When I’m conducting an orchestra that’s hurtling at breakneck speed, I can’t make a mistake or there will be a train wreck.
Orchestras are powerful, spontaneous, glittering sound machines. They produce extraordinary performance with relatively little preparation. In fact, many top professional orchestras rehearse on average for four rehearsals before a concert, in some situations as little as one rehearsal, and often they find themselves reading music on sight and producing excellence in the moment.
I conduct these orchestras, and time is big money for those who hire us. Every moment counts. A film orchestra records music at top form and top efficiency to make it within budget. For this reason, some of the orchestras who record a lot, such as the London Symphony Orchestra, are some of the best sight-readers in the world.
There’s an expectation in an orchestra that you won’t make a mistake. Yes, mistakes happen, but professionalism dictates that it will be rare. No fluffs, no squeaks, no surprises. Enter at the right time in the right place — always. Everything is played in flow, there’s no time to look back or think about anything other than the present moment of performance and, if anything, to anticipate what’s coming just ahead of it.
Performance in sport is similar. Mentally, athletes need to be tough, resilient, focussed, driven. Like musicians, once inside the moment of the game or the race, there’s no going back. Those that can get into the mental zone of focus and confidence will have a greater chance of reaching their potential. Those that are distracted or worried don’t have a chance.
So, if performance is so unrelenting, and there is this degree of focus on perfection and high quality in the moment, then how is it that performers can get there and trust their skills in order to be able to perform with the expected degree of quality?
There is great potential within each of us to perform, beyond where we imagine we can go, but how can we harness that potential every time? Much of our work comes down to mindset, preparation, and understanding the potential that we have in the moment of performance.
Whether your performance is a business presentation, a speech, a competition, a performance, an essay, or an interview, you can reach your highest potential by focusing on a few important things.
How we prepare, practice or train is as important as how much we train or practice. Our mental focus and strategy are critical.
The first step is to be highly engaged and interested in what we are doing because this engages our peak brain. When our minds are focused, we become consumed with the whole experience, all of the connections, taking in all of the possibilities. Every great performer puts in a ton of time, but the quality of that time is a big part of what brings our success.
Everything we do, physical or otherwise, comes from the brain. In practice, the first thing we are training is our brain. So often people get into practicing or training muscle memory and treating the brain like a sideline—and it is not. How we engage the brain, and what part of the brain we engage, is a big part of this article.
In order to be sure to train the brain, we need to devise parts of our practice to brain exercises only. Mindlessly taking on a practice strategy that repeats itself without actively engaging our full mental capacities is wasting time and taking away possibility. Your mind is the key to your success.
Every performer should dedicate part of training to the imagination, to building connections in the brain, and to building awareness in the mind.
I recently did a recording session with an orchestra. We were performing Copland’s Appalachian Spring, a beautiful work with a big part for the piano. Only after the recording session was done, the excellent pianist, Tzenka Dianova, told me that she didn’t have a piano to practice and prepare on at home because she was moving away and the piano had already been shipped. “No piano to practice on — ever?” “No,” she said. Her performance was excellent; she had prepared in other ways. Having worked with her many times before, I didn’t hear the difference in her performance or preparation.
This ability to mentally prepare is crucial. Often in my business, there are last-minute cancellations. It’s not rare for a solo violinist or pianist to get a call from their agent at midnight with a requirement to be on a 5 am plane flying somewhere to fill in for another soloist taken ill.
There are many cases of soloists learning, or relearning the music on the airplane — no instrument in sight — everything being practiced in their mind. This is what conductors do all of the time as well. We never have an orchestra to practice with until the rehearsals begin. All music sound, memory, and gestures are done in our heads. And think about Beethoven, writing his entire Symphony No. 9 while completely deaf. That is the truth of what we can do inside our brains.
Another example is the Netflix series, The Queen’s Gambit, based on the novel by Walter Tevis. In the story, an extraordinary young girl, Beth Harmon, is a prodigy who becomes a master chess player without having access to a chessboard during the beginning stages of learning the game. She goes through all of the motions in her head. She imagines it all. There is nothing aside from her mind making all of the moves, calculations, creating the patterns, making the plays.
