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Performing Confidently and Competently Under Pressure

Peter Ferrito
Fanfare Magazine, December 1994, pp. 8-9.

How do you know, as a band director, that your players have the competence and the confidence to perform?

You will know they are competent when they successfully play for you in lessons or in practice. You do not generally know if they are confident to perform competently until you put them to the test in a performance setting. You may wonder what the individual's performance will be like. Wouldn't it be advantageous to know before a performance that your players are both confident and competent? The following is a scenario which plays itself out all too often in too many marching band programs.

Players who choke under pressure

Remember the player you had recently who was a good practice player, but frequently "choked" under pressure? Let's call him "Jack." Jack is a great student and you always expect well of him. It soon became apparent, however, that Jack could not perform consistently under pressure. There are many Jacks out there. We have all had them in our programs. What Jack lacked was the confidence to perform under the pressure of concert or competition. This lack of confidence comes from a belief system which Jack has developed concerning his abilities.

Origin of the mistaken beliefs

Alfred Adler, a noted psychologist, says that every person has developed beliefs about who he/she is, what he/she can accomplish, how he/she presently fits in, and how he/she will fit in society. Adler also states that a person chooses these beliefs based on his/her perception of events.

It follows that a person can develop beliefs which are incorrect, but true for that individual. For example, ten people all have the same ability and all believe that a particular goal can be accomplished. Nine will accomplish the goal and one will not. This tenth will believe that all others can accomplish the goal, but that he/she cannot. The mistaken belief may be based on the sense that he/she feels incompetent to accomplish the goal.

Mistaken beliefs are self-reinforcing.

Jack has certain mistaken beliefs about himself which always play themselves out in crucial situations. He may believe that, "I play fine until put under crucial situation, then I choke."

Jack's mistaken belief in this situation is, "I'm not competent when put to the test." It is a mistaken belief because it is a generalization of previous experiences built into a belief that assumes, "This is the way it will always be for me." As long as Jack believes this, he will see his world in a way that reinforces his beliefs. Each time a pressure situation comes up, we can anticipate that he will perform below his potential. He even has us expecting this outcome. Jack is a powerful person; he is making his beliefs happen.

The marching band director's role

We can help Jack turn this incorrect thinking around. We can guide Jack to be successful by helping him change his mistaken beliefs about himself. It will be a challenge for Jack because this way of thinking is all he knows. He is more comfortable acting on his beliefs instead of changing to new, potentially more productive beliefs because he is unsure of where the new beliefs will take him.

To help students change these disabling mistaken beliefs, you must take two steps:

  • Let students know you believe in them and want to help them change their beliefs.
  • Develop a plan for building student confidence

Guiding Your Students in Changing Their Mistaken Beliefs

Failure is OK.

It is first important to have your students understand that it's okay when they fail. The immediate performance my suffer, but it's not the end of the world. Life is not an either/or proposition. Help your students to understand that being a worthwhile person is not dependent upon the quality of their performance.

Look for the best in everything.

Teach your students to point out the good points in each situation. Example: They did show up. They did try. They did complete the performance. All of those stand tall in favor of your students. Get them to point out those things about each other.

Risk-taking is worthwhile.

Help your students to understand the importance of risk in any undertaking. Learning involves risk; all of us fail at a certain point! The difference is that those people who are confident of themselves have different beliefs about risk.

Confident people believe: Risk is inevitable. The greater the risk, the greater the possible reward. To risk and lose is not to lose, but to win because now we know what not to do and how to handle a temporary setback on our road to success.

People who are not confident believe: Risk is dangerous. Risk is to be avoided. The less confident one is, the more risky life is for them. The greater the risk, the more possible things can go wrong. When you risk and lose, you lose period. This type of student does not realize that by not taking risks they have lost opportunities to learn about him/herself and his/her own capabilities. Be sure to point out this potential loss to your students.

Effort is more important than results.

For example, when a student makes an effort, that student is risking failure, but that student is moving in the right direction. He/she has enough courage to continue. Encourage the student to feel good about the effort because the positive results will appear in the end.

Teach students to make their own decisions!

Get students to bear their own consequences and help them to learn to make better decisions next time and to feel good about their accomplishments!

Mistaken beliefs are as different for each individual player as individuals are different. Your players may have many specific mistaken beliefs. In order to find out what the particular mistaken beliefs are, just ask your players, "Why do you think you can't perform under pressure?" or come up with a question which is specific to your concern. Also, when your student draws a blank, simply ask them if your assessment of the problem might be correct. For example, "This is only a guess, but I get this feeling that you're not performing properly because . . . ." If your guess is incorrect, it is okay for your student to tell you so. He/she will then come up with the proper reason according to his/her own belief.

As you help your marching band members build confidence in themselves, you must plan for their musical success.

Plan for Guiding Confidence in Performance

Make a plan.

Work with the individual and develop a plan to build his/her confidence in performance. Include the student in the decision-making process. Agree on goals which are reachable, yet also stretch the individual.

Choose attainable steps to goal.

Make sure that each task is attainable because you need to have successes in order to build confidence.

Stick to a plan.

Adjustments can be made, but any wavering can result in a player's loss of confidence in the instructor, doubt that the instructor knows what to do, and/or fear that the instructor has lost faith in the student.

No excuses!

Excuses are not allowed. Excuses will be many. Stand your ground. It is your job to make sure your students succeed. You do not want a pattern of quitting! Excuses are just a mask. Remove the mask and get on with it.

Dissolve Fear of Success.

Someone who fears success may think, "If I succeed what will they expect of me next?" Teach them that their fear of success may be keeping them from succeeding.

Give mini-tests.

Mini-performances are initially given to a select audience of supportive people and later to strangers. It is important to have additional situations in which the pressure in the performances is gradually increased. Eventually they will relax in the performance and will perform to the highest expectation.

Be there for support

There will be good times and bad times; make sure your support is always constant. Remember that you are rewarding effort and the marching band members want to know you'll be there when they fail, as well as when they succeed.

Overcome the last hurdle.

There will always be a final obstacle. This may be a situation where they have always quit previously. The last hurdle is a test. Make sure they pass the test.


Celebrate each victory with your student. Don't forget that this is a major accomplishment for them and for you. It's a major accomplishment for the student because this may have been haunting them for a long time. It is a major victory for you because you helped one more individual turn around his musical and personal life.

An instructor's job is to teach music and to teach life skills to students. There is a tremendous satisfaction to be gained by helping an individual generate success. There is also a tremendous responsibility for instructors to be ready to help individuals change their beliefs in order to help them achieve success.

Do you remember that time when one of your players performed beyond your expectations and you had a sense of tremendous satisfaction? In that moment you saw how you had a part in changing that individual for life! At some point you changed his/her beliefs about who he/she was and what he/she could accomplish. You believed and you made a believer out of them.

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