A surge of excitement rushes through your veins as you stride towards your instrument. Glancing into the audience, you see familiar faces: friends, family members, perhaps that special someone… This is it. There’s only one option now.

You must play well.

You want to avoid mistakes. You want your playing to be interesting. To be well-timed. To be moving. In short, you want your playing to be “good”. So what our intuition tells us to do is this: to closely monitor our performance and make sure our playing is as good as it can be.

We actually have a name for this: we call it practicing. Practice is all about putting your playing under a microscope, finding flaws, and fixing them. Of course, on stage is the wrong time to be doing this. You only get one shot and there’s no fixing mistakes. So instead, we should do the opposite: relinquish control, let the music flow, and just play!

Practice vs. Performance

This is something that most of us do all the time when we’re not on stage. When we’re at home and the stakes are low, we’re relaxed and we just play. We’re focused on the music, not focused on playing well. And isn’t that when we tend to play at our best? We’ve all had the experience of being able to play something perfectly at home, but messing it up when we want to play for a friend, show a teacher, or perform for an audience.

What’s funny is that we should be doing the exact opposite when we’re at home. In order to get better, we should spend more time practicing than playing. We should take a close look at our playing and improve it wherever possible. Instead, we often just noodle around and play.

So chances are, you have the problem that many, many musicians have: you’re practicing when you should be playing, and you’re playing when you should be practicing.

In this article we’ll look at why it’s hard to be in the moment and just play when we’re on stage. And: what can we do about it? We’ll discuss a study in India involving Velcro dart boards and motivation, jazz musicians in MRI machines, and that voice in your head that tells you why you suck.

The Villain of Playing Well

Why is it that we manage to simply play when we’re at home? And why is it so hard to do the same thing on stage?

To find our answer, let’s travel to India for a moment, where psychological researcher Dan Ariely performed an experiment. He had test subjects perform a range of tasks such as solving puzzles, throwing Velcro balls at a dart board, and playing memory games. The participants stood to win substantial amounts of money. Some participants could win 24 rupees, the equivalent of one day’s pay, while another group had the chance to score 2400 rupees, which is roughly equal to a five month salary.

So which participants do you think did best on the games? The ones who could win close to a half year’s pay or only a day’s pay? You might guess that the participants who stood to win the most money and were the most motivated showed the best performance. After all, if I offer you ten dollars for every jumping jack you do in the next ten minutes, you’ll do much better than if I offer you ten cents for every jumping jack, right?

But in fact, the five-month-salary group did far worse on every single task. As it turns out, being highly motivated only works with tasks that are purely based on effort, such as running or doing jumping jacks. In tasks that require the slightest bit of focus, overmotivation makes people do worse. Even seemingly mechanical tasks such as throwing a ball at a dart board require some concentration. And the trouble is that being overmotivated makes it very difficult to concentrate. Overmotivation makes it nearly impossible to fully focus, because part of our mind is thinking about “doing well” instead of being focussed on the task at hand.

This is the exact problem we face on stage. It’s very hard to be in the moment, focus on the music, and play because we’re also thinking about performing well. We’re thinking about how we’re doing instead of focusing on what we’re doing.

When we’re at home, we don’t care as much. This allows us to get in the zone. We get into a state of flow where we’re fully engaged in what we’re doing. Close to 100% of our mental energy is dedicated towards playing the music.

And so the Villain of Playing Well emerges: caring too much about playing well.

That Voice in Your Head

If caring about playing well is our villain, the key to playing at your best seems simple: All you need to do is stop caring about performing well.

Uh-huh.

The problem is that we do care. We care a lot. Because of this, it’s really hard to let go of control and let the music flow. Every bone in your body is telling you to do the opposite.

When we’re on stage, overmotivation’s distraction comes in the form of a loud, rude and pretty convincing inner critic. It’s like your mind turns into a hyper-focused version of Statler and Waldorf, the grumpy old muppets whose sole mission is to complain about the show they’re watching, leaving no stone unturned to find flaws and imperfections in your playing.

Except now they’re not sitting far away in the balcony, but they’re actually in your head. And because of that, they’re not only much louder, but also more convincing because it’s you who’s doing the talking. And we tend to find our own thoughts pretty persuasive.

There are a number of problems with our inner Statler and Waldorf. Aside from being distracting, it is entirely unhelpful to get hung up about mistakes. Mistakes happen. And when they do, all you can do is focus on the next note you’re going to play. Instead, we often get stuck on that split second. You’ll tell yourself things like, “Oh man, that mistake was horrible! The intro/song/show/my musical career/my life is ruined!”

But in addition to being unhelpful, these automatic thoughts are also wildly inaccurate and often pretty rude. Imagine a friend standing by the stage yelling some of your thoughts at you as “constructive criticism”. “Dude, you’re such an idiot for messing up that intro.” “Ha! A mistake, you loser!” Everyone would look at that friend and think: what a jerk.

