The Psychological Skills of Top Performers
Discover how performing changes when you develop all five
Discover how performing changes when you develop all five
Have you ever wondered why you can sound and feel great in the practice room, but walk out on stage a few moments later, feel the adrenaline kick in, and experience a meltdown?
Or had a piece completely memorized, played it through countless times in rehearsals with no problems, and then suddenly went blank in the middle of a competition?
Or spent an hour meticulously working on a passage, only to discover the next day that it’s still just as hit or miss as the day before?
Today, I’m a performance psychologist and am on the faculty of The Juilliard School, Cleveland Institute of Music, and New World Symphony. But 25 years ago, I was a frustrated conservatory student and haunted by questions like the ones above. I knew I had some talent. And I knew all about discipline, sacrifice, and what it took to be successful.
But despite my best efforts, I struggled with inconsistency and was exasperated by how often my playing fell short of what I knew I was capable of. My hands would get cold, clammy, and tight.
I’d feel my heart pounding in my chest, my mind would start racing, and I wouldn’t be able to remember how the second line of the piece was supposed to go. And that was before I even walked out on stage!
I knew none of this was my teachers’ fault. I was lucky to have studied with many truly great teachers; a list which includes Stephen Clapp, Ronald Copes, Franco Gulli, Paul Kantor, Masao Kawasaki, Roland & Almita Vamos, and Donald Weilerstein. I could not have asked for a better or more complete musical training.
Yet, I knew something was missing – I just didn’t know what.
Then I went to Juilliard, and on a whim, signed up for a course titled “Performance Enhancement for Musicians,” taught by sport psychologist Don Greene. It sounded interesting, but I had never heard of “sport psychology” and was kind of skeptical that whatever this was could help me play double stops better in tune or avoid rushing when I got nervous, let alone become a better musician.
To my surprise, what I learned that semester changed not only how I performed, but how I felt about performing. My whole approach shifted. Even my practice habits changed dramatically. Performances were no longer fraught with such uncertainty. I was having some of the best performances of my life, and playing at a high level consistently too. It felt pretty awesome.
But more than anything, I loved the feeling of knowing that I had finally figured it out. For once in my life, I knew exactly what I had to do to perform up to my potential on stage. And as you might imagine, I was hooked. Sport psychology opened up a whole new world of skills to learn, skills that were helping me become a more compelling musician and performer, but which I had never learned.
I couldn’t believe that this wasn’t public knowledge. How could more people not know about these principles and techniques? I wanted to learn more, and after finishing my masters at Juilliard, I went to Indiana University to pursue a doctorate in psychology.
If it feels like you’re quietly struggling with nerves while everyone else seems totally fine, you’re most definitely not alone. Elite athletes have long known that performing effectively under pressure is a skill, and have been trained in specific mental skills and utilize unique practice methods that are geared towards maximizing performance under stress.
So if you’ve been frustrated with nerves and subpar performances, I’d like to help you learn these skills too.
Beyond Practicing is everything I wish I would have known 25 years ago, organized as a 5-part online home-study course that represents a step-by-step walkthrough of the key psychological skills that sport psychologists have been teaching elite athletes for years.
The course covers the essential concepts from the sport and performance psychology literature, and with the specific demands of a performing musician in mind, shows you exactly how to develop the ability to overcome nerves and the critic in your head, focus past distractions of all kinds, and play with trust and confidence when the pressure is on.
It’s very similar to the classes I teach at Juilliard – except you can proceed at your own pace and on your own schedule. If you’ve been interested in performance coaching, but found it difficult to schedule, work out the logistics, or it was too much of a financial investment, this home-study course might offer what you’re looking for.
The title of this course might be Beyond Practicing, but it’s tough to manage nerves, get into the zone, and play confidently if you don’t feel really good about your practice.
So to make sure you start off on the right foot, and develop a solid foundation on which to build, Beyond Practicing also includes Practice That Sticks – a 1-hour course on the essential research-based practice strategies that all musicians ought to have in their practice toolbox.
