Essential for Practice, Kryptonite for Performance

Self-evaluation is indispensable for making progress, but constant self-criticism can sabotage our performance on stage. I’ve struggled with this for years, and performance psychologist Dr. Noa Kageyama helps us identify and take steps toward solving this nagging problem.

We all know recording and evaluating our playing is essential to improving our skills. But the process can be demoralizing, so it’s easy to avoid. In his article “How to Record (and Listen to) Yourself Without Getting Totally Depressed,” (Part 1  Part 2) Dr. Kageyama tells us:

There are many reasons why we may be recording-averse, but I think one of the main ones is our tendency to think of recording as an evaluative tool instead of a diagnostic tool. Meaning, we listen to our recordings with a focus on whether we sound good or bad. And we come away from it with a pretty black and white assessment using a rating scale that basically ranges from “complete garbage” to “not horrible.”

Conversely, the diagnostic approach is to take judgment out of the equation (just for a moment), and instead, use the recording as a tool to help us compose a to-do list of things to work on, so we can ensure our next practice session is a productive one.

I’m often hesitant to review recordings and especially film of myself, even though I believe in the benefits. When I’m happy with the results, I breathe a sigh of relief use the recording to reassure myself. I’m not so gentle when my playing falls into the “complete garbage” territory. You may be able to relate, and this roller-coaster of emotions isn’t healthy or productive.

Detaching our self worth from any given performance is challenging, but the diagnostic mindset is an important step.

Dr. Kageyama also describes how our critical ear can cripple our performances:

One of the determinants of effective practice is our ability to self-monitor our playing. To develop a keen ear capable of catching the slightest imperfection, so we can stop, backtrack, and make it better.

So day by day, as we engage in deliberate practice and hone our self-monitoring skills, our ears become ever more finely tuned, and we become quite good at this skill. Which is great news when it comes to maximizing our progress in the practice room. Unfortunately, this skill is like kryptonite for us on stage, as it totally sabotages our ability to play freely, create spontaneous moments of awesomeness, and enjoy the experience of performing for others.

This hit home for me. While I rarely suffer from extreme stage fright, a hyper-critical internal dialogue has crippled many of my performances. When my internal critic is in overdrive, criticizing every imperfection witch makes my playing defensive and disconnected from the rest of the band. On more than one occasion, I was engaged in a flowing and spontaneous performance until I noticed the performance was being filmed. This snapped out of the zone as imagined the performance archived on YouTube for eternity. The music was stopped dead in its tracks. I’m sharing this because although many of us share these internal battles, we tend keep them to ourselves.

How do we turn off our self monitor while performing/improvising? I believe the key is deep concentration. We can train ourselves to focus on the moment of music-making by concentrating on sound, imagery, ensemble interaction, and/or connecting with with audience.

Mindfulness and meditation practice help us direct our focus and concentration. This doesn’t mean we have to lower our performance standards by accepting every sound we produce. Mindfulness helps us direct our concentration to the present and away from the constant nagging critic. (Much more on this in a future article.)

Check out Dr. Kagayama’s brilliant blog The Bulletproof Musician. Although his teaching is aimed at classical musicians preparing for auditions and competitions, it has profound value for improvisors. I purchased his course Beyond Practicing, an online version of the performance psychology class he teaches at Juilliard. I look forward to diving in the course and experiencing more.

– ST

Working on editing and layout of my forthcoming book Creativity Triggers for Musicians. Reserve a free digital copy.