Practice, as the saying goes, makes perfect, but is the secret to becoming an elite performer really that simple? Not according to performance psychologist Noa Kageyama. He says that reaching the top of your game, be it tennis, athletics or the performing arts, is not solely achieved by putting in the hours. He should know: as a child, Kageyama dedicated himself to mastering the violin. He practised 365 days a year and performed as a soloist with the Columbus Symphony, Springfield Symphony, Welsh Hills Symphony and Oberlin Orchestra.
However, no matter how hard he worked, Kageyama felt that his performances always fell short of his capabilities.
Whilst studying at The Juilliard School, Kageyama signed up for a “performance enhancement” course and instantly became hooked on sports psychology, discovering the techniques and tools elite athletes used to centre themselves and deliver world-beating performances. After Juilliard, he completed a doctorate in psychology at Indiana University.
Kageyama has now put down his violin for good and teaches students and professionals how to boost their confidence, deal with anxiety and become “bulletproof” on stage. He offers coaching and online courses on peak performance and shares his knowledge and wisdom through his Bulletproof Musician blog. He spoke to Line Hilton.
iSing: What are the differences between sports psychology and performance psychology?
NK: It’s actually the same thing. Sports psychology was the first terminology used, Now, the American Psychological Association’s title for that branch of study is Sport, Performance and Exercise Psychology.
iSing: Why do some people thrive under pressure and other people choke?
NK: I think it ultimately comes down to how we practise, but also how we train mentally and how much preparation we do. Singing is a little different because there are physical limitations, but musicians in general can practise all day long without running the risk of too many injuries, which leads to a lot of inefficient practice. There are different types of practice, some geared towards developing skills and others geared towards being able to demonstrate those skills under pressure.
iSing: Why do performers seek your help? What kind of issues do they want to resolve?
NK: Typically, people who contact me are frustrated with their level of performance under pressure or are experiencing anxiety. Understandably, they usually blame below-par performances on nerves, but when we start talking about how we can build confidence and manage focus to perform fearlessly, they realise there is so much more to it. When we discuss things like, “What happens if we make a mistake or something’s not perfect on stage?”, they discover that anxiety is just one part.
iSing: Do you work mostly with singers from a particular genre?
NK: Most of my experience has been with classical folks, although more recently I’ve had inquiries from folks in the rock, pop and jazz areas. For a long time, I wondered if there’s something different about singers in that (rock and pop) area. Maybe they just don’t get as nervous? I think it’s more common to find anxiety in classical folks, but I have discovered that it isn’t absent in these other areas by any stretch of the imagination.
iSing: What are the most common issues you’ve observed in performers who sing?
NK: I think three of the most common concerns raised are nerves, memory and focus. Certainly, nerves don’t help, especially as they tend to be accompanied by physical tension. With memory, often it’s the concern of memory that is more debilitating than any real memory issues. Another key, universal issue is focus: we’re not sure how to work on it, nor are we sure what it means or where our focus ought to be.
iSing: Can you describe what you mean by focus?
NK: It’s important to differentiate focus from concentration. Concentration would be the ability to quieten your mind (through meditation or breathing exercises) so it doesn’t jump from one thing to another. Focus, on the other hand, is what happens once we’ve been able to quieten our mind. We then have all these intentional resources that have been freed-up with which we can think about something, and focus is the deliberate application of those resources to a particular thing or idea. For performers, it’s really important to know exactly where our focus ought to be at any given time and then to be able to keep it there for longer and longer periods, especially as we’re performing.
iSing: How could a performer improve their focus?
NK: We spend the vast majority of our time on the physical scripts or things that our body needs to do in order to be able to perform at its best. We spend very little time choreographing or rehearsing the mental scripts or the attentional scripts. Useful questions to ask include: what should I be thinking about as I’m waiting off stage? What should I be thinking about as I’m walking on stage? What should I be thinking about right before I start singing? When I’m singing, where should I focus? These are things that we just go with in the moment. When we’re rehearsing, they aren’t that high on the pressure scale but, suddenly, when a significant performance moment comes along, we find our mind wandering to unhelpful places. Identify what you should be thinking about at each point and then practise staying there.
iSing: How do you help an individual who is experiencing performance anxiety?
