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The Peak-Performance Myth

Gerald Klickstein is Professor of Music at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and 9780195343137a renowned classical guitarist. His book, The Musician’s Way: A Guide to Practice, Performance, and Wellness, is a roadmap to artistic excellence which provides an inclusive system for all instrumentalists and vocalists to advance their musical abilities and succeed as performing artists.  In the excerpt below we learn about the value of being prepared.

When I play, I make love – it is the same thing.
-Arthur Rubinstein, pianist

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.

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.

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. Because of their belief in the peak-performance myth, however, 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.

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.

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  2. Mark Rudoff

    Thanks once again, GK, for articulating an important point about professionalism. Too often I see students blocked from getting work done because they are sidetracked by a chimeric search for peak performance. In sports, the true professionals are the ones who can deliver — and win — on the days when they do not have their best stuff. In “Playing Off the Rail,” author David McCumber describes the state of “being in dead stroke,” the way pool players talk about being in the zone. But the point, for guys who make their living shooting pool, is that the dead stroke state is rare. A professional relies on hard-won technique, intelligence and experience to win, and accepts as a gift the days of being in dead stroke.

    Thanks, as always, for Musician’s Way.

  3. […] Vollmer epitomizes the fascination with craft that motivates athletes and musicians to work. And when they work mindfully, regardless of whether they win medals, performers go forward knowing that they’re doing their best. Gerald Klickstein (@klickstein) is author of The Musician’s Way: A Guide to Practice, Performance, and Wellness (Oxford 2009) and posts regularly on The Musician’s Way Blog. Director of the Music Entrepreneurship and Career Center at the Peabody Conservatory, he previously served for 20 years on the faculty of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. His prior contribution to the OUP blog is titled “The Peak-Performance Myth.” […]

  4. […] 2014 Gerald Klickstein First posted on the OUP Blog Photo: wikimedia […]

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