How to prevent choking under pressure
The big day has arrived. You are totally prepared for it… 100%, no 1000%.
You warm up, feel great…everything sounds just exactly as you want it to sound… nothing can go wrong today.
Knock on the door “Ready? it is your turn” says the orchestra manager. And the adrenaline rush starts, but hey! That is normal, you reassure yourself.
You walk to the hall, ahem… with each step your knees feel weaker and weaker… Your mouth drier… oh dear…
No… don’t go there, stay with the music…
And you start playing. Only to realise that:
you have turned into “Tin Man”
(Thanks to Sian Beilock for the brilliant analogy)
You’ve lost your fluid movements, each breath or stroke demand such a conscious effort… your joints are so stiff you can almost hear them creak. Your muscles feel heavy and seem to have lost their elasticity.
You do the best you can under the circumstance, but… you are so self-conscious by now that it becomes impossible to focus on anything else but your internal struggle.
All you can think of is how to restore your motor functions: what was it… ’use your forearm’ … ’lower your shoulder’ … ’your wrist’ … ’your fingers’…
Your time is up: with a sigh of relief you leave the audition room. Glad it is over, but feeling defeated. You know you can play oh soooooo much better…
Playing an instrument requires complex motor skills. Those skills are best performed outside our conscious awareness, on autopilot.
Under stress, however, many people focus on the mechanics of their actions, in an attempt to control the situation.
That increased control can lead to ‘paralysis by analysis’ and make you choke, explains kinesiologist and psychologist Sian Beilock.1
Choking, according to Beilock, is not just a poor performance. It is a performance that is inferior to what you can do and have done in the past.
The good news is that such failures, writes Beilock, “are preventable results of information logjams in the brain.”1
What to do?
- Make sure you can play everything on automatic pilot (in a good way). My teacher Philippe Hirshhorn used to say: “imagine I wake you up at 3am, in your pyjamas, still half asleep, you should be able to play everything, without any hesitation.” He fortunately spared me the experience, but I got his point.
- Implement ‘Random Practice Schedule’. >> tip: How to get more consistent results from your practice sessions
- Practice under pressure: performance simulation should be part of your daily routine. Of course it’s challenging to recreate a real performance situation, but you can be creative and ‘make’ yourself nervous: recall as vividly as possible a scary performance and how it felt, or run till you get a raised heartbeat and go for it. The more you do it, the more familiar it becomes.
2. Think of and experiment with what to focus on to enhance your performance.
You can then prevent going into over-conscious mode. Any mild distraction can help.
- Focus on your breathing, breathe in for four seconds, and then out for six. Focus on your counting and the sensation of your breathing;
- Focus on your feet, on feeling grounded;
- Imagine your sound was a silver thread, keep that thread going, project it and fill the hall with it.
3. Commit to the story you want to tell.
Your fresh, authentic story, nobody’s else. By focusing on that, you keep your brain in the right mode, and don’t give in to being over-analytic. (Read here how to.)
4. Be specific.
Be specific about the musical architecture of your pieces, but allow some space for improvisation (think colour shades, characters, phrasing, articulation: that will keep your brain in the right place, plus = too busy to get worried)
Athletes use mental rehearsal: they see themselves successfully performing an action; it works for musicians too. Research shows that mental rehearsal has more or less the same success rate as real rehearsals. Picturing yourself succeeding has also a calming effect and it helps with building confidence and self-assurance.
6. Create solution strategy tools.
Put your solutions on a imaginary shelf and when in need, reach for the right solution. If you have done the thinking before, you don’t need to do it when under stress. The more possibility on that shelf, the less likely you will be surprised and choke under stress.
7. Meditate: yes, lower your eyebrows ;-)
It has been scientifically proven. Meditation can train our brain not to dwell on negative thoughts. Moreover meditation improves attention and concentration levels and it boosts the immune system, health and happiness. For the Sceptics among you, check the articles linked below.2-3-4
I look forward to hearing from you, meanwhile: have fun playing and let your own voice be heard!
Resources & links:
1) Psychologist shows why we ‘choke’ under pressure—and how to avoid it
2) The effects of meditation on music performance anxiety >> https://www.sciandmed.com/mppa/journalviewer.aspx?issue=1079&article=898
3) 20 Scientific Reasons to Start Meditating Today
4) 7 ways Meditation Can Actually Change The Brain
5) Sian Beilock: the science of choking
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