I used to think whoever advised to “stop and smell the roses” had nothing better to do than advocate wasting precious time.
As a pianist, time was not something I wanted to waste on sniffing flowers, but rather on practicing my craft. Playing the piano started out as a fun hobby, but the further I delved into it, the more my ears strived to produce the professional quality I heard in the recordings of famous pianists such as Sviatoslav Richter and Vladimir Horowitz. Notorious for overthinking nearly everything, I was convinced that in order to become a musician, I had to practice all the time and if I wasn’t physically practicing, then at least I’d have to be thinking about practicing. But striving to perform without restraints has proven to be much more fulfilling.
One of the first times I remember truly freeing my mind was during the summer of 2016 at Music Fest Perugia in Italy. At the time, I didn’t quite know what the feeling was or why I had stumbled upon it. Something in my head clicked, disrupting my usual tendency to overthink.
The festival offers a unique opportunity for participating pianists to perform a concerto movement as a soloist with an orchestra, with most students spending at least a year perfecting their chosen piece. Having decided to attend the festival last minute, I was not planning on performing with the orchestra. But a month before the festival, I ambitiously decided to learn the first movement of Frédéric Chopin’s “Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor,” an emotionally passionate and intimate work that would be difficult to prepare in time to perform. The piece, with lots of delicate-yet-rapid, note-filled passages, requires time to master the technical aspects in order to feel fully comfortable with freely expressing Chopin’s musical intentions. Being the stubborn person I am, though, I wanted to prove to myself I could do it anyway.
Soon it came time to fly to Italy, and I was anxiously score-studying on the plane, trying to get in as much extra time with the piece as I could, thinking about how I could work out technical issues and musical phrasings. I was not ready, and mentally, I was a wreck. My overthinking was rearing its ugly head once again. The closer the performance, the more worried I became.
My mind led me to imagine every possible worst-case scenario: What if I blank out? What if I forget the entire piece? What would the audience think? I decided to attend the morning rehearsal for the experience, but drop out of the gala performance that night. My overthinking got the best of me, so I raised the white flag.
The following morning, I arrived at my rehearsal with very low expectations. Sitting down at the piano, the black and white keys suddenly looked so foreign to me. I couldn’t do this. I wanted to run offstage, hide and never touch the piano again. Why was I even trying? I felt suffocated by my doubts, unable to breathe. My fears were multiplying one by one, to the tempo of my unsettling heartbeat.
Suddenly, my thoughts were interrupted as I heard the orchestra begin to play the beautiful, familiar theme. I sensed my muscles relax as my mind shifted from worry to reassurance – this was music I knew and loved, I listened to it so many times before that it had become a part of me. All I could do was accept my level of preparation and trust that my hands and ears knew what they were doing. I placed my fingers on the keys, closed my eyes and played.
To my surprise, I found myself so present, so immersed in the music and in the colossal sound of the orchestra, that there was no room in my mind to even think about what could go wrong. I felt so caught up in my emotional connection to the music, nothing else in the world seemed to matter at that very moment. I decided right then and there that I would perform that night, accepting the fact that my piece was, technically speaking, drastically underprepared and barely memorized. I walked out onstage with the same mindset I had in rehearsal – the same liberation from judgmental and self-critical thoughts – and ended up genuinely enjoying my experience on the grand Sala dei Notari stage that night.
However, enjoyable performances and a carefree mindset were still far from the norm.
Music had always been a way for me to cope with my emotions growing up. Chopin and Franz Schubert taught me to notice and understand delicate feelings like sincerity and vulnerability, while Johannes Brahms helped me come to grips with nostalgia and regret. My tendency to overthink, however, caused the once-helpful thoughts of self-improvement swimming through my head to drown out my ability to perform and play music onstage. My musical overthinking manifested in obsessing over technical details and engaging in mundanely repetitive exercises for hours. But I was wasting time reinforcing the same problem through repetition instead of coming up with new, creative ways to solve it. Criticizing myself for something like my inability to play a passage perfectly could easily be mistaken as constructive analysis in helping me become a better musician. Instead, my distracting thoughts would eventually develop into full-blown performance anxiety years later.
The first time I realized that my tendency to overthink was becoming a problem was at the onset of my self-conscious teenage years. By then, I had already blanked out, frozen up and forgotten the next note onstage plenty of times. But because I was a child then and didn’t overthink much, it never affected my self-worth.
Once I became a teenager, my overthinking turned into a harmful mental habit of producing and internalizing my own self-critical and judgmental thoughts, which led me to think I was never good enough. I spent hours on end obsessively practicing pieces from Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2” to the first movement of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto, criticizing myself for every wrong note and then resuming to forcefully strike each key with unnecessary tension because I thought doing so would turn me into a better musician. Turns out, mindlessly reproducing the notes written on the score to secure my technique and memory ended up clouding my ability to hear and appreciate the sound of music.
