I ran into my former student Robby the other night, and he enthusiastically told me, “Hey, Dr. Skidmore, I performed with my band Friday night and We ‘sandboxed it!’” In that moment Robby unknowingly created my new favorite phrase to describe a peak performance.
Researchers have studied the characteristics of peak performances extensively. It doesn’t really matter whether you are rock climbing, doing surgery, playing football, playing chess, or singing your favorite aria, the characteristics of a peak performance are very much the same. Peak performers feel an overall sense of ease. The demands of the task match the mastery of the skills necessary for completing the task. Things are working—it all fits or flows together. Often the peak performer feels a profound sense of being present in the “now,” with limited self-awareness and heightened enjoyment.
Another common, extensively researched experience with very similar characteristics is the experience of play—such as a child playing in a sandbox. A performance should be like stepping into a sandbox where you are free to play. When Robby coined the phrase “sandboxed it” he meant he was playing with his band in his favorite sandbox.
While researching the peak performance for performing artists, I asked a group of professional musicians to describe their experience with peak performances. Their answers ranged widely, yet they centered around three themes.
The theme of the first group was: “It sure is great when it happens.” This group of musicians seemed to have almost a mystical perspective, as if something outside of themselves, such as the alignment of the stars, was responsible for their success.
The second group had a more self-determined attitude: “I prepare for it and expect it. Sometimes it’s there and sometimes it’s not, but I am hopeful.” Musicians in the third group described being in control of the experience: “I can step into it when I want to. I just flip the switch and I am there.”
Which group would you put yourself into?
You want each performance to be your best, because a peak performance is an incredible experience. Whether you are a student or a professional, you perform inside the window of your abilities. Performers cannot always perform at their peak. It is possible, however, to raise the level of the average performance and to increase the frequency of true peak performance.
I have distilled my research into a five-stage program that provides a simple structure to move a singer in the direction of more frequent peak performing.
The Five Stages of Peak Performance
Stage One: The Foundation
A student in my Psychology of Music Performance class requested some coaching. She was struggling with her upcoming senior recital and her anxiety and stress were obvious. As we explored her concerns the cause became evident. The conversation went something like this.
“What is your goal?” I asked.
“To do my senior recital,” she answered.
“Why are you doing a senior recital?”
“They are making me,” she responded.
When I asked her to describe her current attitude about her recital, she exclaimed, “I am hating it!”
No wonder she was avoiding practicing. No wonder she was becoming more anxious every day. The very foundation of her performance was the cause of her distress. With some coaching she realized that her main goal was to be a great piano teacher. What motivated her was her love of music and the joy of sharing this love with her students. She reconnected with her love of music and her foundation, or attitude, towards her senior recital changed. Her senior recital was a great experience.
This story illustrates Stage One of the five-part performance process. Stage One explores the following questions:
What is your goal?
Why are you pursuing this goal?
How are you committed to “being” as you pursue this goal?
When was the last time you thought about and wrote down the answers to these powerful questions?
In the domain of attitude or the way of being (as in the last of my questions) the expected outcome often overshadows goals—but goals are so important. Take a moment to think of three words that describe how you want to “be” when you perform. Don’t choose “outcome” words such as “great,” “perfect,” or “fantastic.” To have a great performance you must start by “being” how you want to be. The “doing” naturally follows. Write down three words that describe how you are committed to being or to the attitude you want to have when you perform, for example: “bold,” “confident,” and “expressive.” I refer to these words as “trigger words.”
Fill in the blanks: “The attitude I want to have when I perform is: ___________, ____________, and________________.”
Once you set your attitude intention you need to keep track of whether you are on course with your attitude goals as well as your outcome goals.
Stage Two: Preparation
Stage Two is all about preparation, both musical and mental. In this stage we focus on skill acquisition and mastery. Practice, practice, practice, then evaluate, critique, experiment, observe, and adjust. In this stage the transformation from the parts to the whole takes place.
Feedback from teachers and coaches is essential, but you must also prepare psychologically. How are you preparing mentally? Are you using positive or negative visualization? Is your attitude in line with what you declared as part of Stage One? Are you taking breaks and developing the skill to relax your body? Is your practice time effective? If you could put your thoughts and images about your next performance into a script for a movie, would you have a triumph or a tragedy?
In Stage Two focus on what you need to do to be completely prepared to perform. Identify what you need to work on and follow a schedule to complete it.
When you plan your work and work your plan, your plan works.
The most important part about Stage Two is declaring your preparation complete. With every performance a time comes when you don’t have time to do any more preparation. If you have things that still need attention, call them complete. You are done preparing. You don’t want to walk on stage wishing you had two more days to prepare. Declaring your preparation complete builds your confidence in your preparation and opens the door to the next stage of preparation: getting set to perform.
Stage 3: Getting Mentally Set
In Stage Three you get yourself mentally, physically, and musically set to perform. This stage is often where musicians psych themselves up or psych themselves out. I recently coached a percussionist who was standing backstage before a performance, glaring at his marimba and thinking, “You are not going to beat me.” He was already psyched out.
The Stage Three goal is to be mentally set so you can walk on stage confidently and freely. Now your attention shifts to getting physically, mentally, and musically ready to perform. Do your warmup routine and anything else you need to do—costumes, makeup, transportation, hairstyle, or food—so you can do what you are prepared to do.
Pre-performance routines are important. They focus the mind and ready the body. Rituals have a magical quality and are potentially destructive. Think of the 24 hours prior to your next performance. In a perfect world what kind of routine or schedule would you want to follow to be set for your performance? How would you cope if that schedule broke down?
Because of the uncertain nature of a live performance the only thing you want to set in stone when it comes to pre-performance routines is the breath you take just prior to stepping out on the stage. Everything else needs to be optional.
This simple, but powerful breathing exercise includes the “trigger words” from Stage One. When you are backstage, ready to go on, focus on your breathing. Take a comfortable breath and repeat your trigger words, then take your first step on stage.
Stage Four: The Performance
When you have mastered the first three stages, Stage Four is like a child stepping into a sandbox where he is free to play. You have no thoughts of victory or defeat. Things are working fine. If your attention shifts off the performance, bring it right back. The performance starts with the first step on the stage and doesn’t end until you step off the stage.
Stage Five: The Debrief
Every performance must end, which brings us to Stage Five. Some musicians have bludgeoned themselves after a performance to the point of never returning to the stage. This is an unfortunate and unnecessary tragedy. Can you examine and learn from your performance? Or do you bash yourself and the performance? An effective post-performance debriefing makes a big difference.
The debriefing is simple. Ask yourself the following questions: What worked? What didn’t work? What will I do next time?
Most often the post-performance debriefing is focused on what you did or didn’t do on stage. Consider exploring how you were “being” on stage. Were you being confident, bold, and expressive?
It is also important to do a debriefing on each of the five stages. What worked and didn’t work about how you approached each stage? Think back to a disastrous performance and review your experience with stages One through Five. If you talk each stage through with a trusted friend and honestly explore questions such as, “What worked?” “What didn’t?” “What are you going to do next time?” I am quite sure you will be surprised about what you discover.
A Quick Review
Stages One and Two are about getting musically and mentally ready. Stage Three is all about being mentally and musically set. Stage Four is about jumping into the sandbox to play. And Stage Five is about saying, “That was fun, let’s do it again.”
Unfortunately, when it comes to performing, too many musicians seem to relate more with “Ready? Not really. Going anyway!” rather than “Ready, set, go!” Understanding and mastering these five stages will help you find the freedom to go out and play in your favorite sandbox, improving the quality of every performance.