Developing and training motor and muscle control is obviously incredibly important, and clearly controlled by the brain as well. These physical skills are what we work at day in and day out, building the foundations of many aspects of performance. But these examples share with us the power of the mind to engage our imaginations, our awareness of what steps need to be taken, and to visualize our success. Often, busy people undervalue this power to visualize for our success.
As such, our training for performance really needs to be in three parts. The first might be what we all think of when we think about training and preparation, but I believe that the mental aspects of No. 2 and No. 3 are every bit as important:
- Practical work (on physical movement, training, research, physical practicing, speech-making)
- Mental-only practice of the above physical requirements—including visualization and memory-work
- Work on inner psychological mental strength, focus, and attention work to support successful performance and create awareness in our practice
One of the most empowering aspects of modern neuroscience in my mind is the emerging understanding of neuroplasticity in the brain — the understanding that our brains can develop, grow, and change in the areas we want them to change.
With focus, our brains can create new neuropathways that connect various parts of our brain and these neuropathways can make it easier and easier for neurons to travel and make connections as we develop our habits or skills. This potential for growth—and our understanding of its potential—underlines the power we have to develop in the directions that we want to go in to bring about our success.
If we are developing new connections, building new skills, and connecting new neural pathways, part of this process comes down to the time we take in focusing on creating these new pathways. Malcolm Gladwell focuses on this discussion of time commitment in his book Outliers: The Story of Success.
“The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise.”
Malcolm quotes neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin:
“The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert — in anything… In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Of course, this doesn’t address why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others do. But no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.”
No matter what skill you are trying to develop, if you work at it with focus and train properly, you can build that skill. This statement goes against what many of us think about ourselves. We often think that either we have an innate talent, or we don’t. It’s true, we do all have genetic qualities that make us particularly suited to something. But this is not the same as a discussion about building skills. We can all build any skill. Any.
When I first started conducting, I was forced to do something I never expected to have to do — public speaking. I was not at all inclined to speak in public. I didn’t feel like I had any of the required skills — I was shy, I didn’t know a lot about music history when I started, I didn’t think I had a very good memory either. I was forced to do it though, day after day, concert after concert, and I could actually perceive these neuropathways developing in my brain. I went from memorizing fully, to being able to memorize quickly and to speak spontaneously, drawing from a part of my brain that grew to be very skilled at this one task.
You might not be the best in the world at any skill that you take up, so you need to think carefully about what skills you choose to build and to invest time in. But, no matter what skill you choose, you can develop it, you can increase it, you can improve. Put in the time, and your plastic brain will accommodate you.
Here’s just one specific provable instance that Daniel J. Levitin discusses in This is Your Brain On Music:
“Studies of violin players by Thomas Elbert have shown that the region of the brain responsible for moving the left hand — the hand that requires the most precision in violin playing — increases in size as a result of practice.”
If you are a writer, you can develop your skills just the same as musicians and athletes here. You will find that your brain can build pathways to thoughts and sentences, word usage, styles of writing, quick outlines, and structures. Your mind is capable of building the scaffolding of your writing in new unprecedented ways the more that you write. This is because your brain is building these skills and creating new pathways and connections.
Fascinating to me on this quest for neuroplasticity is how we can engage our whole mind in the process, and by that, I mean the conscious focus and work that we bring to any activity while at the same time building a connection to our subconscious. Our subconscious continues to do our work, make connections, and feed our imaginations.
Carl Jung writes in Man and His Symbols:
“When something slips out of our consciousness it does not cease to exist, any more than a car that has disappeared round a corner has vanished into thin air. It is simply out of sight. Just as we may later see the car again, so we come across thoughts that were temporarily lost to us. Thus, part of the unconscious consists of a multitude of temporarily obscured thoughts, impressions, and images that, in spite of being lost, continue to influence our conscious minds.”
