Today we have the distinct pleasure of talking with Noa Kageyama, whose website and podcast The Bulletproof Musician is known as the leading source for the most up-to-date research-based insights and strategies for practice and performance in music. He tackles topics like deliberate practice, accelerated learning, stage fright, and recovering from mistakes, and does so not only as a musician himself but as an expert in the fields of music and sports psychology.
Noa started in music as a toddler and went on to study at Julliard – but as you’ll learn in this conversation, that seemingly straight-line path to professional musician success suddenly paused at that point and took a fascinating new direction which led to Noa’s success today as a respected expert in the psychology of performance in music.
In this conversation we talk about:
- The connection between “practice mode” and “performance mode”.
- What you should be thinking about during a performance.
- The third area alongside practice and performing where Noa gained new insights that transformed his enjoyment of his musical life.
The team here at Musical U, we are all massive fans of The Bulletproof Musician and we’re often resharing Noa’s articles and episodes, so we’ve been really looking forward to having him join us here on the podcast and it lived up to all expectations.
There are a ton of potential mindset breakthroughs waiting for you in this episode – enjoy! And don’t forget we love to hear from you at musicalitypodcast.com/hello any time you particularly enjoy an episode or have thoughts to share. So do let me know what you thought of this one, at muscialitypodcast.com/hello
Listen to the episode:
Links and Resources
- The Bulletproof Musician
- TED Talk: How I climbed a 3,000-foot vertical cliff – without ropes, by Alex Honnold
- TED Talk: The transformative power of classical music, with Benjamin Zander
- Full interview with Shawn Johnson on Freakonomics
- This is Your Brain on Music, by Daniel Levitin
- Interview with Mark Kosower, principal cellist of the Cleveland Orchestra
- “Beyond Practicing” course
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Noa: This is Noa Kageyama, from the Bulletproof Musician, and you’re listening to the Musicality Podcast.
Christopher: Welcome to the show Noa, thank you for joining us today.
Noa: Thank you for having me.
Christopher: So, I believe you were fairly seriously into music from a young age, is that right?
Noa: Yeah, I started when I was two and a half. I went to my first Suzuki camp in Ithaca, New York. My cousins had already been starting Suzuki, and so they had some small violins lying around, and as the story goes it was my idea, like I ran around the house saying “oa wike mugas”, and once my parents figured out what I was saying, it’s like, “Oh, well why don’t we just go visit the cousins and have you do something over the summer.” And so I did, and you know at two and a half, pretty much all I learned that first summer was how to bow, I think to a D major chord, is what they use by default.
So, it wasn’t a particularly auspicious beginning, and even for a couple of years after that I’d spend a lot of time in lessons just kind of lying on the ground, and talking about the carpet, and to make conversation about completely irrelevant things, and I didn’t understand what I was supposed to do. But, then I think I saw another student’s lesson, and I was like, “Oh. That’s what you’re supposed to do.” So then I kind of picked up, and my mom is from Japan, and she was reading Dr. Suzuki’s books, and his philosophy and so when I was in kindergarten she took me out of school and we flew over to Japan and studied with them for about half a year.
So yes, from about the time I was four or five, it started getting to be a pretty big part of my life, and continued on that way. Honestly, until I got to college, I mean I was … we’re driving from central Ohio to Chicago on the weekend for lessons, and all my lessons were at least 45 minutes or an hour, two hours away. One point I had four different teachers, all at the same time, and three different cities, and flying to New York on the weekends, and high school for pre college at Juilliard, and so you know this is presumably what I was going to do for my life, and it was pretty central to everything.
My life revolved around it, my parents lives kind of ended up revolving around it. So yeah, then I got to college and I still assumed that I would be a musician when I grew up, but in hindsight I guess it makes sense, I ended up wanting to get out of orchestra. I didn’t want to sit there a couple of times a week, working on the same repertoire for all semester, because I’d been going to the Aspen Music Festival for my summers, and there it was a completely new set of repertoire every week. So, you know in nine weeks we’d go through nine different programs. It’s like, This is awesome.”
And the idea of spending a whole semester working on one program, just kind of made me die a little bit inside, si I mean that’s normal for college systems. I mean, you can’t get through repertoire that quickly, but yeah, so I found a loophole that I exploited, where basically I pretended to do the double degree program so I could keep taking lessons and doing chamber music and keep my scholarship, but then really only took classes in the college. And so, when I was done,
I graduated with my college degree and went to Juilliard, presumably to continue my path towards being a musician, but then when I got there, I hadn’t really spent all my time being a musician, you know like my friends were there, and I hung out with them, but I only hung out with them like in nine week chunks out of a year. I didn’t know what it looked like the rest of the year, and so to be around people who really truly loved music and wanted to be in music for their lives was a new experience, I suppose, in a way.
Christopher: Let’s pause there for a second then if you wouldn’t mind, and just talk a little bit about that journey for you, if it wasn’t what your contemporaries at Juilliard had been through. You mentioned you were starting off with the Suzuki method, for any listeners who aren’t familiar with that, could you just give kind of a nutshell summary of that approach, and what’s distinctive about it?
Noa: Sure. Well, this is kind of my memory of it and I’m probably not doing it justice, but the idea was Dr. Suzuki reasons that children don’t need to be taught how to speak their native language, but through trial and error and just listening all the time they kind of pick it up, in a more effective way than those of us who learn a second language later do, oftentimes, and so a central part of this, at least in my experience, was learning by listening.
So, my mom would buy these, they were called endless cassette tapes, like 20 minutes of a cassette tape that would play on a loop, and she’d just record whatever I was working on, on that tape, and then I would listen to it continuously throughout the day and then by the time I was even picking up instrument to play it, I’d kind of have it in my ears, if not to a degree even in my fingers, and you know parents are very much involved, and not in a pushy necessarily kind of way, although I guess it can become that way sometimes.
