How to Play Better (While Trying Less)

Does this sound at all familiar? You’re up on stage performing something you know you’re capable of playing well. But, tonight, it seems as though it’s not quite there.

You’re hanging on so far, but it feels as though things might fall apart at any point.

You’re not going to let this happen.

You focus harder. You TRY harder. It doesn’t help.

In fact, it’s almost as though it’s making it worse…


Fix it through more practice

When you look back later and reflect on what’s just happened, chances are that you’ll come to the conclusion that you just didn’t know it well enough.

If you can’t execute something on demand, then you just haven’t internalised the skill deeply enough.

There’s some truth in that. The deeper ​you know something, the more likely ​you can pull it off in any circumstance. No matter what the conditions or the pressure we’re under.

But consider this.

How come you could do it in practice, then?

Simply put, if you’re capable of playing something right in practice, then you know it well enough to deliver it in certain conditions.

This means that the difference is what’s going on in your mind. (Unless you typically perform in extremely challenging physical conditions that place much greater demands on you than your practice conditions do)

The physical ability is already there. You have already internalised the material enough for it to come out correctly. AS LONG AS YOUR MIND IS IN THE RIGHT STATE.

You may well find that your ability to execute something varies even within practice – sometimes you can play it, but sometimes you mess it up. That’s ok, differences in your state of mind can crop up within a practice session. The times where you get it right show that the potential is there, even if you’re not hitting it consistently.

[One caveat to note here: this may not apply if you’re looking to correct an existing bad habit rather than learn something new. In that case, you may need to build up more repetitions of the new, correct movements until this becomes the “default” way your brain chooses to do things]

If you want to deliver in performance, you now have two options

You can work on deepening your mastery of the material and get to the point where you know it so well that you can execute it reliably no matter what state your mind is in.

Or you can develop your ability to get in the right mindset so that you can reliably achieve the mindset which allows you to execute at your current level of skill.

Think about it for a bit.

One of these approaches increases your ability to execute ONE bit of material well. The other will apply to ANY material you want to perform.

I know which one I’d prioritise.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying you don’t need to have a solid mastery of your material at a physical and conceptual level.

Of course you do.

It’s just that if you only focus on that then you’ll need to work much harder. You’ll need to go much, MUCH deeper into that sort of practice than if you’ve developed your ability to be in the right mindset.

And although I’ve talked about physical mastery and mindset as two distinct approaches, they’re actually connected. They’re like two sides of the same coin in one sense. Later on we’ll come full-circle and see how they link up.

So what do you need to change about your mindset?

There are several things you can be doing (or not doing) with your mind which sabotage your performance. For example, inability to focus properly, or focusing on the wrong things can severely limit our potential.

What I want to think about here, though, is your ability to let go and just let the music happen.

You don’t want to be gritting your teeth and trying really hard to get it right.

You don’t want to be focused on being in control.

Instead, you want to relax and trust that things will take care of themselves. It’s no accident that when the great players talk about their best moments one of the words they reach for most frequently is “effortless”.

In short, you need to learn to stop worrying and just get out of your own way.

Conscious control of motor skills is self-sabotage

When you’re learning a skill for the first time you need to use conscious thought. Once you’ve gone through it enough times, though, the various physical movements needed and the order you need to do them in get coded in your subconscious as an individual chunk.

The more you perform that skill, the stronger and more permanent that chunk gets. And as you perform the skill multiple times, your brain is also refining the details of that chunk so that we don’t just do it more reliably, but more precisely and effortlessly as well.

The instructions for this chunk take up a huge amount of processing power. It’s many, many times too complex for your conscious mind to execute all the instructions at the speed required.

But once a particular skill is programmed into it, the subconscious is fully capable of co-ordinating these complex commands with lightning speed.

So continued practice does bring benefits.

The key thing here, though, is what happens if you try and control the skill consciously. When you’re in full-on conscious control mode you’re essentially deliberately regressing back to the point where you’re learning the skill for the first time.

