Polyphony: Performance Psychology for Musicians

By Magrath, Jane | American Music Teacher, October-November 2008 | Go to article overview
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Polyphony: Performance Psychology for Musicians

Magrath, Jane, American Music Teacher

In this issue's column, we investigate issues surrounding the psychological aspects of performance and specific strategies for helping musicians play with greater confidence in themselves and trust in their training through an interview with Bill Moore, a performance psychology consultant in Norman, Oklahoma. Moore has consulted with athletes, musicians and other performers in a variety of domains throughout the United States and abroad. Currently he is teaching a highly sought-after course in performance psychology for musicians in the School of Music at the University of Oklahoma. Moore's special interest is in applied strategies for developing confidence and trust in performers at a variety of skill levels.

Jane Magrath: Why do musicians and performers, at almost every level, tend to play better in practice than they do during performance?

Bill Moore: One of the main reasons is that most people do not separate psychological practice skills from psychological performance skills--these skills are like apples and oranges. For example, three psychological practice skills that are necessary to getting better are as follows: 1) the ability to self-monitor correctness, 2) the ability to give self-instruction, and 3) the ability to analyze cause and effect with regard to mistakes. These specific mental skills are necessary to improve and refine physical skills and are reinforced during almost every practice session, but these same mental skills get in the way of performing your best.


The primary psychological goal during performance is to maintain a clear and present focus and trust what you have trained. This is very difficult to do for an extended period of time and on a regular basis. Therefore, it must be trained during practice. The first of the three cardinal mental performance skills is courage. I define courage as the ability to direct your will to overcome internal and external negative forces. Internal forces refer to fear, self-doubt, over-thinking and so on, while external forces might be others' expectations and/or environmental conditions. The second performance skill is trust, the ability to let go of conscious control over correctness (in other words, "trust what you have trained"). Ultimately this is the central performance goal. The third psychological performance skill and perhaps the one that is the least appreciated is acceptance, the ability to see things as they are without judgment as to right or wrong. This is a critical skill to performing your best, yet counter intuitive during practice since improvement and refinement by their nature connote a lack of acceptance.

Hopefully from this explanation you will understand that students must practice the psychological skills necessary for creating their best performances and that this type of practice is separate and distinct from the practice repetitions used to develop and refine their physical skills. I believe that psychological performance skills must be practiced during practice if you want them to show up during performance.

JM: Can you provide a strategy that a teacher might employ to develop one of the psychological performance skills?

BM: A great first step with almost any student in developing psychological performance skills is to have the student develop what I call a "mastery script." This involves writing down and describing the feelings of playing "great" from the beginning to end of the performance. For example, what does a great warm-up feel like? Break the performance down into the beginning, middle and end and describe in very vivid and sensory-rich language the feelings of playing great.

I think it is important for the student to have vivid and accessible memories or sensations of playing great. After all, this is where you want to go, right? This is especially important for pianists since most over-achieving, perfectionist, highly technical individuals are quite astute at vividly recalling mistakes and weaknesses.

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