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Part 1 of this article: Focus
Part 2 of this article: Relaxation and Concentration
Anxiety, Emotions and Performing Well

by Neil Sharpe
Part Three - Performing Well

Three Important Questions

Talented people keep falling short again and again. Why? Every physical skill may be mastered, but if the mental focus isn't there, they're in trouble.

Focusing on the importance of a performance is a fatal disease.

Destructive stress flows directly from a performer focusing on, and trying to control, the "uncontrollables". Getting caught up with thoughts about the audience, other performers, and so on, tightens muscles and triggers feelings of worry, nervousness, and irritability.

To perform your best, focus on the "controllables"; focus on your own performance and let the rest go. There's nothing you can do about the uncontrollables; what's to be gained by worrying about them?

Three questions help to regain your focus.

Why am I here? - returns your focus to the immediate. To better maintain your focus, imagine a black box is resting beside you. As you did with the Write It Down technique, mentally make a list of what is bothering you and place each distracting thought and emotion in the box. Do not evaluate or judge these items. Remind yourself that here and now, nothing can be done about them. If you like, promise yourself that after you have completed your performance, you will return to the black box and what has been placed inside. For now, the only thing you can control, the only thing you need to focus on, is your performance.

What am I doing?- lets you know where your focus is. Are you focused on your playing or thinking about other things?

The third question is- Am I having fun?

Psychologist Michael Csikszentomihalyi -author of the book Beyond Boredom and Anxiety- described the experiences of a hockey and a soccer team at an American college. Members of the hockey team were local celebrities. They started the regular season with great success and were widely covered in the media. Csikszentomihalyi noticed, however, that the players increasingly were grim and unhappy, weighed down with the pressure of trying to meet expectations, every game treated like a matter of life and death.

The soccer team, meanwhile, quietly went about winning game after game, without any media coverage or attention from the school. Free from pressure and attention, the players were happy. They didn't care about the results. They just played.

If an upcoming event is regarded a validation of your reputation and your self as a performer, that's trouble.

A great performance does not make you a great person; a poor performance does not make you a failure as a person. If you focus on the importance on an event, if you get caught up putting your ego, self-worth, and self-esteem on the line, you only increase the chance of disappointment. It is important to separate who you are as a person from who you are as a performer.

Wanting to change, wanting to succeed, are powerful emotions and can really get us going. However, unrealistic expectations -either on our part and/or the part of others like teachers, performers, friends, or family- adds to the pressure.

Difficulties arise when rewards and recognition alone become the reference points we use to judge ourselves. Our sense of self, of worth, and of status may need to be continually confirmed and reassured by external standards such as rewards and recognition. But what if these external "rewards" don't measure up to our own expectations. If we have success, do we feel it is success enough?

Some people, termed "perfectionists", often set impossible standards. They think that they have to play superbly no matter how inexperienced they are. Even if they have success, if a single mistake is made, they focus on that and not what went well. They can become entrapped in vicious cycles of self-criticism and self-doubt when they don't achieve these unrealistic standards, sometimes even leading to thoughts that they are being unfairly judged, held back, and even betrayed.

Remember, no matter how skilled we are, we're always learning, always excited and surprised when we learn something new. As Stan Getz is reported to have said on his fiftieth birthday, "I think I'm finally learning how to play the saxophone."

Trust that you've prepared as well as you can. Relax, and allow the body and mind do what they've been trained to do; just let the performance happen. Performance Rehearsal can make the critical difference.

Performance Rehearsal
Begin with the following to help slow and focus the mind.
  • Write It Down
  • Chee Gung
  • Counting To Ten
  • Clouds and Rivers
  • Waves

Practice the following process, one stage at a time. It is critical that the images must always be positive.

Some people may find it easier to "watch" the movie that to be in it. Do whatever feels the most comfortable.

The best results occur when you review this imagery every day. With practice, this technique can be done quickly and effectively.


Close your eyes and imagine yourself getting ready to perform. This can include changing clothes in a dressing room or a hotel room. See you arriving and sitting down in the room.

Notice each piece of clothing that you are wearing. See you removing your street clothes, one piece at a time. As an example, follow the same routine you do when you are getting ready for bed at night. Next, see yourself putting on your performance clothing, one item at a time.

