Do you think differently during practice and performance? You should! To explain why, here’s a conversation I had with a student recently. Preparing for an upcoming performance, she told me, “It’s so hard to keep everything I’m working on in my head while I play! I don’t know how I’ll do it when I perform.”

Here’s the secret: you shouldn’t think about what you’re working to improve when you perform, only when you practice.

When we practice, our thoughts are circular. They look like this:

In practice, we find a technique or a tripping point we want to master, then make any corrections we need, then move on to another technique, and so on. We check in with all these points continually throughout our practice, circulating between them so that we can change our habits and improve in the long term. Practice thoughts are about giving repeated attention to fine details. The practice mindset works on the premise that you can play something a thousand times, each time a little better than the last.

Here are some examples of good practice thoughts:

  • “Is my pinky on its tip?”
  • “Is my left wrist straight?”
  • “Am I bowing with flat hair?”
  • “Did I play the correct notes?”

When you perform, your goal is not to create new habits or improve your playing through many repetitions, as it is in practice. After all, you can’t play a tune a thousand times in a performance—usually, you’ll play the tune just once. 

For some folks, these seem like high stakes, but I think these parameters can actually be very freeing. Hear me out: since you can only play the tune once, your goal in a performance is not to improve your playing or to play it perfectly. Your goal is to do your best with the skills you have in that moment. In a performance, you are enough exactly as you are, whereas in practice, you’re always striving for a goal a little beyond your reach.

With this in mind, it’s probably evident that juggling six thoughts about challenging techniques is not going to help you give your best performance. What will help you is being mindful and present in the tune as you perform. That means that in a performance, our thoughts should be linear, not circular. They should look like this:

When you perform, it’s not your job to revisit notes you’ve already played. It’s not your job to hold all your technique goals in mind. It’s your job to be calm and collected. Your body will remember what you’ve taught it in the hours and hours of practice you’ve logged, if only you let your mind get out of the way. 

Think about it: why is it that, during performances, many people struggle with mistakes they would never make otherwise? It’s because their thoughts look something like this:

When you get out of the way and focus only on what’s before you, you’ll be amazed how your performance improves.

Here are some examples of good performance thoughts:

  • “I’m ready to start my song—it sounds like *this* and begins on the A string.”
  • “I’m in the second A part.”
  • “Here comes that variation in the B part.”
  • “This is fun!”

See the difference?

And for those of you freaking out right now, don’t worry—you’ll still have a chance to check on your technique before you start playing. When you’re getting ready to start, make sure you have a solid bow hold, you’re in tune, and you feel relaxed. After your initial set-up, though, give yourself permission to let go of technical thoughts. 

At that point, calmly talk yourself through the song part by part, section by section. Think of where you are and what comes next. That’s it. No need to think about what you’ve already played, and no need to think more than a part ahead of where you are.

You’ve got this. Play because you love it and play because your audience loves it. When you perform, those are the most important things you can remember.

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