Are You Missing Something Vital Before You Start to Play?

Do you find that you start every performance physically relaxed, completely in control and full of confidence? That the notes just come out effortlessly, exactly the way you want them to? That you’re completely focused on the music, without any worries or distractions tugging at your mind?

That’s the goal, but so few of us actually achieve it.

And it turns out that a lot of the secret is not about those first few notes, but the moments immediately BEFORE we start playing.

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Take a few moments to prepare yourself before you start

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen musicians get up on stage and just start to play straight away, without any effort to get themselves ready.

This is missing a great opportunity. There’s a window before you start where you can work with your physical and mental state to get into the ideal state to perform. But you need to remember to pause, and actually use this window.

And you need to have practiced in advance just how you’re going to use it. Essentially, you want a pre-performance routine prepared that you know you can rely on to get you ready just before you play.

As Olympic gold medal-winning cyclist, Victoria Pendleton puts it: “You have a mental warm-up strategy in place, something you go through regularly, that becomes almost automatic when you reach competition and your thoughts start flying everywhere.”

Don’t fight it – work with it

You’re not looking to make any nerves magically disappear. Trying to do this is pretty much doomed to failure and can actually be counterproductive. If you tell yourself that you should relax and be calm and it doesn’t work then this can trigger you to get even more nervous.

In any case, having a certain amount of “nerves” or excitement actually helps fuel a good performance.

You’re looking to take the edge off any excessive feeling of nervousness. And to accept and get comfortable with whatever level is left.

In order to do this, we’re going to enlist the help of mindful breathing.

At the same time we’re going to gradually but deliberately move from “left brain” thinking towards “right brain” thinking.

The left brain is associated with details, analysis and self-criticism – things which don’t help you feel comfortable in performance.

The right brain is associated with creativity and the big picture – much more helpful for you right now.

How do I do it?

There are several specific methods out there that you can use to do this. When I’m teaching this in depth, I mostly base things on an approach called centering.

Ultimately, though, everything needs to be adapted to the situation and performer rather than being seen as a rigid prescription.

There’s no absolute right and wrong.

So what I want to give you here is an understanding of the key components and a simple framework to use them in.

The important thing is that you put it into practice.

It can be hugely effective and if you get used to applying this regularly you’ll be light-years ahead of someone who knows the theory of several amazing and complex methods but who hasn’t worked to go deep into the practice of them.

Here’s the framework:

  • Think
  • Feel
  • Hear
  • Play

How do I practice it?

Start by focusing on your breathing. Just pay attention to your breath coming in and going out until you feel connected to it.

Conscious belly breaths rather than automatic chest breathing.

When you first start doing this, you may need to breathe in and out for a while until you feel ready to move to the next step. Eventually, just a few breaths may be enough.

Throughout the rest of the sequence you’re going to continue breathing in this way which will act to calm both the mind and body.

Now get any thinking that you need to do out of the way. A good start is to quickly go through some deliberate plan for how you’re going to play rather than just letting any old thoughts into your mind.

From this point you want to move away from thinking. That’s for the practice room rather than performance. You’re going to use the “feel” and “hear” steps to move towards more of a focus on experiencing than thinking.

Towards that performance mindset that you want.

There’s no magic to this.

Just spend a few seconds being aware of feeling something. It could be your hands on the instrument. Or your feet on the ground.

Just feel something.

Physical feeling acts as a useful, concrete first step away from thinking. It prepares you for the experience of focusing on hearing without overthinking it.

That’s what we’re going to do now – just hear something in your mind. It could be the sound of the first phrase you’re going to play. It could be the drumbeat that you’re going to be playing over.

Just focus on hearing it, whatever it is.

Once you’ve done that, you’re ready.

You’ve set an intention for the piece, put yourself in a performance mindset, and calmed your mind and body.

Go ahead and start to play.

How do I master this?

This sort of pre-performance routine can really help your performances.

It’s not a one-off quick fix, though.

As Victoria Pendleton says: “It’s a lifelong process, just as physical training is. It becomes a lot easier, the more you practise it.”

It gets more effective the more you practise it, too.

Make it a regular part of your practice rather than just pulling it out at the gig for the first time in ages and hoping that it will work.

Do you struggle to play your best right from the start? Let me know in the comments section below.

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  • Couldn’t agree more Mark. When you’re playing the first notes have to be played with commitment and that means being prepared, not just jumping in.

    I was interested in your comments on nerves, because, especially when playing solo on the classical guitar, I am still liable to get the dreaded two hand shake…and that leaves me unable to play because once that happens, every bum note becomes an obsession and I find it very difficult to leave that behind.

