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Playing your best: when it counts.


My best performances are when I am focused totally on the expression of the music, not the technical elements of performing the music. I feel totally entranced in sharing the music, with connecting to the audience.

When I'm playing my best I am releasing all of my emotion and passion into my cello creating new ideas and great music to share with the audience. I'm calm and relaxed, I feel fully engaged in performing music, but not actively thinking about the technical aspects of my own playing.

During my best performances I'm having fun. I am enthusiastic, excited, and ready to take chances. I feel trust within myself and my musical partners. I am cool and confident. I understand the task at hand and how to accomplish it. I am sharing a musical experience with the audience. I feel like I'm listening to everything going on around me. I feel extremely confident. I am enjoying every minute of my time on stage.

How would you describe your best performance? Think back to your last great performance. What were the feelings and sensations you experienced? What image comes to mind when you visualize performing at your best? Take a moment and answer the question: "When I am at my best, I am like a -- ?" Reflect on this image and why it represents your best. For example, the image representing me at my best is a puppy dog. At my best I am free to express myself, inviting others to join the fun--open and spontaneous while having a very childlike attitude toward playing. What is your image, and why does it represent your best?

You may have experienced moments during your best performance when you felt totally focused, calm, confident and able to execute even the most difficult skills or phrases with ease--those moments in which time seemed to stand still and conscious effort was nonexistent. If you have had this experience you would likely do just about anything to have it more often. In this presentation we are going to dig deeper into understanding your best performances and how to help your students "get out" during performance what was "put in" during practice.

Athletes are players who practice, musicians are practicers who play.

Without a doubt, the most surprising difference between athletes and musicians is not the amount of time spent practicing, but the amount of time spent playing. Most competitive athletes have dozens of performance repetitions over the course of six months, while most musicians may have one or two. This has implications for the way musicians best transfer what is learned in practice to their performances. From a psychological perspective, practicing to perform is not the same as practicing to improve. The mental skills needed to be a great practicer are not the same mental skills needed to be a great performer. In fact, the mental skills necessary to develop and refine your technique will get in your way during performance. I am not implying becoming more technically or musically proficient will not make you a better performer. Rather, there are two separate and distinct "sets" of mental skills needed to reach your full performance potential. One set of skills for acquisition and another set for performance.

Music performance is the culmination of the mental, emotional, physical, technical and musical aspects developed in practice that all come together during performance. If you are to play your best when it counts, you must practice performance in its entirety. Although the mental skills discussed here make up just one part of the whole picture, they are often the part least understood and, yet, may be the most important in playing your best when it counts.

The Practice Mindset Is Necessary But Not Sufficient

Most musicians understand that if you truly want to get better you must develop certain mental skills necessary for skill acquisition. These skills are usually developed through a blocked practice format. This is when you complete a number of repetitions of the same movement pattern or musical piece. It is called blocked practice because you are repeating the same movements in a block with the goal of grooving these movements into your memory.

There are three primary mental skills necessary for learning through repetition or blocked practice. For example, during a solo practice session when you are refining a technical movement pattern you will spend most of your time self-instructing (telling yourself how you need to move), self-monitoring correctness (attending to execution of movement patterns and judging them as right or wrong) and analyzing cause and effect relative to mistakes (determining the cause of incorrect movement patterns and the effect on the outcome). These mental skills are very well developed because this is where you spend the most time. The problem is any one of these mental skills will get in your way during performance. The practice mindset is important for developing and refining correct movement patterns or memorizing a musical score, but it is not sufficient for making you a better performer. Your best performance happens when you are not judging, analyzing or instructing.


The Performance Mindset Is Not A Personality Trait

From my experiences working with performers in a variety of domains, I have found some individuals to have a greater predisposition to a performance mindset than others. Even though there are individual differences due primarily to personality characteristics, the performance mindset can be developed regardless of personality traits. We are all predisposed to certain personality traits, or a natural bend, that can either be developed into a strength or managed around. In other words, you are either swimming upstream or swimming downstream when developing a performance mindset depending on your hardwiring. For example, you may be highly introverted, but you can learn to overcome this personality trait if you are highly motivated to be engaging in professional meetings. The same is true in performance. A pianist may possess strong perfectionistic and over-controlling tendencies but can learn to execute a performance mindset that is courageous, trusting and nonjudgmental. In both cases, they may be swimming upstream requiring greater effort to achieve their goals, but they are not limited by their personality traits.

