Stop me if this sounds familiar.
You’ve basically got it covered in the practice room. It’s not that everything’s perfect, but you’re reasonably happy with where you are, and you can see yourself making consistent progress.
When you get up on stage to perform, though, it’s a different story.
Things which sounded inspired just a day or two before come out sounding dull. Material that you had mastered becomes shaky, or even falls apart altogether.
And the most frustrating thing is that there doesn’t seem to be any reason why this happens. So what can you do about it?
Well, there are at least 7 things which can contribute to the problem. In this article I’m going to tell you what they are and how you can tackle them.
Here's what we're going to cover:
- You're not used to playing in a performance context
- You're not comfortable with the feeling of pressure that performance can bring
- You're stuck in a practice mindset
- You resent the conditions rather than accept them
- You're trying too hard
- You care too much
- You need to strengthen your self-belief and think positively
1) You're not used to playing in a performance context
Most musicians practise in a setup that’s great for developing technical skill. But it’s very different to the conditions you’ll come across in an actual performance.
This is a big deal. One of the keys to being able to deliver consistently when it counts is to practise in conditions that are as close to performance conditions as possible.
The key to delivering when it counts is to make your practice conditions as close as possible to performance.
And yet, we take great pains to exclude some of the defining characteristics of performance from a typical practice session. Some vital things which tend to get overlooked are your ability to:
- Play everything in context [i.e. that you can cope with both the physical strain of getting through everything all in one go, and the cognitive strain of switching/remembering sections etc]
- Play everything ‘cold’ [i.e. no more warm-up than you’d typically get in a performance]
- Get everything right on the first attempt
Going down the typical practice route of breaking things down into small chunks and repeating them many times over is great as a starting point. But it’s training your ability to play things in that one specific situation.If you just stop there, then you’ve left an important step out. There’s a big gap between your practice and a typical performance – where you go through an entire set with no warm-up and with just one shot at getting things right. You’ll probably find that all sorts of problems occur in this case that simply don’t show up in practice.
Luckily, it’s pretty easy to fix this. If you don’t already include some sort of performance practice in your routine then just add it in from time to time.
You’ll need to set things up to match your specific situation. But here are a couple of suggestions (I go deeper into this if you sign up for my free email tips):
- Play through to the end, no matter what [also developing your ability to keep going if something goes wrong]
- Do this at the start of a practice session or as its own separate thing [rather than after working on other stuff which will have warmed you up]
2) You’re not comfortable with the feeling of pressure that performance can bring
When you’re in a situation that poses some sort of threat, your body reacts accordingly. Various hormones are released, and these can change things for you in three distinct areas:
- How your body functions physically
- How you think
- Your emotions
Although music performance doesn’t carry any physical threat (unless, perhaps, you’re playing with Charles Mingus) you probably still perceive it as having consequences. This will tend to trigger the “fight or flight” response.
Again, this is about the vital importance of practicing in conditions that are as close as possible to the ones you’ll perform in. In this case, while the external physical conditions may not change, your body will literally feel and move differently when the pressure is on.
If, like most people, you don’t practice in conditions that trigger this pressure reaction then it’s no surprise that things go very differently in performance.
If you don't practice under pressure then it's no surprise if things go very differently in performance.
There’s another potential problem here on top of that lack of familiarity. It’s easy to feel as though something’s “wrong” with you if you get that uncomfortable response to pressure. This is completely untrue – it’s a perfectly natural and healthy reaction. But, since it doesn’t get talked about a lot, musicians are often unaware of this.
It’s not necessarily that the change makes things better or worse – just different. It’s as if you learned to drive in a car with automatic gears and the steering wheel on the left-hand side. But then suddenly found yourself in a car with a manual shift and the steering wheel on the right-hand side.
There’s nothing wrong with the new car, but you’d find it very uncomfortable to drive until you’d had some time to get used to it. Most of us don’t spend anything like enough time getting used to the feeling of a performance situation.
3) You're stuck in a practice mindset
You might not realise that practice and performance call for completely different mindsets. This wouldn’t be a problem, if it wasn’t for the fact that musicians typically spend a lot more time practicing than they do performing.
This means that you probably spend a lot of time cultivating and reinforcing your practice mindset. And hardly any time developing your performance mindset. You may not be aware that you’re doing this, but it’s happening all the same.
While getting stuck in a practice mindset can simply be a result of spending too much time in practice mode, there’s a deeper issue that can trigger it too. If you lean towards being self-critical then you may find yourself repeatedly being pulled out of the moment by your desire to dwell on the past.
