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Gerald Klickstein

Excelling Under Pressure

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.

Mindful Musicians
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:


I don’t mean to oversimplify – deep-seated personal issues can impede performers in insidious ways. But when it comes to high-stakes performance, mindfulness is indispensable. In Langer’s words, “Learning the basics in a rote, unthinking manner almost ensures mediocrity” (p. 14).

Mindful Athletes
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


From Matthew Grogan
Posted on October 10, 2012 at 7:48 PM
Great article, I think this is such an important area for violinists, and musicians and doesn't often get discussed. Stage fright, choking under pressure, or however you want to put it can be such an inhibitor to students that they give up playing, or at least playing on stage, as a result. This is a massive shame. Mindfulness has been a massive help to me in all areas of life and can certainly help my students when performing under pressure. Another aspect of mindfulness that is a useful skill is having realistic expectations of a performance, you may make mistakes, it probably wont go as well as it does at home, but this is ok and not the end of the world! The Chimp Paradox is a great book on mind management, and written by a Dr Steve Peters who was behind some of team GB's success, well worth a read - http://www.chimpparadox.co.uk/

This is a link to funkyviolins.com

From Rebecca Darnall
Posted on October 11, 2012 at 7:15 PM
This is fantastic. I don't have anything other than that to say! It's wonderful there are now so many great resources out there regarding performance, anxiety, preparation, etc.
From Gerald Klickstein
Posted on October 12, 2012 at 1:13 AM
Thanks for the supportive words, Matthew and Rebecca! It's a pleasure to share ideas with the vibrant community of artists here at v.com.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on October 12, 2012 at 10:57 AM
I really like the illustration that you open with. Unfortunately, I've been Violinist #1 too often (complete with trying to implement the ineffective relaxation advice)!
From Tom Holzman
Posted on October 12, 2012 at 5:28 PM
Great blog as always. Thank you for sharing the powerful insights. I suspect that too many of us are violinist #1 and need to get with the program.

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