Like most classical musicians, I occasionally have some very unwelcome guests in my mind – feelings of doubt, uncertainty, or insecurity. Having some of these feelings are quite normal and in fact, there is a way they can help us grow. However, they become a serious problem if we try to either force them out by faking confidence or dwell on them too long. The longer the negative feelings and thoughts stay, the more they push confidence and reassurance out, leaving us potentially feeling helpless.
This post won’t be about centering or visualization – both essential skills for improving our best performance under pressure. This is a deeper dive that explores what strengthens the roots of true confidence. I’ll briefly summarize 3 concepts as explained by bestselling author, athlete, and coach Steve Magness in his brand new book Do Hard Things.
Embodying these ideas in the day-to-day practice of your instrument (or dance, role, etc) will develop a stronger mental foundation over the long term and help you better navigate stressful situations like auditions, but also life trials outside of the arts. Since I’m a violinist, I’ll use music as an example, but this can help empower people from all walks of life.
1) Accept what you’re capable of
A pre-requisite to achieving peak performance is to have a big overlap between our expectation and reality when faced with a challenge. The more these two things diverge, the more our brain tries to trick us out of performing to our potential. Often expectation and reality don’t agree when we imagine an event (or a piece of music) as being too hard or too easy. These impressions might lead to either playing it safe, giving up early, or being arrogant going into something and later regretting it. It’s so important for us to be honest with ourselves about what we’re truly capable of and have awareness of our strengths and weaknesses.
Give yourself credit where credit is due. When learning a new piece, instead of dreading over all the challenges coming up, say to yourself:
“Here are the skills I’m currently capable of, and here’s a list of techniques that this piece demands. I will approach learning it based on these two things and come up with effective practice strategies.”
Steve Magness wrote a similar quote in his book, but using an endurance sport as an example. Athletes who accurately analyzed their abilities and the abilities required of the task at hand performed more consistently well.
Accept and understand your abilities in the present moment, assess the situation, and use this information to set appropriate goals and navigate around a challenge. It may or may not lead to success every time, but it will bring more confidence over time.
“Confidence simply means having security in knowing that you can accomplish whatever is within your capabilities.” (p. 77)
2) Don’t reach for the ceiling. Instead, raise the floor.
How many times do you say something like “I’ll try my best” and hope for the best going into a performance? This is something so many are conditioned to aim for. One of the quickest roads to disappointment is to REACH FOR THE STARS! YAY! In reality, the “best” is a very rare occurrence, especially on stage. Most players perform somewhere within the range between their bare minimum and their best. The majority of the time, the performance will fall somewhere between those two extremes. So of course, it’s easy to get very discouraged with each performance that doesn’t quite get anywhere within vicinity of our “best” possible performance of the moment. The chance of one-upping oneself in the middle of an audition is even slimmer. Hope and luck isn’t a strategy. So what can we do instead of trying to create a magical breakthough in the moment?
A more reliable approach is to set minimum realistic expectations to stand by with every practice session. Also, it’s important to continue working on the fundamental skills of our craft. Play scales with purpose. Practice different bow strokes. Explore possibilities of dynamics and color changes on your instrument. Use the metronome. Sing. Do some harmonic analysis. By taking this approach, we will gradually raise our “bottom line” – over time, what once used to be our “best” performance becomes one of our worst. By raising the floor and not shooting high, the minimum expectation gets closer to the top, and we improve our best average. We are not lowering our expectation in order to be more confident. Rather, we set a standard based on the first concept of knowing what we are truly capable of. As a result, our expectation of ourselves and the reality come closer together – thus, leading to improved confidence.
3) Put yourself in a position to choose
Having autonomy in our preparation for a performance or audition is a powerful tool that can help us get through a difficult day or even get unstuck from a frustrating passage.
“Our level of control changes how we respond to stress…when we lack control, our stress spikes” (p. 93)
Having a choice in how we approach a challenge will build resilience when the going gets tough and we feel the negative thoughts taking over. Being able to choose which auditions to take or which repertoire to learn next gives us inner strength and ownership of the work we put in. Similarly, being able to choose between gigs gives us ability to craft a potential lifestyle or path in our music career. It removes some uncertainty that can bring about lots of anxiety
Take the guidance of a good teacher AND at the same time incorporate those lessons in your practice in such a way that will give you control of your musical development. Own the process and it will lead to more confidence and security.
I hope these concepts gave you some things to reflect upon. These are just a few of many nuggets in Do Hard Things by Steve Magness. If you’d like to read more, this book is currently on sale on Amazon.