But, yeah so there’s a lot of parental involvement, there’s a lot of group classes there’s a lot of listening and playing, for me even there’s a good bit of improvisation at an early age, it’s kind of composing things on the spot. And so that was my memory of being a Suzuki kid.
Christopher: Interesting. And if it’s possible to look back that far, and be objective with your adult viewpoint, what would you say your motivation was like over those first 10 or 20 years, in terms of you know, was it your parents pushing you towards this career in music? Was it something you just felt drawn to do? Was it something where you saw the results of your practice, and it motivated you to achieve more and more? How were you thinking about music through that process?
Noa: I think for me I had started so young that it was just what I did, and things came relatively easy to me and one thing leads to another. And I never really stopped to question why I was doing what I was doing, it was just what my life looked like, and prepare for the next performance, or for the next lesson, for the next competition and that’s music festival, and certainly there are lots of moments where it was extremely gratifying and meaningful, in one way or another. But I just never really ask myself, is this what I truly want to spend my life focused on. Because obviously, there are some moments where I didn’t want to practice, lots of moment in fact where I didn’t want to practice, and it was like pulling teeth, and tough times and I had to give up a lot of things to be able to spend the time on music and so forth. But, for me, and this is not maybe the most compelling answer, but I just never thought about it. I just did it.
Christopher: I see, and you said something interesting there, which was that it came relatively easily to you, but at the same time, you said you were taking lessons with four different teachers at one point. You were travelling great distances, putting in a lot of hours. There was clearly a lot of hard work and grind involved in getting to Juilliard. Would you say when you arrived there, your kind of hard work and disciplined practice was typical, or were most of your contemporaries there fitting the mythology, or the story of someone who just kind of could do it and it didn’t have to think too hard or work too hard at it?
Noa: Well, I think it varies from person to person. I mean certainly some people have an easier time of certain things than others. But what kind of led to me actually starting to ask myself the question of do I want to do this or not, is that you know like I said, I did do a lot of work, even though it was a struggle sometimes to get myself to do that work and because in hindsight you know in comparison, doing a piece in psychology, actually was quite easy, relative to the work of becoming a musician. And so anything I think I would have to do is easy compared to what it is that I did all throughout my first 20 some years of my life.
Even though I really didn’t do as much as I could have I talked to any teacher that I ever studied with and they’ll say I don’t probably say that they wish I would have practiced more. So it’s something like my peers are certainly doing a lot more practicing than I was and so forth but so what. What ended up getting to me Juilliard, is that I realized that I had this ability to do things but not enough of the motivation and desire to really dig into it and get into the nuts and bolts and go the extra mile and so forth, and I realized that that was always going to frustrate me that there were people who were more talented less talented but they really wanted to be doing what they were doing. And I was looking for the first excuse to get out of it, or for a reason to stop and not go the extra mile.
And so when I started kind of seeing that I was like well OK. So this is gonna be a very frustrating career for me there. You know here where I’m not going to be able to get to the level playing that I know I can and I’m going to see other people who I don’t think have as many perhaps natural gifts but who because they want it so much and they love it and they enjoy spending time here are potentially going to start over the course of years of our careers really start getting to a higher and higher level of playing that I will probably feel I could get to but will never get to.
And I started seeing … because you know this frustration was always kind of there on some level, just like wow you know I can play better, but I’m not and I can’t seem to find a way to get myself to do what I need to do, and do what I know I need to do to get there. Then that’s when I started thinking, what you know does that mean maybe that I don’t actually want to do this. And so that’s what kind of led to that.
I was even having a conversation with some friends and a quartet was playing and we were talking about what we do if we won the lottery three of them immediately knew or had ideas on what they would do and they were all in music and I didn’t know what I would do, but I knew that it wouldn’t be a music, and so it’s like, huh, that’s so weird why would you say you don’t have to be a musician and why would you still do it. And essentially, they all wanted to, and I thought that was I thought I was normal thought that every musician you know, if you won the lottery you would not play music anymore and you know all these things came again. It’s like wow, that’s so weird. Maybe I should really think about this a little bit more.
Christopher: Yeah. That sounds like a bit of a spiritual crisis.
Christopher: So, how did you proceed from there, what did you do about this sense that you might not be on the right track after all?
Noa: Well, once I realized that I didn’t have to be a musician because I had this I had a girlfriend at the time is not my wife and we’ve been together since we were like 19, 20ish. So you know we went to college together and we kind of went from being kids. I think we’re still kind of like kids, we’re not fully adultish yet, but she, I think was already a big part of my life and said Yeah you know I like it’s fine. Like we kind of had this pact that we would both be musicians, she was pianist. So, she is a pianist, and she said, yeah, you know, but you don’t have to know that, like we’ll still be fine if you’re not a musician. We’ll be fine like whatever it is like it’ll be fine. And so I think that was actually hugely reassuring to me and freeing. It’s like, oh wow.
And it just kind of like … the world opened up and I was like wow, well if I could do a thing like how cool would that be? Like, I wouldn’t have to practice tomorrow, or next week or prepare for this thing or that thing. And then I talked to my parents, and there were silence on the phone at first, even though you know they weren’t like the pushy parents that I think some people have. It’s just that I think my mom’s perspective was, here’s this kid who seems to have some talent, or the teachers seem to suggest that he has the ability in this. I want to make sure that I do everything I can. so that my son has every opportunity that he has. And I think that was really kind of a central focus of making sure that I had every opportunity so she wouldn’t regret not having given me every possible advantage, teache, music festival and so forth.