NK: Firstly, understand what exactly they’re getting anxious about. If it’s memory, then we talk about memory. If it’s the physiological element of anxiety, we can do diaphragmatic breathing, muscle relaxation or awareness. We learn to modulate and attenuate the physical response so it doesn’t become something that continues to make performers feel more nervous, escalating the situation.
It is also important to understand that peak performance generally doesn’t happen when we’re totally calm. It seems counterintuitive, because a performer’s experience is often, “I perform worse when I’m freaking out, and I perform better when I’m calmer”.
Research tells us that if we’re freaking out and our mind is racing, we’re not going to perform at our best. Performers need to become much more comfortable physically with being uncomfortable physically, so that it’s not a distraction.
Top athletes embrace the physiological arousal or activation as excitement: many have their best performances when they’re at a moderate-to-high level of activation physically, but their mental stress or nervousness is relatively low.
iSing: What is the biggest misconception artists have about delivering a great or good performance?
NK: That if we’re not totally calm, we won’t be able to perform at a high level, magnified by the fact that, when we feel nervous, it colours our impression of how we sound. When people record themselves and listen back, they discover they don’t sound so bad at all.
iSing: There is a lot of talk about this concept of practising for 10,000 hours to become an expert. What are your thoughts on this theory?
NK: It would be nice if that’s all we needed, but it’s a lot more complicated than that. 10,000 hours is an average, so there’s a range around that average. It also depends on the skill.
There’s a good counterpoint, explained well in a book called The Sports Gene. It talks about people who have achieved a world-class level with far fewer than 10,000 hours. For musicians, it takes more like 15, 20, 25 years, according to psychologist Anders Ericsson, but he found that it’s not just time, nor practice, it’s the right kind of practice – deliberate practice.
iSing: Can you explain deliberate practice?
NK: Ericsson recently wrote a good book on this called Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. Habitually, we play until we hear something we don’t like, then stop, rewind and do it again until it sounds better. Then we move on to the next thing that doesn’t sound so good. What we don’t hear is enough pausing: if you don’t stop and think about what just happened and why, you won’t figure out what you’re going to try differently to achieve a different result. Deliberate practise means having a clear target in mind, but stopping, evaluating and tweaking.
iSing: Can you share your top tips for performers who are experiencing performance anxiety?
NK: Firstly, it’s rarely one thing and frequently a combination: look at lots of little things and combine them until the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. Use a mantra such as “I’m excited” when nerves kick in, rather than saying, “I’m nervous” or “I’m scared”. Say it a few times as you feel the adrenaline kick in.
Secondly, leverage diaphragmatic breathing and use it, not as a singing tool, but as a way to regulate your adrenaline response and release muscle tension on command. These two skills take some work, especially in pressurised situations, but are the most effective ways that we have of making sure that the physical response to stress doesn’t derail our performance.
Decide in advance what to think about, so your brain doesn’t decide for you in the worst possible way at the worst possible moment. I would add that we do too little performance practise, not just running through a song, but recording yourself or having a friend or two over and treating it like a real performance.
iSing: What can people expect in your online course?
NK: It’s an online version of the courses I’ve taught at Juilliard, comprising worksheets, printable workbooks, cheat sheets, videos and slides. It’s accessible to singers of all levels. I find the performer/teachers really cool: they have used the techniques and strategies in the course to help their own performances and then shared them with their students in a concrete, actionable way.
iSing: What is next for you?
NK: Increasingly, I find myself working with teachers, helping them to work with their students. I want to create resources specifically for teachers, so that more musicians are learning performance psychology skills as part of their musical training from an early age.