Calming Your Monkey Chatter!

In the last post, 7 Strategies for a Great Pre-Performance Routine, we discussed the key elements to calm and dependable preparation.  Today, I want to expand on the first important strategy:  Calming your inner chatter.

Prior to performance or in practice or in lessons many musicians find their minds racing with thoughts like,

  • “Can I do this?”
  • Why am I doing this?”
  • “What if I don’t make the finals?”
  • “Why can’t I perform as easily as I can in practice?”
  • “Don’t forget!  Don’t forget!”
  • “Remember!  Remember!”

In order to perform freely and confidently, it is important to learn how to quiet your mind, focus on what’s important, and recognize when your mind shifts into what is sometimes called monkey chatter, mental chatter, or negative self-talk.  This chatter is filled with commands, reprimands, doubts, analysis, evaluations, and condemnations.  These thoughts seem to just pop into our minds uncontrollably.  That’s because it has become habit to think this way.

How?  Just think. . .one of the first words we hear over and over again when we’re very young is “NO!”   In an effort to keep you safe, your parents corrected you.  You became conditioned—you listened (hopefully), your behavior was shaped, and you learned.  Likewise in the music studio, teachers and coaches guide us and help us shape our musical behavior.  The very nature of musical instruction is critique-based.  It is necessary to think analytical and evaluative thoughts to learn and improve technique.  What’s wrong with this?  Doesn’t this help us learn to shape our musical behavior?  What’s the down side?

The answers are “Nothing, maybe.” “Yes!” and “Let’s see.”   Nothing may be wrong with this and yes, you will learn many things.  Your technique will take shape and you will develop a way to think about your playing or singing and your performing.    Many musicians develop the necessary effective technical skills to perform well, healthy levels of confidence, and other important mental skills that lead to peak performance. 

What’s the down side, then?  Let’s see . . . many performers become overly analytical and evaluative.  They develop fearful and doubtful thinking—fear of making mistakes, of being embarrassed, of not pleasing others, or of failing.  They get stuck in an endless cycle of analyzing and evaluating thoughts that lead to tentative, unsatisfying, or anxious performances.

If you find yourself in this second group, you don’t have to keep living and performing this way.  It’s time to free yourself and make a change.  If you are going to change these negative habits and calm your inner chatter, you will want to be systematic in your approach.  Think back to some recent performance and follow these steps:

  1. Recognize when you engage in negative self-talk.
  2. Next, identify the trigger—the event, circumstance, or thought that set you off.
  3. Then, identify what type of monkey chatter you engage in:
    • analyzing, evaluating, and self-coaching?
    • doubting your preparation or technique?
    • worrying too much about what others think?
    • comparing yourself to others?
    • calling yourself names?
    • racing irrelevant thoughts?
  4. Examine the effect of this type of thinking:  how does it affect you and your performing?

Once you are aware of your negative self-talk patterns, you will want to cultivate several skills that help you focus your mind on what really matters.  This focus is in the here and now—on the process! Keeping your mind focused in the present helps you let go of mistakes (past) and stop worrying about results (future).  Another important skill that will help you calm your monkey chatter is to trust your preparation and to accept your performances rather than continue to over-analyze your technique or question it.  And finally, learn to recognize when your mental chatter starts and cultivate the ability to quickly shift your focus back to the present.

Following these steps will allow you to become more aware of your thought patterns, what triggers your monkey chatter, and when you’re most likely to engage in it.  In order to calm your inner chatter and to cultivate productive self-talk, work to focus on the process, to trust your preparation, to accept your performances for what they are, and to shift back to the present when you become distracted.

Please be patient with yourself.  Your habits didn’t develop overnight so it will take time to change these thinking patterns.  Recognize that you can take control of your thinking and commit to calming your mind of the kind of thoughts that hold you and your performing back.

Open up and talk with other performers, your teachers, mentors or coaches.  You’d be surprised that when you let others in, it’s easier to let go of the old, unproductive ways.  You don’t have to keep up appearances. . .but that’s a whole other post.  Next time we will discuss Boost Confidence By Replacing Your Expectations.

Bye for now and let me hear from you.  Leave a comment—I’d love to know how things are going.

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  1. I am SO using this in studio class today! Another great article, Dr. Allan!

  2. I tried to turn off my monkey chatter and have concentration on the piece I’m playing. But actually, it was so difficult, But as you said before, We should practice this issue for a long time.

  3. I am not convinced that talking to other musicians is a good plan. In most cases, other musicians are so self absorbed that they simply don’t care. I have tried to talk to my band mates about my issues and have come away feeling like I un-zipped my fly on a first date only to have the girl laugh at me. And don’t think for a second that a performer will not use that info against you if given the chance.

    If you do get someone who is willing to talk with you, the answer you usually get….stay with it because it just takes time. Horse Hockey. That is advise you are given when the person you are chatting with could care less about your problem.

    • Dr. Diana Allan says:

      Mark, I applaud you for talking with your bandmates. You’ve identified a real source of fear for many performers—the fear of being embarrassed. I encourage performers to ‘open up’ with other performers about their fears so they can discover that others often experience similar thoughts or feelings. Hiding your struggle or thinking you need to hide it, may make you feel like there is something wrong with if you struggle with performing. However, there is nothing wrong with you or ‘shameful’ about experiencing performance anxiety. Consider that others may react in the way you describe because they DO understand what you’re talking about and won’t or are afraid to admit it. Talk to me about your self-talk and employing the other strategies in this article…

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