The mind during performance

Edited: November 15, 2017, 12:10 PM · Hi everybody,

I have been thinking about this subject sporadically for a few months now. I’m better off than when I started, but still not where I would like to be so I’d like to know what’s your own take on the subject:

-What state of mind leads to the best performances?

I’ve asked many people, read many articles and interviews, most seem to agree on a certain number of things:
-You shouldn’t think about your movements while performing, but about the music,
-You shouldn’t be judging your play, just going along with it,
-You should be involved in shaping the music, but not overthinking.

This is a good start, but still leaves a lot of question unanswered for me. You might ask why I care so much about this, and that’s because I’ve noticed in my own experience that the right state of mind can make the difference between a performance where I not only play everything perfectly from a technical standpoint, but where I also go and make absolutely beautiful music, and one that’s just meh. And I would like to learn how to consistently play the first way.

I’ve been doing some recordings of my playing today where the only thing I would tweak was my mindset and my area of focus. Some variables I’ve played with, and the results:

-Mainly thinking about sound/phrasing/imagination: focusing on what I hear in my head and letting the hands follow along produced pretty good results, but I find I don’t actually get to listen to my own playing, and this results in quite a sloppy performance.

-Not thinking about anything, just listening to the sound, and flowing along with it: this is a better option, because it is more effortless mentally than the first one, and I actually get to listen to my own sound and tweak it ‘live’ if needed. The downside is that you need to have a very clear idea of how you want the music to sound before playing. And even then, there’s always the risk of getting distracted/caught up in technique, and this technique gets mixed results, so it’s unreliable.

I then had the following idea: when we sing, we are shaping the music, but without thinking about it, instinctually. We are listening to ourselves and hearing everything, but effortlessly and without trying to control. So why not take the same state of mind as when singing, but instead of singing, playing on the violin?

I’m still experimenting with the last one, but so far it seems to be the best option.

So what does you focus your mind on while performing?

Replies (18)

November 15, 2017, 1:00 PM · After seeing the sheet music my teacher receives with all the scribbles on it before her performances (in an orchestra), I'm not so sure how much "feeling" will be possible by concert date. A concert date which is too close for all the pieces they give her. But, she has been playing for a very long time, she is good so... I'll have to ask her at my next lesson.
November 15, 2017, 2:42 PM · Perhaps the Buddhist concept of: "Being in the moment" might be the most beneficial. No judgment, not what passed or what is to come, just what is, right now letting the universe speak through you. Of course, that would require total enlightenment and that isn't easy to achieve but something to strive for.
November 15, 2017, 2:56 PM · This is really interesting, as I have been thinking about the same things as well! I find that certain days the performance is much better when everything is happening naturally and I am not really thinking about what I am playing, and also I am not "trying" to evoke a certain type of feel, rather I just let it happen.

Tha hard part is to make sure that my mind always thinks that way. I am not sure how to make it a consistent state of mind.

November 15, 2017, 3:50 PM · The best book I know of that addresses state of mind during performance is "The Inner Game of Music."
November 16, 2017, 9:37 AM · I don't know about the others, but I can only think, focus, on one thing at a time, maybe it's because I'm a male of the species. If I think about the left hand, the bow slows down. Ideally, we should think about how we want it to sound, and let the mechanical habits that we have trained take over the details. Among singers there is the proverb- (in a performance)- don't think about the mechanics of singing- just sing.
November 16, 2017, 10:33 AM · In the moment with a bit of a plan is about the best I can add. This works for me in performance, practice, and sight reading. You perform what you practice. Magic seldom happens.

Do not analyze or critique while performing because it is not possible to be a good performer and a good critic at the same time.

November 17, 2017, 3:28 AM · +1 to Mary Ellen's recommendation for "The Inner Game of Music", though I actually got more out of "The Inner Game of Tennis" - which is the original exposition of "the inner game" and I found the thinking much more clearly set out there, even though it's not got anything to do with music.

@Jim - interesting you mention the amount of scribbles on music. I find that orchestral music gets scribbled on heavily, because you know it less well and need to mark in more. My solo/study parts however are virtually unmarked by either myself or my teacher....

November 17, 2017, 6:50 AM · Bulletproof Musician has a great article on this topic: LINK

Kageyama (author of the above), in his coaching sessions, discusses his notion of a "circle of awesome" -- mentally visualize a circle on the ground where you're going to perform, and tell yourself that when you step into it, everything you do is going to be awesome. And then keep telling yourself that while you remain in that spot. It's basically a technique for framing and keeping a positive mindset for performance.

My teacher emphasizes not dwelling on your mistakes when you perform -- avoiding thinking about what you just did wrong, since it's a distraction, and moreover, can cascade and make you feel like you're presiding over a trainwreck. I find it very hard not to analyze why I made a mistake when I make one in performance, and I have to force myself not to keep totally focused mentally on what I'm doing right this instant.

November 17, 2017, 8:14 AM · Thanks for the link Lydia, I’ve already read that article.
The ‘circle of awesome’ is certainly an interesting technique!
But my problem is not so much staying positive, focused and nonjudgmental in playing as it is one of finding the ideal state of mind to perform creatively.
November 17, 2017, 8:25 AM · I just reread the article, and the concept of listening more attentively does seem very interesting, and is something I will definitely experiment with as I see how it could help.
But then this raises another question, how much should you listen to your own sound vs the sound you hear in your head?
November 17, 2017, 10:28 AM · I would say that you should pay close attention to what you're actually producing, both in practice and in performance. It's too easy to get caught up in what you have in your head.
Edited: November 17, 2017, 2:23 PM · The latter is very good advice indeed. I think too often we have some kind of unattainable ideal in our heads and then when the notes don't sound as good, we get flustered. It's not productive. You can't play better than you can play, but if you focus on what you are doing, you can play as well.
November 18, 2017, 11:16 PM · Roman,
What you are talking about is "Flow" check out and


November 19, 2017, 12:31 AM · Think a little bit ahead while singing in my head, listening to the sound I am making,the piano and watch my fingers or bow depending on what's most needed in each moment. If I think in words during a solo performance, I'm usually get into trouble.
November 20, 2017, 5:17 PM · Most of the above is what I would like to think about. Unfortunately I'm overcome with thoughts of just getting it over with
November 21, 2017, 1:20 AM · Sonia, your first link proved to be liquid gold!
It IS all about listening. The more you listen to yourself, the deeper focused you are on the sound you make, the better you play.
Music is sound after all, so it makes sense that listening is the most important thing.

A really helpful tip from that site that I now apply in practice is to take the time to ‘sound’ each note the way you really want it.

Edited: November 21, 2017, 3:06 AM · This online course from a psychologist at Julliard might be interesting:
I have not followed it yet.

Interesting comment from an interview with the greatest pianist of the second half the the 20th century, whose only known student was Martha Agerich (though he himself is little l known beyond Austria & Bavaria, and was resented in Vienna and Salzburg). "I realised when I was 16, there is something in me. Not 'I play' but 'IT plays' ['es spielt']." There again, he was a genius.

November 21, 2017, 9:21 AM · That's Noa Kageyama (the aforementioned Bulletproof Musician blogger) again. :-)

Thanks for the tip -- hadn't seen that before, and it's free.

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