The Performance Mindset

A performance mindset is a courageous, trusting and accepting mindset. It is the gateway to becoming totally absorbed in, and connected to, the music you are performing. You are in your performance mindset when you are free from expectations, fear of making mistakes, doubts about the correctness of your technique or other cognitive activities keeping you from fully expressing the feeling and emotion in your music. Although the performance mindset is a state of being attained during a performance, it consists of mental skills that must be developed in practice and executed both before and during your performances. Being calm and in control of yourself, trusting and connected to your music are all part of the mindset found in your best performances. The three primary mental skills making up your performance mindset are:

Courage: directing your will to act in the face of fear or doubt

Trust: letting go of your desire to consciously control correctness

Acceptance: experiencing or perceiving without any judgment as to good or bad

Courage and acceptance, in and of themselves, are important mental performance skills, it is your ability to trust during performance what you have trained in practice that is the ultimate performance goal.

Trust As The Performance Goal

Trusting what you have trained is understood, not only as a performance skill, but also as your performance goal. Great performers have learned to trust what they have trained under a variety of performance conditions. When great performers stop trusting, they stop becoming great performers.

Trust is defined as "letting go of conscious control over correctness to attend to the higher order aspects of performance." When you let go of trying to control the correctness of your technique, you are free to communicate the feelings and emotions in your music. Your goal during performance is to trust what you currently have so you can be as expressive as you need to be. The battle between your desire to let go (free to focus on the feeling and emotion of your playing) and your desire to be correct (not make mistakes), is an internal battle you will never fully master. The good news is, it is a battle you do not need to master--just a battle you need to commit to fighting.

As your technique becomes better learned and more complex, your conscious mind must become less involved or, as suggested in the quote below, you must release conscious control over correctness and trust the motor programs you have trained in practice.

Ultimately, the musician must relinquish the illusion of moment-by-moment control, trusting the program to remember exactly how each finger must move. The musician becomes aware of only the feeling, the emotion in the music. --Dr. Frank Wilson, neurologist

This relinquishing of moment-by-moment control is not free from cognitive interference and can be interrupted by factors causing the conscious mind to disrupt the performance process. Self-doubt, fear of mistakes, over-analysis of technique, and heightened anxiety are examples of cognitions that interrupt the automatic transfer of information necessary to execute your motor programs.

How well would you play if you truly trusted 85 percent during a performance? Notice I did not say 100 percent. Reaching 85 percent is a very attainable goal. The first step in getting there is to understand trust as your primary performance goal. Trust involves freeing yourself of expectations, fears, or other cognitive activity and maintaining a clear and present focus during performance.

The Inner Battle

In his book Inner Game of Tennis, Tim Gallwey identified the conscious mind and subconscious mind as Self-1 and Self-2. Both Self-1 and Self-2 are essentially information processing systems. Self-1 is the conscious mind, which is a serial processor, meaning it can only process information one bit at a time. For example, you cannot read a book and listen to music simultaneously. You are either consciously attending to the meaning of the words on the page or you are not. However, you may intermittently switch back and forth giving you the illusion of reading and listening at the same time. The conscious mind, Self-1, is the "thinker." It is the part of you that analyzes, self-instructs, self-monitors and tends to get overactive when you have doubts, fears and anxiety during performance.

Self-2 is the "doer." Self-2 is best understood as your motor control system that selects and executes programs from memory that are "run" during performance. Self-2 has no capacity to judge your actions as good or bad, or to fear any consequences of mistakes. When you are playing your best, Self-1 is quiet and trusts Self-2 to execute the correct movement patterns without getting in the way. The inner battle during your performance can be boiled down to the simple fact that Self-1 does not want to trust Self-2. This does not mean Self-1 will not trust Self-2, only it does not want to. Self-1, by its nature, is a control freak. When you start to care about being correct or not making a mistake, Self-1 becomes active and tries to take control to get it right. When this happens, trust in Self-2 breaks down.

To illustrate how Self-1 can inhibit music performance, let us examine an everyday motor skill. Imagine the task of parking and getting out of your car. You have pulled into the parking space. Now, describe the sequence of body movements necessary to turn off and exit your car. Describe the proper movement sequence involving your left hand, right hand, left foot and right foot. You successfully complete this highly complex, precisely timed sequence of movements many times a day. Why is it difficult to consciously describe? Because you execute this movement pattern below conscious awareness and with little or no consideration of correct form or technique. You simply consider the successful outcome and make it happen with little conscious effort.

