The Peak-Performance Myth

Arthur Rubinstein rehearsing at the piano in 1962

Arthur Rubinstein, 1962

“When I play, I make love – it is the same thing.”
-Arthur Rubinstein, pianist (The Musician’s Wayp. 207)

If you’ve read much about performing, then you’ve probably run into the terms “peak performance,” “flow,” and “being in the zone.”

Those synonymous labels refer to a zone of optimal functioning, an ideal inner state in which a performer achieves maximum fluency with minimum effort.

When you’re having a peak experience with your music, your creativity seems boundless, and, technically speaking, you feel as though you can’t miss.

Are High-Level Performances Necessarily Peak Performances?
Discussions of peak performance now appear widely, and all of the talk has spawned a problematic myth.

The premise of the myth is that all high-level performances are peak performances and that, therefore, unless a musician attains a peak inner state on stage, the performance falls short.

Nothing could be further from reality.

Musicians deliver inspired performances when they’re in all sorts of inner states. Sometimes things flow easily, sometimes they don’t, and a performer works harder to execute with artistry and precision.

Being in the zone is pleasant, but it’s beside the point. Art is the point, emotion-laden, penetrating art, irrespective of whether the musician is in the zone.

To put it another way, when you perform, the music and the audience are what count. Whether you’re cruising effortlessly or working through every phrase isn’t relevant to the music’s impact or the audience’s experience.

An analogous example would be the athlete who scores a winning goal. The team is victorious, and no one cares whether the scorer was in the zone or whether she wrestled with a throbbing headache and a loosely tied shoe.

Correspondingly, when an audience is transported by beautifully presented music, it’s unimportant whether the musician performed with ease or had to content with distracting thoughts and a stubborn itch.

Of course, every performer wants to be as free as possible on stage. But if you can’t perform well unless you’re in a peak state, then you can’t function as a professional musician.

The Thorough-Preparation Principle
To reach professional standards in your music making, you have to be able to prepare such that you don’t require ideal circumstances to play or sing expertly. You need the flexibility to adapt to varied internal and external situations and then perform without a fuss.

The musicians who lack preparatory skills fall apart when things aren’t just so. After going bust on stage, they often claim that in an earlier practice session they were in the zone and performed flawlessly.

Actually, their fragile learning creates only an illusion of control. But because of their belief in the peak-performance myth, rather than improving their preparation skills, such musicians look for extraneous ways to induce a zone-like sate in which their flimsy foundations might somehow hold up.

To counter the peak-performance myth, I propose The Thorough-Preparation Principle:

When you prepare thoroughly, you don’t need to be in the zone to excel in performance, yet your security provides you with the most direct route into the zone (not that being in the zone matters).

For example, if you’re a thoroughly prepared string player performing in a cold church and your fingers feel stiff, you don’t despair. You breathe and lead yourself through the music. Your fingers may by icy, but your spirit catches fire, and the music soars.

Were you in the zone? Nobody cares, including you.

Making the Most of Each Performance
The peak-performance myth infects countless budding artists with a self-defeating attitude toward public performance.

First, musicians may wrongly believe that getting into the zone is essential to performing. Second, instead of celebrating concerts as unique events, they rate them as peak or not peak, and by default, as either acceptable or unacceptable.

It’s perfectionism by another name.

To make the most of a performance, the key is to be open to your experience and to discover new things in both the music and yourself.

Author Jack Kornfield wrote, “This capacity to be open to the new in each moment without seeking a false sense of security is the true source of strength and freedom in life.”

It’s also the true source of artistry on stage.

That brings me back to the quotation that begins this article. For Arthur Rubinstein, performing and lovemaking were of the same stuff. What did he mean by that?

For one thing, I think he was conveying the sense of immersion that an artistic performer enjoys on stage. That is, when you hold someone closely, you don’t judge; you hug and let your emotions take over.

As you perform, adopt an equally accepting attitude. Prepare thoroughly, and then embrace the music, audience, and performance situation, whatever they bring.

Your listeners will thank you for it.

Excerpted from The Musician’s Way, p. 207-208

Related posts
3 Elements of Showmanship
Becoming a Confident Performer
Countering Perfectionism
Practicing Performance
Stage Power

© 2014 Gerald Klickstein
First posted on the OUP Blog
Photo: wikimedia commons

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10 Responses to “The Peak-Performance Myth”

  1. miraboov said:

    Feb 26, 14 at 02:39

    I love this Arthur Rubinstein quote-
    “I was born very, very lazy and I don’t always practice very long,” he said, “but I must say, in my defense, that it is not so good, in a musical way, to overpractice. When you do, the music seems to come out of your pocket. If you play with a feeling of ‘Oh, I know this,’ you play without that little drop of fresh blood that is necessary—and the audience feels it.”

