Is Your Definition of Success Condemning You to Unnecessary Worry and Doubt?

Have you ever given what you thought was a terrible performance only to come off the stage and have people telling you they thought you played brilliantly? That they really enjoyed it.

It left you confused.

That new material you’d spent ages working on didn’t come out right in your solo. Or maybe you’re thinking of that glaring mistake you made in a part that you should be able to play easily.

How could they not see how bad it was?

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Aren’t they just less well informed?

To a certain extent, yes.

They’ll generally be less experienced musicians. They may not be aware of some of the details of what’s going on in the music. They almost certainly won’t be aware of some of the specific nuances relating to your individual instrument.

But there’s more to it than that.

There are two distinct functions at play here – creating the music and experiencing the music.

The picture you see will inevitably look different depending on which side you’re coming from

You’re working hard to create the music.

You may give some of your attention over to listening to it as well. But you’ll never be able to bring your full awareness to the listening process.

And you’ll never be able to exclude the part of your awareness which is involved in creating. Please don’t even try – a great performance needs you to focus your attention on the most important thing​.

The audience are free to come at the music from a position of pure experience.

This difference alone is bound to change their perception.

Imagine that you were able to be in two places at once. You could arrange things so that you were playing the music while, simultaneously, another version of you was sat in the audience simply listening. After the gig, these two “you”s would give very different descriptions of their experiences.

Wouldn’t it be nice if the audience was right?

You could relax after the performance and simply accept and embrace the plaudits.

No need to hang onto your own concerns about what you got wrong​. About what you should have done better.

That’s not bad for a start in itself – but it can go much deeper than that. It would free you up from the need to judge your performance as it’s happening.

There’s no point in worrying about how well you’re playing if you’re going to have to change your assessment later once you hear what the audience thinks.

It would free you up altogether from any need for self-criticism or disappointment with your playing. You could play freely without any need to judge.

Is there any way the audience could be right about this?

Actually – yes.

There’s a very natural human tendency to focus on the things which have gone wrong rather than the things that have gone right.

This has been extremely successful in evolutionary terms. But it doesn’t work so well when it comes to evaluating your performance. It means that you remember a lot more of the bad bits than the good bits.

You also have a tendency to play down the importance of things that are very familiar to you.

This means that you take for granted a lot of the fundamental skills on your instrument that you’ve spent hundreds or thousands of hours developing. You forget that, while these things may seem basic to you now, they can seem miraculous to our audience.

Just like they seemed miraculous to you before you learned how to do them.

Similarly, you tend to place extra emphasis on the things that are new to you.

You place a disproportionate amount of emphasis on the latest things you’ve been working on.

Almost by definition, these little areas are where you’re least consistent and in control. This is where things are most likely to diverge from how you’d like them to be.

And when they do – you mark the whole performance down as a result.

So, not only do you tend to notice the good stuff less than the bad.

You simultaneously give less importance to the good stuff that you DO notice than to the bad stuff you notice.

This means that it’s highly likely that your own assessment of your performance is skewed way too far towards the negative.

Whose judgement is more important here, anyway?

When it’s put like that, I hope you’ll agree that the aim of each performance is to give the audience a great experience.

And yet, how often do you find yourself lost in thoughts or desires about what YOU want to happen?

About how well YOU played?

You probably judge the success of a performance by measuring YOUR experience.

Put the audience first…

Next time you perform, see what it’s like if you change your definition of success to focus purely on the audience’s experience.

What do you have to do differently? How do you have to think differently?

Try being unselfish. Shift your aim from addressing YOUR needs to serving the AUDIENCE instead.

If you can do this, you’ll find that there are some huge bonuses that will come back your way as a result.

…and reap the benefits

If you’re truly focused on delivering maximum enjoyment to the audience then you’ll find that this crowds out your ability to do other things.

You can’t dwell on past mistakes.

You can’t worry about what’s coming up.

You can’t judge how well you think you’re performing.

You have to let that all go and concentrate on what you’re doing right now to give them the best possible experience.

This is a powerful mindset to help you get into the moment and stay there.

Moving forward

We’ve seen how the audience will perceive your performance differently than you do.

And how their perception may be “right”.

If you let it, this realisation can free you up to stop thinking about yourself and thinking about the audience instead.