Imagine what would happen if we decided to video tape your getting-out-of-the-car motor program and showed you the "correct" movement sequences, explaining exactly how your arms, hands, feet and legs moved and in what order. Then we put you back in your car and ask you to exit your car again, only this time using the "correct" movement sequence. We also administered a mild electric shock for out of sequence or incorrect movements. Now correctness really matters! To avoid the consequences of failure (for example, being shocked) you would consciously try to control the correctness of your movements, making them slower, more effortful and, ultimately, less accurate. In this example, we took a complex motor pattern executed flawlessly below your conscious awareness, and by attaching a negative consequence to incorrect movements, brought these movements under conscious control and completely screwed them up. Sound familiar?


Training Trust: Use the 80-20 Rule

I am a big believer in applying the 80-20 rule when practicing or developing trust as a performance skill. The 80-20 rule refers to the ratio of blocked to variable practice during a typical practice session with blocked practice being used for skill development and variable practice being used for training trust. Blocked practice occurs when you work on refining a specific movement pattern by completing a number of repetitions in a row while monitoring correctness. Blocked practice is necessary for motor skill development and the refinement of a specific motor program. Variable practice occurs when you change or vary the movement pattern from repetition to repetition. It is the retrieval of separate motor programs from repetition to repetition that makes this practice variable.

The 80-20 rule implies that during skill development and refinement, you should spend no more than 80 percent of your practice session in blocked practice and no less than 20 percent in variable practice. As you get closer to a performance date and your skills are more well-learned, you should slide this percentage more toward 80 percent variable practice and 20 percent blocked practice. The week before your performance you should practice at 80 percent variable and 20 percent blocked.

Courage As A Performance Skill

Courage is defined as "directing your will to act in the face of fear and doubt." It is not the presence or absence of fears, self-doubts, feelings of nervousness or anxiety that distinguish the best performers from the others. Most musicians experience some level of discomfort associated with distracting thoughts and negative emotions before and sometimes during important performances. Even some of the most experienced athletes and musicians recognize that their performance is more about being uncomfortable than being comfortable.

Being courageous is not about eliminating your discomfort; it is about being uncomfortable and effectively managing your discomfort. As a musician, being courageous means you are taking control of your internal experience. You are dictating the thoughts, feelings and images experienced both before and during your performance. Choosing to take control over your thoughts and images, before, during and after performances will help you overcome fear and self-doubt. There are many forces acting to pull you into a negative, self-defeating state of mind. Having the courage and commitment to stay positive, to create feelings of playing great and visualize yourself successfully executing under pressure is necessary to instilling courage.

Instilling Courage Through Performance Scripts

A performance script is a description of the sensations you experience when you are playing great? When done well, your performance script includes a vivid and rich description of the sensations (sights, sounds and smells) and emotions (excitement, confidence and enjoyment) you experience when playing your best. Some of the sections of your script include the following:

* Performance venue: Think back to a place or venue where you love to perform. What are the special sights, smells and sounds you love about this place? Create a picture of the perfect day and venue in your mind's eye, and describe it as vividly as you can.

* Pre-performance warm-up: Everything is going great in warm-up and you are feeling just the way you want before your performance.

* Beginning of a performance: Draw upon past great starts and describe the feelings. How great it is to feel confident, relaxed, yet energized.

Describe how well you execute your technique with composure and how your confidence starts to build as your performance continues.

* Middle of performance: You are flowing and letting it go. It is a great feeling to be so positive about all aspects of your performance. You are connecting with your audience. It all seems so effortless and natural.

* Ending of your performance:

Visualize a strong finish. You have all the momentum and you are supremely confident. You are completely focused on the task at hand. Nothing is distracting you. You complete your performance with positive emotion, and you feel great!

To begin writing your own script, I recommend you simply sit down and start writing. Describe where you are, the time of day and any special sounds or smells. The goal of your performance script is to build your confidence and enthusiasm for an upcoming performance. This is achieved by regularly recalling vivid feelings and images of playing great during the week leading up to your performance.

Your performance script should be revised to meet the specific demands of each performance, for example, the particular nuances of the musical piece or venue, and any other unique or challenging aspects of the performance. It is helpful to keep in mind that writing a vivid and sensory rich performance script is a skill and, like other skills, can improve over time. Reading your script many times during the days before your performance will make positive images and thoughts more available while also providing a more confident performance mindset. With just reading your script three to four times a day during the week leading up to your performance you will notice a significant increase in positive thoughts and a decrease in negative thoughts.

