How musicians can get a handle on those pesky negative thoughts
Do you have a common negative thought playing in your head like "My intonation is terrible," or "I'm never going to be good enough to win a job?"
We all have negative thought patterns that whirl around in our heads. As an artist, whose work is deeply vulnerable, your brain is on high alert to keep you safe from harm (or what your brain thinks will cause you harm.) Failure, criticism, embarrassment, or mistakes can all be experiences your brain is attempting to shield you from. Of course, you intellectually understand that making a mistake in performance is not the same as being chased by a saber-toothed tiger, but your brain believes both to be major threats to your safety.
Learning to spot these negative thought patterns and put them in context will take the power and control away from your automatic response and help you intentionally choose your thoughts in any given situation. As you become increasingly aware of the thought patterns your brain has used to keep you “safe,” you will more quickly be able to adapt and confidently move into your music-making.
Let's get a bird's eye view of your inner monologue and begin to understand what your brain is doing. Here is a list of six of the most common negative thought biases and remedies for each.
Have you ever played a solo in orchestra and noticed two colleagues whisper to each other and assumed they were talking about your playing? Or after a tough lesson, have you ever convinced yourself that your teacher regrets accepting you to their studio? Or maybe you weren’t invited to collaborate on a concert and you are sure that your colleagues don’t think you’re good enough? These are all examples of mind reading.
While it is important that we are able to have a grasp on what people in our community are thinking and feeling, when we are feeling insecure our brains can use this ability to reinforce our negative feelings. We are continuously scanning our environment for data to support our internal narrative to keep us safe. A benign comment or an offhanded look sends us into a tailspin when we misinterpret them to mean that other people don’t like us or our playing. Mind reading creates stories about others founded on our own doubts and insecurities.
Remedy: Stay grounded in the facts and remember that other people’s opinions of you (whether real or imagined) are none of your business.
All you wind players out there will resonate with this example. You take your instrument out of the case to warm up and it becomes clear - this is a bad sound day. Didn’t get enough sleep, had too much salt, or practiced too much yesterday and your sound is not where you want it to be. For The Entire Day. Which means that low tonguing in Mahler isn’t going to work later in rehearsal, you are going to struggle through your lyrical excerpts, and you will fatigue quickly on the instrument today. The whole day is lost. There is an increase in dread and anxiety because your brain has overgeneralized a bad warm-up into a bad day. Or week.
Remedy: Practice loving acceptance of each moment, trust the processes you have developed to play your best, and remember that you are keyed into the nuances of your playing that other people are not.
“Emotional reasoning is a thought bias that leads us to use what we feel as evidence for something to be true, even when there might be plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise.” (Julie Smith, Why Has Nobody Told Me This Before?, p.24) Emotions are information, kind of like a light on the dashboard of a car - they tell us something is going on inside of us, but they are not always accurate information about what is happening outside of us. How many times have you walked off stage in the first round of an audition absolutely convinced you are not advancing because of how you feel? You played your excerpts at 95% of your ability and those few imperfections plummeted your mood and assessment of the round. Come to find out you do advance and the emotional spiral you just endured was completely wrong.
Remedy: Feelings are not facts; gather objective information.
The Mental Filter
Imagine your brain is a collander sifting out information that doesn’t support what you believe about yourself and storing the evidence that reinforces your beliefs. If, for example, you believe that you have terrible intonation, you will remember every out of tune unison you played in rehearsal while releasing the memory of all the many, many notes you played beautifully in tune with your section. Or maybe you are tackling a section of your concerto that is loaded with fast articulation. You believe that this piece is too hard for you, so your brain supports that belief by pointing out every wrong note and bowing mistake. The mental filter perpetuates an internal belief system and can trick you into staying stuck in negativity.
Remedy: Micro-celebrations. Intentionally look for and praise your successes.
Musts and Shoulds
Musts and shoulds are the implementers for perfectionism. I must never make a mistake; I should always be in tune; I should win this mock audition; I must stay relaxed. When these thoughts creep in, you are set up for intense emotional distress any time you encounter a failure or a setback. You experience suffering when perfection is not achieved.
Remedy: Transfer your musts and shoulds into healthy striving. Focus on the process and your effort instead of the outcome.
All of Nothing Thinking
We exist in a world of grey. Very little of our human experience falls neatly into black and white, good and bad, win and lose. We are infinitely more complex than that. But, our brains want order, clarity, and certainty. We will reside within thought patterns that provide that simple assessment rather than embody the complex in-betweenness of what it really means to be a human. If I win I’m great, if I lose I should quit. If the conductor gives me positive feedback I’m amazing, if she wants something different I’m terrible. If I nail a hard passage, I feel confident. If I stumble and have to stop in rehearsal, I am incompetent.
Remedy: More than one thing can be true at once. You can be a good player and also have areas that need improvement.
I have created a little cheat sheet for you to download to support your understanding of negative thought patterns. When you are wrapped up in the thought, it can be hard to elevate and determine what strategy your brain is using to protect you. This will help. Once you are aware of your mental cocktail of thought patterns, you will more easily move through them and into healthy, nourishing, and TRUE thoughts instead.
Next Steps and Additional Resources
Here at The Musician's Mindset, we have some incredible resources for developing and implementing mindset practices that will transform how you perform on stage.
First, check out our Personalized Mindset Tools Quiz to discover the mindset strategies perfect for YOU!
Schedule your FREE 30 Minute Call with Katie. It’s free. It’s my pleasure. And it’s the first step to releasing stage fright once and for all.
Founder of The Musician's Mindset
Katie is dedicated to helping musicians overcome stage fright and believe in their own unique artistic voice. She believes live classical music is a powerful antidote for the division, pain, and loneliness pervasive in the culture and strives to support all artists to confidently share their work with the world. She lives in Cincinnati with her husband, three kiddos, a dog, a snake, and a goldfish named Orca.