Many of you are likely familiar with Noa Kageyama’s blog, The Bulletproof Musician. In it, he offers insights and tips about how to get the most out of your practicing, how to maintain your focus under pressure, how to make the performance that comes out of your bell sound closer to the one in your head, as well as many other topics essential to mental mastery. We at Horn and More are most fortunate to have him to ourselves in this feature! I felt creatively nourished reading his words and know you will too. Many thanks to Jeff Nelsen for asking all the right questions. -KMT
Jeff Nelsen: How did you get into all this performance psychology stuff?
Noa Kageyama: Like most interesting things in life, my getting involved in performance psychology was partially just being in the right place at the right time. I was a first-year master’s student at Juilliard, and remember standing in the hallway on the second floor by the registrar’s office browsing through all the courses that were being offered. Mostly, I was looking for something that didn’t involve theory, history, or ear training, and the one that caught my eye was called “Performance Enhancement.”
The instructor was Don Greene, who was ex-military, and a sport psychologist who had worked with Olympic athletes. I’d never heard of sport psychology before, and I had no idea what to expect from the class, but it certainly sounded interesting. After a lifetime of inconsistent performances with way too many highs and (mostly) lows, I was intrigued.
So I signed up, and totally got hooked on the fact that there were concrete, specific skills I could work on to help me perform better on stage: anxiety management, confidence building, focus, and mental toughness. It wasn’t abstract, theoretical stuff, but actionable, research-based techniques and strategies that made a big difference in how I prepared for performances, how I approached performing, and how I felt about performing.
And since I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do when I finished my degree, and didn’t feel like I was ready to go out into the “real world” quite yet, pursuing a degree in psychology seemed like the most intriguing of my options at the time.
One thing led to the next, and as I kept following this area of natural curiosity, it gradually grew into teaching, writing, and working with musicians in a way that I never would have imagined.
JN: Wait, you’re saying we can learn to perform better through more ways than just repetition of techniques? What else is at play here, so to speak?
NK: Jeff Huber, who is a 3-time coach of the US Olympic diving team, and recently retired as coach of IU’s diving team, said he often told his athletes that he had two goals. One was to teach them how to dive well. The other was to teach them how to dive well in competition. He said that these are two different challenges, and that the things you must do to achieve one of these goals is not necessarily the same as what you must do to achieve the other. How so?
Think about what you are doing when you are practicing effectively. You’re not just playing things over and over mindlessly, right? When you’re having a really productive session, you’re self-monitoring, listening intently and critiquing every detail, identifying imperfections, and analyzing what happened.
But what are you doing when you’re having a transcendent performance? You’re not analyzing, but rather, you’re creating. You’re not listening for mistakes or dwelling on imperfections, but you’re completely present and in the moment. You’re thinking in terms of images, sounds, and kinesthetic sensations, rather than the nitty-gritty of mechanics and technique.
In other words, “practice mode” and “performance mode” are almost polar opposites. But since we spend the vast majority of our time in practice mode, we become really good at it, and we have difficulty flipping the switch to performance mode when it’s time to shut off analysis and criticism and just perform. It’s like that Heifetz quote - we should practice like our life depends on it, and perform like we don’t give a damn. Performing as if we don’t care if we make any mistakes or not takes practice - it doesn’t come naturally.
Try doing a run-through of a challenging excerpt. See how long you can play before the critic in your head interjects with an analytical or critical comment of some kind. It’s like a well-ingrained habit, right?
Learning how to keep the inner critic quiet, and focusing instead on shaping the phrase, conceiving of sound, and saying something through sound is a skill just like anything else you practice in the practice room. It just tends to get pushed to the back burner because it doesn’t seem as important as the other things on our to-do list - until the day of the performance or audition arrives and we suddenly realize how important a skill it is.
JN: So I hit a few walls in performance…ok, a ton of them. This is what got me to study what I call the mental game of performance. What is one horrible performance story that you’ve experienced or heard about that helped someone come to their ledge and finally have to dive into psychology study?
NK: I never felt like I had any truly awful, mortifying, I-can-never-look-at-these-people-again sort of performance. It was more of a nagging, frustrating, aggravating, what’s-wrong-with-me-that-I-can’t-ever-seem-to-play-like-I-know-I-can experience over many years that led me to finally consider that simply practicing more wasn’t the answer.
And what really got me to start taking mental skills training seriously was my second year in grad school when I entered an international competition. About a month out, I realized that I was severely underprepared. I could see that I wasn’t going to be able to learn all the repertoire in time; I needed every advantage I could get just to avoid embarrassing myself
So I did tons of visualization, worked on focus, anxiety regulation, and all the things I had learned in class. I played two rounds, and except for a tiny memory slip in my Bach (which I didn’t have completely memorized 48 hours prior) played better than I had any right to play given my level of preparation. That’s when I realized how much of a difference being mentally prepared makes.
JN: Your practice guidance is based in what?
