Building and Maintaining  SELF-CONFIDENCE

by Shirlee Emmons and Alma Thomas

based on their book for Oxford University Press:

Power Performance for Singers:

Transcending the Barriers


                                            Man becomes what he believes himself to be.

                                                                                        Mahatma Ghandi

            Success breeds self-confidence, as we can see when we observe successful performers. They appear to have supreme confidence in their own ability. Yes, this confidence is based on a solid foundation of hard work, but not only on that. These performers know that they have the relevant skills and talents to achieve their dreams. Performers who doubt their ability to succeed rarely achieve their potential. There exists a process of building the skill of self-confidence over time. Good performers develop this skill in a number of ways:


                                   by focusing and building on their acknowledged strengths;

                                   by listening to and seeking positive reinforcement, encouragement, and


                                   by acting in a positive and constructive way upon the critical feedback
            given their performance(s);

                                   by devising a performance plan that progressively builds on each success
            toward their ultimate goals;

                                   by empowering themselves to accept responsibility for their own actions;

                                   by developing the skills of mental toughness so that they can cope

                                                effectively in any performance situation.

The major mental skills that build self-confidence

            Confidence can be improved using various mental techniques. That’s the good news. To be effective, however, these techniques must first be learned, then practiced, used regularly, and integrated into other aspects of preparation and performance. Explore how each skill works for you. Try to identify the benefits and disadvantages in your work. An evaluation of when and why to use the skills and how they can be integrated into practice and performances is very important.

            The four main skills are:

                        1. goal setting,            3. imagery,

                        2. self-talk,                 4. routining.

1. Goal setting

Success increases self-confidence

            By adopting a systematic approach to practice through goal-setting, you increase your chances of success and the frequency with which you experience success.

            Prudent goal-setting combined with effective feedback is one of the most powerful ways of developing confidence. Feedback can come directly through goal achievement or through your teacher or coach as they provide specific information about your competence. This will create an upward spiral resulting in increased self-confidence.

            Goals can be set in relation to all aspects of practice and performance. To maximize performance success, goals should be focused on the process, not just the outcome. For practice, goals need not be made too easy, yet can be structured to ensure a high degree of success. Goal difficulty should be adjusted to make the goals relatively challenging but still sufficiently attainable. Often you set goals that are too hard rather than too easy. A goal that is acceptable during practice can become unacceptable to you under the stress of performance. You should create a success path for yourself—recognizing that the more success you experience in practice and performance, the greater your self-confidence becomes. Skillful goal setting provides you with enough challenge to motivate you toward achievement, yet provides plenty of opportunities to feel competent, successful, and confident.

            Self-confidence is in a constant state of change and often fragile; goals therefore need to be reviewed and adjusted regularly to keep yourself in the success lane.

How to set goals

            You must be careful to set goals in such a way that they are effective in building confidence, not just in mapping out a route. Each goal must be

                        SPECIFIC—state precise targets that are relevant to your needs.

                        MEASURABLE—identify how the achievement will be assessed.

                        AGREED UPON---not set primarily by your teacher or coach, but also by you.

                        REALISTIC—perceived by you as achievable with effort.

                        TIMED—stating a specific time frame in which the goal will be achieved.

                        EXCITING and CHALLENGING—because the goal has meaning for you.

                        RECORDED—always written down.

            To help you set goals that are appropriate to your needs you may choose to work through the following process. 

            STEP 1. Analyze your needs.

            STEP 2. Determine your priorities. Work on those goals that are most important at any

given time. You may need to determine which resources you need in

order to achieve the goals. If they are not available, then the goal might

need to be amended.


            STEP 3. Set your goals. Having identified the most important qualities for success and

estimated your current standing on each quality, you can set a goal for


            STEP 4. Take action and set the strategy needed to bring about the desired improvement.


            STEP 5. Monitor your progress toward the goal. Reassess your current status after

a period of time. If you are still some distance from achieving the goal,

discuss the reasons and, if necessary, reset the goal.

Types of goals

            You will find that some goals are based on

                        1. an outcome or a performance level.

                                    (These are known as product goals.)