Having the mindset of putting the audience first will help free you from worry and self-criticism​. It can help you stay in the moment as well.

It shouldn’t stop when you finish playing either.

Take this same mindset into how you interact with people after the gig’s done. Accept any compliments gracefully even if you’re tempted to downplay things, or to point out bits that didn’t go so well.

Learn to entertain the idea that, just maybe, your judgement of how things went is flawed. That the audience may have a better view of the performance than you did.

Better still, aim to eventually reach a point where you don’t make any judgements at all while you’re playing.

Do you typically think about yourself or about the audience when you perform? Let me know in the comments below.


Oh and before I go

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  • Some really excellent points here. I really like the idea of shifting thoughts away from one’s own (self-involved) needs to those of the audience. And I remember how hard it was for me to learn to just say “thank you” to an audience member’s post-performance compliment (rather than trying to explain to them all the things that had gone wrong that they had missed).

    • Glad you liked it, Jonathan. Yes, it took me a long time too to learn just to say “thank you”. And then for a long time after that, I assumed that it was obvious – everyone else probably did it naturally and it was just me that struggled.

      It was quite a while before I realised that – simple though it is – it’s a valuable and powerful technique that’s worth passing on to others.

  • Great analysis. You truly got inside the head of a lot of Performers. It took me a long time to understand the difference between being an Entertainer vs. being a Performer. Being an Entertainer is an entirely different process and skill-set from being a Performer. An Entertainer focuses on giving the audience an experience. Being a Performer is more about your self-critical evaluation of your performance.
    The average audience member doesn’t remember what you did, they remember how you made them feel.
    Outside of Classical music and Jazz (which are both very focused on Performance being the primary source of Entertainment), the presentation of live musical Entertainment is all about Connection and not so much about Perfection. This is how some sub-par Performers in the general music market have become successful… they understand how to connect with the audience almost without regard to their execution. They emote and connect more than they are concerned with performing in perfection… which (coming from both Classical and Jazz) is still a hard reality to accept for me when playing outside of these genres.

    • Thanks for commenting, Gary. I find it helpful to remember that aiming for “perfection” is only a means to an end – it’s to help you connect with the audience better. If your execution isn’t good enough then you’re simply not going to be able to communicate what you want to. But above a certain level, things get less clear and you need to start thinking about what the trade-offs are. A slight improvement in execution at the expense of a big chunk of connection may actually make people’s experiences worse. And, as you say, a lot will depend on the different expectations that different types of audiences have.

      • You have exceptional insight, Mark. I tell other musician friends all the time, “After a certain level of ability, it is no longer about how good you are, it’s about your ability to connect and build your brand.” This is also true in performance-based genres like Classical and Jazz. Connecting and building a brand is important there as well.

    • Thanks for sharing your wonderful insight on an entertainer and a performer—so in popular music the performer best serves the entertainer and the reverse in art music

  • Two thoughts:
    1) not sure I agree with you about ‘Shift your aim from addressing YOUR needs to serving the AUDIENCE instead.’ What about putting forward the best possible performance that I can as an artist, one that satisfies me, because that’s what the audience came for.
    2) However I do agree that audiences perceive accurately how a performance went. You can tell by their comments. Whenever I hear how good my tone was, that means that something about the overall experience (ie, band as a whole) wasn’t right. That helps me to think back and re-assess.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Bob.

      I find that it’s less about ignoring your own needs completely and only thinking about the audience. Rather, it’s about checking in that whatever you feel like doing is ALSO serving the audience well.

      Absolutely, doing whatever it takes to put forward your best possible performance is definitely serving and respecting the audience. And if that involves ignoring the audience while you play so that you can focus intently on the music, then so be it. However, a totally different scenario would be if you get caught up in a few mistakes you’ve made and you phone in the rest of the performance because you’re really thinking about how you need to practice those sections later. In that case, I’d say that what you feel like doing is not serving the audience (once the performance is over, though, then spend all the time you like thinking about what you need to practice).

      Does that make sense?

  • I appreciate your valuable insights on performance. What I have just read basically reflects the experience and the feelings I had recently at a recital I gave where I played many of my arrangements of old Jazz standards on my classical guitar. After the recital I was overcritical of my performance focusing on those few awkward moments but, the public loved it. They let me know. So, I went home with a warmer feeling. I am shifting the focus from performance to audience and it is smoother. Thanks for the advice.

