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Polyphony: performance psychology for musicians.

In this issue's column, we investigate issues surrounding the psychological aspects of performance and specific strategies for helping musicians play with greater confidence in themselves and trust in their training through an interview with Bill Moore, a performance psychology consultant in Norman, Oklahoma. Moore has consulted with athletes, musicians and other performers in a variety of domains throughout the United States and abroad. Currently he is teaching a highly sought-after course in performance psychology for musicians in the School of Music at the University of Oklahoma. Moore's special interest is in applied strategies for developing confidence and trust in performers at a variety of skill levels.

Jane Magrath: Why do musicians and performers, at almost every level, tend to play better in practice than they do during performance?

Bill Moore: One of the main reasons is that most people do not separate psychological practice skills from psychological performance skills--these skills are like apples and oranges. For example, three psychological practice skills that are necessary to getting better are as follows: 1) the ability to self-monitor correctness, 2) the ability to give self-instruction, and 3) the ability to analyze cause and effect with regard to mistakes. These specific mental skills are necessary to improve and refine physical skills and are reinforced during almost every practice session, but these same mental skills get in the way of performing your best.


The primary psychological goal during performance is to maintain a clear and present focus and trust what you have trained. This is very difficult to do for an extended period of time and on a regular basis. Therefore, it must be trained during practice. The first of the three cardinal mental performance skills is courage. I define courage as the ability to direct your will to overcome internal and external negative forces. Internal forces refer to fear, self-doubt, over-thinking and so on, while external forces might be others' expectations and/or environmental conditions. The second performance skill is trust, the ability to let go of conscious control over correctness (in other words, "trust what you have trained"). Ultimately this is the central performance goal. The third psychological performance skill and perhaps the one that is the least appreciated is acceptance, the ability to see things as they are without judgment as to right or wrong. This is a critical skill to performing your best, yet counter intuitive during practice since improvement and refinement by their nature connote a lack of acceptance.

Hopefully from this explanation you will understand that students must practice the psychological skills necessary for creating their best performances and that this type of practice is separate and distinct from the practice repetitions used to develop and refine their physical skills. I believe that psychological performance skills must be practiced during practice if you want them to show up during performance.

JM: Can you provide a strategy that a teacher might employ to develop one of the psychological performance skills?

BM: A great first step with almost any student in developing psychological performance skills is to have the student develop what I call a "mastery script." This involves writing down and describing the feelings of playing "great" from the beginning to end of the performance. For example, what does a great warm-up feel like? Break the performance down into the beginning, middle and end and describe in very vivid and sensory-rich language the feelings of playing great.

I think it is important for the student to have vivid and accessible memories or sensations of playing great. After all, this is where you want to go, right? This is especially important for pianists since most over-achieving, perfectionist, highly technical individuals are quite astute at vividly recalling mistakes and weaknesses. For the teacher, I suggest they start with themselves. Go through the process of writing your own mastery script so that you have a better idea of how to best help your student. From my experience most pianists struggle with creating vivid, positive feeling and thoughts, they seem to have an over-developed set of negative feelings stored in memory and a readily available bank of negative thoughts. For these reasons, I believe a mastery script is a good place to start for teachers wanting to develop performance skills and perhaps most important of all, it is very fun to do!!

JM: Could we talk about trust in performance? I've heard you say that one of the most common misunderstandings about trust held by many is that the performer must wait until they become "good enough" before they can trust their skills during performance.

BM: First, it is important to define the psychological performance skill known as trust and in so doing understand it as a specific skill that is trained much like other skills are trained. To fully understand trust during performance, you must first separate it from confidence. Confidence is an expectation for success resulting from an evaluation of your skill level as it relates to a specific task. In other words, when you perceive that your current skill meets or exceeds the demands of the task, you are likely to be confident that you can complete the task successfully. For example, when you are confident you may think, "I know I can play this passage." This does not mean you will "nail" the passage, but rather you expect to play it well based on your perception of your current skill and the evaluation of the task demand.

Trust, on the other hand, is the absence of all expectations and judgments. Trust is simply defined as the ability to free oneself from any conscious control over correctness at the moment of skill execution. Therefore, trust is specific not only to the task at hand but also to the moment of skill execution. Trust's temporally isolated nature makes it unstable during the duration of a performance. You will most likely have periods of time when you trust your skills (maintaining a clear and present focus while releasing control over correctness) during a musical recital, but you may or may not experience trust for the entire duration of a particular performance. Trust is not a continual state of mind and it is the instability and specificity of trust that makes it such a challenge to master.

When you understand trust in this way, you begin to see two things; first, trust is a distinct performance skill that must be practiced in practice, and second, regardless of your skill level, learning to trust what you have during performance is the primary performance goal.

JM: Would you address some differences between confidence, over-confidence and even arrogance?