                        2. a sub-component of performance.

                                    (E.g., a specific aspect of the piece—a phrase or specific measures.

                                     These are known as process goals.)


The following table outlines types of goals and their potential influence on self-confidence.

Type of Goal


Effect on Self-Confidence

Outcome goals (product)

Goals concerned with results.


This may be an ultimate goal,

but needs controllable sub-goals.

Performance goals (product)

Goals relating to achieving an absolute standard (e.g., hitting all the high notes; singing the runs with speed and precision).

Can enhance long-term motivation, but needs regular, positive feedback.

Process goals

Goals that focus attention on specific aspects of perform-ance, those things that result in success.

Assists learning; achievement

provides valuable information on competence.

            Therefore, effective goal-setting can help to build self-confidence by:

                                  providing a measure of performance

(information on current strengths/weaknesses);

                                  clarifying expectations;

                                  focusing attention;

                                  providing a challenge;

                                  producing regular success;

                                  increasing the motivation to achieve;

                                  ensuring regular and accurate feedback.

2. Self-talk

            Self-confidence stems from believing in your own ability. Therefore, strategies that promote positive thinking and positive statements about yourself can be extremely effective. Some performers seem to have a natural tendency to think positively. They see the glass as half full. Others tend to be more pessimistic, dwelling on negatives, on doubts, perpetually seeing the glass as half empty.

            If you want to have greater control over your own confidence levels, you will have to develop your own techniques to boost confidence. Most people indulge in some form of self-talk, a term describing what people say to themselves, either out loud or as a small voice in their heads. This talk will be either positive or negative; rarely is it neutral. Performers often demand perfection from themselves and can be very self-critical when they fail to attain it. This negative self-talk adversely affects subsequent performance. Therefore, it is important to counter negative self-talk and induce positive self-talk.

            Self-talk can be task-related (e.g., "I must get the phrasing right in the third verse," or, "I must make sure of the preparation for the high B flat"). It can also be emotion-related, where the emotion associated with the experience is the focus of the statement (e.g., "I am afraid of failing in front of all these people").

            A good exercise to start the process is this: write down typical negative statements or images you have experienced during practice, audition, and performance. For each one, note whether they are task-related or emotion-related. Then note what happens as a result, what emotions you feel, what effect the statement have on your behavior or performance, what happens to your own confidence.

            The next step is to identify the negative thoughts and statements and when they typically occur. Through prompting at key moments and pressure situations you can begin to recognize them.

Turning negative to positive

            The first step in changing negative statements is to identify the situations where negative statements regularly occur. This will enable you to change them into positive self-talk, which is more likely to elicit positive behaviors, thus greater self-belief and confidence. As an exercise, turn each negative statement that you identified into a positive one.

When to use self-talk


            For most beneficial results, positive self-talk should be used in performance, especially at critical moments such as before stepping onto the stage, following a mistake, or before a difficult moment in the piece. To develop this skill, practice using positive self-talk in practice, e.g., in lessons and coachings. Initially, specific techniques or drills can be isolated to develop the appropriate self-talk in specific situations. Simulated performance can then be used to help you do this. These progressive steps will pave the way.

            Remember, self-talk should:

                                  focus only on the immediate task,

                                  evoke strong positive emotions such the will to succeed,

                                  trigger appropriate action, such as the correct approach to a high note,

                                  be brief and easy to remember.

3. Imagery

            Imagery creates more than pretty pictures. It can create a clear mental image of the venue, the performance, the people, etc. When it does rely on a visual image, this type of imagery can be created in two forms:

                        External imagery, where you see the performance as if it were a video recording,

                                    i.e., through the eyes of an observer such as your teacher.

                        Internal imagery, where you view the performance through your own eyes,

                                    i.e., as if actually performing.