For writers, musicians, artists — creators of any kind — this means creating a constantly sparking connection between the part of the brain that is actively creating connections behind the scenes (subconscious) and our intended, focused work. For performers, and this includes athletes, performing artists of all kinds, public speakers, it’s about connecting our practiced, planned, rehearsed, and studied minds to our subconscious to let go into a higher elevation of all that we are and to continue the work. Jung continues:
“This subliminal material can consist of all urges, impulses, and intentions; all perceptions and intuitions; all rational or irrational thoughts, conclusions, inductions, deductions, and premises; and all varieties of feeling. Any or all of these can take the form of partial, temporary, or constant unconsciousness. Such material has mostly become unconscious because — in a manner of speaking — there is no room for it in the conscious mind… It is, in fact, normal and necessary for us to “forget” in this fashion, in order to make room in our conscious minds for new impressions and ideas. If this did not happen, everything we experienced would remain above the threshold of consciousness and our minds would become impossibly cluttered.”
We “are” the intuition, the experience, the history, and the collective active memory of what we have been all along. We retain all of our connections, all of our memories, all of our experiences — and in the performing moment, we put everything to use. We can connect to this “well”, this infinite source when we connect our performing brains to our subconscious brains.
This is essentially how we use automaticity in our performance. We build up our work, practice again and again until certain skills become automatic. Then we let our subconscious take those skills on, and we move on to something else. In this way, if we have a method to tap into our subconscious when we need it, all of these insights, automatic skills, understood knowledge, and experiences are there for us in the performing moment to draw from spontaneously. It makes up then what we call our “talent”. Part of our talent is innate, and part of it is this collection of skills that have been automatized.
Think about The Queens Gambit again. Beth, the chess prodigy, knows all of the patterns. She already knows many or all of the possible moves. Her brain has assimilated many patterns and she remembers all of them. But she continually thinks about everything in her head while she plays. Old “known” patterns she doesn’t need to think about and instantly “sees” through her subconscious, and new thoughts and patterns she deals with in the moment. She’s present in her calculations, spontaneous, and connected to her subconscious imaginations — and she can trust these.
We can become masterful at performance when we harness our abilities to let go and to allow our automatized skills, our creative subconscious, and our present focus to fire together all at once. This is true mastery in performance.
Howard Gardner is an American developmental psychologist who is a professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard. He wrote the revolutionary book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligenchat highly influenced how we think about intelligence and education. Here he writes about how poets can build automaticity through training and then let go into the performance of writing:
“On the road to poetic maturity, young poets often set for themselves a number of poetic tasks… W. H. Auden indicates the point (and the limitation) of such exercises: “It would take an immense effort to write half a dozen rhopalic hexameters in English but it is virtually certain that the result would have no poetic merit.” Following such a rugged drill, it is often desirable to set oneself a somewhat simpler task. At such times, previously mastered skills can be drawn on automatically, and the words may flow. Thornton Wilder comments, “I believe that the practice of writing consists in more and more relegating all that schematic operation to the subconscious.”
When a swimmer or a runner works on starting positions and technique, a skater on a specific muscle strategy for a jump, a dancer on energy projection in a progression — all of these things become the mental and physical focus at a certain time and then fade away into automaticity while the mind elevates to the next task. The athlete’s goal, in performance, will be to automatically connect to all of these embedded skills, and they will do this through trust and a still, focused mind.
Similarly, a solo violinist must practice a concerto for hours, and in this time the music is relegated not only to the muscle memory in the fingers, but also simultaneously in the brain — every key, each phrase, and every part of the structure. A soloist is noting repetition, and which door to go through into new territory. When musicians, conductors, and speakers memorize, we reduce all of the details into the core structure.
Eagle vision is where we keep our focus high as if we are soaring like an eagle and looking out over a landscape. From this vantage point, we can see everything that is ahead of us, all that we just passed. We can see possibilities ahead, dangers to avoid, and we soar smoothly and consistently. Eagle vision is the place performers want to be in during the performance. When we keep our vision high, we can’t be surprised, we can’t be hijacked by something that pulls us down or causes us to fall.
