By Jon Skidmore, Psy.D. Performance Coach/Clinical Psychologist

Steve, the drum major of his high school band, was sitting on a bus en-route to a marching band competition. His excitement suddenly vanished as a disturbing thought entered his mind, “Did I wash my gloves?” In an instant he was out of his seat searching through his backpack. When he found his white gloves, he saw gray smudges on the palms and panicked. He had forgotten to wash his gloves! The image of him dropping the baton at the finale flash through his mind. He tried to avoid the impending tragedy by washing his gloves in the sink at a gas station. But, to no avail. His anxiety increased. To make a long story short, what he feared most occurred. He dropped the baton at the finale.

Like so many musicians Steve wanted to perform well. He was well prepared. But he was not aware of the danger of his “clean gloves superstition.” In an attempt to cope with the anxiety of performing Steve developed this ritual. And it let him down.

As part of the 2005 Bands of America Summer Symposium I presented, “Preparing for Peak Performance.” A great performance is a comprehensive process that has five stages. Understanding and mastering each stage is necessary to have a great performance. This article outlines these five stages.

A student in my Psychology of Music Performance class wondered why she wasn’t excited about preparing for her senior recital. As we explored her concerns the cause became evident. The conversation went something like this. I asked, “What is your goal?” She answered, “Do my senior recital.” “Why are you doing a senior recital?” “They are making me.” “How are you “being” in relationship to your recital?” “I am hating it!” she exclaimed.

No wonder she avoided practicing! No wonder she was becoming more anxious every day! With some coaching she realized that her main goal was to be a great piano teacher. What motivated her was her love of music and the joy of sharing this love with her students. She reconnected with her love of music and her foundation or attitude towards her senior recital changed. Her senior recital was a great experience.

Stage one explores the following three questions:

  • What is your goal?
  • Why are you pursuing this goal?
  • How are you committed to “being” as you pursue this goal?

Choose three words to describe how you want to “be” when you perform. Don’t choose “doing” words such as “great,” “perfect,” or “fantastic.” To have a great performance you must start by “being” how you want to be and the “doing” naturally follows. So, write down three words that describe how you are committed to being when you perform. For example: Bold, Confident and Expressive.

Stage two is all about preparation, both musical and mental.

In this stage the musician focuses on skill acquisition and mastery. Practice, Practice, Practice! Evaluate, critique, experiment, observe and adjust. Listen to feedback from teachers and coaches. But you must also prepare psychologically.

  • How are you preparing mentally?
  • Are you using visualization?
  • Is your attitude positive or negative?
  • Are you taking breaks and developing the skill to relax your body?
  • Is your practice time effective?
  • If you could put your thoughts and images about your next performance into a script for a movie would you have a triumph or a tragedy?

In stage two your focus is on what you need to do to be completely prepared to perform. It is helpful to identify what needs to be worked on and follow a schedule to complete it. When you plan your work and work your plan, your plan works!

The most important part about stage two is declaring your preparation complete. With every performance there will come a time when you don’t have time to do any more preparation. But what if there are things that still need attention? Call them complete. You are done preparing. You don’t want to walk out on stage wishing that you had two more days to prepare. Declaring your preparation complete builds your confidence in your preparation and it opens the door to getting set to perform, the next stage of preparation.

Stage three is where you get yourself mentally, physically and musically set to perform.

This is often where musicians psych themselves up or psych themselves out! I recently coached a percussionist who was standing back stage pre-performance looking at his marimba thinking, “You are not going to beat me.” He was already psyched out.

The goal of stage three is to be mentally set so you can confidently and freely walk out on stage. Practice time is over and now you attention shifts to “instrument specific demands” such as choosing the right reed. And anything else, such as uniforms, costumes, make-up, transportation, food and warming up that needs to be done so you can do what you are prepared to do. Pre-performance routines are important. They focus the mind and ready the body. Rituals have a magical quality and are potentially destructive. Just as with Steve the young drum major. Think of the twenty-four hours prior to your next performance. In a perfect world what kind of routine or schedule would you want to follow to be set for your performance?

Because of the uncertain nature of live performing the only thing you want to set in stone when it comes to pre-performance routines is the breath you take just prior to stepping out on the stage. Everything else needs to be optional. This simple but powerful breathing exercise includes the trigger words from stage one. You are back stage, ready to go on, you focus on your breathing and repeat your trigger words and then you take your first step on stage.

As a child you probably remember hearing the phrase, Ready, Set, Go! Ready is all about stage two. Set is all about stage three. And Go! Is all about stage four.

When stages one, two and three are complete, stage four is like a child stepping into a sandbox, they are free to play.

The peak performance is like the experience of play. It includes limited self awareness, a present focus of attention. There is a sense of ease or flow. You are in the groove. There are no thoughts of victory or defeat! Things are working fine. If your attention shifts off the performance you bring it right back. The performance starts with the first step on the stage and doesn’t end until you step off the stage.

Every performance must end, which brings us to stage five.

There are musicians who have bludgeoned themselves post-performance to the point of never returning to the stage. This is an unfortunate and unnecessary tragedy.

  • Can you look at and learn from your performance?
  • Do you bash yourself and the performance?

An effective post performance debriefing makes a big difference. The debriefing is simple, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What worked?
  • What didn’t work?
  • What will I do next time?

Most often the post performance debriefing is focused on what you did or didn’t do on stage. Consider exploring how you were being on stage. Were you being confident, bold and expressive? It is also important to do a debriefing on each of the five stages. What worked and didn’t work about how you approached each stage.

A violinist was disappointed with her orchestra chair audition. After debriefing each stage she realized that she had psyched herself out during stage three when she was sitting outside the conductors office listening to the other violin players audition. She decided that next time she would go to a practice room and do visualization until it was her turn to audition.

Understanding the five stages of a performance and having mastery of the essential performance skills frees a musician to step up, risk and have fun.