And so I think that was her driving motivation and it didn’t really have to be the music. It’s just that’s the thing that I seem to be most naturally inclined to do. So you know after the silence passed she basically said Well don’t just quit without some other plan. But yeah there’s something that he really would rather do than it’s you know it’s your life you’re gonna have to live it long after we’re gone. So basically she kind of gave me the blessing to pursue other things and then at the time I was taking this performance psychology class with Don Green, sports psychologist, who was teaching at Juilliard. And that seemed kind of intriguing to me. And it’s not like the clouds parted and the choir of angels sang, it wasn’t that sort of a-ha moment, but it was this is cool. I wonder what happens if I follow this path a little bit longer?
Christopher: Nice. And what had your relationship to performing been like up to that point, when you were taking this course on performance psychology, where you’re coming into it thinking, “I can … Performance isn’t a big deal, this really necessary.” Or were you someone who’d struggled with that? Or how had performing been for you? Because you mentioned competitions and concerts and so on, you clearly had a lot of experience by this point.
Noa: I think I was probably in the normal range of things, like I wasn’t on the extreme end of things where I would break out into hives and have a panic attack backstage and you know throw up and say I wasn’t on the extreme end of things but I’d certainly had my share of panicky moments and and like freak outs and catastrophic moments on stage because the nerves and the shaky bow, and the memory slips and all that. And I’d also had good performances great days things going amazingly well better even than in lessons and practice and so forth. But the vast majority of my days were the frustratingly subpar ones where instead of you know I could live with it being like 80 90 percent of what I knew I could do. But when it’s like 60 percent like continue you know constantly consistently 60 percent and over the course of weeks months years and most performances are like having that 50 60 70 percent range you start wondering why that is. And especially when you’re nervous and things don’t feel good.
You start thinking, well that’s probably part of the equation and how can I get rid of that, and how can I find a way to have more of those good days, because the good days are awesome? You know, we’ve all had good days. And it’s like that’s so much more fun. It’s like the Adam Sandler movie, Happy Gilmore, where like he hits a hole in one, and it’s like, oh.Well that’s so much easier, why don’t I just hit all hole in ones, and just be done with it then. It’s kind of like that. So, yeah that’s what led me to be curious about this course, because I’d never heard of sports psychology, and you know back in the 90s, I think relatively few people had, and I didn’t know what that would entail I thought it was just kind of therapy for musicians but, it turned out not to be at all what I expected.
Christopher: And so, can you think back to anything in particular that caught your attention in that course? What was it that you were sharing that resonated with you?
Noa: Well, I think what really got to me is that that’s how concrete everything was, it wasn’t just, oh you know, imagine the audience in their underwear or it wasn’t just it’s like evaluating why you care so much about what other people think and how can you change your mindset and reframe things. It wasn’t … I mean there’s certainly some of that which can be really helpful but a lot of it was very concrete drills and exercises and things that we had to practice skills that we had to develop like the like. Even little things like you know I would just practice, I wouldn’t be particularly aware of the thoughts going through my mind as I was playing. But one of the things we have to do is start monitoring, you know, what is that internal dialogue like? Like are we being constructive and kind of talking to ourselves as a teacher, or coach would?y where it’s things like okay, that note seems to be consistently flat.
You know ,what’s going on with your thumb? What’s going on with your elbow?. It may be a matter of you know the frame of your hand, or the shape of your fingers, is it maybe you’re holding on with your thumb a little bit too much before you shift your elbow around the instrument? Or maybe you’re pulling it around too late, or you’re not preparing your hand in advance. Just a split second too late so that’s why you end up brushing the shift and right so it’s kind of like breaking it down and running these little tiny experiments in your head. Okay, what happens if I release my thumb a fraction of a second sooner? What if I bring my elbow around before I release them? What happens if I get my hand shape in position for the note I’m arriving at instead of the note that I’m actually playing?
And testing all these things out, and finding out if that works or if it helps. Or you know am I instead of my head being like you know why can’t you play in tune like you’re never gonna get this like you suck like you know how are you going to you know why do you think you have any chance of winning this competition or you know. So as a critic in your head and the kind of doomsday scenarios playing out or is it like problem solving and that’s a little things like that I didn’t realize were part of what athletes do and what the coaches help them with and then even more concrete things like you know what should we be thinking about when we’re performing. Should we be thinking about, you know, mechanics and technique, or should we be thinking about how we want to shape the sound to come out of the instrument, or the shaping of the phrase? So, yeah. So I think a lot of it just surprised me by how practical it was.
Christopher: Fascinating. So, what you just talked through there, was a really interesting blend of performance mindset and practice technique, really. And those are, I think the two big themes that you specialize in, in your blog and your podcast the Bulletproof Musician, and it’s what musicians and music educators around the world know and respect you for, is your expertise on those two topics. But it might have surprised some people listening, to hear you move so fluidly between those two things, because I asked you about performance psychology, and actually we were getting into the nitty gritty there of fingering technique and trying out different things. So, how do you think about the relationship between practicing and performing?
Noa: It’s interesting, because I never really thought about them as being different things. I thought you just practice as much as you can and then you get on stage and see what happens, which of course is not … I mean now I know it’s not the most effective way to think of things but also even you know in my first couple decades of being a musician it’s kind of nerve racking to just go on stage cross your fingers and hope for the best and feel like oh that’s not good. Then I guess I should have practiced more. But there’s nothing you can do about that on the day of the performance even though I certainly tried to cram as much as I could in the hours that I did have so.
So now, looking back in hindsight and this is something that I think athletes again not much more deeply than the musicians too. There’s a diving coach Jeff Huber who coached a few Olympic teams and recently retired from the Indiana University diving program but now is in charge of education for USA Diving, and himself has a page in educational psychology, and he says that he often told his athletes that he just had two goals for them. One goal was to help them learn how to dive better. The other goal was to help them learn how to dive better in competition and that the two are seemingly you know there’s certainly a lot of overlap but those are two unique challenges that require different methods of preparation to be successful in teaching. So in that regard.