Acceptance: Expanding Your Attentional Capabilities

Acceptance is perceiving without judgment as to good or bad. Acceptance expands your attentional capabilities, while judgments narrow them. As your judgments about yourself and your task increase, your ability to effectively manage your attentional focus decreases. In essence, judgments hold your attention hostage.

For most musicians, acceptance as an important performance skill is a difficult concept to embrace. You were probably taught most of your life that if you wanted to get better at something you should never accept where you are. In many ways, acceptance was then, and is today, a bad word when it comes to your skill development and personal achievement. It means you have either given in or given up. A primary aspect of performing well is to accept what just happened and focus on what you need to do next. Not only because what just happened is now in the past (you no longer have any control over it), but also, by truly accepting the previous outcome, you have now freed yourself from any internal interference.

Your ability to process the correct information at the appropriate time is necessary to perform successfully. Holding your focus too long on one aspect of performance (for example, judging a past mistake) or shifting to an irrelevant performance aspect (judging what others are thinking) can result in a memory lapse or may cause you miss important informational cues (your place in the written score). When you are concentrating effectively, you are focusing your full attention onto relevant information necessary for you to perform your best. During performance, your mind is both consciously and subconsciously processing information from both internal and external sources.


Enhancing Acceptance Through Focus Plans

Focus plans are like a map of your attentional focus during performance. Developing a focus plan is a technique used in a variety of performance domains to help performers identify how best to focus, and refocus, during their performance. Focus plans provide you with an "at-a-glance" visual understanding of the concentration demands of your performance piece and allow you the opportunity to pre-plan and practice desirable attentional shifts. Your focus plan should provide a very general structure of a piece, outlining significant factors that change the mood or character during a performance (for example, drastic key changes, sudden tempo shifts, long dramatic pauses and abrupt dynamic changes). By mapping out these elements, you develop a broader sense of direction that applies to the entire piece.

Focus plans will also help maintain your focus during the entire performance by creating smaller goals and pre-planned moments of releasing and then regaining focus built into the interpretation of the piece. The goal of a focus plan is to provide you with specific attentional targets to hit throughout your performance--the primary benefit of preplanning these targets and practicing the musicality of your playing. Focus plans are specifically designed to use as a practice strategy to build your concentration muscle and help you focus better during performance.

Mental Skills Development Using Journals

The goal in mental skills training for musicians is to develop a performance mindset where the musician can approach performance with courage, execute their skills with trust and to respond with acceptance. Mental skill development differs from physical skill development in many ways. Not only do they look and feel different when you are working on them, but the improvement of mental skills is more difficult to measure than physical skills. You almost immediately know if your physical work is paying off. You can feel your muscles moving with more precision and less tension. You can see your movements execute with greater speed, accuracy and rhythm. You can also hear the improvement in sound quality and expressiveness as your physical skills improve, but improvement in your mental skills is much more subtle.

How do you know if your mental skills are getting better? Keeping a mental journal not only allows you to monitor improvement of your psychological skills, it also enables you to record solutions and reflect upon the positive aspects of both your practices and performances. Thousands of successful musicians have used mental journals to guide them down the path of personal excellence. Your journal is a tool for you to monitor your improvement and record the very best of what you are doing with the purpose of keeping you positively focused on, and passionately committed to, your performance goals. The mental journal is a tool for you to use as a means of training yourself to be strength-focused and solution-oriented. If you truly desire to push the limits of your talents, then keeping this mental journal will be both meaningful and rewarding.

Editor's Note: Bill Moore was the keynote speaker at the 2011 MTNA National Conference. His presentation was so well received, AMT is sharing this synopsis of his talk.

Bonus BYTE

For more information about Bill Moore and his publications, visit

Bill Moore has served as a mental coach and advisor to elite performers both in the U.S. and abroad for the past 20 years. His experience as a sport scientist, collegiate coach, competitive athlete and teacher brings a unique blend of skills when helping individuals under ongoing competitive stress perform at optimal levels. He teaches the graduate course entitled Performance Psychology for Musicians in the University of Oklahoma School of Music, and has become a sought-after speaker for music pedagogy conferences.
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Author:Moore, Bill
Publication:American Music Teacher
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2011
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