BM: This is one of the most common concerns when we start talking to piano teachers about building confidence in their students. The idea that students can become over-confident, and that this is bad, most likely comes from our puritan roots, which value humility and see self-pride as a sin. From my experiences, the likelihood of a pianist or most other musicians for that matter, becoming over-confident through psychological- skills training is very slim. Almost every pianist I know has benefited from believing more in themselves.

To distinguish between confidence and arrogance, I think of it in the following way. When someone is confident, they have respect for the difficulty for the task they are getting ready to take on, but believe they can meet the challenge. Arrogance is not respecting the difficulty of the task.

JM: What about personality and the ability to trust? Do some people have more difficulty trusting than others due to their personality?

BM: From my experience in working with performers, it has become apparent that some individuals have a greater capacity to trust during performance than others. This can be explained when trust is viewed as having both a trait and state characteristic. The trust state is a state characteristic in that it occurs within the present moment while the trust trait is a predisposition to trust due to personality characteristics. Some individuals are higher in trust trait than others, meaning that they have personality characteristics that enable them to trust more easily. For example, individuals who are high in the creative, risk taking and spontaneous personality characteristics, for the most part, are high in the trust trait. On the other hand, individuals who are perfectionist or have a high desire for control and are more methodical, generally are lower in the trust trait. The trait/state characteristics of trust can be aligned along two continuums creating four different personality types:

1. Perfectionist--Low Trust Trait/Low Trust State

This is the individual who likes to control the agenda in most aspects of their life, is typically driven and overachieving, and tends to be seen as very coachable. Although their perfectionist tendencies keep them working very hard during practice, their overly self-critical nature also prevents them from trusting and releasing control during performance. These individuals can also be very competitive performers who measure success solely by performance outcome, perceptions of others and/or score.

Although, individuals who match these characteristics will struggle with trust during performance, this is not to suggest that they can't learn to trust more frequently. However, letting go of "controlling correctness" will be an inner battle that does not play to their strengths. Therefore, they will be "swimming up stream" when executing trust during performance on a regular basis.

2. The Performer--Low Trust Trait/High Trust State

These are individuals who tend to be great competitors. Because of their low trust trait they have a predisposition to work hard at getting better, prepare for performance in a very purposeful way and are always looking for ways to gain an edge on their competition. The high trust state characteristic flees them up to do whatever it takes to win or perform well without dwelling too much on mistakes or short coming during performances. The goal for these individuals is to continue to embrace their strengths--both mental and physical. In highly technical tasks, accepting "bad" outcomes and moving on during performance can sometimes be a struggle that interferes with their ability to trust on a more regular basis.

3. The Artist--High Trust Trait/High Trust State

This personality type is high in both trait and state trust meaning that they trust very easily in their abilities but also tend to under prepare for important events. This person is creative and freewheeling and can bore easily in practice sessions. They also have trouble sticking to a game plan during performances. However, when confident, they tend to perform very well.

The goal for this individual is to accept the challenge of executing the correct process in practice and during performance. If there is anyone who needs to make the process the product, they are the one. The problem is that from their perspective they believe they can produce the desired outcomes without the correct processes. This provides the opportunity to introduce the player to the "next level" of play where most all of the competitors are of equal talent and where correct processes are at a premium.

4. The Underachiever--High Trust Trait/Low Trust State

These individuals tend to underachieve during performance relative to their talent level. This profile is often seen as an immature competitor who doesn't put in the practice time necessary to perform well, yet has high expectations regarding what they can do during performance. Their predisposition for trust as a personality trait often prevents them from putting "hay in the barn" during practice sessions.

Performers with this personality type often learn things quickly and are considered talented but underachieving. They easily become negative during performances and find themselves blowing off the pressure of the situation through the use of excuses. A fear of failure is sometime present with these individuals.

The goal for this performer is to redefine the battle during performance. The first step is to not be as judgmental during performance and to not take performance outcomes so personally. The battle of the game is in the processes, not the products. Take control over what can be controlled and keep fighting a good fight.

Keep in mind that being predisposed to certain trait and state characteristics does not mean that you will either experience these characteristics to their fullest or be limited by their presence. As with other personality characteristics, these explain a natural wiring that can be developed into a strength or overcome similar to other personality characteristics. For example, you may have a natural bend toward being introverted but you have learned to overcome this trait when engaging in a professional meeting.

JM: Could someone contact you for references in their area regarding locating working with a performance psychology consultant?

BM: I receive phone calls and e-mails all the time from people looking for help in this area. My email is or they can contact me through my website

Bill Moore, a performance psychology consultant, was the keynote speaker at the 2008 Group Piano and Piano Pedagogy Forum in Norman, Oklahoma. See p. 44 for photos from the event.

Jane Magrath, NCTM, is internationally known as a pianist, author, clinician and teacher. She is professor and director of piano pedagogy at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma.
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Title Annotation:Professional Resources
Author:Magrath, Jane
Publication:American Music Teacher
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2008
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