            Each type of imagery can be beneficial for different purposes. Internal imagery is the most useful and perhaps the most powerful. It encourages the simultaneous use of all the senses: hearing, feeling, smelling, and tasting, as well as seeing. The more senses involved and the stronger those senses are, the more effective the imagery will be.




venue, audience, audition panel, stage and props, movements or blocking


sound of your own breathing, noise from the audience, applause, music, your own voice


feel of the costume, feel of the floor under feet, body sensations associated with movement, warmth, cold, etc.


air in the room, carpets, seating, perfume, flowers, etc.


tastes associated with song/piece, fruit eaten before performance, water drunk at interval

How imagery is used

            Imagery can be used to simulate the actual execution of a technique or performance. The body responds as if actually performing a technique. Although the neuro-muscular sensations are

less strong than in real performance, they afford the added advantage of being able to change and repeat phrases, notes, runs, or movements in ways that might be difficult if actually performing the task.

            Imagery also allows you to develop a mental blueprint of key performance aspects. You can better detect errors and consequently correct them more effectively. As a result, skills can be learned and mastered more quickly.

            One of the benefits of imagery as a tool for building confidence is that it allows you to use all your senses to recreate the sensation of a previous or future performance in a positive image of doing it right. It is useful at different times:


                      before a performance

                                    Imagery can replace negative thoughts, reduce any effects of anxiety,

                                    rehearse the correct action, and so raise confidence.

                      immediately before a difficult situation or during a pause in the piece

                                    Imagery can improve concentration and provide a form of mental

                                    rehearsal or practice of the actual execution of the perfect action.

                      after the execution of a technique, phrase, or a single important note

                                    When this is successful, it can provide excellent feedback and

                                    reinforcement of good practice, which will also boost your confidence.

            A lack of confidence can lead to a hesitant performance, a loss of focus, and even a mental image of mistakes and failures. Imagery can also be used to practice different aspects of the skill/technique, thus increasing success—or the expectation of success—and bolstering confidence.

            As an exercise, identify a short piece from your own repertoire and describe a range of sensations associated with it. Try to think of a specific occasion when you carried out this task successfully. Then, sitting in a chair comfortably, think of a pleasant performing occasion when your did well. Run the image through your mind at normal speed until you reach the end, or until your concentration wavers. Then consider how vividly you experienced the event, which senses you were able to evoke, what kind of imagery you used (internal or external), or if you switched between the two types.

            Plenty of practice is needed to hone the skill of imagery. Short bursts of 5- or 10-minute sessions seem to be the most effective. Remember that imagery can be used to pre-play, replay, attempt new skills, or correct faults.

4. Developing routines

            Performance is full of factors that cannot be controlled, such as the audience, other performers, atmosphere, and the environment. All these can increase uncertainty and affect confidence. To be an effective performer, you should plan your own success by focusing on the factors that you can control. Effective performers adopt an organized and consistent approach to their behavior and performance—pack music bags in the same way, do the warm-up they know will work, go through the same ritual before going on stage, or while preparing to execute the first note in an audition. They have developed well-learned, consistent routines, which they execute every time in the same order with the same timing. Such consistency will develop confidence as well as control over your own performance.

            Routines can help:

                                  to build or restore confidence by providing a positive focus and a familiar
                                           and organized pattern of behavior on which to carry out a task

                                  to provide some structure in the important twenty-four hour period before

                                           an important performance;

                                  to put you in the groove quickly at the start of any performance.


            A helpful exercise is one in which you first describe any routines you now have for the day of performance, or before coachings or lessons. Examine why you have these routines, whether or not they help, and how they help. Identify occasions when you use routines to help enhance your performance. Describe situations where routines might have a negative effect on attitude or confidence.

            Routines must be appropriately structured if they are to be effective. They may involve:

                                  doing physical tasks in a particular order and at the same time of day;

                                  preparing mentally in a particular way

e.g., always working through a relaxation technique the night

before the performance, using imagery as part of the warm-up,

mentally rehearsing the piece just before beginning the performance.

            Familiar routines create a comfort and reassurance that can contribute to the self-confidence. However, you should be wary of making routines for too many aspects of performance, thereby becoming overly superstitious about having to play them through without alteration. You should always be willing to react to changing circumstances. The over-use of, or dependence on routines can make you less adaptable and may threaten the confidence you have.

©Shirlee Emmons and Alma Thomas

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