Professional musicians typically do not make large amounts of money, although they can make solid incomes. But professional athletes have extremely high incomes. For example,  Nick Foles who recently lead the Eagles to upset the Patriots in Superbowl LII is paid handsomely, about $5.5 million per year on his current contract. That’s 140 times as much money per year as the average musician or singer in the US, who makes $39,090 per year in 2017 according to payscale.com.  Now, keep in mind, this is his pay for a contract as a backup quarterback – he wasn’t even a starter!

Because the financial rewards are so high for professional athletes, they are willing to spend much money on research and coaches and trainers and psychologists to make even slight improvements in their performance. The good news is that we musicians can let them fund all this research, and then use it for our own benefit. This is one of the strategies we use at our music school to ensure that our teachers are providing top level lessons and coaching.

Peak Performance in Music and Sports – The Inverted U Theory

Sports teams will hire sports psychologists to help regulate the amount of stress or excitement their players experience. These psychologists may advise coaches on the type of talk they give their teams before a game. Or on what to say to individual players, if they are really savvy.

You’ve seem the locker room movie scenes. Somethimes the coach tries to pump the team up and get them stoked. Sometimes he is cool headed, talks about following a game plan, and executing everything exactly as rehearsed.

The coach is manipulating his team’s level of excitement. This excitement is what psychologists call ‘arousal’. And the relationship between arousal and performance is commonly described in the Inverted U Theory.

Generally speaking, the more excited or aroused you get for a performance, the better you will perform – up to a point. The high point is where peak performance is achieved. As you continue to get more excited, your performance starts to degrade, sometimes very rapidly. So by manipulating how excited you get, you can control your level of performance.

The goal for sports psychologists is to get their players to this point of peak performance, at the top of the curve. And that is exactly why great coaches will either try to pump up, or calm down their players depending upon the situation. They are trying to get them into that peak performance zone.

Why getting nervous is a good thing.

So, when you perform music, you should get a little nervous.  And those nerves will actually help you to perform better. But sometimes students and professionals alike can be very worried about performing. 

I have had peers and students alike confide in me that they had a drink of alcohol or took anti anxiety medication before performing because they felt like they had to do something about the nerves. While these chemicals might help you feel more relaxed, they actually undermine your performance. They disrupt fine motor control and cause other problems. They keep you from achieving peak performance.

So when you feel nervous next time, embrace it! It will make you better. Don’t be afraid of it, because a little bit of nerves will do you right.

Why getting too nervous is a bad thing

(Right, I know. I just said nerves were a good thing. They still are.  You just need to have the right amount of nerves.) 

The inverted U theory is actually two inverted U’s, not one. For simple tasks, peak performance happens at a higher level of arousal. For example, simple tasks like tackling someone in the superbowl requires speed and strength – you’ll need a higher level of arousal for these tasks.

Complex tasks like making fine motor movements in a musical performance or recital require a lower level of arousal for peak performance.

The inverted U - Achieving peak performance in music.

If you get as pumped up as a superbowl player during a music performance, you would not play your music very well at all! Your body would be filled with adrenaline, your muscles and hands shaking. You’d be ready to go sack Tom Brady, not play Bach.

On the other hand, imagine how well Fletcher Cox, the Eagles Defensive tackle, would have performed if he was leisurely singing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ or “Let It Go’ from Frozen in his mind throughout the game.  I doubt he’d have survived even one play alive.

This also explains why you might see punk or rock performers get really pumped up in a show to play a few simple chords.  Would you ever see a serious classical musician or jazz musician get so pumped up?  Never – they are doing more complex activities and have to stay more calm to succeed.

What to do if you feel like you get too nervous in a music performance?

There are many strategies you can use in in your preparation and during your performance to get your arousal state to the right place for optimal music performance. Most often, musicians get too nervous and have to dial back their arousal for optimal performance. This is exactly why I created our workshop on performance anxiety, to bring back your arousal and help you get to that optimal performance state. You can learn how to conquer your nerves and play your best.

Also, head on over to the BulletProof Musician. Their blog has a solid article on managing stage fright, along with some other great content.