“Be good” vs. “Get Better”: Optimizing the Experience of Performing

I have just returned from my summer vacation in California wine country where I learned some valuable lessons about optimal goal setting while improving my piano skills!

Where did all this happen?

At pianoSonoma, a festival that brings together serious adult piano students to study with Juilliard faculty members Michael Shinn and Jessica Chow Shinn, and collaborate and perform chamber music with Young Artists ( current students at or recent graduates of Juilliard), as well attend concerts by the faculty and the Young Artists.  It is a thrilling week where I can indulge in my passion for learning and playing the piano and share the joy of making music with superbly talented musicians.

On the plane ride out to California, I had a chance to catch up on my Kindle backlog and settled into a short book called “9 Things Successful People Do Differently” by psychologist  and goal-setting expert Heidi Grant Halvorson.  Now success is what I teach, coach on and advocate so I was interested in her 9 points.  And the one that resonated most powerfully with me was point #5:

Focus On Getting Better, Rather Than Being Good

What does she mean?

Halvorson distinguishes between two types of goals:

1. “Be good” goals, where you set out to prove that you have the ability to perform the task and that you already know what you are doing.

Vs.

2. “Get better” goals where you focus on developing your ability and learning new skills.

According to Halvorson’s research,“be good” goals carry with them the need to be “perfect” from the outset.  The danger is that the pressure to “be good” often results in poor performance and mistakes, where as
 “get better” goals enable you to focus on the experience itself, which takes the pressure off of performing.  By giving yourself permission to make mistakes and learn from the experience, you are relieving yourself of anxiety, thereby increasing your motivation to succeed.  As a result, the chances of making mistakes are dramatically reduced!  And your yardstick is your prior performance, not someone else’s, so you are not competing with others and setting yourself up for more anxiety and failure.

What a great thing to read as I was about to embark on a week of learning and performance where issues of perfectionism crop up all over the place!

The piano is an area of my life where I experience tremendous flow—as well as tremendous frustration whenever I am momentarily blindsided by the illusion of perfection.  And no wonder! Performance brings out the temptation to be “perfect” because you and your soul are on public display.   A lot about performing is a mental game.  Intellectually, I know what to do and when I remember the lessons of staying in flow, I can avoid the trap of perfectionism to enjoy what I am doing. 

As someone who thrives on and values life-long learning, the concept of “get better” goals made a lot of sense to me and I decided to test it out over the course of the week.

So here’s how my experiment worked.

Throughout the week, we had lessons with the faculty, chamber music coaching with the Young Artists (cellist Julian Schwartz and violinist Mary Edge) and daily performance classes with the other students. Our efforts culminated in two performances, one on solo piano and the other for our chamber collaboration with the Young Artists. In other words, there were many opportunities to observe how well “being good” stacked up against “getting better”.

My strategy was to formulate a goal focusing on a particular aspect of the piece I wanted to improve. When I was able to keep that thought in mind, my playing was a lot better and I enjoyed the experience! From time to time, I would lapse into thinking that I needed to deliver a perfect performance. Inevitably, I would tense up and my playing suffered as a result.   

In my piano lessons, it was easy to adopt a “get better” approach because for me, lessons are a learning experience.  Performance classes were a lot trickier.  In the first one, I completely forgot about “good” vs. “better” and I was really nervous, which showed up as a strained performance of Chopin’s Nocturne in B major, Op. 62, No. 1.  In the next performance class, I resolved to “do better” and focus on the learning.  I was very pleased to remember to measure myself against my own experiences and not someone else’s!

And then there was the master class where Michael’s father, university professor and noted piano pedagogue Ronald Shinn, , joined us for the day to impart his wisdom on our playing.  In other words, we had two Dr. Shinns giving us their commentary. Talk about pressure!  And yet, taking in Ron’s points on how to improve the piece and not worrying about “nailing it” made it a lot easier to play for him.

By the time of the final concert on the last day of the festival (where I performed the first movement of Beethoven’s Spring Sonata for piano and violin with Mary Edge), I had integrated the concept of how to make the piece better. I told Mary that my goal in performing the piece was to enjoy it and share the beauty with our fellow musicians, with which she wholeheartedly agreed. I am happy to say that I loved our performance and it was a wonderful way to end the week.

Bottom line:

Focusing on getting better rather than being good/the best/perfect really works for me! Thank you, Dr. Halvorson, for planting the seed and helping to enhance my enjoyment of this magnificent piano festival.

The next time you find yourself struggling with trying to be perfect-whether in music, at work or in some aspect of your personal life—see how focusing on getting better might help you to ease the pressure, learn from the experience and enjoy what you are doing.  Chances are you will make fewer mistakes and feel a lot better about yourself!