Mind Matters: Thinking about thinking
What do you think about when you think about performing? Take a few minutes before reading further and make a short list. Below, I have listed some frequent responses about performance that I have heard from teachers and students:
• I am afraid I will make mistakes.
• I will feel embarrassed if my performance does not go perfectly.
• I freak out about having memory slips.
• I worry that the audience will not like my playing.
• I am concerned that my technique will fall apart in public when I get nervous.
• My friend plays better than I do.
• I do not want to disappoint my teacher and parents.
Do any of these comments sound familiar to you? No doubt you have surmised that these types of thoughts indicate worry about "what if" something goes "wrong," and how the performer will be judged. This kind of thinking points to a potential (or perceived) performance catastrophe and feelings of humiliation.
Focusing on the scary thoughts of "what if" fuels stage fright and is virtually guaranteed to raise the performer's anxiety level. Self-doubt is a master saboteur of competence, ability, self-esteem, and performance. Such thoughts typically do not lead to enjoyable performing and happy performers.
Perhaps some of you listed your thinking about performing in a different way:
• I have practiced and there is good reason to believe I will play well.
• There is no guarantee everyone will like my performance, even if I play my personal best.
• I do not need to compare myself with anyone else.
• The audience is not coming to judge me.
• I can recover from mistakes and keep going—I know the music well.
• There is no such thing as a perfect performance.
These self-affirming thoughts have the potential to raise self-esteem and result in more satisfying, less anxious performing. Performing is not only about playing the music, but also reveals thoughts about yourself which, in turn, have an impact on your comfort and competence.
In our emotional lives, both unhelpful and helpful thoughts (note: not good and bad thoughts) that accompany performing are more complex than the ideas listed above. Yet thinking about performing typically focuses upon the task of performance itself, perhaps more so than what you think about yourself and the intrinsic satisfaction gained from sharing your musical ideas. Often overlooked is the idea that all your thoughts have powerful effects on your feelings.
"I think, therefore I am" is a well-known statement by the famous French philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650). As a psychologist, I offer a variation on Descartes' powerful observation: I think, therefore I feel. Thoughts lead to feelings.
Some thoughts will raise anxiety and inhibit performance, and other thoughts will help manage anxiety and make anxiety a helpful source of energy and excitement. Bottom line: it is important to become aware of what you are thinking and feeling. An enormous amount of ego (i.e., yourself) is invested in offering your talents in public. Our thoughts and feelings are mental windows into our self-esteem.
I invite you to think about your thinking about performing. You may be very pleased to realize how you can enjoy the entire process, even the hardest and most challenging parts, as you become increasingly tuned in to your thoughts and feelings.
I would enjoy learning about your thinking about your thinking. Please share.