Performance and Happiness: New Research Shows Promise for Musicians

By Vitale, Christine | International Musician, August 2008 | Go to article overview

Performance and Happiness: New Research Shows Promise for Musicians


Vitale, Christine, International Musician


Would you like to be a happier and more productive performer? Here is how you can get started: Think about your most recent performance and write down three things that went really well during that performance along with a reason for each of these successes.

Chances are good that, as you become aware of some (maybe unexpected) positive aspects of your performance and how much you controlled these aspects, you may also feel more positive. And this can help you not just on an emotional level. Research detailed in the book Handbook of Positive Psychology (Oxford University Press, 2005) has found that positive emotions have a tremendous advantage over negative emotions during problem-solving tasks.

People experiencing positive emotions tend to exhibit a wider array of action-oriented thoughts than do people who experience negative emotions. In fact, negative emotions tend to narrow the ability to creatively problem-solve. Additionally, positive emotions in the short term may set you up to experience them in the long run too. For musicians this is of great importance, as post-performance thoughts often seek to find solutions for improving performance skills and post-performance mood can be gloomy.

In Pursuit of Happiness

Why else would one make the point to acknowledge what went well in performance? The answer comes from the up-and-coming field of positive psychology: Happiness! Happiness is a big word and this phenomenon has, for the longest time, been viewed as an illusion or a fad. Recently, however, with promising research on well-being and happiness pouring out of the positive psychology movement, the mainstream media along with the general population is starting to catch on.

Focusing on human strengths rather than weaknesses helps people live happier and more fulfilled lives. Theorists also agree that experiencing positive emotions and finding meaning in things we do leads to happiness; and this can actually be learned. One key appears to be an active involvement in the pursuit of happiness-the constitutional right of every American.

Musicians can use this knowledge in various ways. First, we need to get away from reviewing our performances purely from a critical angle. This is not to say we should ignore our short-comings or areas for improvement. Rather, as experts in identifying what needs to improve, we often forget to acknowledge our achievements. By learning to first reflect on what went right, we can set ourselves up for a positive emotional experience, leading to a more fruitful reflection on strategies to improve our playing. Furthermore, identifying and expressing which efforts lead to positive performance outcomes can assist a musician in improving.

Break It Down

Another approach to the post-performance evaluation process includes comparing the level of certain parts of our performance-these can be musical or technical items-to the level achieved in a preceding performance. Comparing achievements keeps us from making absolute and stand-alone self-assessments and instead is putting our accomplishments into a context of our own development and playing level. Furthermore, this approach offers the advantage of breaking a performance into smaller contributing pieces. The sum of these small aspects then makes up the basis from which we can judge the entire performance, protecting us from ruminating about just one thing that went wrong.

Many of us entered the music world because we experienced firsthand how inherently rewarding making music can be. It engages us fully, draws on our strengths, and allows us to lose self-consciousness in the moment, all of which are components associated with a phenomenon called flow (and happiness). …

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