Twisted sounds

Have you ever made a small error in a concert and thought to yourself, “This concert is a total failure! I’ve completely blown it!” Or have you been in the practice room and thought, “Tomorrow’s lesson is going to be a disaster! I always play terribly in lessons!” Or how about this one: have you ever played in a masterclass and found yourself thinking, “These people hate my performance!”

I’ve experienced these thoughts many times. After nine years of teaching in university settings, I can also tell you my students frequently express similar ideas. Not only are these thoughts unpleasant (don’t we play music because we like it?!), but they can also distance us from our music and lower the quality of our practicing and performing. Even worse, many of us self-identify so strongly as musicians that we create this terrible syllogism: I sound bad therefore I am a bad musician therefore I am a bad person.

Today I’ll show you one idea to help deal with negative thinking. It comes from the field of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and two of the field’s pioneers, Dr. Aaron T. Beck and Dr. David D. Burns. In his 1980 best-selling book Feeling Good, Burns introduced CBT to a mass audience as a tool to treat depression. Since then, these techniques and ideas have been used to treat a wide variety of conditions. Sadly, one blog post does not provide enough space for a nuanced, scholarly assessment of research in the field (academics and psychologists who stumble on this: please lower your pitchforks!). I just want to share some insights I had while reading Feeling Good that I found extremely relevant to my life as a musician.

Cognitive distortions

One of Burns’s key arguments is that cognitions (thoughts) generate and influence our emotions. Our interpretation of the world around us is what creates our emotional reaction to it. Many of our thoughts happen extremely quickly and without conscious effort. Burns calls these automatic thoughts. Automatic thoughts aren’t necessarily bad – your brain is always generating a running commentary of the world around you, and these reactions shape our emotional state.

However, in people with depression, these thoughts are twisted by what Burns calls cognitive distortions. Twisted thinking creates a distorted view of the world, which leads to distorted negative emotions. Even if they are based on distorted thoughts, these emotions are real, and this emotional authenticity tricks us into believing our distorted thoughts are true.

List of cognitive distortions

These distorted thoughts tend to follow familiar patterns, and Burns offers a list of cognitive distortions. You can find a full list of cognitive distortions here, along with some other notes and ideas from Burns’s book.

Let’s turn back to the opening paragraph and see how those negative thoughts relate to Burns’s categories of distortions:

  • This concert is a total failure! This statement is All-or-Nothing Thinking (looking at the world in black-and-white). It could also be seen as an example of the Mental Filter since it ignores any positive aspects of the performance.
  • Tomorrow’s lesson is going to be a disaster! I always play terribly in lessons! This is Fortune Telling (predicting a negative outcome) and Overgeneralization (seeing events as part of an unending negative pattern)
  • These people hate my performance! This is Mind Reading – assuming people are reacting negatively despite a lack of evidence.

This was the first connection I drew to my musical life while reading Feeling Good: my negative thoughts in the practice room and on stage are perfect examples of the cognitive distortions Burns describes in his book. In fact, I found myself repeatedly cringing in self-recognition as I read his definitions for the first time.

One tool: the Three-column Technique

I found it strangely relieving to associate my negative self-talk with these categories of cognitive distortions. I think that’s because I started to see these thoughts as self-deceptions, whereas before they had seemed like deep, crushing truths (they certainly felt true). In fact, Burns’s main strategy is to teach the reader to recognize and talk back rationally to these distortions. This is not just a thought exercise; Burns outlines concrete exercises. Here’s one called the Three-column Technique:

  1. Set aside a few minutes each day to try the exercise (yes, in many ways this boils down to practicing mental health just like we practice scales and arpeggios). All you need is a pencil and a sheet of paper divided into three columns. Don’t try this in your head; write it down.
  2. In the first column, write down a negative thought you’ve recently had.
  3. In the second column, identify one or more cognitive distortions present in this thought.
  4. Finally, in the third column, write a rational self-response.

At first this exercise might be very difficult. Your thoughts will feel true, and supposedly rational responses might even seem like lies and nonsense. It’s okay to leave the second or third columns blank and return to them later, or even to ask for help.

Let’s go back to our original distortions one last time and see how this technique might work:

Negative thought Cognitive distortion(s) Rational response
This concert is a total failure! All-or-nothing thinking No concert is perfect, and perfection doesn’t define the success of a concert. When I’m in the audience and I hear someone make a mistake, I tend not to dwell on it.
Tomorrow’s lesson is going to be a disaster! I always play terribly in lessons! Fortune telling, overgeneralization My lessons are usually productive, even when I don’t feel great going into them. The point of lessons is to get better, so challenge and roadblocks are a natural part of the process.
These people hate my performance! Mind reading I really can’t tell what the audience is thinking. People usually enjoy my concerts, and they are here to enjoy the music, not criticize every little flaw.

The goal of this exercise isn’t necessarily stopping these thoughts, but rather learning to recognize, label and respond to distortions. Over time, the process will feel more and more natural, and these distorted thoughts will have less and less emotional impact.

I appreciate this exercise both as an individual and as a teacher. Personally, I appreciate having clear categories and I enjoy how logical and methodical the exercise is. As a teacher, I appreciate the simplicity of the exercise. Working with students, I find that ambiguity and complexity make it hard to stick with an exercise.

I hope you find these ideas interesting (maybe you too had a glimmer of self-recognition?). As I mentioned earlier, I found many, many insights in this book that related to my life as a musician. And perhaps I can return to a few more of those in a later post.

Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional and this is not medical advice. I am not your therapist! This is a non-scholarly, highly simplified introduction to a complicated topic. Many criticisms of CBT have been made. There are many other approaches to performance psychology and I encourage you to find what works best for you.