Dealing with Your Inner Critic

Broken musicSo if caring about playing well is the villain of our story, our inner critic is the villain’s evil sidekick that does his dirty work. And this is where part of the solution lies: while only Buddhist monks can ever fully defeat the I-care-about-playing-well-villain, we can all learn to keep his evil sidekick at bay.

In fact, this quieting down of the inner critic might be one of the most important skills you can develop as a musician. Researcher Charles Limb put jazz musicians in an MRI machine, and scanned their brains while they were improvising. Amazingly, the part of the brain that self-monitors our performance appears to switch off completely during improvisation! This suggests that we can only improvise music when the inner critic is silenced or at least quieted down. We can’t think through every single note before we play. We have no choice but to let go.

So how can you quiet down that inner critic? There is no silver bullet, but there are a couple of ways to either make the voice quieter or to prevent it from distracting us.

Trust Your Preparation

The first way is to trust your preparation. Relinquishing control is easier when you are confident that things will be fine when you let go. It’s like the trust fall, where you let yourself fall backwards into the arms of a friend. Instead, you’re letting yourself fall backwards into the arms of your own preparation. It’s more difficult to do this, if you know your preparation might not be strong enough to catch you. It’s beyond this article to discuss what good preparation is, but a good rule of thumb is this: don’t practice until you get it right, practice until you can’t get it wrong. Playing a strum pattern must become as thoughtless as tying your shoelaces. Playing a riff should feel as effortless as writing your name.

Still, no matter how well you prepare, your inner critic will pop up from time to time. That’s a given. That raises the question: how do you keep thoughts from distracting you and pulling you out of the music? The trick is to not take those thoughts too seriously. This isn’t easy, because our instinct is to listen to the evil sidekick-inner critic.

Challenge Your Thinking

For some reason, we tend to assume that whatever we think is true. But most thoughts are just that: thoughts. There is no reason to assume they’re true.

In fact, most of the automatic thoughts that pop into our head are flawed in predictable ways that psychologists call cognitive distortions.

An example is “black and white thinking”, where everything short of perfection counts as failure – one mistake means the gig is ruined. The “mental filter” distortion is where we only focus on one negative detail, making you perceive the entire situation as negative. You see three people leaving your gig and conveniently forget about the dozens of people listening intently. “Magnification” is where our inner critic blows up a single negative event into a much bigger deal than it really is. You make a mistake and that voice goes “wow, that was horrible! Your reputation has been shred to bits! People will talk about this for years to come!”

These are just three of the ways that our thoughts are simply wrong. Once you become aware of these cognitive distortions, it becomes easier to accept that the distracting thoughts are there, but to not engage them and instead focus on the music.

It also helps to realize that these thoughts are simply useless on stage. There’s nothing you can do with them at that point. So you’d be best to gently bring your attention back to the music. This isn’t easy, but you can become better at it with practice (if you want to know more about this, be sure to look into mindfulness). Every single performance is an opportunity to practice dealing with your inner critic.

Creating Fake High-Stakes Situations

Fortunately, you can also practice this at home by creating “fake high stakes situations”. For example, record yourself using your phone and try to play a piece to the best of your ability in a single take. If this doesn’t raise the stakes enough for you, give yourself one shot every day, instead of unlimited tries. When you’re rehearsing with a band, pretend that you’re actually playing a gig. Walk into the rehearsal room as if you’re entering the stage and play your entire set without talking to each other in between songs. Record yourself to make it even more “stressful”.

These situations make things slightly less relaxed than usual. And that tends to wake up the inner critic who is fast asleep when the stakes are low. This gives you the chance to see what kind of thoughts tend to pop up. If you can write them down, it often becomes clear how inaccurate they are. You can also imagine a friend shouting those thoughts at you at the edge of the stage to feel how bizarre some of those remarks really are.

Realizing that these thoughts are bogus makes the next step easier: bringing your attention back to the music every time you are distracted by your inner critic. This is a matter of repetition. It’s like a muscle that gets stronger every time you use it.

Play better gigs

Performing well is a challenge for everyone. But once you know that letting go is key, you can start to practice this mindset every time you’re on stage. In my experience, the more you let go, the more of your skill and ability comes out on stage.

It’s like you’re widening the bottleneck, making it easier to pour out the full range of what you’re capable of. It might not be easy, but the more you do it, the better you’ll get at being in the zone. And the better your gigs will be.

The key to letting go when you’re performing is to practice doing so. And the more you practice, the quieter that inner critic will get!

Just Rijna is the founder of StringKick, a site focused on teaching guitarists the skills to explore their own musical taste and become better musicians. The lessons range from an illustrated guide to playing barre chords to a detailed explanation of chord names and symbols.

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