategy to combat stage fright; they simply took note of what they were thinking and feeling. It would seem that even some basic self-awareness can have a therapeutic effect.

So it’s not the avoidance of thinking that facilitates a gratifying performance experience. More likely, the key is being able to direct your thoughts to the right things. For years, psychologists have treated anxieties of many kinds through cognitive restructuring. In this approach, people struggling with anxiety learn to change their thinking, primarily through self-talk. But it does not entail reciting undue praise to yourself in a shallow “power of positive thinking” way. Rather, self-talk is used to monitor and reshape thought patterns, in order to replace irrational negative thoughts with more realistic and task-centered ones. The approach has been effective with musicians, including very recently in a study by two performance psychologists (Hoffman & Hanrahan, 2012). They provided three workshops in which musicians were guided in examining their thought processes related to performance anxiety. They identified the negative thinking that they commonly engage in, and learned how to replace dysfunctional “all or nothing” thought patterns with more constructive ones. Even with this relatively modest intervention—just three hour-long sessions offered over a three week period—the musicians experienced a significant drop in perceived anxiety while performing, as well as a significant increase in the quality of their performances, as determined by independent musical judges.

Ultimately your musical performances will be judged by how expressive or feelingful they are. And you can’t “play it with feeling” if all you feel is dread! We cannot simply shut off our minds just prior to taking the stage. I suppose for some of the greatest musicians, their skills are so practiced, so polished, and so deeply rooted that they can deliver a stirring performance with their thoughts wandering to others things. But most of us are not there yet. We have to think about something as we prepare to present our music to an audience. There can be some serious drawbacks of stepping on stage while thinking about the performance—what’s riding on it, what could go wrong, and other potentially threatening aspects. A better alternative would be to focus your thoughts on your music making, and that in its plainest context. I would suggest that fundamentally, music is about the sharing of expression with others, done because it’s a meaningful, enriching, and even essential part of being human.

Hoffman, S. L., & Hanrahan, S. J. (2012). Mental skills for musicians: Managing music performance anxiety and enhancing performance. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 1(1), 17-28.

Sadler, M. E., & Miller, C. J. (2010). Performance anxiety: A longitudinal study of the roles of personality and experience in musicians. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 1(3), 280-287.

Smith, B. P. (2005). Goal orientation, implicit theory of ability, and collegiate instrumental music practice. Psychology of Music, 33(1), 36-57.

Image source: Photos taken by Liz Love of LizLovePhotography.com


3 responses to “Taking Stock Before Taking the Stage

  1. Hi – weirdly WordPress said I had an account with them associated with my email address when I tried to post a comment, and then managed to loose the comment – so will try again, just a bit more briefly.

    Really like this post because I’ve thought about these same issues as a music therapist from a Tibetan Buddhist perspective. The lamas say our motivations deeply color our behavior and that being motivated by “self-cherishing ego”, as opposed to our “neutral” ego, can lead to unwelcome outcomes.

    Another Buddhist mind tool is simply observing our behavior in a non-reactive way like your, “just being aware of our thought processes”. That pre-performance diary is a great real world application of that.

  2. Pingback: When Practice, Practice, Practice Isn’t the Answer | Being musical. Being human.

  3. I really enjoyed the article. It really rang true for me. My husband Les Wise and myself also wrote a musicians mental skills technique book on how to transform yourself and get through many of the blocks that hold you back in your practice, playing and performing. We give you free videos and articles that can help you on our website. Hope you check us out.

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