It was an extraordinary teacher, Marianne Ploger, who first brought this idea to me when I was a student at the University of Michigan. She was explaining that as musicians, we can’t look back at our mistakes — we have to stay in the flow and constantly reside both in the present and the near future in order to perform at our best. If we keep our vision high, we can see what is coming, and we can be ready for anything.
The opposite of eagle vision is chicken vision, she explained. Here, when we look back and question something we just did, and question whether there was a mistake, we hurtle to the ground. We are now opening ourselves up to more mistakes because we are distracted, we’ve lost our flow, we are unharnessed. A chicken, walking on the ground, has the grass and trees in the way of its vision and falls as easy prey to foxes and predators. It has no idea where the next goal is. Its motions are jerky — not smooth and in control like the eagle’s, and is anxious because it isn’t mindful of the whole picture.
Stanford neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman calls this panoramic vision and says here that when we utilize panoramic vision:
“This enables you to… detect events in your environment on much faster time scales than you would, if you were focusing your vision very tightly. So great athletes know this, great martial artists know this, that if you really want to see things coming at you and detect all those events, you can’t afford to have your vision locked to any one location…This is actually the mechanism that you use anytime you’re moving through space, and it’s what keeps you from running into other objects. It’s what allows you to see things in your periphery. People who have high situational awareness are often… not scanning the environment by jumping their eyes from point to point, they’re bringing in the whole environment all at once, the whole gestalt.”
As a conductor I often compare this concept to a high-level downhill skier, managing a double black-diamond in full focus and speed. Like a skier — when I’m conducting something that is full of pitfalls, constantly changing metres for instance, and the orchestra is hurtling at breakneck speed — I can’t make a mistake or there will be a train wreck. Similarly, if a skier makes a mistake it can be treacherous. But how do we manage this? It has to be by being calm and fully relaxed into what we are doing — free to be spontaneous, reactive, and yet still in control. We need to see where we are going, and always have our vision on the next place. We need to take everything in and keep our perspective big.
Focus and Presence
This discussion about eagle vision and keeping a large view also specifically leads us to focus on the idea of not looking back. When we are in the flow of what we are doing we are present with the combined mental and physical action of what we are doing.
We need to do this without judgment so that we can stay completely committed to the present action of what we are doing. When we look back to evaluate what we have just done, we are essentially starting the judging process. If we start the judging process, then we open ourselves up to inner talk and this inevitably leads to loss of focus.
We must value focus and presence as the ultimate of skills as this is of incredible importance to an excellent performance. This practice, of being present and focused, without any inner chatter, no looking back, no jerky swoops (like a chicken) into and out of the scene, is something that we can, and must, practice as much as we practice our serve or our speech. This comes down to the third aspect of practice I mentioned previously, an area that we often neglect — the inner psychological mental training that we must do as performers.
Timothy Gallwey in The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance introduces the idea that we are made up of two selves: Self 1, the ego “thinker” self, and Self 2, the natural “doer” self. It is the interference of Self 1 that can distract from our ability to “perform” as the natural, prepared, capable Self 2 that we are. Self 1 needs to trust and to learn to be “non-judgmental” so that Self 2 can focus on taking action with a still and calm mind. If this relationship isn’t working, and Self 1 is doing too much inner-talking — we tense up, overthink, and get distracted in performance.
The first step, he says, is to train ourselves to observe carefully without judgment:
“It is the initial act of judgment which provokes a thinking process. First the player’s mind judges one of his shots as bad or good. If he judges it as bad, he begins thinking about what was wrong with it. Then he tells himself how to correct it. Then he tries hard, giving himself instructions as he does so. Finally he evaluates again. Obviously the mind is anything but still and the body is tight with trying.”
D. T. Suzuki describes the effects of our ego-mind in his book Zen and the Art of Archery:
“As soon as we reflect, deliberate, and conceptualize, the original unconsciousness is lost and a thought interferes. … The arrow is off the string but does not fly straight to the target, nor does the target stand where it is. Calculation, which is miscalculation, sets in….”