    Thoughts on a postcard please

    • Thanks for the comment, Peter. Nerves is a huge topic – there are lots of different factors and I could probably write an essay on each one. Try these three quick thoughts, though:

      i) Although it FEELS absolutely horrible when your hands shake, this is actually less of a handicap to your playing than you’d think. They’re not actually physically shaking as much as they feel and, as long as you don’t tense up too much, they’re still capable of surprisingly precise movements in this state. Don’t try and stop any shaking, but focus instead on relaxing your muscles as much as possible and not worrying about it (much easier said than done, I know!)

      ii) Our brains are constantly bombarded with much more information that we can possibly process consciously. What we’re expecting to see acts as a filter for what passes through to the conscious mind (rather than being dealt with automatically by the subconscious). If you’re watching out for mistakes then you’re much more likely to notice them – even really small ones (and then things tend to spiral). If you can, try and focus on watching out for something different. A couple of things I like are to concentrate on the tiny details of the sound I’m producing, or exactly how my fingers feel on the strings.

      iii) You don’t have enough brain power available to give your full attention to listening to the music at the same time as playing it. This means that any judgements you make in the heat of the moment about how you’re playing are fundamentally flawed. Once you accept this fact (again, easier said than done) you free yourself up not to have to worry so much about how well you think you’re playing since you can’t rely on this assessment. If you’re anything like me, you’ll often think something sounds much better when you listen back to the recording than when you were actually playing it (and of course there are a few times when it goes the other way too…)

      Does that help?

  • Mark. Oh how right you are! And this pre performance training is absolutely vital and needs to be implemented before practice sessions too. One of my first challenges is developing skill to be completely focused, and not distracted which I’m not that good at, thoughts flying around… I also completely agree nervousness is normal and has to become a positive component of performance. Everything is so good, so many thanks, it’s coming at the right time in my life.

    • Thanks for the comment, Chloe, and glad you found this useful.

      You’re absolutely right about doing this before practice sessions too. There’s an added bonus in there – you’re not only getting the impact of a more effective practice session, but you’re also improving your ability to execute your pre-performance routine at the same time.

    • Emotions can have remarkable similarities. “Nervousness” can be “Anxiety” or it can be “Excitement.” I have found the re-framing useful when I’m properly prepared but no amount of self pep-talks has been useful when I’m ill-prepared or have unresolved technical issues.

      I recently started playing again after a nearly 20-year gap, and now that I’m practising and playing just for myself (and maybe a few friends), I have little anxiety and more excitement. Being 65 helps, too 😉

  • What in the world qualifies you to propose a mindfulness-based solution to performance problems? What is your background? Where is the evidence that your methods help anyone at all?

    • Hi Justin. I wouldn’t specifically call this a mindfulness-based approach (though I think mindfulness is definitely helpful for musicians or anyone really). And it’s not meant to be a “solution” to problems – just one tool that can be helpful.

      This sort of approach is something that I’ve personally found very useful, and I’ve seen it have a really positive impact on my students too. I know several other musicians as well who use and teach similar approaches. I’m not claiming this is something I’ve run extensive scientific tests on – just offering it as something that others might like to try.

      That said, where you’ll come across pre-performance routines most frequently is in the sports world. And you’ll definitely see a lot of the top names using them. I haven’t gone deep into the original scientific literature here but there are definitely a number of them looking at the effectiveness of pre-performance routines.

    • I’m sure you didn’t mean your question to sound as angry and confrontational as it came out. It’s fine to be skeptical, but there are ways of asking questions that give the benefit of the doubt and sound courteous.

      No offered solution is of any value without the subject putting the offered solution into practice. Speaking as a life-long and dedicated musician, I can tell you that Mark’s suggestions make sense and are eminently try-able. How could learning how to focus before performing NOT help?

      Yet it’s these simple-but-not-easy strategies that I need to hear. That being the case, I probably don’t care if they are being offered by a world-famous performer, a scientifc music researcher with twenty years of data, a small-town music teacher or the man who drives the street-sweeping machine and listens to Alfred Brendel in his spare time. Cheers.

      • Thanks, David. Whenever I’ve looked into what it takes to get really good at a particular area, it’s exactly as you describe.

        The work that you need to do is surprisingly SIMPLE. There’s almost never some complex procedure to master. Or some fantastic secret that’s hidden from most people’s view.

        However, it’s far from EASY.

  • “Just ignore this first time through, everyone! The second time through is going to be awesome, once I get the mistakes out of the way!”

    The problem with performance is that at some point I have to stop practising and get to the recital hall. If there were only some way I could be picked up, dressed for the gig, on my piano stool, along with the piano, and continue playing as I’m deposited on the stage.

    Or, these days, I have to stop playing and make conversation with my friend over coffee, ready to plunge into my newly-learned piece, which suddenly seems mysteriously unfamiliar, with awkward detours over pot-holed roads and spills brought on by maliciously-placed banana peels. Did I ever actually practice this piece? And who was the guy playing it with solid technique and heartfelt emotion just a few minutes before my friend arrived?

