Understanding the Peak Performance

Relative to my doctoral dissertation, I interviewed a group of professional musicians to discover how they would describe a "peak performance." This research project was qualitative in nature, meaning the goal was simply to acquire opinions and perspectives from the musicians. The results of this research project were as follows:

  1. The experience of the peak performance as reported by the musicians in this sample was consistent with current research on peak performance. The major aspects of the peak performance were described by the musicians as:
    • Limited self awareness
    • A sense of ease
    • A sense of mastery or in other words, they had the ability to easily meet the demands of the task
    • There was a heightened sense of enjoyment
    • They were in the flow

  2. Preparation was seen as the number one factor contributing to the peak performance.

  3. Interestingly, when asked, "Can you create a peak performance state on-demand?", the responses varied and fell into one of three groups:
    • The first group explained the peak performance as being something elusive or attainable only by chance.
    • The second group described the peak performance as something prepared and hoped for but not controllable.
    • The third group had the attitude that they could step into the peak performance mindset on demand.

This research project gave me a strong theoretical and historical understanding of the peak performance.  After graduating with my doctorate in Clinical Psychology, I developed a college-level course called Psychology Music Performance.

Research and Results

After teaching Psychology Music Performance for 20 years, I began a collaborative effort in 2007 with Dr. Paul Broomhead, a music educator/choir director, and Dr. Dennis Eggett, a statistician.  Both are full-time faculty members at Brigham Young University and are talented in their respective fields.  We set out to explore the impact of specific interventions that I had developed and used in my classes.

Our first research project was presented in the workshop format.  The subjects were students of a non-audition choir at Brigham Young University and the workshops consisted of three one-hour presentations.  Although we were able to show positive impact, it was difficult to attribute the changes to any specific interventions that were presented.

For a second project, we set out to expand the intervention by doubling the amount of time students spent learning the tools of peak performance.  As we attempted to measure our results, we again found positive changes and directions but still could not prove statistical significance.  Without having the statistics to support the impact, we could not be confident that our intervention was causing any changes.

As we looked at the different options for future research, we decided that we had to narrow the focus.  Upon doing so we came up with a very interesting research design.

Our third research project focused on one specific tool that I had emphasized throughout my classes - positive mental triggers.  90 students volunteered for the research project from Dr. Broomhead's non-audition University choir.  On the day of the project, all the students were asked to leave the choir room and go to another room where they found a video camera.  They were given instructions to record themselves singing Row, Row, Row Your Boat as musically as they could.

After they had finished singing, they were randomly assigned to either return to choir or to attend a 50-minute intervention on how to effectively use positive mental triggers.  Approximately 60 minutes later all 90 students returned individually to the room with the camera and were given the instructions to again sing Row, Row, Row Your Boat as musically as they could.  The control group's performances - pre and post - remained the same.  But the intervention group was different.  There was a statistically significant difference in musical expression confidence and creativity as determined by two independent raters analyzing all of the videotapes.  Not only could we see the difference in the videotapes but we could prove statistical significance!

Two weeks later all 90 subjects were asked to sing Row, Row, Row Your Boat yet again.  The same positive difference between the control group and the intervention group remained. The intervention had a lasting effect!

The results of this study were exciting.  We now had statistical proof that a 50-minute psychological intervention created a significant improvement in musical expression.

The Bottom Line

I believe there is a missing link in the education of performing artists.  Too many artists use all their preparation time practicing how to play a piece of music and spend little to no time practicing the art of the performance.  The practice room and the stage are not the same especially when it comes to the psychology of performing.

Some artists are natural performers - they easily transfer what they learn in the practice room to the stage and thrive in the performance environment.

Some go successfully from the practice room to the stage but then experience struggles and challenges in performance quality and enjoyment.  Their experience of performing is often described as somewhere in-between exciting and stressful.

Other artists struggle with performing at a fundamental level.  They dislike performing and their experience can be described as terrifying or something that is hated.  In situations like this, avoidance of the stage is likely.

My goal with these research projects is to identify tools and skills that can be taught specifically to performing artists to assist them in bridging the gap between the practice room and the stage.

Continuing Research

We are currently in the middle of our fourth research project.  We are taking the same design and applying it to junior high students.  The information-gathering phase of this project is slated to begin November of 2009.  I will be writing about the results of this project as they develop.

I am always interested in additional research ideas and projects that you or others may be conducting to support effective performance.  There is a significant amount of research on stage fright and performance anxiety but there are other areas that need attention such as focus and control strategies, pre-performance routines, effective preparation strategies, and methods to teach performing.

I welcome the opportunity to collaborate in research to advance the psychology of music performance.

Step up, Risk, Enjoy!

Dr. Jon Skidmore, Psy.D.
Performance Coach/Psychologist


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