It can get to the point where the practice mindset dominates things to such an extent that you get stuck in it. You never really make the switch to a performance mindset when you hit the gig.
A typical practice mindset focuses on noticing little details in order to polish every aspect of your skills to the highest level.
A performance mindset should be more about the big picture.
A practice mindset reviews what’s just happened and looks for ways to improve it.
A performance mindset is always fixed in the present moment. No thoughts about what’s already happened – whether that’s noticing something you want to improve, or congratulating yourself on what went well.
The most important thing in any performance – the only aspect that you have the power to change – is always what’s happening RIGHT NOW.
A solid practice mindset will serve you well in developing the skills which lead to awesome performances. But, without the ability to switch to a performance mindset when it comes to the gig, you’ll never use those skills that you’ve nurtured so carefully to their full potential on the stage.
Spend at least a part of your practice time deliberately cultivating the mindset that you want in performance. Learn to make the switch to a performance mindset on demand. If you’re worried that this is taking time away from more technical practice, then remind yourself that you won’t see any results from that hard work coming through in performance unless you address your mindset.If you’re running into problems because of a tendency to be overly self-critical, then consider changing your definition of success and working on strengthening your ability to focus on the present moment.
4) You resent the conditions rather than accept them
We’re back on the subject of practising in conditions that are as close as possible to the ones you perform in. You’ve probably noticed a bit of a recurring theme here. No apologies for mentioning it again and again – it’s hugely important.
No matter how much you wish it could be otherwise, gigs happen out there in the messy real world. The conditions are never perfect like they tend to be in the practice room.
In this case, though, it’s not really about learning to deal with the physical side of things. It turns out that handling the emotional impact of challenging conditions is much more of a stumbling block for most people.
It’s how you react to any difficult conditions that can really throw you off the rails.
As soon as you start thinking that the conditions aren’t how you’d like them to be, you trigger an unhelpful response. You wish things were different.
You can start to fall into a “victim” mentality.
When you do this (whether you go just one step down the victim path or all the way to the end) you immediately compromise your ability to play well. Your focus is no longer in the present moment, and on what you need to do to play great music. It shifts instead to your dislike of the conditions.
Once that happens, the battle’s pretty much over. Even if you have all the technical resources that you need to deal with the situation, your mind has decided not to focus on doing that but to give all its attention to how “unfair” things are instead.It shouldn’t come as any surprise at that point that your level of performance plummets.
Spend some time practicing in deliberately challenging conditions. The aim here is not so much to get good at dealing with the physical demands that the conditions place on you. Rather, you’re looking to get to the point where you can accept the conditions without resentment and keep your focus purely on playing great music.If you like, you can take it even further. Develop a warrior mindset (see video below). Treat an unexpected challenge as something that’s positively desirable. Something that gives you a chance to test yourself against it and show what you’re made of.
Extra: About the warrior mindset and how to develop it
5) You're trying too hard
Playing music is a very complex skill.
Regardless of which instrument you play, you need to make really precise physical movements. And you need to string a whole series of these movements together in the right sequence, at the correct tempo.
While you do all this, your brain needs to deal with the conceptual side of things as well. Either creating improvised lines, recalling music you’ve already memorised, or reading from sheet music.
It turns out that this is way too much for your conscious mind to handle. It’s simply not capable of controlling all that at anything like a fast-enough speed to play music in real time.
The only way to make this work is not to try and control things, but just let your subconscious handle it. And this is exactly what practice is all about. You repeat a skill often enough until you can do it without having to think about it.
So, where’s the problem, then?
The issue is that performance can seem like a time where you SHOULD be in control.
If you deliberately make the extra effort that it takes to actively monitor everything you’re doing, it feels like a good thing. It feels responsible and diligent.
It feels like you’re taking that little bit of extra care that can kick your performance up a notch and give you a touch more reliability.
Unfortunately, though, the reality is that you’re throwing a spanner in the works. You’re giving work to your conscious mind that’s much better left to the subconscious.This isn’t just a waste of effort. It actively makes things worse.
It’s very simple to fix this in principle. You just need to stop trying and learn to let go in performance.
Much easier to say than to do, though.It can feel like such an unnatural concept that it’s probably going to take a fair bit of dedicated practice. Get comfortable doing it in a safe environment before you try and put it into action in a high-stakes situation.
6) You care too much
You play at your best when you focus on processes rather than outcomes. This keeps your mind locked firmly in the present moment and on the specific actions that you need to be doing right now.
When you skip ahead and think about the outcome that you want, you drag your focus out of the present moment and into the future.