You block off the subconscious’s ability to run things automatically using the insight gathered from thousands of repetitions and you replace it with the conscious mind that is simply incapable of performing the complex movements that music requires. Certainly not quickly enough, and while paying attention to all the other things you also need to be focusing on. This is basically what happens when people “choke”​.

Go back and read those last two paragraphs again.

Let them sink in.

How does this affect my performance?

Things aren’t usually quite as black and white as this.

You won’t usually manage to pass full control of everything over to the conscious mind.

But the more you try and control things, the more the conscious mind is getting involved with those fiddly physical movements.

And the more the conscious mind gets involved, the more it messes up the subconscious’s ability to do things right.

Remember that the conscious mind simply can’t cope with executing complex movements. When it tries to get involved it makes mistakes about what movements it thinks you need to make. Your body gets these unhelpful commands as well as the “correct” ones coming from your subconscious.

And it gets confused.

You may have developed your mastery of some material to the point where you can still execute it reliably with your mind in a sub-optimal state. If your conscious mind is getting involved, though, it’s holding you back.

Even if you’re not in a state of full-on choking, you’re falling well short of your potential

You need to learn to let go

This is very easy to say. It’s much harder to do. But if you can resist the temptation to control things consciously then you’re opening yourself up to much higher levels of performance.

This takes trust.

The reason your ability to let go tends to disappear when you perform is because you CARE about the outcome.

You don’t want to abdicate control to your subconscious because you’re afraid that things might go wrong.

This brings us back to the comment I made earlier in the article that deepening your mastery of material and improving your mindset are linked. The stronger your mastery of material is, the happier you are to trust that you’re guaranteed to be capable of delivering without the need for active control.

Mastering the material makes it much easier for you to let go.

So what’s the answer?

I started out by saying that you need to work on mindset rather than deepening technical skill for maximum progress.

But then I added that you need to deepen technical skill in order to improve mindset.

How does that work?

Well, deepening technical skill isn’t the only answer. It helps, but there are other things that help too.

Deepening your ability to focus, and working out the most useful things for you to focus on will absorb you and lessen the temptation to control things consciously.

Strengthening your self-belief in general will reduce the amount of worry you feel about loss of control.

Essentially, though, this is something you need to experiment with and experience.

Try it and see what happens.

Experiment and notice the results. How much were you actually able to let go? Did your playing come out different with this attitude?

A word of warning

For a lot of people this is really not easy. Don’t be discouraged if you find you struggle with it at first.

If you haven’t experimented with this sort of thing before then definitely try it out in a safe environment for a while. Don’t take it to a real performance until you’re comfortable with it in practice.

You’ll find it harder to let go in the first place when the stakes are higher. And, if you’re not used to letting go when you play, then you’ll probably experience very variable results at first until you become accustomed to it.

Give it a chance to settle down before you decide whether it works for you or not.

Moving forward

This can be a scary thing to do. You need to make yourself very vulnerable. You need to risk failure.

You may well find that you’re rebelling against the thought of trying this because it makes you uncomfortable. You recognise that it makes sense overall, but your mind is very good at coming up with sensible-sounding reasons why YOU don’t need to do this. Or why it won’t work for YOU.

Don’t listen to those rationalisations. Give it a go.

Do you normally manage to let go in performance? How did you get on with trying the suggestions in this article? Let me know in the comments section below.

Oh and before I go

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  • I get it ! … well nearly …. i have had the choking and wondered “what the hell” … yeh, relaxing into a number always gets better results which must help the subconscious come forward… great article.. many thanks…Jim

    • Glad you liked it, Jim.

      As you suggest, though, it’s one thing to “get it” and another to put it into practice consistently. Two big stumbling blocks that I often see people struggle with. The first is having the courage to try and let go in performance. It’s all very well thinking “I should do that” and another to have the nerve to actually stop trying to control things when the time comes.