*And if you already own Practice That Sticks, you’re eligible for a $49 discount on Beyond Practicing (just be sure to use your existing account username or email address, and the system will apply the discount at checkout).
Confidence is widely acknowledged to be one of the most important ingredients for success. But many assume that confidence is either something you’re born with, or is largely out of our control. Successful musicians take confidence into their own hands, and you’ll learn how to do the same.
You’ll learn a 3-step process for silencing the inner critic who sabotages your confidence without having to rely on overly-cheery affirmations (“just stay positive!”) or lower your standards.
Many musicians are plagued by nerves, doubts, and fears in the hours, days, sometimes weeks before performances. And while that’s totally normal, we don’t necessarily have to be at the mercy of our body’s built-in fight-or-flight response either, and can learn to use this energy in a more positive way. Kind of like running downhill really fast.
You’ll learn how to develop a pre-performance routine, that will help you get into a more optimal headspace, and start every performance off on the right foot. After all, a great first impression can really be a big help in auditions or competitions when time is short.
I think we all know that staying focused on stage is important, but not many have been taught how to practice and strengthen it. Or what exactly it is that we should be thinking about on stage when performing, relative to what we should be thinking about when practicing.
If your thoughts start racing when you are nervous, or your mind goes blank (and not in a good way), you’ll learn how to get into that specific mental state which is more conducive to performing “in the zone.” This is one of the keys to rediscovering how to actually enjoy performing (and even auditioning) again.
A close relative of confidence, courage is probably the single most important skill when it comes to making the most of our talents and realizing our full potential – not just on-stage, but off-stage as well. The bold captivating performances (and career fulfillment) we achieve are often proportional to the amount of courage we’ve built up – and the degree to which we can trust ourselves in high-stakes situations.
Because it’s difficult to play up to our abilities if we are constantly second guessing ourselves or seeing ourselves screw up before we even get to the tricky passage coming up, you’ll learn how to systematically develop more trust in your abilities and safely push the edges of your ability.
Some mistakes are inevitable, but many of the ones you make under pressure are not. That’s because everyone has a specific “oops” reflex that tends to cause more mistakes (which then cause more mistakes, and so on). There’s a tendency to dwell on mistakes and imperfections, but that interrupts our focus and takes us out of the moment. And this increases the likelihood of our making another mistake, and then another, and so on, unless we learn how to move past these mistakes quickly.
You’ll learn a 3-part recovery ritual that will enable you to stay poised and focused in even the most difficult situations – and make sure that mistakes don’t ruin what might otherwise have been a great performance.
The course is structured around a series of video-based lessons, where you’ll learn a) the science behind each lesson’s main concepts and techniques and why they work (but not in a boring, dry, textbook-y kind of way), and b) how to develop these skills into strengths using concrete, step-by-step exercises.
Altogether, you’ll have access to 85 video presentations on the course material, which you can stream to your laptop, tablet, or smartphone for convenient learning on the go.
And if you’re worried about having to sit through long, lecture-like videos, not to worry.
The average length of each video is just over 3 1/2 minutes, with the longest video clocking in at 11 1/2 minutes. So it’ll be easy to digest each new concept in small, quick, bite-sized pieces.
And if you simply want to listen to the lessons, while you drive to work, go for a run, or give the dog a bath, audio-only tracks are available as well.
To supplement the videos, the course also includes 6 printable workbooks, with ink-saving/printer-friendly transcripts of each video, before-and-after recording exercises, and 24 “Practice Challenges” to help you apply each new concept to your daily practice.
Eh? And what are “Practice Challenges?”
Right – so, I’ve often had the experience of getting really excited about a new idea, but seeing weeks or months go by before I finally get around to taking action. Not because I’m lazy, but because I just don’t quite have the bandwidth to figure out where to begin or what exactly to do.
To make sure your inner “procrastination monkey” doesn’t get the upper hand, the 24 “Practice Challenges” in the course, will help you put the major concepts of the course into action, through step-by-step instructions, worksheets, and bonus tips.