We come back again to that extraordinary and mysterious relationship between our conscious mind and our subconscious mind — a relationship that I am convinced holds great power in extending our capabilities and qualities personally and in performance. We need to continue to be aware of our personal stillness, creative moments, and peak opportunities to connect to our subconscious so that we can transcend the basic everyday and find moments of great personal power.
Awareness, stillness, thoughtfulness must be a present part of every practice regime that we have as we prepare for performance. Muscle training and tangible practice often get prioritized at the expense of this important side — partly because we are so unaware of its importance and so lacking in control of our minds that we don’t notice, or because we just get used to this problem in our performances and think there is no other way. There is another way.
The Positive Power of Your Audience
In order to truly play a great game, to truly enjoy and have joy in the experience of performing, no matter whether we are speaking, performing sport or music, or presenting something we are passionate about at a meeting, we need to let go and get inside the moment. We need to trust that we have skill, experience, a brain that won’t let us down. But how do we do that when we are under pressure?
In sport, we need to get inside the game and focus on the ball. In other performing arts, speeches, presentations, our “game” involves our inner focus on the art or message, but also includes the audience. Instead of thinking of our audience as a stress factor, we can use them in a completely different way — they can be the way that gets us there in the moment, residing and engaging with them.
The audience gives us the opportunity to be spontaneous and real in the moment. They can become the reason why your brain will engage and focus, and why your body will feel new energy. If you are a performing artist, athlete, or speaker, when you think of your audience ahead of the performance, think about them as sharing the experience with you and focus on your goals of impacting and utilizing the energy of the entire hall or space.
If we are public speaking or performing to an audience, we often spend our preparation on all that we need to do — we visualize our actions, memorize our notes. Sometimes we wait until we are backstage to suddenly realize “Wait, I am sharing this — engaging with that audience that’s out there!” (Sometimes, in this moment we say “Help!”)
But, instead of seeing the audience as something to be nervous about, turn it around in your mind and realize that the audience is going to be a conduit for your energy’s focus and the reason for your growth.
Often I experience a pattern where I have prepared, planned, and step out onto a stage ready to present. But the energy of sharing the message with the audience always seems to add layers. I find myself spontaneously “creating” and adding new ideas, coming up with new connections and sparks. My brain is so consumed with sharing the message, that in real-time it is sparking more intensely and deepening in the process. Anyone who speaks regularly will attest that they continue to add to their “script” as they experience this.
When you are standing in front of an audience, you have to be your best. That “have to” is the reason why we step it up — it causes us to grow, to reveal to ourselves what our best can be, and to help our neuroplastic brains to grow as the urgency and importance carve out our strongest potential.
The audience will be the reason why you forget your nerves, because you will be interacting with them. They will intensify your energy. They will engage you with theirs. There will be a synergy of your output and their response and this will engage your brain to go beyond where you thought it was capable of going. We are all capable of performing beyond, rising above where we imagine, and only in the performance itself do we experience this incredible alchemy of the mix between audience and performer.
Athletes are focused by their audiences as well. The adrenaline, the cheering, the tension, and release as mirrored by the audience all go into the feeling of the sport. Their cheering you on reminds you to dig deep and give all you have and more. Human energy. It’s an incredible, amazing, inspiring thing.
Push Yourself Out Onto the Stage, Have Trust, and Expect Great Things From Yourself in the Moment
Now our job is to push ourselves into expecting more “in the moment” and to test what we can do spontaneously when we rise up and take a chance. Here we prove to ourselves what we can really do.
When we stay only in our conscious and prepared minds, we can be completely competent and live up to everything we practiced. But if we want to go beyond, which we always can, we have to take the risk of trusting our automatized skills and subconscious to kick in something extra in performance.
We need to practice riding the line between over-preparation and daring in order to discover this. We must allow our brains to practice delivering in the moment, and only when we let Self 2 actually do its thing, do we come to discover trust and start to experience what we really can do.