Next, mentally go through a checklist of everything you need to take with you for the performance, a step at a time. At all times, imagine that you are relaxed and confident.

Review this entire scene again. As you become more familiar with this imagery, you'll see if you missed anything and gradually add more detail.

Repeat this imagery three more times or as many times as feels comfortable. Again, there's no set time limit for this technique. Just focus on the imagery and let time take care of itself.

Do this imagery for three to five consecutive days or as many days as you find appropriate. There are no set time schedules. Each of us will have our own starting points. When you're comfortable with the above imagery, add the following.


Close your eyes and imagine that you are getting ready to go to where you'll be performing. Imagine leaving the room where you changed your clothes and approach the performance area. Try to take this a step at a time. For example, you might see yourself walking down a hallway, up a flight of stairs, and so on. As you approach the performance area, notice the lighting conditions, the stage, the audience, and so on. Always see and feel that you are relaxed and confident. Repeat this process three more times for a total of four.

As the imagery becomes more familiar, gradually include other people and performers who you know will be there. Repeat this exercise for three to five consecutive days or as many days you find appropriate. There's no need to rush it. The clearer we can "see" and feel the imagery, the better. When you are comfortable with the above, add the following.


With your eyes closed, imagine being on stage. Notice the location of the lights, the general shape of the room, etc. Next, focus on your actual performance. Take a particular solo. Mentally review the solo and as you play it, see your fingers and body moving smoothly and sure. Notice how your body is placed, where the feet are, what your legs and arms are doing, how you are balanced, how you are standing or sitting.

Imagine the step-by-step progression of the solo. Where your fingers are, how they are moving a note at a time. How it feels as your fingers move smoothly over the keys, each note played confidently and well. Review this imagery again and see if you've missed anything the first time through. Repeat this three more times or as many times as you feel comfortable.

When you review the imagery, always review it from start to successful finish, adding more details as they become clearer. Always see yourself feeling confident, comfortable, and relaxed. Always see each movement smooth and sure, your concentration focused only on what you are playing, all the distractions like rain running down a window while you sit safe inside. Do not evaluate or question what you are seeing. You may not be able to attain these feeling of confidence the first few times, but with practice, it will come.

Repeat this sequence as many times as feels comfortable, the more the better.

When you are familiar with this imagery, try the following.

The Ideal Performance

Elite performers frequently observe the particular technique of another player and master it through mental rehearsal and physical practice. You can learn how to do the same.

Who do you admire? Who has qualities you would like to emulate? Think of an occasion when this person was performing well. With your eyes closed, imagine the occasion in the same manner you did for Performance Rehearsal.

Focus on a specific part of the performance. Imagine how the person is standing or sitting- where their feet are, their arms, how they balanced, how their head is positioned. Imagine how their fingers are moving over the keys, how they are handing the saxophone. Imagine the sensation of their fingers touching and moving over the keys, how they are playing confidently and well.

Review this scene a few times, always proceeding in the same positive sequence from start to finish.

When you are familiar with the above imagery, add the following.

Imagine that you are the one performing, that it is your body that is moving in the same way as the person you admire. See and feel what it is like to move this way, to have the same calmness, ability, and confidence. Again, don't evaluate these feelings. Allow yourself the pleasure of enjoying these sensations, the feeling of what it's like to perform this way, Repeat this scene as many times as feels comfortable.

When finished, open your eyes, and bring these same feelings into the room. Allow yourself to enjoy being calm, relaxed, and focused.

When you have reached the point where you can easily recall this imagery, apply it to an upcoming event. See and feel yourself warming up and performing this way, every movement, smooth, strong, and sure. Enjoy the feelings of confidence, of not worrying about the outcome and what people are thinking, focused only on the pleasure and privilege of performing.

Because yesterday is dead and gone,
And tomorrow is difficult to know,
Think only of this day, this hour, this moment.
Forget about the strength or weakness of your power,
The good or bad of your nature.
Focus on one thing at a time in full concentration.
After that everything becomes
Truly easy.

Dogen Zenji
Part 1 of this article: Focus
Part 2 of this article: Relaxation and Concentration[/TD]
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