Altogether, there are 350+ pages of performance psychology training with examples, exercises, and strategies that you can use immediately. But don’t worry – it’s not a brain dump of research findings, or abstract theory, but a structured, organized, action-based approach to help you learn how to avoid freezing up, and play more confidently when you walk on stage.
Because you’re busy and don’t have time to wade through fluff and jargon, I’ve done my best to distill decades of performance psychology research into concise and to-the-point lessons – all the information you need without the extraneous “filler.”
Although if you’re a details kind of person, you’ll find links to supplemental content and the original research studies for further skill development. =)
Over 5000 musicians have enrolled in the course to date, ranging from tenured university and conservatory professors, to professional musicians in major orchestras, to precocious 12-year olds, and adult learners coming back to music after some time away. Here’s a sampling of what they’ve had to say.
"I just wanted to share some good news; I won an audition for an orchestra last Saturday, and a lot of my preparation had to do with your course.
In the past, I think my performances were a bit ‘hit or miss’ and it was difficult to understand what in my preparation was working and what wasn’t. I used to go into a performance hoping I wouldn’t get nervous, and trying to figure out how to play well despite the stress of the situation. Interestingly, now I actually look forward to ‘getting nervous’ because it has the potential to really enhance my performance in a good way.
I had done other similar courses/coachings in the past and didn’t always get good results, so that (plus the cost of the course) was a concern. Now, however, my preparation has become much more thorough and organised, and I really make a huge commitment to mental training and incorporating it into my practise and preparation. Performing is a lot more exciting now and I’ve experienced much better results both in how I feel about performances, and also in the actual outcomes.
Anyway, thank you again so much, and I really appreciate your work with the course. It’s a huge help to many people, and I really think it gave me an edge!"
"I’ve been reading your blog for about a year, and finally bought the course two months ago. The course is well laid-out, and once I started, I immediately felt hope. Your description of what happens physically, mentally, and emotionally gave me the sense that I’m not crazy, and reinforced the hunch I’d had that my problems were mental in nature, rather than instrumental.
Most impressive about the course is the individual attention, the personalized insights and support you provided as I prepared for two auditions. After just two months of practicing some of the skills laid out in the course, I played the best I’ve ever played in an audition. I look forward to continuing on this journey and discovering my true artistry."
"Previous to doing the course, I was usually able to perform well, but auditions were a nightmare and almost never felt like they were representative of my playing. For some time I’d been trying to figure out the elements that allowed my performances to be successful, yet auditions less so.
Initially, I had some reservations about the cost of the course. However, once I realised the price was much the same as a small number of lessons with a well-established teacher, the value became obvious. This was even more apparent once I considered the amount of material being offered, and that many teachers teach primarily from their own experience of performing, and usually not in-depth research.
As much as I think musicians (including myself) like to think we’re always trying to improve, being introduced to a course like this does highlight how much most of us don’t know about performance psychology, which is clearly not a comfortable feeling. I’d spent quite a bit of time researching and investigating ways of approaching performance to increase my odds of success, and part of my initial reaction to finding this course was therefore: ‘I probably already know most of this’. While I already had an understanding of some of the topics covered, this was largely only because I’d already investigated approaches well outside of anything I’d learnt through studying music performance at university. However, some of the most important lessons from this course were things I’d never heard of, nor considered before.
I am confident that this course would have something to offer anyone wanting to improve their standard of performance, even (and maybe especially) for those already performing at a high level. Additionally, I have found many of the concepts that this course presents to be invaluable for my teaching.
I have experienced several significant changes from doing the course, but perhaps the most important change is that my ‘minimum’ standard in performance has improved significantly. I feel I can pick up the cello in pretty much any situation and almost always perform in a way that is representative of my best playing.
I would absolutely recommend this course. Musicians spend a huge amount of time learning the craft of their instruments and repertoire, but often don’t have strategies beyond ‘performing a lot’ to cope with the demands of performance. At any level, it makes sense for us to understand ourselves as much as possible to be able to communicate our vision of the music in performance."
