Often when I am performing a piece of music and it's going really well - all that practice really paid off! - I start thinking, "wow, things are going really well. This sounds really good!" But as that thought floats through my head my playing falls apart and I make mistakes. Then my mind starts arguing with itself to stop thinking about how it's going and stay focused on the task at hand. I recover but then I finish upset that the performance did not go well instead of regaining focus.

I'm not sure if the problem is distraction, lack of focus, not enough practice, or I'm too comfortable with the piece and not concentrating enough? I feel like I need to be able to switch off or suppress part of my mind to keep focused all the way through.

Looking for some ideas on how to avoid this scenario. And if not avoid it, more gracefully recover from it.

  • 3
    I share your pain, I have the exact same problem, though it occurs when I practice because I don't perform publicly.
    – Trillian
    May 4, 2011 at 0:54
  • Hahah. I had the same problem a few years ago. It was a little hard for me to get myself focused. May 4, 2011 at 2:00
  • When I used to play, this was my biggest fear! May 4, 2011 at 2:31
  • To get a good performance, I try to love the music I'm playing, even when it's not that good. (Perhaps especially then.) May 5, 2011 at 3:45

5 Answers 5


For me, the issue stems from the difference between practice and public performance. Most of us, I think, practice far more than we perform publicly. Since a primary goal of practice is improvement, and improvement requires self-assessment, a musician can get used to constant self-assessment when practicing.

Understanding that, I think the key is to "turn off" this self-assessment. It is not enough to be able to do this just in performance; rather, one must practice this skill of "not practicing!" The way I suggest is to designate part of a practice as a run-through, just as though it was a performance. Record this run-through! Doing so is important so that you know in advance that any mistakes will be picked up by the recorder for later identification, so it is not necessary to self-assess during the run-through, at least not the way one does in typical practice. You can then listen to the recording to see what problems you had. In all likelihood, you will find problems you did not find during normal practice, simply because the situation is different.

As you try this technique, you will become more adept at turning off the constant self-assessment. You can then focus on the present moment in your music without worry.

I must caution, of course, that not all self-assessment gets turned off in performance. For example, playing in tune requires assessment throughout the performance. If I find that I have gone sharp relative to the ensemble, I will make the mouthpiece adjustment necessary at my next reasonable opportunity. Granted, I can force pitches down, but for my own comfort and better tone, moving the mouthpiece is needed. I could not know to do so if I was not self-assessing in this way. However, doing so does not entail assessing notes already gone by. Instead, it requires "living in the present," as I think you are seeking to do during a performance.

  • Great answer, I wish I could've read this 5 years ago May 4, 2011 at 2:02
  • 2
    @Edgar Gonzalez You did!
    – Flounderer
    Jul 4, 2016 at 21:36
  • This answer, and @Flounderer's comment just made my night, all these years later. Mar 9, 2018 at 6:38

It is not unusual to become self critiquing during the act of doing something. Writers are often taught to just write, and then edit later, rather than writing a bit, editing it, writing a bit more, or continually deleting and rewriting as they are going. The problem is, if we start concentrating on the critique, we lose concentration on the act, and so it goes down hill!

Barry Green wrote a marvelous book on the concept, and ways to overcome it, called The Inner Game of Music.



Its well worth picking up.


I also have the 'self-watching' tendency. A simple solution is to try to pay attention to the notes and rhythms and how they feel to you. This tends to absorb your attention and pull you back into the music. You want your brain to operate less in the realm of language and self-awareness and more in the 'language' of music.

This may sound like a spacy answer, but doing this can truly help. A long-standing technique in meditation is concentration on a physical object to still all the babbling of the mind, and a musician can reduce the background noise of unwanted thought by reapplying attention to the notes -- not merely executing them or their letter symbols, but what they're saying and how you can best express that.

You can also use this to alter your emotions. Put on music which you associate with the desired emotion, then open yourself very fully to the sounds and what they express.


It sounds to me like your problem is the same as mine. My mind starts wandering. This usually happens to me when I am singing. When I finally "Wake Up!" from my thoughts, I get lost in the song. Because I think much faster then I sing, I usually think I'm on the second verse and not the first.

One thing that I found helped me is focusing on the meaning of the song (the words in my case) and practicing to enhance the song by using motion, volume, and expression. Also I close my eyes some times to help me "Get Into The Music". So my advice is Get Into The Music, get absorbed in your own song. You can also try to Get Into The Music while there are major distractions.

  • 1
    Yes. Singing and the meaning of words is part of it. On occasion I substitute for the music director at church and my biggest problem is keeping focus while playing a hymn with the congregation.
    – mfamous
    May 3, 2011 at 22:32

The keys is to first get it done and then getting it done right. In computer science we call this 'Premature optimization' and this is synonymous with disaster.

I think the key for you will be to just concentrate on getting it right, then take time to think improvise and see if you can do it better.

  • Is that 2 keys or 1? It kind of reads like the second is the exact opposite of the first. Apr 5, 2012 at 23:16

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