Because a position when we’re practicing effectively, we have to self monitor right you have to use your ears to listen really carefully to what’s coming out of your instrument, whether it’s intonation or sound or even rhythm and timing and pacing and so forth. So, we really need to cultivate our ears so that we can pick up on all these tiny details and imperfections and in one sense that we can stop make adjustments to the mechanics that produced those and see if we can find in the home the mechanics of producing sound, so that we get more what it is that we want, so we can say the things that we want to say through the sound that we produce.
So, they’re self-monitoring involved in that. There’s analysis mechanics critique judgment as is good or bad that I know so helpful. But it’s pretty natural for us to think in those terms all of which are useful for skill development and refinements and improvement. And if that stuff isn’t there then we tend to just kind of go through a trial and error. Method of improvement kind of on an implicit level where it’s like riding a bike he’s sort of figured out like you don’t actually know the mechanics of how to ride your bike and figure out just sort of trial and error your way to it.
And so when you look at people who are practicing kind of inefficiently that’s kind of how they practice and when like, if you look at younger kids, or even adults who haven’t really figured out how to practice it, they’re just kind of playing the same thing over and over and over, until it starts to sound better, but they’re not quite sure what they did differently to make it sound better. They just know that it kind of is better, and that’s … in talking to them, I’m sure Dr. Ericson or Jason Heim, and perhaps others, you’ve gotten a sense of how important it is to really stop, problem solve, analyze, and so. So, that’s that’s really essential for its development and that’s what actually makes practicing more fun because it gives you something to try and to think about so forth.
The problem with all that though, is when you take that same approach or mindset on stage you’re still keeping score like as each note goes by like that was flat that was sharp. That was my rushing. Like you’re analyzing, you’re critiquing, you’re judging, or you’re basically using the critic in your head primarily as you’re trying to perform, and you’re not using your ability to create and to shape things and to be spontaneous and to be improvisational and to kind of you know enjoy the interplay between you and the pianist or your other band mates onstage which is kind of the magic of performing not just for the audience, but for the musicians too.
I mean, trauma can be so much fun when you’re really in the moment and in creating so far so. So it’s a little bit more abstract I suppose to try to describe what performance looks like, but it’s I think really centered around creating and focusing on the sound that you want, as opposed to the sort of methodical planning and analysis and the slow deliberate process of problem solving, because if you try to problem solve on stage. I mean there’s nothing you can do about it anyway. It’s already happened constantly reacting to something you can’t do anything about anymore I see.
Christopher: I see. And I think if people have been listening to this show for a while they will have heard, as you say Professor Erickson or Jason Heim, talking about deliberate practice, and how that kind of framework can transform your experience of practice and the results you get. It was helpful to hear you talk just now about the mindset or the mental activity that can, and should, be going on for a good performance.
But is there anything kind of more concrete, or more tangible, we can think about on the performance side, any equivalent framework as it were to deliberate practice that can help someone actually feel like, “Yes. I am changing the way I approach performing in these five steps, or these six aspects.” Or is there anything you think about in those terms, when it comes to performing?
Noa: Yeah. So, this sounds sort of obvious and I think a lot of people who have stumbled into it and I think a lot of teachers have advocated for it and talked about it but I think the only difference is we don’t make it a deliberate focus of our performance mode practice. So there’s actually an interview that’s coming out I think a couple weekends with the principal cellist of the Cleveland Orchestra Mark Kosower. And we’re talking about you know what he thinks about when he’s performing and he’s someone you know. I’ve known him since we were maybe not even in high school but since high school we went to Aspen together and he’s always been to me, anyways just always seemed to be this natural performer, just everything came easy to him.
Like, I’ve never heard him play a note out of tune, which is maybe not true but it feels like it’s true that I’ve never heard him play another tune and sound just everything is he’s always been awesome. I mean somebody asked me who your favorite cellist is even from that I’d say Mark like just just awesome to listen to and so no surprise that he’s doing what he’s doing now and he’s had the career that he has. So you know but as kids I’m not going around as a music festival asking if you are what you think about when you thinking about that.
So, I never asked him and then a month or so ago, I finally asked, well yes, what do you think about when you’re performing? What’s going through your mind? And when you asked musicians it’s a lot of times they’ll say one of two things. So, either say nothing or they’ll say the music neither, which I think are particularly helpful because how do you think about nothing. And it’s also not true. That’s not true that they’re not nothing about it. I think if you really kind of dig further you’ll find out that the reason why it feels like nothing and that’s their sort of default answer is because it’s not verbal. They’re not saying oh do this now or do this now. It tends to be that they’re much more engaged and just processing sound so they’re thinking in terms of sound baby colors maybe images but it tends to be those sorts of things.
So, it feels like nothing. Or if they say they’re thinking about the music it’s that again it’s kind of too abstract to know exactly what that means, and so much case he says that you know on a good day he’s maybe monitoring what’s happening with about 15, 20 percent of his brain, like it’s sort of like hearing that’s used to do this to my mom all the time I’d be in a car she’d try to lecture me on this two hour drive after lesson and I’d hear words coming out of her mouth but I wasn’t really listening to anything that she was saying.
So, it’s sort of like that like you hear what’s happening just enough that you can make adjustments in the moment, but you’re not really listening to it on the other hand he said you know, primarily what he’s got going on in his head, is he’s conceiving of sound like he’s he’s creating sound it is the kind of sound that he wants what he’s going for and whether or not he gets it is also not part of the processing.
It’s just this is what I want. So, you know, this is what brass folks have talked about in the brass world. This idea of just focusing on creating sound in your head and continuously aiming for it and striving for it and then trusting your fingers your hands to do what they need to do. And if they don’t do what you need them to do you record yourself and practice and so forth, means you need to practice more and figure out how to make that habit strength a little stronger, so that you can fill your mind up to focus on what you want and trust your fingers to produce something in that neighborhood for you.