If you prepare absolutely everything, you take away this chance to let go and get some air. Try instead, in everything that you do, to get so that you prepare 80% and leave 20% for in the moment (in certain sports, obviously this ratio will be more like 50/50). As you get better and better at your skills, you can move this ratio to even less in preparation, and more in the moment (70/30).
You can also use certain engagements or events to practice this skill. For instance, for a speech that is a little less “high stakes”, it’s a great idea to practice riding the edge a bit more and to see what your brain can come up with. I find, too, that these kinds of speeches usually have fewer people and enable you to read the energy of the room more, to engage more deeply with individuals, and to get more feedback. This is powerful stuff for your development. Every experience is a teachable moment whether it is focusing on inner psychological growth, your mental game, the automatized physical excellence that you have carefully prepared, or a combo of all.
You can practice connecting to your subconscious knowing that the fight or flight response in you will push you to your best when you need it. Dr. Andrew Huberman says that in order for our brains to work at the height of their capabilities we have to engage the fight or flight mechanism from our primitive selves. When we think we are in danger, the neurotransmitter norepinephrine is released, we become hyper-focused on not being eaten by a saber-toothed tiger, and we perform at our greatest ability.
He talks about the impact of focus and urgency on creating change in our brains in a fascinating discussion with Rich Roll here. And he talks about how each time we take this chance (to trust our skills), and succeed at it, that we get a release of the hormone and neurotransmitter dopamine which rewards our brain. This motivational dopamine marker rewards us each time we meet success along our path towards our personal aspirations and goals and helps us on the long tail of driving towards our goals.
Great musicians have moments of sight-reading. Great athletes are reacting and engaged in the moment. Great speeches are prepared by word, but spontaneous with timing and energy because they are reacting and responding to the audience. Our greatest moments are waiting for us.
Letting Go into the Performance
Certain skills need to be trained and practiced until they become automatic. We need to build a developing belief, trust and relationship between our conscious and subconscious. We need to build our attention and focus so that we can go beyond ourselves and reach our best.
Now we explore this idea of letting go in performance. In the end, this is one of the things that held me back the most. If you are a perfectionist, you might think that hard work is where it’s all at, and that you can never practice or prepare too much.
While this is true in learning skills, it’s not true about performance. Performance is another mystical realm all to itself. It’s not like ordinary life. There’s nothing about performance that can be felt ahead of a performance. There is no way of truly knowing how we will react and perform inside performance until we are there, in the moment, letting go into the experience itself.
My personal issue was in my focus on perfectionism. This held me back from being aware of the details and energy of the moment and taking chances. Perfectionism is a form of judgment, and in performance, it has no place. We can play all of the right notes or pull off our gymnastics balance beam routine with all of the details and precision that we planned. But there is a veil on it. There is an imaginary ceiling that we can’t get beyond. We are grounded. We don’t fly.
When we are consumed with perfectionism, and try to hang on, try to remind ourselves of all that we’ve been working on, then we lose the chance, the real chance to perform and to be really there. Performance is a free fall where you trust your skills. You have to jump. You can’t hang on to the edge.
How do we get to the place where we can free-fall into a performance? Well, first, we explore our abilities to cope in the moment by leaving certain aspects of performance to spontaneity (the 80/20 or 50/50 ratio). And we practice this by keeping our minds still, by working on being connected and focused (and we can practice this every day in mindfulness training).
Nerves and Finding Your Courage
One way to think about nerves is to think of it as tension and release. Life is so incredibly boring when it’s always the same. In anything that we experience, sports, games, movies, relationships, work-life — there are always moments of build-up in tension, and there is release. We have the build-up throughout the week — then we have the weekend. We have a big meeting to prepare for — and then we have the drink afterward. We have butterflies before the big game — often the tension sustains itself through the game which is what makes sport so exciting — and then there is a win or loss. That’s it.
There is only one reason why any of us are nervous before a big event. It doesn’t matter who we are, or what we are about to do. If we’re nervous, it’s because we’re thinking about the future.
