Why You Think You Sound Worse Than You Really Do

Ever record one of your performances on video only to play it back later thinking that you looked stupid and goofy and you sounded weird? 

You were probably asking yourself questions like; "Why do I have my head angled upwards and tilted like that?" Or, maybe you asked yourself, "What's up with that weird twitchy thing I do when singing?" How about, "Why am I standing like that? Seeing yourself from another perspective can be pretty surprising.

It's easy to nitpick and micro-analyze and dwell on such details. Which may begin to feel pretty crappy. So, not surprisingly, many of us avoid watching video of our performances, even though it can be a hugely helpful self-study aid. After all, video doesn't lie – so it can help us identify what elements of our performance need work. Do we look stiff? Bored? Move around too much? And how do we sound? Convincing? Dynamic and compelling? Or timid, overly careful, or uncertain?

The bottom line is that making a study of each public music performance (particularly for anxious folks) will certainly help change how we feel about our future performances.

The First-Person Discrepancy
In much the same way that individuals with social phobia tend to have negative and inaccurate perceptions of how they appear to others (which is tied to greater anxiety and avoidance of these sorts of situations), folks who get anxious about public playing tend to have overly negative perceptions of how they come across too.

Psychologists have suggested that this "first-person discrepancy" – or the difference between how we think we come across to others and how they actually see us – is part of what maintains anxiety about performing, and the tendency to avoid it.

The idea certainly makes logical sense; if I think I come off like a total doofus when playing live, I'm going to do my best to avoid any situations where I might have to get in front of a crowd.

But what if my perceptions are skewed? What if other people genuinely think that I perform pretty decently? This is where that video helps us.

Perception-adjusting Video Feedback
Several studies have looked at the impact of video feedback on our self-perceptions, and the anxiety we feel in advance of a music performance. The idea being, if we think we come across poorly in a performance but can see how we actually appear on video, then maybe we won't be quite so anxious or negative about ourselves in future performances.

By itself, however, video feedback doesn't seem to be so effective, because anxiety can throw off our perceptions. As in, how nervous we feel during a performance can skew our sense of how well we're coming across to the audience.

For instance, have you ever been really nervous inside, but had people come up to you after a performance, tell you it sounded great, and ask how you were able to be so calm? Weird that there's a whole world inside of us that nobody else can see or hear, huh?

So how can we develop a more accurate and performance-enhancing perception of our performances?

A three-step video review process...
The following three-step process has been used in several studies.

1. Prediction
What exactly do you expect to see or hear in the video? For instance, do you expect to see your hands shaking? Looking stiff? Bored? Awkward?

2. Imagery
Create a short (two-minute max) mental video of how you think you came across in performance.

3. Review
Remember that how we feel in a performance is not the same as how we look or come across to the audience, and watch the video as if you're watching a stranger. Pay attention to how you look, as opposed to how you "remember feeling" in the moment.

What do you see? Do you see or hear the things you expected to? To the degree that you expected? Hmm… that wasn’t so bad

One study found that reviewing video in this way reduced participants' anxiety about an upcoming performance. And anecdotally at least, musicians do seem to report that when they finally bring themselves to review a recording of the performance some days or weeks later, the things they were so upset about in the moment often sound pretty minor. And, that their overall performance doesn't actually sound so bad.

For some, this realization goes a long way towards putting their minds more at ease in a performance. It's a little reality check that helps musicians grant themselves permission to stop worrying so much in a performance and just play, trusting that things are probably coming off better than they think.

This is something we can certainly walk ourselves through when reviewing our own performance videos, but to me, this seems like the kind of activity that would be interesting to do with students, too.

Students and Instructor Listening
Before reviewing performance video with students, it's important to note that this process seems to be most beneficial for those who experience a larger first-person discrepancy. Those students whose perceptions of their performance are pretty spot-on don't seem to really require this all too much.

One other worthwhile activity for instance, is listening (with your teacher), to a practice recording you've made. Going through it with their feedback on what they hear will be really illustrative... especially if the instructor can offer you a few solid comments about your playing, your technique and your overall feel.

The things that seem important to your teacher (both good and bad) may not necessarily be the things that you have fixated on. Your tendency may lean toward a focus upon one area and miss other details that were more important in the grand scheme of things. So this listening time with your teacher can be a helpful extension of the work you do in lessons to essentially train your ears to better notice and hear the wider range of things that a more advanced musician would be able to listen for.


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