I might put in weeks or months preparing for a high-pressure performance. The groundwork is done—I have made the technical and interpretive decisions, drilled the difficult spots, and otherwise planned and prepared every aspect of my playing.
But all of that can fall apart pretty quickly if my head isn’t in the right place. Nerves, stress, and distractions can make one small error snowball into an unfocused, sloppy performance.
One of my favorite tricks to help avoid this is to plan my thinking. As I do the final preparations for my performance, I often pick out two or three things I would like to focus on as I begin each piece or movement. These might be important technical details (“make sure embouchure is stable before playing the first note”), more general advice (“keep breath support strong through the ends of phrases”), or interpretive thoughts (“light and playful”).
I write these two or three things (no more) on a sticky note, and place it at the beginning of the piece or movement. If the reminders seem especially crucial, I might put the sticky note over the first few measures of music, so I can’t start playing until I have physically moved it out of the way.
This small preparation helps ensure that as I begin to play, I’m thinking about the things that are most important to the success of the performance, rather than reacting to distractions.