Music requires great skill. There’s no getting round the fact that it takes long hours of practice to hone your craft.
But music also needs confidence and focus.
I’m not going to claim that changing your thinking will magically transform you into one of the all-time greats. If your technique is flawed, then it’s still going to hold you back.
But technique is only half the story if you want to achieve the levels you’re capable of.
Your thinking has a huge impact on your music
I don’t think you can overestimate how important your thoughts are.
Put two musicians with similar abilities next to each other, and the one whose mind is more positive and more focused will play much better.
Although you hear about "muscle memory" a lot – that’s not really an accurate description.
The memory that drives all those complicated physical movements lives in your head.
You might have drilled things to the point where the right physical movements seem to happen automatically every time. But your body is still controlled by your mind.
So there’s always the potential for your mind to step in and sabotage the process.
If your head is filled with the wrong thoughts, then your performance will suffer.
I believe every musician has the potential to be much better than they currently are. Harnessing your mind’s full ability is one of the main keys to unlocking that potential.
Commit yourself to developing your mental skills as well as your physical skills.
I’ve got nine tips for you today that will get you off to a great start on that journey of improvement. If you want to achieve your best in performance, then you need to be doing all of these.
1) Play freely. Don’t play to “not play badly”
There’s a fine line between going for it and playing recklessly.
I’m not asking you to be reckless – to go after things that are clearly beyond your abilities.
But musicians who play freely have struck a vital balance: they love an inspired and expressive phrase more than they fear mistakes.
It’s an important distinction to make. Too many times I see people so set on avoiding mistakes that they don’t realise they’re robbing the performance of huge creative potential in the process.
You’ll need to use some judgement here. There may well be sections where you make a strategic decision to play within your abilities.
But you still won’t be “playing not to make mistakes” – you’ll just be reining in your ambition slightly.
And it’s always a considered choice. You haven’t forgotten how much you might gain if you take the bold approach – you’ll still go for it when the time is right.
When you’re too concerned about not being bad, it robs you of the chance to play great.
2) Love the challenges
In the practice room you’re in control. You can set things up so that you’re always playing in ideal conditions.
The real world doesn’t work that way.
Where would you rather play better?
In practice, when no-one’s listening? Or in performance?
If you want to be able to give audiences your absolute best, then you’ve got to be comfortable playing in those imperfect, real-world conditions.
There’s no place for negative thoughts or distractions. You can’t be wishing things were different.
This is easier said than done, of course.
The best way to do this is not to ignore the challenges. To pretend they don’t exist.
You’ll never fool yourself like that so it’s best not to even try.
Instead, embrace the challenges.
Enjoy measuring yourself against whatever obstacles each new performance throws up. Learn to love those imperfections.
You’ll never have complete control over what happens. But you can control your attitude and your responses.
Measure your success by how well you respond to conditions.
Don’t fight the conditions – accept them. Enjoy the fact that each performance gives you new challenges to test yourself against.
If every performance was predictably perfect, where would the excitement for an audience be in seeing a live show?
3) Accept what happens rather than getting frustrated or upset
Musicians get upset with how they’re playing for many different reasons. And plenty of the causes are imagined rather than real.
Regardless of the trigger, though, one outcome follows inevitably.
You’re not focused in the present moment.
Your mind is now in the past – on what’s already been played.
And, if you want to perform at your best, the only focus for your attention that matters is what you’re playing right now.
This means that you limit yourself when you judge your playing in any way.
If you’re disappointed or angry. If you’re thinking of how you could do it better next time. Even if you’re reflecting happily on how well you just played that last section.
In all these cases your judgement pulls you out of the present and your performance suffers.
Instead, you want to accept whatever happens in performance and keep moving on.
Observe the objective results of your playing – definitely. That’s vital.
But don’t interpret those outcomes as good or bad.
Accepting whatever happens is not a weakness. It's an important part of giving your very best performance. And it’s also one of the keys to getting stronger, mentally tougher, and more resilient.
Of all the concepts I teach, staying in the present is perhaps the simplest. Yet it's one of the most difficult to practice.
Don’t let that stop you from making the effort – the rewards are immense.
Acceptance in context:
Of course, this act of acceptance plays out during the performance itself. Once the dust has settled, it's fine to make an assessment of where you made mistakes. To plan how you’ll improve on any weaknesses.
Acceptance in performance isn’t at odds with a deliberate focus on improving your skills in practice. Rather, they’re two complementary parts of reaching your potential as a musician.
4) Don’t care too much
As we’ve already seen, you need to be able to accept what’s happened after the fact.
The other side of the coin is that you want to go into things with a feeling that the outcome doesn’t matter all that much.
This is what will stop you tensing up in anticipation of things to come.
It sounds contradictory. You got into music because you do care.
You care about playing beautiful melodies. About entertaining the audience.
The secret here is in the details.
Getting to your long-term musical goals involves a million tiny steps along the way.
You have to care about the long-run destination. But each individual step is most likely to be successful when you don’t care about its individual result.
When you practice a tricky passage, you don’t want to be attached to the outcome of each repetition. You observe how it went without excitement or discouragement – it’s just feedback.