The harder I tried to deal with my overthinking tendencies by forcefully inhibiting the thought processes, the worse they got. The more I cared about performing well, the more I would become frustrated with my inability to silence the noisy critic living inside my head. This villainous critic fed off my failures to the point that I could not even play a single note without buzzing negative thoughts interrupting my ability to enjoy the music.
But after reflecting on the past as well as meeting with self-help specialists and other musicians who have found ways to cope with their own mental struggles in performing, I’ve found ways to declutter my mind so I can perform to the best of my ability.
Even in my fourth year of pursuing piano performance at UCLA, I still feel nervous each time I go up onstage. But I’ve come to learn the difficult reality that a successful performance requires more than hours of practice on my instrument, but also requires me to free my mind. I strive for my mind to give way to allow the music to overflow my senses, spilling out into an emotional and passionate experience of pure bliss.
At this point, I’m left with no choice but to face this internal battle, to defeat this constant push and pull of recurring self-sabotaging thoughts, in order to satisfy my immense desire to share music with other people. Being able to share music with an audience enables me to connect with them on a deeper emotional level than an everyday conversation is able to. Although the fears that I developed over the past 10 years made my experience of performing miserable, I was so moved by my love for music that I desperately needed to seek a change of mindset. So, I embarked on my journey to recovery.
Even after my first orchestral debut in Italy, I still couldn’t quite figure out how to get myself in that carefree mindset every time I performed. But the point wasn’t to figure it out, it was to let things be, and I was hitting a wall trying too hard to solve my problem. Over the next several years, I buried myself in countless self-help blogs and books, watching one TED Talk after another in seek of inspiration for becoming a stronger musician and individual.
The more I explored these resources, the more I realized how powerful the mind is in determining how humans perceive reality, and the more convinced I became that I could restructure my own thoughts.
One of the first resources I found was Bulletproof Musician, an online blog led by Juilliard-trained violinist and performance psychologist Noa Kageyama. Through working with other musicians and students who struggle with performing, Kageyama said many of the mental obstacles musicians face appear to be associated with nerves.
That is, some worry more about others’ opinions of their playing, while others experience distracting thoughts during a performance such as those about a difficult upcoming passage or their quality of playing, causing them to be nervous. My particular struggle with overthinking feeds into my performance anxiety and disrupts my ability to freely express the music. Kageyama said he strives to help musicians embrace the jitters by feeling more comfortable with being uncomfortable.
“I work with people who feel like they’re not inclined to performing or are not having a good experience onstage,” Kageyama said. “Even (if) you’re going to continue to feel a little bit of butterflies, it can be something that ... you embrace.”
Kageyama said he first experienced nerves at a young age, after seeing another musician struggle with memory slips during one performance, causing him to realize that things don’t always go well onstage.
It wasn’t until Kageyama took a class by performance psychologist Don Greene during his second year at Juilliard that he learned about the importance of developing strong mental skills such as analyzing internalized pressures from childhood and evaluating oneself more positively. Kageyama put these skills to the test during an international competition and, despite a low level of physical preparation, his mental preparation enabled him to focus more and play better than he thought he could have.
“Mental skills are an integral part of bringing up onstage what you did in the practice room,” Kageyama said. “It was hugely empowering to find out that there was something I could do and I could get better, have a different experience onstage.”
Although every performer faces mental obstacles to some degree, there are certainly some who struggle with them more than others, he said. Kageyama said it’s useful to go back to someone’s very first performance and analyze the pressures that could’ve been internalized then, such as pressure to perform well coming from a teacher or parent.
For me, however, the pressures were likely more intrinsic, as I was constantly striving to prove my self-worth. Differences in the extent of personal fears of negative evaluation seem to play a large role in amplifying performance anxiety, Kageyama said. Fearing negative evaluation from the people whose opinions we care about heightens pressure-filled situations, making someone less optimistic about how things are going to go.
Many musicians who seek guidance from Kageyama also think there’s something wrong with them because they get nervous – that it’s ingrained in their genetics and character, he said. I can remember experiencing times when I felt like quitting music altogether because I didn’t think I would ever be able to combat my performance anxiety. Something that helped me get over my fear was accepting that the nerves may always be there. The best thing I can do is gear my mindset toward viewing the nerves as a positive and exhilarating rather than negative experience.
But being nervous is very typical, Kageyama said, and it seems to be that actually focusing too much on nerves doesn’t get rid of them.
“Physiologically, there’s not much of a difference between being nervous and being excited, and so if we can kind of rephrase our physiological reaction under pressure as excitement, as opposed to nerves, it can actually have a surprisingly positive effect on how effectively we can perform,” Kageyama said.
