You know those performances that can only be described as “robotic”? Where there is nothing wrong with it per se, but for whatever reason you are neither engaged nor inspired, and ultimately leave the concert feeling kind of blah and a little empty inside?

I have to admit that I have been accused of delivering such performances on more than a few occasions.

But I don’t think it’s just me. After all, we’re sort of stuck between a rock and hard place. On one hand, we are supposed to be musical, communicative, and fully engaged in the music-making process. But on the other hand, it has to be flawless.

Especially in auditions or competitions, where we learn pretty quickly that the slightest blemish can be grounds for a quick exit.

So how do we get out of this bind?

How are we to strive for ever higher levels of perfection, but also avoid becoming robots on stage?

Paradoxically, the field of robotics may offer some insights into how we can become more compelling human performers.

The rise of the robots

Robots and computers are helping fight cancer, scurrying around warehouses putting your Amazon order together, and driving folks to Taco Bell (check out the video…it’s pretty cool).

Robots aren’t going to be replacing human musicians in orchestras anytime soon, but roboticists are hard at work creating robots which possess more “human” characteristics – like the ability to improvise.

And in doing so, they are discovering a few interesting tidbits about what it means to be more human.

Robots with soul

Guy Hoffman is a roboticist who has a background in the arts, and a particular interest in creating robots with “soul.”

He conducted a study in which he paired participants with one of two different robot assistants, to complete a tedious 20-minute task, intended to simulate a job that one might encounter in a factory.

The two robot assistants had different “brains.” One was programed to be more calculating – to analyze the situation and plan everything before taking action.

The other robot was programmed to be more adventurous. To act without knowing everything it was supposed to know, to take some risks, and perhaps make mistakes occasionally, but to correct them.

Participants loved the adventurous robot. They thought it was more intelligent, more committed, a better teammate, and felt that it contributed more to the success of the team. Tellingly, they referred to it as a “he” or “she,” and said things like “By the end, we were good friends and high-rived mentally.”

Those matched up with the calculating robot on the other hand, referred to their partner as an “it” and said things like “It just felt like a lazy apprentice” and complained that it only did what it was supposed to do and nothing more.

The appeal of imperfection

Indeed, there seems to be something appealing and humanizing about imperfection.

Social psychologist Elliot Aronson conducted a classic study back in the 60’s investigating likability, where subjects listened to an audio-recorded session of a college quiz show.

One contestant answered 92% of the questions correctly and described himself as having had a successful high school career (honor roll, yearbook editor, etc.).

The other contestant got only 30% of the questions right, and admitted to a rather mediocre and unremarkable high school career.

Toward the end of the tape, subjects in the experimental groups heard one of the contestants accidentally spill coffee all over his suit. The coffee spill was omitted from the control group’s audio recordings.

Subjects were then asked to rate the contestants’ likability.

Interestingly, the researchers found that spilling coffee did not diminish the “smart” contestant’s likability. In fact, those that heard him spill coffee rated him as being more likable than those who didn’t hear the coffee spill.

However, the opposite was true for the “average” contestant, who was rated as being much less likable by those who heard him spill coffee.

They surmised that someone who seems too perfect is more difficult to relate to, and the tiny little gaffe served to humanize the contestant a bit.

Taking risks can be rewarding

The takeaway is not that you can make mistakes. You must be competent of course, and play at a high level, but competence alone is not enough to be memorable.

Researchers from Imperial College London and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama recently conducted a study (hat tip to G. McRae) on the impact of improvisation in terms of brain activation and engagement among both the performers and the listeners.

A flute/viola/harp trio played five different pieces two times each. One time, they were asked to play as if they were at an international competition – performing convincingly but without taking risks. And the other time, they were instructed to perform more spontaneously, flexibly, with more of an improvistatory spirit.

The researchers found that most listeners prefered the more improvisatory performance. As part of the study, all three musicians and two members of the audience were also connected to electroencephalogram sensors for the duration of the performance. The data from the EEG’s reflected the audience’s preference, and suggested that both performers and listeners were notably more engaged in the improvisatory condition.

The implication being – at least to me – that loosening up a tad, and a wee bit of imprecision in the course of taking meaningful risks can be humanizing and more appealing than a performance which prioritizes precision above all else.

Take action

Whether you are playing alone or with others, what happens if you do a run-through and make an attempt to be more spontaneous? To take more risks, micromanage less while performing, and be more playful?

How does it feel?

How do others react?

How does it sound to you when you listen back? (Hint: Randomize the order in which you listen back, otherwise you may be biased in what you hear.)

Additional reading

Brain study suggests classical musicians should improvise

Guy Hoffman on robots with ''soul'' (including his improvising jazz robot) @TED

photo credit: Remko Tanis via photopin cc

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About Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.

Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.

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