Christopher: Gotcha. So, you described two different ways, that if we call them the natural performers, think about performing or what’s going on in their head when they perform. Are those learnable attitudes? You know, can you train yourself to think about nothing or to think with only 15 to 20 percent of your mind, assuming you’ve put in the practice and you have the dexterity and the physical ability to play it well?
Noa: Yeah. And so, this is where for me it’s two parts one it’s identifying what exactly do I need to think about when I’m performing for some. Some people really focus like Julie Landsman horn player who recently retired from the Met for her a lot of her internal processing while performing is rooted in subdivisions they’re kind of counting not counting numbers necessarily but feeling this pulse internally in her head you know for markets creating sound and it’s a lot of other people to screen sound. And actually, there’s this great Freakonomics podcast episode, with gymnast Shawn Johnson, who and she was talking at one point about how important it was for her to have not just the physical choreography of her routine but the mental scripts or the mental choreography or the routine as well, so that her brain didn’t have the ability to go and think thoughts that would potentially sabotage your performance.
She needed to know exactly what to think about each second of a routine. So, 90 seconds, so she needed to script that 90 seconds mentally, as well, so that her brain didn’t have an opportunity to go off and sabotage her performance. And so for musicians to anytime you’re doing a run through every time you have a lesson any time you’re playing for other people or recording yourself. The idea is to practice making that that switch from practice mode where you’re self-monitoring and critiquing, to performance mode where you’re not listening to mistakes and you’re you’re practicing focusing on the things that you know in a performance are going to be most helpful to you. And over time that becomes a tangible feel you can feel yourself flipping a switch from practice mode where you care about mistakes to performance mode where you can’t afford to.
And it’s fun actually, it’s scary at first, and it feels uncomfortable and doesn’t feel right. But when you get used to it I mean that’s how you get into the zone more consistently and have those performance experiences that are gratifying and feel like you’re flying in time stands still and so forth. And also the audience responds better. So, it’s kind of a win, win. Except that it’s really scary to do that unless you’ve practiced it and feel comfortable and can trust that things are gonna go fine. If you flip that switch and if in fact they’re going to go better.
Christopher: That’s super interesting. You know, often people talk in terms of autopilot, when discussing, you know, how to make performances successful and you need to practice till the point where your fingers just automatically do what they mean to. But, I think hearing you talk through it there, what was most interesting, was that there is still an active, conscious effort, being applied there. You know, you might be on autopilot, in some sense with your fingers doing what they’ve been trained to do, but you are still choreographing your thoughts, or you’re still paying attention to shaping the sound, or you’re still focusing on the moment, and how you’re bringing that autopilot into the world.
And I think that’s a subtlety that’s often missed out on, and as you say there, if you’re purely thinking in terms of, “I practice until it’s autopilot, and then I just step up on stage”, that performance is still pretty terrifying. Right? Because you don’t know if you’re autopilots going to work. So, I think it’s super interesting that there are practical things that you can do to make sure your prepared autopilot, turns into a really powerful performance.
Noa: I think if it as semi-autopilot and you know I’m as excited as anybody about the day when I don’t have to drive a car and I can just let it drive me where I want it to go but we don’t. So yes. So I think of it … it’s on my part autopilot, the sense that we have cruise control now and that’s essential I think what our goal is for onstage. You know we trust the muscles to do what we’ve trained them to do. If they don’t do that we should already know, because we will have tested it out in mock performances and so forth beforehand and then can go and practice. But you know, we trust the muscles to do their thing but we never want to put our mind on autopilot because if we put our mind on autopilot, that means our brain is going to think of all sorts of brand. It’s going to think about what we should have on the pizza, what we’re going to have after the performance, it’s going to think about people in the audience and what they’re thinking and what they’re doing.
And we’re going to be thinking about mistakes, that just happen. We’re going to be thinking about what are our colleagues on stage think about what we just did. We’re going to worry about difficult section. Coming up we’re going to worry about memory slips and so yeah, that’s the unfortunate thing is we can unfortunately never put our mind on autopilot. We always have to be kind of in control sort of like you know some of these unfortunate accident to read about where people didn’t have their hands on the steering wheel that kind of trusted the car to do too much for them. And it didn’t. And so, yeah, we always want to have our metaphorical hands on the steering wheel and guiding where we want each phrase to go in our mind. But but then trusting your muscles to do the job for us.
Christopher: Nice. So, another area where this interplay of kind of physical practice and mental activity, and mental exercises comes out, is the idea of mental practice, and this is something I managed to get through, probably 15 years of music education without ever being told about or hearing any mention of. And then I read a book called, I think, “Fundamentals of Piano Practice”, which talked about mental play and using this technique to imagine yourself playing, and you know it’s something we’ve covered more recently at Musical U, in terms of ordination and combining that with the visualization of what you’re doing, and it’s a super fascinating technique that I think isn’t talked about enough, and you had a lovely post on your blog, particularly looking at how effective mental practice is.
So, I wonder if you could just talk a little bit about that, how you can use the kind of self-aware, mental control, that we’ve just been talking about from a performance perspective, but for the actual practice of bringing your repertoire up to standard, or whatever it is you’re working on in music?
Noa: Yeah, you know… and this is something that I think my mom was always very aware of the psychology. I think she says that she took some psychology classes in college and so forth, so she herself when she was teaching she taught Japanese words, kind of envision a successful class before teaching. She would envision meeting people and then being excited about what she was teaching them etc. and so she had me do, I think in line with this is your key listening. She would have not just listened but she would have me imagine myself being the one who is playing whatever it is that I was listening to. So, where my fingers would go like how my bow would be.
