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Why You Messed Up the Performance You Were Rockin’ at Home

The Situation

You’re performing or auditioning in a space that’s new to you. You’ve never been there before, you may not recognize some of all of the other people in the room. There may be a live band to accompany you, or perhaps you’re singing to karaoke. Doesn’t matter. You’ve never sung here before. The more factors of your environment that are new to you, the more your nervous system is working against you.

Baking Bread

We’ve all had the experience of walking into a house that was filled with the smell of something yummy being cooked. Bread, deserts, or a stew, perhaps. When you walked into that place, the smell of the delicious smell filled your being. You stopped, smiled and enjoyed, and probably commented. It was the only thing you were aware of just then.

Ten minutes later you weren’t even conscience of the smell anymore.

(Stay with me...we'll get back to your situation.) You are wired to pay attention to new things. You don’t decide to pay attention to new things, your brain does it for you. No doubt our predilection to hyper-focus on anything new in our environment was something that allowed us to survive at a time when changes in our environment often meant that our safety was threatened.

Mental Real Estate

The fact is that you can only pay attention to so many things at one time (a concept explored in a fascinating way in Daniel Levitin’s book The Organized Mind). In other words, you have a limited amount of mental real estate. So, although you’d practiced your song and knew it by heart, although you’d talked to your contact person on the phone, or arrived super-early…although you thought you were in control, once you got on stage you were in Survival Mode.

Your brain was paying attention to – and trying to make sense of – the way you sounded to yourself on mic in that room just then. It was listening to the instruments as a whole and individually, your eyes were no doubt focused on what was around you, and maybe you were looking at the person in charge or a friendly band member. Your senses were bombarded by new-ness, your brain was trying to make sense of it all, and you simply didn’t have the mental real-estate to also pay attention to your performance. Even if you’d tried, it would have taken you between a minute and a few minutes for your brain to acclimate, and to decide that all was well. It takes a few minutes to shift out of Survival Mode.

So, despite your intention and your best efforts, you were derailed by evolution. There was one way you might have been able to give the performance you had in mind; that would be if your performance was on auto-pilot. When you’ve practiced something so much that you can do it in your sleep, then your performance will probably override your Survival Mode. Probably.

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