      The second is actually being able to do it! You may find you have the intention not to control things but then can’t stop yourself. This takes practice. Unfortunately, even when people are aware they should work on this, they rarely set aside anything like enough practice time to focus on it.

  • I like it. I spend a lot of time teaching technique so that my students can play without tension. And for me performing I know that if I am properly warmed up, I feel like I am flying on this big blanket of relaxed sound.

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Rex. And, yes, learning to play without tension and with the minimal possible effort is so important.

      I also love that image you give of flying on a blanket of relaxed sound. Thanks for sharing it!

  • As a singer, i have always felt like I had to get to that point where I “let go” because otherwise, I don’t connect with the audience. It sometimes means that I use a slightly different interpretation of the music (which I have noticed popular recording artists also do) but gives me the opportunity to connect to the root of the music and better express the vibe of a performance. It also means I spend less time afterwards kicking myself for every little mistake I make, because i wasn’t trying so hard to control the music, rather, I was letting it flow through me.

    Thank you for writing this, I know a few people who would understand this better than my way of explaining it.

  • Hey Mark, another fantastic article, thoughtful and well executed.
    It reminds me of a recent talk by Pat Metheny and his reflection on his practice of journaling after the performances.
    Anyway, I wanted to say something about the common and technical understanding of the words ‘conscious’ and ‘subconscious’. Although I think I understood their usage in the context of the performance psychology perspective that you are relating here clearly. But I wonder if there is a cultural misunderstanding around these two ‘states’ that may render them as states that certain individuals decide that ‘they could never reach….’
    Maybe the use the word ‘conscious’ equals ‘habitual’?
    Of course it is possible and positive if we can be deliberate and in the flow and able to ‘consciously’ change course in a performance?

    I wonder if the phrase ‘combined awareness’ would encapsulate the overlaying of conscious and subconscious states into ‘consciousness creativity’ or something like that…
    I wonder if as improvising musicians moving towards a unified flow that includes selfless flexibility can be both the goal and the lifeline of the process for getting there?
    Thanks again for your fantastic work!

    • Hey Mastaneh. Thanks for your thoughts.

      You’re quite right that there’s potential for confusion as to exactly what I mean by the terms “conscious” and subconscious”. When I mention “conscious”, I’m thinking about where we’re taking deliberate control of something – i.e. we’re consciously directing what we do and how we do it. When I mention “subconscious” I’m thinking about things that we just let happen automatically.

      A good example might be driving a car and talking to your passenger at the same time – the driving would pretty much all be subconscious in that case. But if you then had to park in a really difficult spot then a lot of the control of the car would become very deliberate and conscious.

      I guess to a certain extent, though, it’s reflecting the fact that we’re not generally used to thinking about these things in detail. And so we don’t have very definite words to describe them that mean exactly the same to everyone.

  • Thanks Mark,
    It reinforces the info I’m getting from Kenny Warner’s ‘Effortless Mastery’ book that I’m just working through.

    A thought on the subconscious. I appreciate the idea that repetition in practice promotes mastery and embedding of the idea (or phrase, or lick) into the subconscious, but in my practicing and playing I want to make sure that I still ‘hear’ that phrase. I don’t just want to ‘plug-in’ a phrase from my subconscious.

    Currently, that’s my biggest challenge in practicing: making sure that I continue to hear the phrase. For me, when it’s working, I don’t need to worry about fingerings, hearing the phrase in my head will automatically(ie subconsciously) invoke the correct fingerings.

    • Glad you enjoyed it. And Effortless Mastery is a great book!

      You’re absolutely right that you don’t want to practice on autopilot. The vital thing is for you to identify what’s most important for you to focus on in performing (as you’ve done with really hearing the phrase). Once you know that, then the (mindful) repetition in practice is all about solidifying the other aspects of playing into the subconscious so that – when you put your attention where it needs to be – the rest just happens without you having to control it.

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