October 10, 2012 at 4:39 PM
Mindfulness Gives Performers an Edge
Those of us who watched the 2012 Olympics witnessed some athletes who triumphed and others who choked under the stress of performing.
What differentiates those two groups?
I've probed that question for decades from my perspective as a musician and educator.
Through my research and experience, I've come to appreciate that, for athletes and musicians alike, the primary distinction between those who excel under pressure and those who crack lies in how they prepare to perform.
As an illustration, let’s juxtapose two violinists:
Violinist 1 performs a solo and feels his heart rate accelerate and his hands start to quiver. Unnerved by the odd sensations, he fumbles a couple of passages; then, in an attempt to reclaim the relaxed groove he prizes, he imagines that he’s playing on a tropical beach, but that only distracts him further, provoking several memory slips. He exits the stage bewildered because he played flawlessly in the practice room.
Violinist 2 plays a comparable piece and experiences similar adrenaline-fueled jitters. In response, she breathes deeply, releases her shoulders, and focuses on expressing each phrase. Her hands remain cool, but her execution is secure and she projects the joy in the music. As the closing note sounds, her audience erupts in applause.
Violinist 1 underperformed because, in practice, he would play his piece over and over until it “just came out.” Problem is, such automated learning requires automated recall, which readily breaks down under stress. As his hands became unsteady, he groped for control but there weren’t any guideposts for his mind to latch onto because he ingrained his piece mindlessly.
Violinist 2 encountered parallel sensations but directed herself in tactical ways. Furthermore, when she practiced her piece, she absorbed its structure in detail, allowing her to track her place in the musical landscape. Her memory and performance skills were assured, so she could devote herself to making art.
What distinguishes mindful performers, like Violinist 2, is that they operate from a place of self-awareness and never run on autopilot. That’s not to say that they over-think. Instead, they rely on what psychologist Ellen Langer terms “soft vigilance” (The Power of Mindful Learning, p. 43-44).
In practice, they take in their material from multiple perspectives, and then they do mock performances, applying maneuvers that boost creativity and quell nervousness. On stage, their mindful habits enable them to trust in their preparation, provided that their preparation is truly thorough.
Thorough performance preparation spans three categories codified by Glenn Wilson in Psychology for Performing Artists: person, task,and situation (p. 211) and applied in my book The Musician’s Way. Here are some quick examples:
Now, let’s hear from an athlete. In a July 27 multimedia post on the New York Times website, US Olympic swimmer Dana Vollmer contrasted her approach to the butterfly stroke with that of less-accomplished swimmers:
“People pull on the water with all their might or they really kick down with their legs and they’re thinking that that is what makes you go fast. It’s much more about feeling the flows off of your body that make you go fast.”
Mindless swimmers pull “with all their might,” but Vollmer, a mindful athlete, feels herself flow through the water. She notices. She responds.
Mindful performers also stay open to discovering new things, which feeds their drive to practice. Here again is Vollmer on swimming the butterfly (on July 29 she won gold in the 100 meter competition, setting a new world record):
“I feel like I learn something new about myself and about swimming and just about life in general every time I do it.”
Vollmer epitomizes the fascination with craft that motivates athletes and musicians to work. And when they work mindfully, regardless of whether they win medals, performers go forward knowing that they're doing their best.
See my book The Musician’s Way for techniques that empower us to excel in all sorts of performance situations.
Related posts on The Musician's Way Blog are categorized Music Performance.
© 2012 Gerald Klickstein
A version of this article first appeared on the Oxford University Press Blog
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