And I think that’s how I started, because I remember even being young enough that my mom would make me take a nap before a performance and she’d have me you know as I was lying down to go to sleep imagine myself on stage in the venue playing what the recording is producing and I think of that as assisted visualization because sometimes for folks it can be difficult to create all the details in their head because ideally you want to be able to hear what you want obviously you want to be able to feel the muscle movements and the kinesthetic element of the experience of playing and then even see what it is that you’ll be seeing as you play but maybe as a first step for some folks it can be helpful to just listen to recording that they enjoy of a piece and then with eyes closed or open whatever’s easiest just kind of imagine the motion of the piece and how it’s going to feel as a way of getting into visualization can even move a little bit.
It’s kind of like air guitar just kind of doesn’t have to be exact choreography but certainly can move around a little bit, which is a little bit of research on now recently which suggests that it can be helpful to not just be static, and sit there with your eyes closed but actually move around a little bit. The main thing I think that most people talk about with the visualization though, is that it be vivid and so the more details you can put in in terms of how the movements feel how the you know how your fingertips feel on the string as you shift from one position to the next. You know that the contact point between your bow and the strings, and feeling the rosin kind of give you that little bite like all these little tiny details can be helpful.
And so initially, for folks who haven’t done a lot of visualization, I’ll just have them imagine what it’s like to play a scale just the simple scale no one know about it just really slow even notes even just up one octave and then back down and after visualizing that have them actually play it and say you know what was missing what did you forget about any visualization or how close were they. And have give it a number, maybe it’s six the first time and so, you forgot what’s vibrato would feel like or the contact point between your thumb and the neck of the instrument.
And so, I will try it again and pay attention to those details to add those details into your visualization as you do another visual run through of that scale and then. All right. Now let’s play it again kind of going back and forth a few times to. Think of it as like calibrating the energy to make sure it’s as close to the real experience as it can be. And then oftentimes that will help to give them a sense of what visualization, feels like as it were and then they can start doing it in little tiny doses with certain passages or even if you’re just in the car and you can’t make it as vivid as you would want it to be know as you’re listening to recordings just tapping along on the steering wheel with your fingers to kind of mimic the fingerings that you’re using and I mean I found myself doing it pretty automatically, a lot of the time, just walking around waving for classes, just sitting because you know what else are you going to do?
But of course now, the problem is we have phones, so there’s always something to do. But back then there was we didn’t have phones where these phones you had only made phone calls and so other than reading a book which oftentimes you would carry about because it’s heavy. You just sat right. And so it’s I don’t know maybe things have changed with opportunity for visualization mental practice but it can be a pretty engrossing way to pass the time.
Christopher: And does it have a benefit? I mean, I’m sure people can imagine how this kind of visualization would help with performance anxiety, for example, where you kind of prepared for that moment on stage, but we’re talking about practice, we’re talking about like fingering technique, or dexterity and that kind of thing. Is there a real benefit, or is it just for that enjoyment of immersing yourself in the music?
Noa: Yeah I don’t even know that I would have been doing it for enjoyment. How to make sure that I would sound okay. My lesson or figuring, so, okay so it wasn’t driven by a private benefit, and actually I remember kind of joking with some friends we all took secondary piano at Juilliard who were non pianists and we’d have classes of like three or four people and we’d take turns playing what we were supposed to have worked on that weekend as we’re waiting a lot of times we’re doing mental practice trying to make sure that you know we’re ready to play the thing that we need you to play. So it does have practical usefulness. And for. Musicians for whom you know fingerings. Are an important part of playing more fluidly.
I did do a lot of work on fingering, just trying out different things in my head, and then I’d go to practice on that evening and see which of them really work because sometimes like oh this is gonna be an awesome fingering then you try to go, no, that doesn’t work at all. So it’s not a replacement for practice and certainly because you don’t get that feedback that you need to find out how things are really going to work but it’s better than nothing. It’s actually quite a bit better than nothing though unfortunately not as good as actual physical practice, but it’s a helpful supplement, and certainly like you said, can help with performance confidence if you visualize going on stage.
And so, there’s actually a great TED talk with the rock climber Alex Honnold, if you haven’t seen it, where he’s the one that free climbed El Capitan, I think a year ago, and he used visualization an awful lot to make sure that he could see his entire way up three thousand something feet because he had to be one mistake and he was dead so, yeah. So visualization I think is something that has been talked about in lots of different circles for good reason.
Christopher: And that’s one that I think a lot of people would associate with sports psychology, more than music psychology, maybe. Are there any other kind of big insights, or conclusions, from the world of sports psychology that most musicians are oblivious to and missing out on?
Noa: I don’t know that musicians are oblivious to it. It’s going sound so obvious, but athletes by nature of the way that their sports are generally structured, perform a lot. Right? There’s games, there’s scrimmages there’s even amongst teammates, there is there’s competition and so, but especially because there are more performances there’s more games. They compete more. You find out what’s working and what’s not working in a much more clear way much more often. Whereas I think I was as guilty of this for decades as anybody. But I didn’t want to record myself until I was quote ready or I didn’t want to play for other people until I was I felt ready like I delayed actually performing for people until I was ready.
So, even with performances I’d spend as much time as I could practicing practicing practicing while resisting at the same time I guess for practicing as much as I could up until the day of the performance when then I would get on stage and find out how prepared, I really was, which if you present that to a coach or an athlete they were like well what that doesn’t make any sense at all. And so, you knowy one of Jason Ives colleagues at the Met percussionist Rob. No I mean he’s kind of taken this to a whole nother level where you know most people before an audition they’ll do a few mock auditions right they’ll get us a screen set up they’ll go and play for some colleagues system from some friends you know to survive maybe like seven or 10 like really structured like fo audition situations to set up tents usually pretty unusual. Rob did 42 quite like you know six to eight weeks of one a day. And and even beyond that he set up his regular practice day to be like audition day.