Alternatively, thinking back to what you’ve already played (whether it went well or badly) takes your focus out of the present and into the past.
You start judging, hoping, or wishing things were different. You’re no longer simply concentrating on what you need to be doing right now.
The main reason this happens is because you care about the outcomes.
[This can certainly crop up in the practice room too, but it tends to be a bigger deal in performance because the stakes feel higher]
You care whether you just played those last few bars well or not.
And you care about whether you’re going to nail that particularly beautiful moment that’s coming up shortly.
This is completely understandable. Completely natural.
But it’s not helpful.
There’s one specific angle to this that tends to come up a lot. That’s the desire to avoid mistakes at all costs.
If you’re focused on doing everything you can to avoid mistakes then you invite a huge number of negative side effects into the performance as a result. And you probably have no idea that you’re doing this.It’s hugely helpful if you can come to terms with the fact that mistakes are an inevitable part of performance. And that the occasional mistake is usually a good sign rather than a bad one.
The key to great performances is to find a way to put that desire for a specific outcome to one side for a moment.
I’m not asking you to stop caring. You can always pick things up again once the performance is over and see what you need to work on to play even better next time.But in the moment of the performance itself, the key is just to accept things as they are without getting attached to whether they’re what you’d hoped for. No worrying about what other people might think either – just stay 100% focused on the processes that will produce great music.
7) You need to strengthen your self-belief and think positively
Self-belief is huge for musicians.
What you believe you’re capable of tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As Henry Ford put it,
“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.”
There are two main ways that confidence affects how well you play.
The first is that what you expect to happen usually determines what DOES happen.
If you expect things to go wrong, they’re much more likely to go wrong.
If you’re thinking “don’t mess up the next phrase” then you’re more likely to mess it up.
Just like if you’re in the middle of a game of tennis and someone shouts “don’t hit the ball in the net”, you’re more likely to hit it in the net.
What’s going on here is that your subconscious tends to deal in images rather than words. And you’re presenting it with an image of failure.
That vital word, “don’t”, doesn’t translate into an image easily. Your subconscious doesn’t necessarily get that this is something that you want to avoid.
It just picks up the image and interprets it as a target to aim for.
So when you’re worried that you’re going to fail, then you make it more likely that you WILL fail.
What you expect to happen usually determines what DOES happen. When you’re worried that you’re going to fail you make it more likely that you WILL fail.
Whatever level you’re at, chances are there’s at least one area (probably several) where building up your self-belief will significantly benefit your music.
The second impact on your playing comes from the fact that your self-belief affects how you perceive things after the event.
Your brain is constantly processing huge amounts of information from the world around you. There is far too much of this for you to be aware of it all consciously, so most of it is filtered out. It’s your mindset that determines what gets through these filters. Which specific pieces of information make it to your conscious awareness.
When you’re confident in your abilities, you tend to notice the positives in what just happened, and the imperfections aren’t so likely to register.
When you lack confidence and self-belief then you tend to notice what went wrong and you ignore all the things which were actually good.
Either way, this acts to reinforce your current state of confidence. Unless, that is, you act to break the cycle.
A lack of self-belief can be general. Or it could be specific to very particular situations. People whose confidence and abilities are rock solid in most areas may have a couple of spots where things are shaky to say the least.
Self-belief is a huge and complex area. I’m afraid it’s not one that we’re going to solve quickly here – it will take work and it will take time.
The trick is to pick one simple approach and make a start, rather than waiting until you’re sure you know how to fix things completely. This will help you avoid getting overwhelmed, and will build up momentum for more actions further down the line.A great place to begin is with resetting your filters to notice more positives. And if you want to go further, then my comprehensive course will give you in-depth steps to experience the full transformation that’s possible when you upgrade your self-belief.
We’ve covered a lot of different things here and I’ve shown you lots of different actions you can take.
I don’t want you to get overexcited and try and do all of them, though.
That’s a recipe for overwhelm. It leads to an enthusiastic start but then you tend to drop everything a few days later because it’s just too much
The way to make real progress is to concentrate on just one or two things that are the most important for YOU. Take solid action on them and put the other things to one side for now.
Once you’ve made definite progress in that first area, you can always come back and tackle some of the other suggestions here if you want.
So, before you dive straight in I want you to ask yourself two questions:
- Which of these issues seems to be my biggest problem?
- Which of the suggested actions do I feel most motivated to implement and stick with over time?
Once you know the answer to those then you should have a good idea of where to start. And if you’re not sure of an answer, then you can ask me for help in the comments.
Which of these issues is holding you back the most? Let me know in the comments section below.