4 Ways to Enhance Your Head Game

Juilliard psychologist suggests 4 ways to build your mental muscle

How to enhance your head game

How to enhance your head game

By Matthew Billington

At first glance, elite violinists and cellists may not seem to have much in common with top athletes, but inside the mind, it’s much of a muchness. “In sports psychology, ‘mental toughness’ seems to arise more than any other word,” says Dr. Noa Kageyama, a noted psychologist, in describing the phenomenon of excelling despite adverse conditions, even playing through pain or in freezing temperatures.

Kageyama, who builds these same attributes in elite musicians at the Juilliard School of Music, says that the sports world is increasingly lending these vital tropes to musicians. With more talented musicians than ever competing for limited spots in the professional string world, surviving pressure —or even thriving on pressure—could very well be the difference between a conservatory scholarship and the end of a student musician’s performing career.

Kageyama shares a few ways to sharpen one’s mental edge.


Too often people are willing to dispense with effort and go immediately toward an instant solution, Kageyama says, rather than face the “brick wall” that can arise after a modicum of effort is expended. These challenges should be welcomed instead of shied away from. “In the course of doing anything worth doing, we encounter these brick walls,” he says. “Instead of looking at it as an unfortunate and horrible situation, we should view it as a good thing.” Musicians should view these metaphorical brick walls not as a barrier, but as a gate that only lets in those who can spend an extra five minutes in the practice room or otherwise keep going when 80 to 90 percent of everyone else has dropped out. Soon that resilient effort has become a habit, and one of the tools necessary for mental toughness.


Preparing for a spot at a top-five conservatory while a student is still in middle school isn’t productive. A student should be working with a teacher who can lay out bite-size goals that are achievable in 30 seconds, or in a minute, and in gradually larger chunks until the student who was struggling on “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” is channeling Paganini. This, of course, will not happen overnight, but with “microgoals” leading up to the Holy Grail achievement, it is manageable. Teachers should try leading students in a duo, Kageyama suggests. The small achievement of mimicking a talented teacher’s line of music “is really motivating,” he says, and once small bits of effort are rewarded, more will come. Rather than heaping praise on talented students, reward the ones who show dogged persistence. That way, when the brick wall arrives, students will dive in 100 percent.


A mentally tough string player has silenced his or her inner critic. Imagine the age-old picture of an angel and devil sitting on your opposite shoulders. “Too often, all we ever hear from is the devil,” Kageyama says. “We say things to ourselves we’d never say to anyone else. It’s not helpful, not constructive, and not conducive to doing better.” Keep the self-criticism silenced and get through the first few lines, even if they’re rough—the good stuff is underneath as long as you can keep going long enough to get at it. If nothing else, overestimate your own abilities: it’s those who have an inflated sense of abilities who keep practicing longer and achieve more than the fatalists and realists, Kageyama says.


Practicing in perfect situations doesn’t help prepare for the times when a string breaks onstage. Practicing with a metronome on the wrong tempo or with the violin slightly out of tune, however, helps make a musician bulletproof. “It’s great fun” to create adverse situations in the practice room “and see students learn how to stay focused and bounce back,” Kageyama says. But again, build slowly: start with taking away the music stand. Then kick it up a notch and watch the student build resilience—and then kick it up a notch again. “The ultimate end is to get a student so immersed in something that it doesn’t matter what the distraction is—an earthquake or a baby crying—we remain focused,” he adds. “And we all have this capacity.”

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