Performance psychology makes it clear that all musicians struggle with mental obstacles affecting their performance, and training the mind can help with overcoming them. But what exactly does training the mind entail? As I explored ways to deal with my own self-critical tendencies, I spoke with another UCLA music student in order to gain insight in mental preparation methods that work for her.
Studying classical music performance at a music school comes with its own challenges, leaving music students to figure out how to deal with training their minds by themselves. Graduate piano performance student Mindy Cheng said some of the main obstacles she faces as a performer are feeling high pressure to meet the audience’s expectations and produce what she knows she is fully capable of. Through years of performance experience, Cheng said she has found how important mental training is to performing at the best of her ability.
“I feel like it’s part of the craft. You can’t just be a musician and only focus on practicing in the practice room,” Cheng said. “I believe that part of our art is training our mind. … They’re not separate things, they’re very much one.”
After reading “The Inner Game of Tennis,” a self-help book by Timothy Gallwey, Cheng said she realized that our minds often judge certain experiences as being “good” or “bad.” Now, she strives to let experiences be as they are, which often means getting up onstage and fearlessly not second-guessing herself by going for it before her mind even has time to think. Cheng said her goal is to teach her body and mind to coexist through presence.
Cheng also said she started to focus on training her mind during her sophomore year of high school. That year, she was working on Chopin’s “Scherzo No. 2, Op. 31,” but was feeling discouraged because she was having difficulty fully understanding the breadth of the piece – it was the largest Chopin work she had studied at that point.
The first time she played the piece at a competition, she was so affected by her cluttered mind that she struggled getting through memory slips, let alone being able to play expressively, Cheng said. But instead of coming home and practicing for eight hours as she usually would have, she worked on mentally preparing herself for the next competition.
Cheng trained her mind to be present in the moment so that, no matter how much or how little she practiced, she would perform to the best of her ability without the extraneous pressure of needing to win the competition. Only two weeks later, she performed at the next competition with a relaxed and present mindset, and it turned out to be the best she’d ever played the piece.
“When our mind is so cluttered and not still, that really stops us from being clear about what’s actually happening. My goal, when I’m onstage, is to just be in the moment and let things happen as naturally as possible,” Cheng said. “’I’m just out here to present something that I love and if I can show that, then I have accomplished my goal.”
Although a clutter-free mind is a worthy pursuit, musicians have to spend most of their lives attempting to reach it. The ongoing struggles of professional musicians like David Kaplan, a professional pianist and UCLA piano performance lecturer, remind me that it’s okay to not have everything fully figured out. Accepting my current state is already a step toward becoming fully present.
Kaplan said he will never forget his first memory slip experiences because of how shattering it was for him to realize that the mind and body are unreliable onstage. He describes having felt complete discomfort, as if he was being hanged psychologically, with no contact to the ground. Practicing the positive, reinforcing thought processes he wishes to have when onstage now helps him control his nerves, he said.
“One can’t expect that after being our normal neurotic selves, that all of a sudden when we get to a performance, we’re not going to be neurotic,” Kaplan said. “My first step in preparing mentally is to accept that I’m going to have those thoughts of fear and therefore, when they happen, to be comforted by the fact that it’s normal.”
Training the mind is very difficult, and some musicians turn to artificial coping strategies. Kaplan said one time, during his undergraduate days at UCLA, he decided to try out beta blockers, medication used by many performers to block adrenaline responses from interfering with their performance.
After taking the commonly prescribed drug, the lack of adrenaline during his performance caused him to feel like he was just practicing, cognitively anticipating memory weak spots and focusing on playing through cleanly without any emotional memory.
Kaplan began to miss the adrenaline rush that comes with being nervous, he said. The adrenaline performers feel onstage is needed in order to connect the body to a different part of the brain that functions on instinct and emotions, he said. This enables a performance to transform into a special experience not possible in the practice room.
“Adrenaline feeds your ability to toggle between different memories that you have, and that’s why you can play more beautifully onstage than anywhere else,” Kaplan said. “(With adrenaline) you have access to your heart in a totally different way, you have access to your emotional memory.”
Having spoken with performance specialists and musicians about their strategies for combating mental obstacles, I revisit my own struggles with overthinking as a musician.
My performance anxiety no longer contradicts my desire to share music with other people, as today, I’ve learned to accept the adrenaline as a normal and even quite necessary process for delivering a moving performance. After years of discouraging performances, the meaning of “stop and smell the roses” changed drastically in my head as I now strive to silence my cluttered mind and stop and hear the music.
Overthinking will most likely be something I struggle with for the rest of my life, but I have grown to view the moment onstage as a place of sacred presence – where music has the power to silence my thoughts.