Set the Bar Low for Your Next Performance

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set bar low

Set the bar low for your next performance.  What?!

We are taught to aim for the best possible performance. We are accustomed to setting the bar high and going for the gold. And that’s a good thing, right?

Not necessarily.

Sometimes setting the bar high can create more pressure, more self-induced pressure. We practice harder and longer as the performance gets closer, and we sweat the details, wanting every nuance to be just right.

That’s where we lose our way.

We begin to put the performance ahead of the music. We unconsciously rate ourselves and our efforts as more important than the composers’ creation or the listeners’ experience. We lose sight of the reason for our performance.

Not only is that the wrong outlook, but it’s a self-defeating one. Our focus shifts from the big picture, the musical mood or picture we want to create, to the nitty-gritty – the notes we want to fix, the noises we want to avoid, or the errors we want to eliminate.

And the narrower our focus gets, the more uptight and anxious we can become. It’s no longer about playing the music; it’s about playing it all just right. That attitude can cause the pressure to build and our stomach to develop butterflies.

Here’s the irony: setting the bar too high can actually cause the very problems you’re practicing hard to eliminate.

I’d like to suggest that you try setting the bar lower for your next performance.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not giving you permission to not practice. Keep working hard and aiming high, but in addition, let’s create a plan, a sort of pressure-release valve, that will help you keep your perspective and your sanity.
The plan I’m recommending is something I call the MPR, or Minimum Positive Result.

It’s simple, but it’s not as silly as it sounds. On the contrary, it’s extremely effective. It works like this:

Get a piece of paper, a pen and imagine your upcoming performance.

This is the question you need to answer: What would be the worst you could play and still feel ok about it? Remember, the words “Minimum” and “Positive.” You have to determine a performance outcome that you would feel is acceptable, even if you wouldn’t feel really proud of it. This isn’t your ideal performance; it’s your “not what I would have wanted, but I did it” performance.

The basic MPR is just getting to the end of the piece without stopping. This is a perfectably acceptable MPR, especially if you’re feeling a little under-prepared or extra nervous. It’s also helpful if you’re not an experienced performer. Sometimes surviving the experience is enough of a goal.

An important part of determining your MPR is making yourself a promise that if you MPR is ALL that you achieve in your performance, you will still pat yourself of the back for having gotten that far. It’s not the best you might have done, but you told yourself it would be good enough, and there’s no going back on your word.

Once you have established your MPR, you can add on some extras. What it, in addition to your MPR, you could manage one more thing? Maybe you could play a really beautiful last chord, or keep a steady tempo? You can pick four or five other small goals to achieve beyond your MPR.

Now write your original MPR and all of the extras on that piece of paper and put it on your magic stand, where it can remind you daily that you don’t have to be perfect to be good enough.

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  • Donatella

    Thank you Anne for your advices, very helpful for beginner performers as me.

    Reply

  • Karen Nelson

    With my first solo performance in two weeks (yikes!), I have been giving this very topic a lot of consideration. Here is what I have come up with in regards to my hour long set.
    MPR: Getting to the end of a piece without stopping.
    + Maintain a recognizable melody.
    ++ Apply a pleasing harmony.
    +++ Keep a steady tempo.
    ++++ Achieve the marked tempo.
    An acceptable overall event would have 3/4 of my pieces meeting the MPR. A successful one would include any of the plus items.
    In addition, I would amend the bold statement at the end of this post to remind myself what every child, harpist, and music aficionado already knows:
    “I don’t have to play the harp perfectly for it to produce a lovely sound.”

    Reply

    • Anne Post author

      Love it, Karen! I would also create one very specific “extra” for each piece, something as specific as “make a nice ritard at the end” of that piece. The more focused your objective, the more likely you are to not only achieve it, but to recognize that you have achieved it. And I am in total agreement with your last statement!

      Reply

      • Paige Watkins

        While we should discuss the performance problems associated with the unrealistic goal of perfection, simply lowering expectations is not the solution. Rather, harpists need to learn how to deal with and perform under the pressures of high goals. Sullivan’s technique of creating an MPR might help beginning performers, however this method is altogether ineffective for professionals and students working towards careers. This is because an MPR will not win jobs, nor competitions.
        I agree that setting a high bar creates self-induced pressure, causing harpists to practice harder and longer hours, “sweating the details”. This, however, is what creates optimal performance. Pressure to perform at a high level is what pushes harpists to prepare themselves for that goal. This issue of purpose in performance is a complicated one as well. Due to the nature of the instrument, harpists get caught up in technicality and they lose sight of the importance of composer intention or audience enjoyment. However, in this competitive music world, there are going to be venues in which a harpists’ “performance” is a job interview, a competition, a jury, or review board. In those settings, absolute precision takes precedence over the higher purpose of music. Graduating, getting and keeping a job, throw “enjoying the performance” out the window. One could also argue that loyalty to composer intentions is what demands such close attention to detail. In most cases, the less beholden the harpist feels to the printed page, the more freely they can perform. In short, this unrealistic, idealized view of musical performance is not realistic in the competitive world of career musicians.
        It’s true that this pressure causes a self-defeating outlook, shifting harpists’ focus onto technicality. She is right that a narrow focus on playing everything “just right” causes physiological reactions such as anxiety and muscle tension, and that setting a high bar causes the problems you’re practicing to eliminate. It is for this exact reason however, that harpists need to learn how to deal with these issues instead of avoiding the pressure of high-stakes performing. Dr. Don Greene, performance psychologist and part-time faculty at the Colburn School of Music, trains musicians in dealing with stress and mistakes in performance (http://dongreene.com/live/. With the right performance skills, there is a way to perform well under any amount of pressure, without lowering expectations.
        The concept of Minimum Positive Result is very problematic. Sullivan’s claims about its effectiveness are true only depending on what one would consider a successful outcome. As a harpist, I would not get a positive result by asking myself, “What would be the worst you could play and still feel ok about it?” Students will not progress and achieve at high levels under the goal of “acceptable outcome”. Without the danger of failure, there is no push to succeed. If a harpist has in mind a barely “acceptable outcome”, that is exactly the result they will get. On the contrary, striving for perfection will result in a high performance level. Shoot for the stars and you’ll land on the moon. Settling for an acceptable performance will directly affect the way a harpist practices, as well as their ambitions. “Surviving the experience” is only an acceptable goal for beginning students just getting started with performing. Another highly problematic point that Sullivan makes is that harpists should “pat themselves on the back” for achieving an MPR. The acceptance of mediocrity and “good enough” cannot create high achievement and ambition. “You don’t have to be perfect to be good enough”, but you have to strive for elusive perfection in order to make progress towards high level playing.

        Reply

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