Once upon a time, the advice that was traditionally offered to students who asked how they could better manage nerves and performing closer to their potential under pressure, was much like the punch line to the joke “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”
Perform, perform, perform!
But performing more is only one part of the equation. And by itself, could actually be counterproductive.
The anxiety spiral
Because if you simply perform more without being given the right practice strategies, or without the mental skills that support effective performance under pressure, you’re likely to get more of the same negative performance experiences.
Which will just make the nerves worse. Which will make the next performance even harder. Which will probably lead to yet another negative performance experience. Which will reduce confidence and increase your anxiety for the next one. And so on.
Practice that transfers to the stage
The key is to provide young musicians with the sort of practice strategies that lead to more reliable skills under pressure, not just the appearance of progress in the moment. And to also show students how to develop the mental skills that make it possible to manage nerves, focus past distractions, and get into the right headspace for performing effectively.
Tiny “doses” of performance practice
The other key is to integrate performance practice into weekly practice, in very tiny ways that almost guarantee positive experiences. Instead of the traditional approach, of practice, practice, practice, and then a sudden jolt of performance practice a few days before a performance.
We may not even need to do a huge amount of performance practice to see positive results. In a Dutch study of national-level basketball players for instance, the players who practiced just a few extra free throws every practice under pressure not only avoided a drop in performance under pressure, they actually performed better under pressure than they did in regular practice conditions!
And what would this approach to performance practice look like?