He’d do like a short 10 minute warm up, then he’d run his list, and so you’d record yourself first when you feel uncomfortable instead of laughs at the end of the day when you feel comfortable which really exposes where things are at. And so, like I would maybe run a concerto with a pianist once or twice maybe in a lesson like I’d do a handful of things but I would never record myself a month out from the performance to see where things really were or you know daily for a week two weeks out to really find out where things are like I wouldn’t do performance practice in that way. And so I wouldn’t.
And so, that’s why I wouldn’t really know on the day of performance how it was going to go because that was the first time I was really going to test it whereas athletes you know like you know where you’re at with things because you’re playing 82 games at an NBA season or what seems like 1000 games in a baseball season like you know where your skills truly are in a performance sense. And so, I think the more opportunities musicians can take and it doesn’t have to be this painful thing. It can be fun. I mean I’ve talked to some adult learners who’ve set up these like performance clubs you know once a month or they’ll get together in a different person’s house, and they’ll have you know some wine and I think maybe after is better than before but you know, all those socializing there they’ll catch up on things and they’ll play for each other record it and then work on things for the next one in a month.
And then over time you just get not just more comfortable performing, and kind of the rituals of it, but you get an opportunity to practice the ability to switch to performance and you know how do you get started in the most effective way and how do you bounce back from mistakes and then it becomes a fun thing because it’s that’s kind of camaraderie that they’re building and skill development all at the same time. So yeah. So finding ways to practice performing and making it fun I think is something that that athletes do all the time probably without thinking about it whereas I think musicians tend to resist.
Christopher: Yeah, very cool. And so I’m feeling a bit bad at this point, because we left young Noa dangling in his slight spiritual crisis back at Juilliard, and clearly now you have great insights and techniques in your head for practicing and performing. Did you have a chance before you turned away from the professional musician career path, to put some of these ideas into practice for yourself?
Noa: Yeah. So it’s interesting because a lot of things came together at the same time. So, all of this sports psych stuff, understanding how to practice really effectively, and even figuring out how to approach a new piece of music that I’d never ever seen or heard before, or even one that I knew really well, like I felt like I finally got it, like you know I didn’t know what I was doing for the first 20 something years. I was just practicing and playing and correcting and trying to make pretty sounds, and play in tune. I didn’t really know what I was trying to do, and how to make decisions about music, and why to play something one way and why to play something another way, and all that stuff kind of came together like right at the very end.
It was it’s almost like in my last year of grad school, and then into that summer and then the year after, that’s when … so when I went to Indiana, I went to kind of follow my girlfriend, now my wife, as she was doing her master’s there. And I did two semesters of a performance diploma, and got to study with the new teacher who was awesome. And that semester was really interesting, because I knew I wasn’t going to go into music. And so I knew I didn’t have to, but I was practicing more just to entertain myself and to try out these things, and to see what happens if I practice more effectively.
And it was such a qualitatively different experience. You know, maybe partly colored by the fact that I knew it wasn’t gonna go into music, but I think the way that I practice changed, the way that I approached performing changed, and I had so many more tools to help me with that. A lot clearer what to do and how to approach things. So, to answer your question, yeah, I did get to implement the performance stuff, the practice stuff, the just understanding what it meant to be a musician piece, and it was a pretty cool time to be able to play all those.And I think if I had had that experience much sooner, I don’t know that I would have gone in a different direction necessarily than what I have.
But it certainly would have … It would have been fun to experience, at least college and grad school, you know, six years of that with all that stuff, ahead of time. But, then again I had a teacher who said, “Yeah, like you learn what you need to, when you need to.” Or something like that, like you know it’s hard to rush things, like I may not have ever gotten to that had I not gone through the experiences that I had in college, of not knowing those things, so who knows?
Christopher: And you snuck in a third thing there, which is fascinating, and I can’t leave lying there, which is what it means to be a musician or how to make the decisions about what you’re doing, which you seem to mentioned alongside practicing and performing. What’s that big bundle of stuff to you?
Noa: Yeah, you know I wish I could really answer that in a more articulate way, and I think maybe 10 years ago when I started to get clarity about that I probably could have, but I haven’t thought about that for so long that this may not be as concise or articulate as it could be, but basically what I figured out is, you know people I think in different fields say that, that at first when you’re new to a field it seems like there are a million details that you need to worry about, but when you really become an expert in something, you realize that those details really kind of coalesce into a set of key principles. And if you understand those principles really deeply, you can kind of adapt them and kind of apply them in an infinite range of different ways, but in a way that really feels simple to you.
And so, I remember this experience at a chair music workshop with Isaac Stern and so forth, all these amazing coaches with decades of wisdom and experience performing and studying music, and I was a sophomore in college, and I was in this trio with Marc and Pianist, and it’s just like … we didn’t … our minds were blown every day, it’s like, well how do you know that’s what you should be doing, or how do you not ask that question, or why take time here but not here? Like, how do you know to approach this dot this way, and not some other way, and just how do you know this stuff? Where does this all come from? We watched this one quartet, his name was Henry Meyer, look at a piece of music he’d never played before and just totally dump all this insight to the quartet, which had been playing it forever, and we’re just like, man.
And so, for me what it came down to is… I think his name is Daniel Levitan, he wrote the book you know, “This is Your Brain on Music” or something like that. And he said somewhere that basically all your brain is doing when we listen to music, is it’s trying to figure out what’s coming next, it’s trying to predict the future. Is it gonna get louder this time? And actually there’s a great TED talk, with conductor Ben Zander, where he kind of deconstructs this Chopin piece, which I recommend everyone watch, because that is sort of of the essence of what theory can help with, understanding music theory, but in a really kind of easy organic way, like it doesn’t have to be geeking out about Schenkerian analysis or anything like that, it’s just understanding harmony and so forth.