    • Sounds like you’re doing the right things, Christian. Great that you went home with a warmer feeling after hearing what the audience made of your performance. It’s very easy to hear their comments and STILL revert back to being self-critical (I know I’ve been guilty of that in the past).

  • You make excellent remarks here about performance which I can truly relate too. Thank you very much for sharing, I find your emails encouraging and supportive to fellow musicians.

  • When I see a colleague suffering from stage fright I tell them there is no one in the audience witha score and a notebook. One pianist I know asks me to tell her that over and over again.

    • I like that, Norris. Thanks for sharing.

      And it’s so true that there’s value in repeating these simple but important ideas over and over again. Very easy for them to slip out of our mind without us realising it.

  • Excellent article Mark, some really good insights about mindset while performing. Generally speaking I find myself trying for my best performance, and thinking less of the audience needs. This may lead to focus excessively on myself and consequently being too much overcritical, especially on technical details. I’m definitely going to try and focus on serving the audience expectations for a good overall performance.
    Thanks again for your valuable advice.

    • So glad you enjoyed it, Danilo. It’s definitely about finding a balance. Yes, you want to give your best performance. But once you get too self-critical then this usually actually makes your performance worse. I find focusing on the audience can really help in this case.

  • Thanks for your viewpoint. I hadn’t looked at things that way. I’m sure it will make playing for the audience much less intimidating and stressful if you sense they really enjoyed the performance. Most people will remember the performance and not the mistakes you make if you put your heart into it and show that you also enjoy the music.

    • That’s exactly it, Charles! In fact, I’d go so far as to say that most people will tend to remember the performance and not the mistakes pretty much regardless. Listeners are there to enjoy themselves so they tend to focus on the positive.

    • So glad you found it useful, Robert. It’s all based on things I’ve struggled with in the past. So I think it just goes to show that many musicians have similar experiences.

  • This approach makes so much sense, Mark, thank you. Although I sort of knew – theoretically at least – the points you are making, it helps enormously to have them laid out so clearly here.
    As well as thinking about the audience, I personally find it is also really helpful to think about the composer. Recently I have taken to printing out a small photo/painting of the composer and putting that on the corner of my music stand, including in live concerts, to keep things in perspective.

  • I loved this! Thank you Mark. I will forward this wonderful and thoughtful article to some of my students who have stage fright.
    What I have done that has helped me to feel relaxed on stage as a performer, and to enjoy the music deeply while performing, is to put the artistry of the music itself on the front burner. The high standards we hold both technically and musically, are all the more demanding, and yet the spirit is free, when we focus on the phrasing, the harmonies, the tone quality, the acoustics we are working with, listening, etc…all those good things we all as musicians know and treasure. Understanding that we practice our heads off and hold high standards technically, I also think that in concert, it is when we try to impress, vs be true to the art, that we become nervous. When we remain 100% true to the art itself, we also play our best.
    I think it is helpful, in the safe space of the practice room, to go for high standards technically, but then to also make deliberate mistakes. Work with them, not through them. Either practice holding one’s head high and carrying on as if nothing happened, or even creatively work with the mistake, improvising around it as a theme, to cover it up. Repeat the mistake, for symmetry’s sake. This helps us to feel more control and mastery WHEN not IF we make a mistake, in the practice room or on stage. We are human, and if we were not human, we would be robots. Guess what, even robots break down. And no robot can produce beautiful artistic work. End of story.
    I’ll never forget one concert in which a celebrity made an awful mistake. She shot another much worse and deliberately squealing one in the next bar, right at the audience. Of course, go figure, everybody laughed ! What did she do? She shrugged. The point again is that we are all humans, and I believe this celebrity was trying to break through the pressure.
    Thank you so much Mark. Again what a wonderful article, and so helpful to other people. Kuddos, and gratitude!

    • So glad you enjoyed this, Drina. And I love your comments here.

      I totally agree that putting the artistry first is really important. And I definitely recognise your observation that our tendency to want to impress can lead us to forget to be true to the art. I’ve certainly been guilty of that myself in the past!

      Thanks for forwarding the article on to others.

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