What if I can’t figure out how to apply a concept to my particular situation? Or have a question about something that isn’t directly addressed in the course?
I want to make sure you have all the resources you need, to have more consistently positive experiences on-stage. So, for those times when you need a bit of extra guidance or support, the Everything Edition includes access to a private Q&A forum, where I’ll be happy to answer anything you’d like to ask.
Have an audition coming up, still kind of in a negative headspace from how the last one went, and not sure how to break out of it? Just ask. Wondering what the optimal success/failure rate is when you’re practicing sight reading? What to do in the warmup room while waiting to play? How to resist the urge to rush and play too fast under pressure? Fire away. And if the question is of a more confidential nature, you can email me directly.
Whether it’s a long day of practicing, teaching, or back-to-back rehearsals, musicians put just as much stress on muscles, joints, and tendons as many athletes do – just in less immediately obvious ways.
Over time, you can develop muscle imbalances and asymmetries, that not only prevent you from playing with greater ease and freedom, but can lead to an increased risk of injury as well.
So I asked fellow Juilliard faculty member and flutist-turned-yoga educator Nicole Newman to create a series of videos, that will walk you through 60+ minutes of the most essential and useful yoga stretches and positions for musicians, to help you loosen up those parts of your body that are feeling tight and creaky!
Sometimes practicing can get a little stale. And our playing can get a little stagnant too. At times like this, finding ways to inject a little shot of creativity, novelty, and variability into our daily routine that nudges us ever so slightly out of our comfort, can make a world of difference.
So I asked jazz violinist and educator (and former childhood Suzuki buddy) Christian Howes to create a series of lessons that will guide you through the process of developing some essential improvisation skills. And in this 10-video, 80+ minute guided instruction series, you’ll learn free improvisation skills that will help you become more comfortable taking risks, and playing more freely and spontaneously. And maybe even add a smidgen more fun to your daily music-making too.
Everything you’ve seen so far is included in the Everything Edition of Beyond Practicing (that’s right – like the bagel). But there’s also a Live Edition, which includes additional support and guidance to help ensure this is a course you’ll actually finish. Check them out below to see if they’re a good fit for you.
Whenever I’m taking a course, a part of me always wishes that instead of going through the material and figuring out what I need to do, the teacher could just listen to me talk about my problem for 5 minutes and then tell me exactly what to do.
That’s not usually how things work, of course. But then again, scheduling a full-length coaching session can be unnecessary, if you’d simply like to get a bit of direction and set a few goals.
So, to make sure you have the sort of “here’s what to do next” guidance that I’m always craving in online courses, the Live Edition includes virtual “office hours” where once a week, I’ll be available for questions or a quick 10-min consultation via video chat right inside the course.
So maybe you’re just getting started, and would like some input on which exact lesson would be most useful for you at this moment? Drop in, and I’ll tell you exactly where to begin.
Or perhaps you’ve been feeling a little directionless, and would like to do some weekly goal setting and check-ins to get motivated again? Let’s do it!
You’ll have 3 months of access to weekly office hours to help you start off on the right foot and get specific recommendations on next actions when you need it.
To make sure you have regular opportunities to practice the skills you’re learning, you will also be able to participate in the live online 4-week Performance Psych Essentials practice and performance “bootcamps” that run several times a year – at no additional cost (normally $199).
During these workshop intensives, we’ll meet for weekly 90-min sessions on key concepts from Beyond Practicing, and work on them live, together, as a group. And then, more importantly, you’ll put what you’ve learned to the test during the week. You’ll record before/after videos, spend a few minutes every day working on a specific strategy, and then share your recordings with the cohort to get feedback from the group.