And so these things kind of … basically it occurred to me that music is about patterns, like you played something, it starts off and theory is not my strong point, so this might seem a little basic, but you start off in the tonic, and you wonder how long it’s going to go there, and then you know this note comes into play, with foreshadows something else that might happen, and then you modulate, and know point it comes back but, oh, not really, it’s deceptive, and then it goes somewhere else, and so it’s about these patterns and using these patterns. You kind of set up an expectation for something in the listeners ear, in real time, and then sometimes you give it to them, it’s like, “This is where I’m going to go, and yes, that’s where I went.” And they’re like, “Ah, nice.”
Other times, it’s like, “This is where I’m going go.” And then you think you’re going go there but, then go no, you take a left turn somewhere. It’s like, “Oh now I’m going to go back. Oh no not yet. Then I’m going to … ” So, whether it’s through just harmony or where the melody seems to be going or just sequences, there’s all these different cool things that composers utilize to set up expectations and then either to violate or kind of confirm them, and then highlighting those things as you go, whether it’s through dynamics or vibrato or just time.
To me, that’s what enabled me to look at a piece of music and figure out, “What am I trying to say here, what am I trying to do, what am I trying to bring out? What did the composer leave me with?” To make things fun for the listener and with expectations, kind of like I imagine how comedians set up jokes, and tell jokes, you know the timing of it all and set up and so forth. So, I don’t know if that is too vague and abstract or not, but for me anyway like, the clarity of that changed how I approach music, and what I need to do with all the details and the score.
Christopher: Super cool, nice. So you’ve been blogging for years at this point, and podcasting. Forgive me, I don’t know how long, but a fair while, at least a year and a half maybe? You’ve put a lot of fantastic material out there, but you’ve also done the really hard thing, which is to boil down all of the insights and wisdom from that, into a clear format for people to learn from. And that has come to be in your beyond practicing course, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you a little bit about that, and how you’ve managed to condense down the most important nuggets on the topic of practicing in particular to create that course?
Noa: Yeah. So, that’s the thing that I enjoy doing I enjoy, I think just for myself like I want things to be simple in my head, so when I, whenever I come across something I want to figure out how to make it something that I can kind of understand in as simple a way as possible, but also take action on. I don’t just want to know something, I want to know how can I use that to make better chocolate chip cookies, or to file my taxes in a more efficient way? Or lift more weights, in the least amount of time, and so forth-
Christopher: So, this is what’s covered in your course? The cookies and the weights and the taxes-
Noa: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah, so the structure for this is actually. You know Don Green ended up being really influential to me. in a mentor over the years, and he created this assessment for musicians, the performance skills inventory. I think it’s probably still out there on his website, or maybe he has an evolved version of it now. He keeps going back and tweaking it. Well, basically it’s you know you take this assessment was like 80 something questions, and it gives you a sense of what your psychological strengths and weaknesses are.
And I remember taking that in his class, and it’s like, “Oh, that’s totally me. Yeah.” And it’s in a certain number of areas, like practice, yeah well you get prepared, but also your ability to manage anxiety, and build confidence and play more fearlessly under pressure, and concentration and focus, and the mental toughness, and things like that. And you know, I really found those factors to be pretty valuable, and really represent what the sports psychology literature looks like. And, so you know, I said, “Okay well, what can I find in the research that would really help with building confidence? What can I find that really seems to help with becoming more fearless?”
And let’s combine that with what other musicians have already been saying, all these years, or suggesting or recommending and doing. And so I tried to find the overlap between what the research says in these areas, and what musicians have said in these areas, and try to turn those into actionable exercises or drills or techniques, that people can actually practice and develop and get better at, so you can then use those in your monthly performance club, or your Christmas recital, or church performance and so forth. Yeah, so that’s that’s kind of what the course ended up being, and lot of it really was me having to teach, a semester long course, in these areas and how to structure that, and then that got condensed into a more online friendly version. But it’s largely what I teach on a weekly basis.
Christopher: And what are the parts of that course that typically resonate with people, or particularly impact them, that they can take away and think, “Okay, now I can totally nail this aspect of practicing or performing.”?
Noa: I don’t know that “totally nail” ever comes into the picture.
Christopher: Fair enough.
Noa: If you talk to, you know, great performers who’ve been performing for decades, who are household names, and they still talk about nerves and uncertainty and so forth a lot of times. But yeah, for me I think the parts of the course that I think almost everybody seems to benefit from, are focus, understanding like we talked about already today, you know, what exactly should we be thinking about? How do I keep my focus here for the duration of the performance, and how do I practice that, develop that skill?
And also, you know, managing anxiety, like we’re not going to get rid of it, but we can certainly get more comfortable with it and be more familiar with it, and understand how to keep it from spiraling out of control and getting into the panicky zone, and using it even, and benefiting from it, so that it becomes more like that sort of good nerves, that excitement, that we bring to performance, as opposed to it feeling like something that’s going to derail our performance.
Christopher: Wonderful. I have been an avid reader of your blog, and listener of the Bulletproof Musician podcast for quite some time. So, I was really looking forward to this opportunity to talk with you about performance and practice, and turns out a whole other third area, in terms of musical expression and making those choices. And it has not failed to live up to my very high expectations. You’re a man that can back up everything he says with interesting research studies, and factual practical advice, which is terrific, particularly on these topics that can be, as you alluded to a bit hand wavey, you’re a bit fluffy, you know imagining the audience in their underwear type stuff. So, I just wanted to wrap up by saying a big thank you, not just for joining us on the show today, but for everything you’ve published through Bulletproof Musician, because almost anyone I talk to in the music ed world, reads your blog, listens to your podcast, and has benefited from what you’re putting out there. So, a big thank you for the work you do.
Noa: My pleasure. It’s really been pretty fun for me as well, I never imagined this is what I would be doing, but it’s been pretty cool ride.
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