4 Strategies for Honing Musician Mental Toughness from a Juilliard Psychologist

At first glance, there may not seem to be much in common between top athletes and elite cellists or violinists, but inside the mind, it’s much the same thing.

By Christopher Roberts | From the January-February 2022 issue of Strings magazine

At first glance, there may not seem to be much in common between top athletes and elite cellists or violinists, but inside the mind, it’s much the same thing. “In sports psychology, ‘mental toughness’ seems to arise more than any other word,” says 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 mental toughness in elite musicians at the Juilliard School, 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 make the difference between nailing an audition and the end of an aspiring musician’s career. 

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

Welcome the Challenge 

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 barriers, but as gateways that only let 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.


Find a Teacher Who Will Set Realistic Goals & Reward Effort

Preparing for a spot at a top-five conservatory while a student is still in middle school isn’t productive. You 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 you stop struggling with “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and are channeling Paganini. This, of course, will not happen overnight, but with “microgoals” leading up to a Holy Grail achievement, it is manageable. Find a teacher who might try leading you 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. It’s better to have a teacher who will reward the students who show dogged persistence, not one who will only heap praise on talented students. That way, when the brick wall arrives, you’ll be ready to dive in 100 percent.

Silence Your Inner Critic

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 ability who keep practicing longer and achieve more than the fatalists and realists, Kageyama says.

Prepare for Failure

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 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.”


What Is Mental Toughness—Exactly?

Nobody is really certain—or at least nobody can agree on a pat or pithy definition. Kageyama tells the tale of a dozen researchers asked to lay it out in simple terms and who then returned 12 different attributes. More than any single thing, mental toughness is a variety of mental skills and strengths a musician can call upon to thrive despite pressure.

These include:


  • Playing confidently and on the edge, willing to take risks and not merely playing “tentatively or safely,” according to Kageyama
  • The ability to lead a section in an orchestra rather than take a backseat to another first violin
  • The ability to bounce back from mistakes
  • The ability to put a long-term goal ahead of short-term satisfaction
  • Believing in yourself and believing that you have something to offer

Above all, being able to go onstage “and do what it is you are capable of doing,” Kageyama says, “and not letting anything get in the way of that.” Without mental toughness, a musician will “never have the satisfaction of going onstage and, from the very first note, playing so well that six months later, he or she’s still saying, ‘Yeah, that was about as good as it gets.’” 

A version of this article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of Strings.