It can often be really difficult to create performance practice opportunities, so this is a way to get more tiny doses of “performance practice” in the context of a supportive group of thoughtful musicians across all ages and levels. Everyone totally freaks out about the recording at first, but by the end, it’s sooo worth it. 😁
"I’ve been a gigging and performing pianist and vocal coach for about a dozen years. About 3 years ago I developed a very serious case of performance anxiety. Overwhelming nerves at the prospect of playing in front of people, even for simple music that I’ve performed many times before. I became OCD during a performance – needing to check my music every 5 seconds to make sure it was in order. Feeling like I couldn’t breath. Sweaty hands. Tunnel vision. Absolute panic. Shaking like a leaf.
After deciding that I wouldn’t quit the music world and instead seek help, I came across your website. I read your articles for many months while thinking about taking your online course. I had never taken an online course before and wasn’t sure how I would respond. Would I follow through? Would I like doing it on my own? Would it end up being a waste of money and untouched in my email?
The performance anxiety wasn’t getting better on its own, and frankly, therapy is much more expensive than the investment of Beyond Practicing. So I decided to commit and really go for it.
First lesson on Energy Regulation and the Centering exercise single-handedly saved my performing career. I practiced it diligently and started playing better than ever before. Using the Centering technique to target my most challenging areas, I was so delighted to absolutely nail those spots in performance. While my nerves didn’t go away, they became much more manageable. And I was playing so much more consistently.
Beyond that first lesson, I discovered a real passion and interest for how the brain and body respond under pressure. You’ve culled through all the current research and pulled the most useful and important information and made it user friendly. Practical exercises, engaging videos, useful information.
I would absolutely recommend your course to anyone who wants to improve practice skills, increase focus, and develop more consistency while under pressure."
"Your piece on practicing immediately rang true for me. Why had all these years passed, with thousands of hours of practice, and I was still, more than I like to admit, hit or miss in performance?
I immediately started deliberate practice. Full and total concentration on everything I was doing during my practice. The results were almost instant. I performed the first violin part for Shostakovitch piano quintet a week later. Many of my colleagues approached me afterwards and said I sounded like a completely different performer. They asked what I was doing.
A month later I played a recital. Some of the violin guys I had been at Juilliard with who seem to be able to play everything, anytime, really well, and a world renowned violinist were there. They were all back stage before the performance to say hi. This used to be enough to reduce me to jelly, and my performance would suffer because of it.
But with my new way of practicing, I walked on completely confident, did not feel an ounce of fear, and performed the best I have ever performed in my life. I knew EXACTLY what I was doing, what I wanted, and it all happened the way I planned. I walked off stage for the first time in my life absolutely satisfied with what I had done, and made no excuses. Again, many of the persons I had been close friends with, but always slightly envious of their comfort and ease on the violin, came to me after the performance and asked me what I was doing differently, adding that they had never heard me perform so well.
Thanks Dr. Kageyama, I wish you had been at Juilliard when I was there!"
It would be disingenuous of me to promise you a principal position in the NY Phil, a bazillion-dollar recording deal, a sneaker endorsement contract, and a total zen-like state in 24 hours or less – because that’s not really guarantee-able. But if you are tired of seeing nerves sabotage your performances and are willing to do a little work, I can promise that your experience of performing will change. Your practice habits will change. And you’ll wonder how you got along all those years without these skills.
I want you to be happy with the course though, and feel like it’s a good fit for you. So if you’re on the fence, or super intrigued but worried that it’s not going to be right for you, I’d like to help make this decision as risk-free as possible, by offering a simple, straightforward 100% money-back guarantee. If by some chance you find within the first 60 days that Beyond Practicing isn’t right for you, I’ll be happy to process a full refund. No hassle, no hoops to jump through, or forms to fill out. Just send me an email.
The short answer is yes – but with one qualifier.
I’ve had singers in my Juilliard classes, and heard from a few who have worked through the course, and the feedback I’ve gotten is that for the most part, the concepts, skills, and exercises in Beyond Practicing are as relevant and effective with singers as they are with instrumentalists.
However, the language in the course does tend to be pretty instrumentalist-centric, so there is sometimes a little “translation” that’s needed to apply the skills and concepts to vocal practice/performance. When this is the case, just send me an email or post a question in the Q&A Forum, and I’ll be happy to help you figure out how to adapt an exercise to fit your particular situation.