    I look forward to working on the mental preparation routine. Your suggestion makes a lot of sense, because the problem is apparently not technical or emotional, it’s somewhere in my thinking.

    • Thanks for the comment, David.

      One of the key ways to improve the situation is to spend a bit of time doing “performance practice”. I.e. where you try and recreate those less familiar performance conditions in practice so that they gradually become more familiar. So deliberately playing a piece without any warm up immediately beforehand (or a long gap). Having someone listen to you as you practice. Etc etc.

    • Really glad that you found this useful, Peter. And, yes, it’s a slow process to get into it. But the difference it can make is profound.

  • Thank you for all the good suggestions so generously offered! I shall start practicing them today and let you know how it went.
    All the best!

  • I suffer from shaky hands, partly hereditary and definitely nerves when playing the baritone Okulele . I found the guitar too big for me and am better with this Ukulele as the chord patterns are the same as the guitar but only four string are used. I learnt to read music as an adult and always felt I could never be a musician. I’m now in my seventies and have only just realised the truth of what you advocate. It helps to mentally rehearse what one is going to do before picking up the instrument. It also helps to think of ones body and sense it from toe to head. I will try the shaky hand advice to let the hands shake as an exercise before playing. Thank you .Maxine

    • Glad you found this helpful, Maxine. I think you’re definitely on the right track with those things you’ve identified that work for you.

  • I have found playing a memorized piece can help to get my head out of the way. Any thoughts on what’s happening?

    • Can’t be sure, but one quick thought is that by playing something you already know well maybe it’s allowing you to “just play” it rather than worry about getting it exactly right, think about how to improve, etc. Then you can take some of that non-judgemental attitude into whatever you play next.

  • I play traditional Irish music and your second last sentence “just pulling it out at the gig for the first time in ages and hoping that it will work” happened to me a few months ago in front of some very good musicians. I was embarrassed but I learned a good lesson -just like you said. I won’t be doing that again.

  • Good article, should try to put this into practice before rehearsals as well, to provide the mental practice. Rehearsal is always fun, it is hard to carry the relaxed feeling we have in rehearsal to the performance.

    • Yes. The key to making this work is to have practised it ahead of the time when you NEED it. Rehearsals are a great time to do this (even better if you practice it at other times too!).

  • Thanks Mark
    I am reading this before I sleep hoping some of it will stay in my mind for tomorrow it is a lot to remember and work with at this stage so I will try and go with the flow to avoid being overwhelmed as I usualy do I really want this to work for me

  • I was a bit sceptical about all this, it sounded a bit like the hackneyed “what are your strengths and weaknesses, and where are now and where do you want to be in x years time business courses”, but you know what, I tried it before a solo and played it without a duff note and even “performed” it.
    So thank you!

    • So glad to hear it helped, Chris. And I definitely approve of taking a sceptical approach. I definitely recommend testing how things work for you (rather than just accepting blindly. Or dismissing out of hand).

  • Thanks Mark, I’m a professional performer and teacher. Very interesting and helpful. The way to enlarge your own space to prepare the daily practice end performance. How can I have more infos?

    • Glad you found it useful, Carlo. If you have a specific question you can send me an email (there’s a link called “Contact” at the bottom of every page on the website. That gives you contact options).

      For more general stuff I’d suggest signing up to get my emails.

  • Reminds me a little of the “Null-A Pause”, with perhaps elements of meditation. I guess it’s time for me to re-read “The Inner Game of Music” by Barry Green with W. Timothy Gallwey..

    • Yes, there’s lots of good stuff in The Inner Game of Music. Strangely enough, though, I find I prefer The Inner Game of Tennis.

  • I’m already sitting quietly prior to playing my piano. Using candle light and low power light plus steady quiet breathing. It helps me get beauty out of my playing and draws in healing influences

  • I just listened to an interview done by the great Marian McPartland with one of the finest jazz pianist who ever lived, Bill Evans. Both tried to downplay the negative aspects of making mistakes. and emphasize that delving into the depth of the music is more important. It is the same thing that Mark is suggesting: have a positive and focused mindset each time before practicing or performing. Another thing that really struck me, they both said that it is better to spend 24 hours on one piece than 24 pieces for 1 hour a day. It will change the way I practice. One must know the music and be aware of where the piece is going – that has to apply to jazz, classical, and contemporary music. That seems like stating the obvious, but it’s not actually – because that’s where the mental preparation comes in. Probably one of the most impressive things that came out of the interview was that these two icons in the musical world even late in their careers still continued to explore and dive deeply into the music that they were playing. They shared an immense enthusiasm for the music.
    Thanks for making much of your advice free. It’s very generous of you as a human being.

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