Regulating your emotions for better performance

Tennis great Billie Jean King is fond of saying that “pressure is a privilege.” The advice comes from a great athlete but applies equally to musicians. According to this wisdom, those who perform under pressure—whether athletes, musicians, or students taking an exam—are not burdened by an onerous task, but are in fact privileged to be in a situation where the pressure is on and the expectations are high. In other words, competition brings out the best in us, and those who compete are lucky to do so.

The psychology of athletes has been well studied, but that of musicians, less so. (That probably reflects that fact that sports is a gargantuan business compared to music.) Nonetheless, the findings of sports psychology can presumably be applied to music since both fields require performance under pressure.

Emotion regulators. In both fields, those who perform best have learned how to regulate their emotions. In a recent study of athletes, summarized by music psychologist Noa Kageyama in his blog at, four strategies for managing emotions emerged at the top. Athletes in the study went through a variety of different emotional states as they competed, but the best athletes—those with the best objective performance—used four specific ways to regulate their emotions: physical preparation, positive self-talk, planning, and impression management. Here is how they might apply to musicians:

  1. Physical preparation. For musicians, getting ready to perform may include such things as playing scales, long-tones, and other types of warm-ups, such as stretching, breathing, and yoga.

  2. Positive self-talk. With this emotion regulator, your inner dialogue is positive and supportive. Instead of saying, “How could I have played a wong note there?” you might say, “Thank goodness I finally made my first mistake.”

  3. Planning. This regulator calls for visualizing a successful performance, imagining how each piece will start and what to do in case of a mistake or other problems. In this case, one “hears” and imagines the performance before actually getting on stage. Of course, “hearing” during the performance is also essential, as I’ve written in an earlier blog post.

  4. Impression management. This regulator calls for trying to act more confident than you feel, controlling how you appear to others. Years ago I saw the trumpet player Rolf Smedvig in concert. He was known as a virtuoso, but on that evening he wasn’t performing his best. Nonetheless, he took a chest thrusting bow after each solo. I wonder whether he wasn’t doing some” impression management” on the audience.

We know the four emotion regulators the best athletes use. But what are the emotional tar pits, the places to avoid? The worst things you can focus on: catastrophizing, self-blame, rumination, and expressive suppression.

  1. Catastrophizing. Here you worry about all the bad things that could occur and give too much weight to problems. A missed note becomes a judgment about your ability as a musician.

  2. Self-blame. With this harmful emotion regulator, you remind yourself of all the things that you should have done after it is too late to do anything about it. “I should have practiced more. Why didn’t I practice more?”

  3. Rumination: Here, you dwell on the bad parts of performing, such as sweaty hands, shakiness, and feelings of nervousness. The key word is “dwell.” Those side effects of performing may occur, but should not be focused on.

  4. Expressive suppression. This often-tried but still unhelpful technique involves trying to convince yourself that you are not nervous. As I’ve said elsewhere, you cannot deceive yourself when performing. You may try to pretend you’re cool as a cucumber, but you know you’re doing something under pressure.

P.S. One reader of this blog requested that I present the information in an audio format, essentially a podcast. I cannot promise anything, but I am looking into this and will let you know whether this is possible for me.