    It points out how important it is to develop strong musical instincts, which doesn’t happen if you never have to think on your feet and know everything by heart. Quite simply, great musicians have great instincts and they exercise them regularly. And that indefinable quality that makes their performances stand out is a testament to what beautiful instinctive skills they’ve developed.

  2. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Feb 26, 14 at 07:30

    Thanks for contributing! Rubinstein also said, “When I sit in Paris in a cafe, surrounded by people, I don’t sit casually – I go over a certain sonata in my head and discover new things all the time.” (The Musician’s Way, p. 34)
    As you say, musicians exercise their instincts, and mental imaging is a great way to do so. See my post, “Mental Imaging”

  3. miraboov said:

    Feb 26, 14 at 08:17

    My pleasure. Rubinstein had a phenomenal ability to hear every minute detail of even symphonies in his head so such an exercise was a completely different thing for him. Unlike most of us.

    Mental imaging can certainly be a useful tool, but the main way to strengthen a muscle is to use it, a lot. And our instincts are a muscle.
    If you’ve ever worked with West African musicians there is an example of instinctive playing of a very high order. Their ability to sense and react to the subtlest changes in the music and the level of their interaction playing extremely complex rhythms is truly extraordinary.
    But then they learn music completely by instinct so they’ve been exercising that muscle from day one very rigorously.
    It’s something we westerners can learn a lot from.

  4. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Feb 26, 14 at 09:31

    Well said! There’s no substitute for immersing ourselves in actual, creative music making.

  5. Natalie Grimes said:

    Feb 26, 14 at 10:16

    This philosophy is helpful for dealing with performance anxiety – opening oneself to the experience and embracing it, rather than worrying and struggling through it.

  6. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Feb 26, 14 at 10:28

    Thanks, Natalie – I’m gratified to know that you find the concepts helpful!

  7. John Citron said:

    Mar 04, 14 at 18:16

    Rubenstein was and still is one of my favorites of the great pianists. I was greatly inspired by him and it was his recordings that lead me to studying Chopin. :-)

    I agree that it is practice and being prepared that is the crux of it. I’ve noticed this myself and with other performers. On the occasion when I’ve not been prepared well enough, that’s when things have fallen apart.

    The internal rehearsing, mental imaging, reinforcement of the music in the mind, along with the physical practice, keeps things on course even when you, yourself, are not at par. With the mechanics in place, the artist can enjoy the music and present it with feelings without worrying about the technical difficulties. This is why the great concert musicians make things look so easy even whey they’re not.

    Regarding mental imaging… This is an interesting concept. A teacher of mine had photographic memory to a point where memorization for her was a snatch. She’d read through a piece, even look at it from cover to cover, then play it. When it came time for me to memorize, well I can do it, but not without a lot of work. I can picture the music in my mind, but it gets fuzzy. But… mental imaging in my opinion is more than just this physical photograph. There are more parts to this including the musical image – the one that we build as we learn the music and travel the journey it presents. This part though takes time. The physical parts are the easy parts, even with their difficulties. Understanding what the composer is trying to present, and then present that to others properly is another area that is in another world sometimes.

  8. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Mar 04, 14 at 20:44

    Hi John – I too greatly admire Rubinstein and often listen to his recordings. I appreciate you pointing our how mental imaging helps establish the sorts of deep learning that enable us to be secure and expressive even on our off days.
    Like you, I’ve known people with ‘photographic’ sorts of memories, but the mental imaging that I teach is multisensory. As I say in my article – – “When you image, create a multisensory experience and make your imaginary playing or singing as realistic as you can: hear the music in your mind, register tactile and movement sensations, connect with the expressive shape of each phrase.”

  9. John Citron said:

    Mar 06, 14 at 13:32

    I agree Gerald that this mental imaging is truly multi-sensory. Your mind builds a connection between what the fingers, being a pianist in my case, are doing and what is aurally happening, along with other aspects of the music. I learned from the beginning never to rely on the old finger or muscle memory which is so unreliable. This is also the bane of many computer users who forget their passwords. Their fingers know what they are supposed to do, but the mind doesn’t know what the fingers are doing. A simple slip of a finger, being off a row, caps lock on, etc, and they’re hosed. :-)

    One of my teachers, who studied with Beveridge Webster, had me learn music backwards and forwards, literally. When I memorized a Chopin Waltz, I had to be able to play the piece backwards from memory! I can still play most of this nearly 40 years later still from memory, forward of course. This shows how stuck the music had become. Our process also included dividing the music into sections such as A, B, C, etc. Then we used symbols to later identify the music. She would ask me to start at the triangle or circle, and I would have to play from that point. The purpose of this was to establish a quick recovery point should something go wrong.


  10. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Mar 06, 14 at 22:13

    Hi, John. Terrific account of how mental imaging and memorization tie together. Thanks for that.
    FYI, I talk about similar ideas in my post The Four Stages of Memorization.