But, precisely because you do care about the cumulative effect of your practice, you go back and play that tricky passage over and over again. Because, ultimately, you want to be able to deliver it brilliantly.
In just the same way, when it comes to the performance you need to let the outcome go.
It’s just feedback that will help you in your overall journey – one performance out of many. And observing what happens each time helps you make the next performance better.
Fixating on what you want the outcome to be leads to worse results. Focusing dispassionately on the process is where it’s at.
Mastering the ability not to care too much goes a long way in determining two critical outcomes:
The first is how good a player you’ll eventually become. The second is how much fun you’ll have along the way.
5) Trust in yourself
To get an idea of what I mean when I talk about confidence, try this:
Confident musicians think about what they want to happen in performance. Musicians who lack confidence think about what they don't want to happen.
It’s as simple as that.
It's not about being arrogant, or unrealistic.
It's just about focusing your thinking on a positive target – what you want to happen.
When two musicians have equal technical skills, the better performance will come from the one who is more confident.
I’m not sure that anyone can yet point to the exact process by which it all happens. But innumerable practical examples show that the degree of confidence you've nurtured in yourself has a huge impact on physical outcomes.
Play a phrase with confidence, and your body will execute it gracefully and precisely.
But when you doubt your ability to pull that same phrase off your body loses its accuracy, rhythm and grace.
Launch yourself into each performance confidently and trust your ability to deliver.
6) Hear each note clearly before you play it
You want to imagine each note distinctly in your mind a split second before you actually play it.
The more that you have a clear and detailed picture of how you want a phrase to sound, the better the chance that it will come out that way.
And by focusing your conscious thought on the overall sound, you’re freeing your subconscious up to manage all the physical details.
Once you set a target like this, it’s as though you’re engaging an automatic guidance system.
Not everything will hit the target. But the more you’re absorbed in imagining it, the more often things will turn out as you planned. You’re less likely to make a mistake and the mistakes you do make will be less disruptive.
Also, when you concentrate on this you are forced to have a clear artistic conception of what you’re going for. If you can hear the exact sound you want ahead of time then it’s very hard to play purely mechanically – just looking to avoid mistakes.
Imagine the sound, and let the body produce it.
If you’ve done the necessary practice, it will reward your trust. And if you haven’t done the necessary practice, it still gives you the best chance you’ve got of a decent result.
7) Be decisive, and commit fully to every phrase
When you’re playing music, you don’t have the luxury of being uncertain.
Rhythm is at the heart of all great performances, so you must avoid anything that throws it off.
Hesitation is disastrous.
You need to be decisive about what you’re going to do. And then you need to commit to it one hundred percent – whether it’s right or wrong.
The wrong notes, played with great rhythm and conviction, can still sound good.
But the right notes played hesitantly and with poor rhythm will inevitably sound weak.
When you perform, you’re hopefully using skills and material that you’ve practiced intensely. In that case, the body works best if the conscious mind gives up direct control and lets the subconscious run the show.
And for the subconscious to control your playing, it must have a clear target.
When you’re uncertain, when you’re indecisive, the target isn’t clear.
In fact, your subconscious will probably think it’s been given two contradictory targets. And, in trying to do the impossible and hit both at once, chances are that it will hit neither of them.
8) Be relaxed about nerves
Most musicians get that feeling of butterflies in the stomach at some point. Some level of performance anxiety is a reality for pretty much everyone.
For some people, it’s there at pretty much every gig they play. For others, it’s only an occasional visitor.
However large it looms in your own personal world, it’s useful to know what the appropriate response is.
You don’t want to worry about it. In fact, you should welcome it.
You see, this is a perfectly natural response to a situation where there’s something at stake.
It’s a sign you’re engaged with the performance – you wouldn’t feel anything if you didn’t have a desire to play well.
The only time nerves become a problem is if you let your fear of them run the show. If you panic when they show up, then the physical effects tend to get stronger in response.
Recognize that those uncomfortable physical sensations just come from a cocktail of hormones that aren’t often present in your body. They’re not bad – just unfamiliar.
This response is actually a friend that can help you play better if you keep your mind clear.
The calmer and clearer you can keep your mind – the more you can keep it focused on the present moment and the task in hand – the more those butterflies will fade away.
Learn to love the sensations – or at least to handle them. Welcome them as evidence of your excitement (a positive emotion) rather than fear (a negative one).
9) Focus on process, not outcome
We’ve talked about staying in the moment, about accepting, about not caring too much.
The best way to do this is to focus on the process rather than the outcome.
And the practical technique you want to use is to identify one or two process goals to concentrate on when you perform. These are the "to-do lists" of players striving for excellence.
You might base some of them on the tips we’ve covered in this article:
- I will stay in the present. I will not judge or analyse what I’ve already played. I will focus only on what I’m playing right now
- I will trust my instincts and be decisive and committed
- I will play to play great, rather than to avoid mistakes
Or you might have some that are specific to your particular situation and aims for the performance:
- I will lock my focus onto the groove at all times
- I will keep my mind calm and my muscles relaxed
- I will put my full attention on the other musicians
You’ll need to experiment with a few of these and see which ones work best for YOU.
