Last night I attended a performance by the Seattle Symphony of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto. If you’ve ever seen the movie Shine, you know how daunting this piece is to a concert pianist. It’s a 40-plus minute workout, consisting of 30,000 individual notes, all of which have to be performed-often at lightning speed-in a particular order; with nuance, dynamics, and passion; live; from memory; in front of a discerning audience of several thousand people, and an even more discerning orchestra and conductor.
Can you say “pressure”?
The soloist, Kirill Gerstein, performed brilliantly.
What does it take to do this? What does it take to perform at your best when it matters most? When all eyes are on you, and expectations are high?
The key, as it turns out, is to not think about the notes.
By the time he hits the big stage, a musician of Mr. Gerstein’s caliber is not thinking, “My first note is a D, which I play with the first finger of my right hand. Then comes an F, played with the fourth finger… ” He’s already done that work. He’s done it so many times that he doesn’t have to think about the individual notes; instead, he can focus on the music. His fingers already know what to do. And, in fact, if he starts thinking about the individual notes, he’ll likely choke.
I’ll bet you’ve had this experience. Perhaps not as a world-class concert pianist; maybe for you it’s a putt you’ve made thousands of times before, or a speech that you’ve practiced hundreds of times. But when that big moment comes-when the money is on the line-you choke. Why is that?
It’s because you thought about the notes.
Without getting too technical, your brain basically remembers things in two different ways. There’s the short-term stuff-the things you need to be focused on right now. And then there’s the long-term stuff-the things you know so well you don’t need to think about them. So how does this apply to you and your big speech?
Well, if you’ve practiced it so many times that you could practically deliver it in your sleep, the individual words (and their order) move into the long-term area of your brain. This leaves your short-term area available to focus on your presence, your delivery, your connection with the audience, and anything else that might come up in the moment.
But if, in a moment of panic, you bring the long-term things into the short-term part of your brain-in other words, if you start focusing on the notes-you overwhelm the very part of your brain that you need to perform at your best.
The solution is to stop thinking about the notes, and to instead think about the music. Stop thinking about the individual words, and instead focus on the message you want to convey.
If you want to perform like a concert pianist, focus on the bigger picture, not the minutiae.