NK: I’ve always been something of a natural skeptic, so I don’t feel comfortable unless there’s data or some strong supported theoretical rationale for why or how something works. While I do love taking ideas from what great teachers and musicians have advocated over the years, I also try to find support for their ideas in the literature. So the advice on practice that I get the most excited about comes from an intersection of what musicians have found from experience, and the literature on motor learning, exercise science, and educational psychology.
Besides, I’ve always found cross-training to be tremendously valuable. I think borrowing ideas from other disciplines - or at least experimenting with them - is a fun way to stay on the cutting edge and keep things interesting. To keep learning and growing, no matter how long we’ve been at it.
JN: Where did your awesome name, - “The Bulletproof Musician,” come from? What does becoming bulletproof mean?
NK: I did an exercise one day, where I did a brain dump of all the synonyms I could come up with for how I wanted to feel on stage: confident, secure, in control, resilient, engaged, etc. And then I looked up all the synonyms I could find for those words, and paired them with the word “musician”. There were a few that kind of stuck out to me, but that’s the one that just seemed to have the right feel. Sort of an incongruous, but meaningful match.
For me, becoming bulletproof was about getting to a place where, at least in the moment, you could get lost in just doing. Not worrying about what might happen, or what other people might think, or walking on eggshells, or playing cautiously and carefully. But just going for it, letting loose, playing freely - or to borrow from you - fearlessly. As if you believed that everything was going to work out and played that way.
JN: What do your pressure proof practice methods do for us? Describe Deliberate, Retrieval, and Performance.
NK: I used to study by reading, and re-reading my notes, lecture handouts, and the assigned readings. I’d underline, try to make sense of everything, and when everything seemed like it made sense, I’d think I was done. But then I would do pretty mediocrely on the test.
I learned many years later that this is because I wasn’t really studying. I was increasing my familiarity with the material, and spending a lot of time putting information into my head, but I spent very little time practicing information retrieval.
Practicing is much the same. The first step is to make sure we are practicing deliberately - stopping, and problem solving when we make a mistake. Not just running things over and over and auto-correcting our way to a higher level of playing, which is just an artificially-inflated level that only represents the “momentary habit strength” of a skill.
But we also have to practice retrieval of those skills. Which is not the ability to play a passage the way we want when we’ve worked it up to that level after 10, 15 minutes, or 5 or 6 repetitions - but our ability to play it exactly the way we want the very first time, cold, when we’ve just picked up our instrument, or have been playing something else. And this requires that we either space out our practice over time, or engage in so-called “random” or “interleaved” practice, where we hasten the forgetting process by alternating between different excerpts or pieces repeatedly in the same practice session. Sort of like how when you study with flash cards, you keep coming back to the same question over and over, but only after you’ve begun to forget the answer and have to really think hard to remember the correct answer.
And then there’s performance practice. Where we practice simulating nerves, introducing distractions and other types of adversity, and seeing if we can perform exactly the way we want from the first note to the last, without stopping or letting our mind wander.
JN: Ok, top 2 thoughts you’d suggest we embrace backstage when we’re freaking out, right before our big performance. Also what would your top 2 thoughts we can use during performance be, when we're spinning down that wonderful destructive spiral into performance hell because we’ve been right about too many wrong things?
NK: Good question. This is a toughie, because it depends on the person. What’s important is to identify any potential “triggers” at that moment that could lead your thoughts to spiral to the bad place, and instead plan out, test, and practice a more adaptive and performance-enhancing response. For some, it might be looking at the score and visualizing how they want to start. For others, it might just be getting into a meditative state. There are some who might want to keep headphones on, listening to something that helps them get pumped up.
As far as interrupting that destructive thought spiral of doom, this is going to sound overly simplistic, but getting into the moment by redirecting your focus on the present moment and what it is you want to do is probably the most important skill we can develop for maximizing our chances of performing optimally. It’s a little like sight-reading effectively. If you let your mind wander too far ahead, or let your eyes take a peek at what you just missed, or let your thoughts go away from the music entirely, you’re toast. We can’t really think of too many different things simultaneously, so if you can keep redirecting your thoughts back to what you want to say, to sound, phrasing, shaping, an internal pulse, something that is relevant to your music-making in this very moment, it prevents you from engaging in the kind of thoughts that tend to derail your performance.
Performance psychologist Noa Kageyama, Ph.D. is on the faculty of The Juilliard School and the New World Symphony. Formerly a conservatory-trained violinist with degrees from Oberlin and Juilliard, Kageyama specializes in teaching musicians how to utilize sport psychology principles and demonstrate their full abilities under pressure.
He has conducted workshops at institutions and programs ranging from NEC, Peabody, and Eastman, to The Perlman Music Program and the National Orchestral Institute. Kageyama’s work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Musical America, and Lifehacker. He maintains a coaching practice, offers an online performance enhancement course for musicians and teachers, and authors The Bulletproof Musician blog, which has 100,000+ monthly readers.
For more of Noa Kageyama’s wisdom, please visit his website - http://www.bulletproofmusician.com/. For his free 8 “Practice Hacks” go to this link! (http://www.bulletproofmusician.com/practice-hacks/)