How to improve performance under pressure?

Lori Buma, Elmer Kralt & Anne Spitse

Imagine yourself playing a demanding piece of music during an audition. All eyes and ears are on you and you start to worry about what they think of your performance. Stressful moments like these are part of a musician’s daily life. When performing under such pressure, worries about the jury or audience may distract you from performing at your optimal level. This shift of attention may harm performance. Several theories on attention and performance indicate that the focus of attention during stressful situations is highly important. However, very little is known about what musicians (should) think about or focus on in high-pressure situations. Learning how to focus your attention on task-relevant information might be helpful in preventing attention to shift away from the performance. Therefore Lori Buma, Frank Bakker and Raoul Oudejans (2014; see also Buma, 2012) explored the thoughts and focus of attention of elite musicians of a top-level international orchestra.

A total of 44 elite musicians were asked to report what they think about to make sure that they maintain top-level performance despite feelings of pressure and stress. Their answers showed that their attention is mainly focused on physical aspects (‘I focus on my breathing’), thoughts that give confidence (‘I have to trust that I can handle the pressure’), and especially on music-related information (‘I sing in my head with the articulation that I need to play’). In this last category, most of the reported thoughts were about love for and enjoyment of the music.  Apparently, when the task is to perform well under pressure, a music-related focus, together with a focus on physical aspects and thoughts that give confidence, seem to be relevant to maintain performance, with the latter two categories specifically relevant for dealing with pressure.

The results of Buma et al. (2014) may provide a starting point for training and educating young musicians to perform well under pressure. The results suggest that it would be good if music students learn to focus their attention on the same things elite musicians use, namely a music-related focus, a focus on physical aspects, and a focus on thoughts that provide confidence. Mental skills training can help young musicians to learn the physical techniques that elite musicians use when they are feeling insecure: stable breathing and feeling grounded, in control. Several training methods can help musicians in dealing with anxiety and performing under pressure: breathing and relaxation training, imagery, self-talk, and attention training (Buma et al., 2014). A first step in optimizing the results of such training methods is to investigate the thoughts and foci of attention of music students when performing under pressure to find out to what degree these are similar to and different from those reported by elite musicians.

Therefore a follow up study was done with young musicians with less professional experience (Kralt & Spitse, 2013). In this study 81 music students of the Conservatorium of Amsterdam were asked to answer similar questions as the elite musicians did in the study of Buma et al. (2014): ‘At these stressful moments, where does your focus of attention go? Can you explain where you focus your attention and/or what you think about?’. In comparison to the elite musicians, the music students reported more worries and disturbing thoughts (26.1% versus 5.8% for elite musicians). Besides, students seemed to be less able to focus on music-related information (36.9%) compared to elite musicians (47.9%) while performing under pressure.

Pressure does not necessarily affect performance in a negative way. However, it sometimes does, resulting for example in making a mistake. Just before music students make a mistake due to pressure, the worries and disturbing thoughts are even higher (46.4%) compared to playing under pressure in general. In addition, focus on music-related information is lower (21.1%) compared to playing under pressure in general. When music students try to recover after a mistake, worries and disturbing thoughts are almost absent (0.9%). Students seem to focus their attention mainly on music-related information (53.0%). Remarkably, the focus of attention in music students during recovery after a mistake is comparable to the focus of attention in elite musicians during playing under pressure in general. 
In sum, the focus of attention in music students during playing under pressure is mainly on worries and disturbing thoughts or on music-related information. During playing under pressure and just before making a mistake, worries and disturbing thoughts often pass through the mind of music students. This occurs at the expense of a focus on relevant information for playing music. When recovering after a mistake, students try to return their focus of attention on information that is relevant for playing their music. Although music students seem to be able to focus their attention like elite musicians, they only do it when recovering after a mistake. During playing under pressure in general music students focus considerably more on worries and disturbing thoughts and lack a focus on music-related information in comparison to elite musicians.

The results of these studies show how elite musicians and music students focus their attention during playing under pressure. With this knowledge the next step can be made in improving the performance of music students under pressure. It is suggested to develop training sessions under pressure in order to help music students focus on relevant information. In this way, they may learn to deal with the pressure, reducing the risk of a drop in performance.

The Conservatorium van Amsterdam offers an audition training course for its master students of orchestral performance to help them in dealing with pressure during anxiety inducing performances. It also hosts a similar course for participants of the Academy of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.


Buma, L. A. (2012). Exploring the thoughts and focus of attention of elite musicians under pressure. Master Thesis, VU University, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Buma, L. A., Bakker, F. C., & Oudejans, R. R. D. (2014). Exploring the thoughts and focus of attention of elite musicians under pressure. Psychology of music (January 29, 2014)

Kralt, E. & Spitse, A. (2013). Attentional focus in music students during playing under pressure. Master Thesis, VU University, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.