Some of those future happenings will be out of our control, and some, due to our skills and qualities, will be easily within our control. At the moment that we are nervous though, before the performance itself, those differences are definitely out of our control. We are what we are, we know what we know, in that moment.
How do we get out of this nervousness? We go into the present.
First, we accept what and who we are. If we aren’t as ready for this moment as we’d like to be, so be it. If we are up against something bigger than we’ve been before, let’s recognize that. The greatest achievers are the ones who’ve failed the most. Be aware and recognize who you are in that moment. Now move on and get into focus.
Your best self, in performance, will come through your focus on what it is that you are passionate about doing — the reason why you are there. You want to get your mind away from the future and focus completely on being in the present. This will calm you, and draw you to be spontaneous and connected with everything you are and know.
We need a tactic to get into the present. Most of us find that once we start playing the game or performing, eventually this happens. But how can we get there before it begins?
The first step is to practice getting into the present and to train for this regularly. This is the psychological aspect of training and preparation that we all need to work on as much as our skills, but is often left unattended. Somehow we think that we need to practice our wrist shots or our scales, and we don’t think we need to practice our mindfulness and focus — but both are equally a part of performance.
First, regularly practice using your breath as a way to control your mind. Find a technique that you like, practice it often, and use it every time you are preparing to perform.
Secondly, constantly watch, listen, and practice paying attention so that you can always get to Self 2 without any distraction from Self 1. Do exercises that have the purpose specifically of practicing focus. Hit balls while practicing being focused only on the timing of the bounce, practice your skate routine while focusing your ears on the sounds of the blades on the ice, practice your speech with the purpose of noting distracting thoughts and send them away. Use your perceptions of sound, sight, feel, speaking, energy and breathing to practice different ways to stay present and in the moment.
I can attest to the fact that every single time that I conduct, I’m nervous. The tension is at its highest when I don’t know what to expect — a new orchestra, a new soloist, an audience I don’t know. Every performance has issues that will be out of my control.
But this cycle of nervousness is the beautiful part of life’s pattern of tension and release. It’s what makes the reward at the end so extraordinary and life-changing. The ultimate reward comes from the release of the concert performance or game. The elevated adrenaline and the power of performance underline again and again why I love to conduct. I’m addicted to this cycle. Tension and release. Struggle and victory. I guess the nerves just have to come along for the thrill ride.
Your Joy Is Found in the Present
The hourglass symbolizes many things — a wide-open dome shape narrowing into a space in the middle, and then opening up again — particles of sand moving slowly through this narrow passage. As a music performer, I see this hourglass in terms of time. Past and future, respectively, are the open and spacious domes on either side of the narrow opening in the middle, which is the “present”.
With a body of flowing water, when we focus its flow into a tiny space, it intensifies and speeds up. This is the potential of performance, too. It can be more intense and faster flowing in the space of performance itself.
When you look back to the past or focus your mind ahead into the future, it’s slow, disconnected, sedentary, and unengaged. When you focus your mind into the narrow passage of presence, everything is close, bouncing, connecting, firing, filled with energy. This is where our minds should be when we are performing at our peak — in the narrow, active, flowing space of being present, between the two domes of the past and future.
If you are a performer, you have a goal that you are passionate about, for which you drive your energy and desire, and that you share with others. When we love what we do and are engaged, interested and passionate about the experience — we learn and reach beyond where we think we can. Our minds remember and grow intensely, firing connections and creating new pathways and energy as they interact.
Marvel at the power of performance to change you, to move you to an edge that you didn’t know you had, to rise to something that you thought was beyond you. Build your brain and sculpt it through your focus, disciplined perseverance, and committed physical, mental, and psychological efforts.
And then — in performance — don’t look back, don’t look ahead, don’t inner talk, don’t distract. Focus and be aware, and spend your time with the joy. Suspend yourself, observe the grace of the moment, and be open to something that we don’t quite fully understand yet, but is there — the power of the subconscious and our human mind, to push us to some new realm that we can’t explain — but which performance shows us is there.