In certain circumstances, perhaps. But I’ve found that students often have so much on their plates already, that a self-study course can add to a sense of overwhelm, and a more interactive experience can be more effective.
So I’ve recently begun teaching a live, guided, 4-week, music school-oriented version of this course via Zoom, where in a weekly 60-min class, we go through the most essential strategies and skills in manageable bite-sized pieces as a group. If you’re interested in a workshop like this for students at your school, email me and we can chat about what this might look like.
Generally, they are on Wednesdays at noon Eastern – but can vary a bit of course, depending on the week.
I want you to be really happy with the course. So if you discover this isn’t the right course for you, just forward me a copy of your receipt within the first 60 days, and I’ll process a refund straightaway.
The entire course is online, with all PDF’s, videos, and audio available instantly. Once you complete the checkout process, you’ll receive your username/password via email and be able to log in and access all materials immediately.
Whether you opt for the 6-month payment plan or single payment option, you’ll have lifetime access to the Beyond Practicing course materials so there’s no need to feel rushed and you can proceed at your own pace.
"I have performed since I was a child, and am now in my 60’s, and have always had severe stage fright leading up to a performance, which sometimes resulted in performances being less than my best.
Since working in “Beyond Practicing,” my stage fright is gone, my performances are solid, and I am playing with much more feeling (and enjoying it!). It’s almost like magic!
Can’t recommend this course enough!"
"I believe that your course and response to my question (about what to think about when you perform) really did help me to give successful auditions. For several months prior to the auditions, I would become so nervous before each performance, particularly if there was anything at stake. However, I am so much more confident now! I can let my mind be free and just hear the sound of my instrument.
Additionally, and not to be dramatic, I gave the greatest performance of my life since our last exchange! I was definitely in the “flow” state, as you mentioned in your course. It was truly a phenomenal moment that I don’t think I will ever forget."
"'Madison' has always been a confident, intelligent, and creative kid. She has both musicality and technicality in her playing, however I noticed that nerves were getting in her way starting from 11 years old.
She would get tiny memory slips which would cause nervousness, embarrassment, and result in a negative association with performance. It became difficult to sleep the night before, and she would experience cold hands, heart palpitations, etc. Sometimes her playing was clean and sometimes not…it was totally unpredictable, and made me nervous watching her.
I was frustrated, thinking what good is it when she puts so much time honing her craft when she is unable to perform her best on the stage!!
I’ve always had an interest in psychology, so when we found out about your course, Madison was concerned that you may go over things she already knows, as she has already studied some of the books and DVD’s related to peak performance, performance anxiety, and memory. Plus, most online products overpromise and underdeliver.
But I felt very sorry for Madison as she works so hard, so after studying the website and reading some of the articles, we thought it was worth a try.
I wanted to let you know that Madison recently won a competition, and says that your program helped her play more consistently. Your program is unique in that it addresses her unique problems and it can be reviewed over and over and continue to improve her performance skills. It helps her preparedness, focus, and memory, thus eliminating fear. She still has some anxiety response, which is good to some degree, and she can control it for her benefit.
Thank you so much – I don’t want the cost of the course to be an issue for others to not enroll, so it has to be reasonable, but OMG, it’s worth every penny!"
If you’d like to explore some of the most essential skills and techniques in the course live, with a cohort of curious, thoughtful, supportive, and like-minded educators (and a few mildly irreverent or benevolently sarcastic folks mixed in to make sure we don’t get too serious), that’s also an option!
Starting Thursday, February 3rd, we’ll meet via Zoom once a week, and go through selected strategies related to effective practice, managing nerves, and achieving flow states under pressure. We’ll do some in-class playing experiments (don’t worry – you’ll be muted!), short weekly homework assignments, and small-group breakout sessions to help you integrate these new skills into your teaching.
This 6-week live course is normally $199, but is available at 50% off the regular cost when bundled with Beyond Practicing. For more details about the live course (and dates) CLICK HERE.