Some of this will be a matter of personal preference.
Some of it will be about recognising which areas you typically struggle with the most. Then picking process goals to address these.
You don’t want to overload your thinking, though. One or two of these is plenty.
Trust that everything else will fall into place once you commit to taking care of the single most important thing.
Which of these areas do you struggle with the most? Are any of the concepts new to you? Let me know in the comments below.
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Oh and before I go
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Im really not nervous when i play until certain people are in the crowd. These tips i will.remember.and use.for.sure. Also, not playing to avoid mistakes but stay in the groove, not hesitate and hear the next note a few milliseconds before i play it are going to stick with me. Great article!!
Glad you found it useful, Jeff. Yes, it’s amazing how just knowing certain people are out there can change things for you. Any of the tips which give you something else to focus on are your friend in that sort of situation. Trying “not to think about” who’s out there is almost impossible to succeed with. Having one specific thing to direct your focus TOWARDS, though, is very doable (and when it’s also something that helps your playing you win on both counts!).
I am an Activity Aid in a nursing home, so when I am performing solo, I am ALSO still the only staff present, requiring me to be aware of both roles at the same time. I am getting better at being able to start back into the performance after an interruption of having to stop the music and put down my guitar to help someone get safely seated after the performance begins, or to deal with a behavioural problem with a resident. Being able to let go and just pick up my guitar and be back into performance mode is essential. This article hits those points perfectly. Thank you.
So glad you found this helpful, Valerie. And you’ve certainly got a challenging set of conditions having to balance those two very different roles. Sounds like you’re doing a good job of handling things.
Good stuff. Very helpful
Glad it was helpful, Wendy.
Absolutely brillant as usual Mark
I am going to focus on the “weight” of each note as I play it. I am working on a handbell solo of The Lord’s Prayer … 25 bells and 7 chimes.
Sounds like a good idea, Jan. Interested to hear how it goes.
A great review of how to improve your practicing and performing. Very useful data for musicians who want to enjoy the practice process while preparing for a successful performance.
Glad you enjoyed it, Mari.
I have been watching the Australian Open and thinking of this. Last night I played at our piano club and didn’t die of nerves and did the piece some justice. Thanks for the thoughts. They really help in life and music
So glad it helped, Susan. Realising that you can perform ok despite nerves is such an important realisation to have. It makes everything much easier to cope with in the future when you know it’s not the end of the world to get nervous…
Thank you for the great tips. I’ll save them and reread often!
You’re welcome, Mary!
Thanks for the great tips Mark. I will definitely be working on those, in particular staying in the moment and not thinking of the outcome, keeping in the groove instead of playing to avoid mistakes and hearing the note before playIng it
So glad these were helpful, Patricia.
Mark so much of what you talked about was like you were talking only to me. The ideas and situations were dead on the things I’ve struggled with many times . Giving me a different perspective of the problems I believe will change how I practice and for sure the way I preform. Thank you.
Great stuff, Tommy. Lots of musicians struggle with these things. I know I certainly did (and still do, if I’m not careful…).
Thank you, I think all of your tips are very appropriate for me. I hope to apply them .
So glad you found them helpful, Lynette.
I have been on a journey the past 14 months. I was treated for cancer last April and May, developed a life threatening blood clot and had kidney surgery in July. When i went for a checkup in November my doctor casually mentioned that I had a fatty liver but said most Americans do and it didn’t seem like a big deal to him.
I wondered why I got cancer, clots and fatty liver and discovered that carbohydrates and sugars were the culprits.
I also discovered why I was always edgy and quick to lose my focus and temper. Hormones affected by carbs, especially insulin and cortisol (fight or flight hormone) lead to diseases such as diabetes hypertension and cancer.
Long story short, I changed my diet started intermittent fasting, regular exercise and practice deep breathing and my nervousness evaporated. My mind has become focused and sharp. I am learning classical guitar at a much more rapid pace than at any time in my fifty years of playing with fewer mistakes. Did you know that the ancient Greek scholars such as Aristotle insisted that their students fast before coming to class?
Look at images of lions lazily basking in the sun after a kill and feast. But see how alert they are when hungrily stalking their prey.
You say the mind controls our actions but our gut sends twice as many messages to the brain than the opposite. You mentioned butterflies. Does the mind control them or the gut? A study was performed at a juvenile prison: sugar and starchy foods were eliminated from the diets of violent and depressed teens. Violence was reduced by 65% and with vitamin supplements further reduced to 95%. Suicides went to zero.
Starving prisoners of war during WWII were said to have commited entire books to memory and some even became fluent in new languages in periods as short as a week. Fasting focuses the mind.
Western diets, especially processed and fast foods contain toxins from pestcides and inhumane raising of animals with growth hormones and antibiotics.
Enough of my screed. I believe that we can be better performers if our biological systems are not overburdened with insulin, cortisol and chemicals that affect ouf neural networks.
Yes, diet can be very important. Fasting, eating foods that help create a healthy gut microbiome and all sorts of other things are worth looking into (but I’m certainly not qualified to provide medical advice!)