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Part 3: Get Off To The Perfect Start

Have a system that automatically gets your mind in the right place .

Your Ideal Performance State (IPS) is more commonly known as being in “Flow” (or “The Zone”). You need to reach this state in order to play to your full potential.

It’s also an awesome experience in its own right! Here are some typical characteristics of how it feels:

  • Physically relaxed
  • Low anxiety
  • Totally in the moment
  • Enjoyment
  • Effortless
  • Self-confident
  • In control

But here’s where a lot of musicians go wrong…

They cross their fingers and hope they’ll get into Flow. Or – even worse – they try really hard to play their best.

Hope isn’t a strategy. And trying hard actually makes you less likely to get into Flow.

I’d love to tell you that I’ve got a guaranteed method to get you into Flow every time… but no such method exists. (Anyone who promises you otherwise is lying)

However, there are things you can do to give yourself a better shot at it. And the great news is that these actions will improve your performance even if you don’t get all the way into Flow.

We’ll talk about how to stay in flow in a bit. But one of the most important things you can do is to deliberately set the stage for it before you start.

You want a consistent process that sets up your perfect mental state before you play – then you just let the music come from that place.

We’re going to draw on breakthroughs from world-class sport to do that for you. But we need to clear up a common misconception first…

Make Pressure Work In Your Favour

Feeling nervous is a common barrier to getting into Flow. People think they need to be totally calm to play their best.

Actually, the Yerkes-Dodson law shows that’s not true.

Graph of the Yerkes-Dodson law showing how anxiety affects performance

If your activation level is too high then your performance suffers because you’re too nervous. That’s pretty obvious to most people.

But if you’re not activated enough physically then your performance also suffers. That’s because there’s not enough at stake to make things interesting.

It’s easy to confuse excitement and anxiety. Physically, you want to feel excited – to the extent that it feels a bit uncomfortable. You want your mind to be still and clear, though.

Understanding this puts you in a position where you can learn to manage your response. You control it, rather than have it control you.

Here’s how that works…

Develop A Pre-Performance Routine

A pre-performance routine is a specific, repeatable series of steps that you use to get yourself into your Ideal Performance State before a performance.

It’s what allows you to play your best right from the very first note. When you start off on the right foot like this, there’s a much greater chance that the rest of the performance will follow suit.

Ideally, you’ll use your pre-performance routine immediately before you start to play – it only needs to take a few seconds once you are well practised at it. But it can also be done earlier if you’re in a “tricky” situation like a jam session where you have less control over events.

There are lots of possible different pre-performance routines. However, they’re all aiming to achieve three things:

  • Directly help alleviate any symptoms of pressure
  • Consistently make the shift from “left-brain” thinking (critical) towards “right-brain” feeling (non-judging, creative)
  • Program your gameplan into your subconscious (so you will be able to execute it while still remaining in creative mode)

The pre-performance routine I teach is called Centering. It’s a 7-step process:

  1. Pick a focal point – your gaze will stay here for the rest of the process
  2. Set a clear intention for your performance
  3. Breathe mindfully
  4. Relax your muscles
  5. Find your centre
  6. Process Cue
  7. Direct the energy and go for it!
Wolle (one of my students) and I share insights and tips about how effective centering can be…

Centering (or any other pre-performance routine) is a skill you need to practice. When you first start it will take you several minutes to go through the process effectively and it will require significant effort. But you should eventually be able to get it down to 10 or 20 seconds.

The impact it has on your playing will also increase with practice (so don’t give up if it doesn’t work miracles straight away). Ultimately, you want to get to the point where the steps flow easily and automatically even when the pressure is on, and your thoughts start flying all over the place.

Once you can consistently reach your desired state of mind on demand then you also want to be able to stay there throughout a performance. That’s what we’re going to explore next…

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