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Stick to Control by Dr. Matthew Halligan and Dr. Tyler N. Tolles

Nov 29, 2021, 08:00 AM by Rhythm Scene Staff

We often find ourselves in life and musical situations where it feels like we have no control over the variables. These situations may seem overwhelming or difficult to overcome, especially if you are experiencing this for the first time. As percussionists, we are even more susceptible to these experiences as we are required to maintain skill sets on over 100 instruments, dozens of genres and styles, all ensemble orchestrations, improvisatory mediums, and solo repertoire. Although there are many solutions to handling and balancing this enormous load of responsibility, one stands as the most time-tested and effective: situational awareness.

Situational awareness is a powerful tool for breaking down situations into two general categories: things you can control and things you cannot control. Focusing on the variables you can control is often healthy advice and can yield more desired results in a particular situation, while the inverse usually causes a number of negative outcomes. When we try to control things that are out of our control, the results tend to be worse than if we had only focused on what we can control. In this article, we briefly extrapolate on three areas of focus: performance, professional, and educational situations. Each of these areas include useful lists of examples for things you can control and things you cannot. 

Live performance is an exhilarating experience, and with it comes enormous stress and pressure. It is the most spontaneous, yet least controlled, environment a musician will likely experience. These situations include solo and ensemble performance as well as auditions.

Solo or ensemble performances require extensive practice, rehearsal, repetition, and concentration to achieve a desired outcome. As musicians, we sometimes place unrealistic expectations on ourselves in a live-performance situation. Many will focus on performing a “perfect” or “flawless” piece of music, which usually has the inverse effect on the performance. While you do have some control over your practice and rehearsal preparation, you have much less ability to control the circumstances or outcome when you are engaged in actual performance. From personal experience, we have found that the instant you realizes that a performance is thus-far near perfect is the instant that one makes a mistake. The self-realization of our “perfection” or “flawlessness” is often our undoing. 

Auditions are a different type of live performance in which you are competing against other candidates to win a job, prize, or acceptance to a collegiate program. The competitive nature of auditions can add unique stressors to the situation. Not only are you competing with yourself, but also with other candidates who are likely just as qualified and prepared as you. It is important to remember that the results of the competition, other candidate’s performances, and the judging panel’s opinions are out of your control (and, frankly, none of your concern). However, you are in control of everything leading up to the moment of your audition, with everything after that being left to preparation, muscle memory, and your musical intuition. 

  Control    No Control

  Mock Run-throughs
  Mental Practice
  Solo Rep Selection
  Solo Program Flow
  Audition Prep
  Implement Selection
  Equipment (dependent on the situation)

  100% Execution
  Instrument Malfunction
  Audience Satisfaction
  Mental Errors/Memory Slips
  Ensemble Rep Selection
  Ensemble Program Flow
  Audition Outcome
  Equipment (dependent on the situation)

As musicians, how do we create rewarding experiences in a professional environment? Even though we cannot control how people perceive us, we can control several factors that influence people’s perception of us, including showing up on time (which really means early), being respectful, genuine, and kind to your peers, teachers, and coworkers, equipping yourself with proper implements or gear, and preparing material before an event like a meeting or rehearsal. All of these will allow us to experience success in our professional environments and situations, especially in one of the most important musicians will come across in their career: the interview process.

In an interview, we cannot control variables in relation to the hiring committee. Some examples may include whether or not there is an “inside” candidate, the committee’s attentiveness to the hiring process, or simply whether they like you or not. However, we can control our own preparation for the interview, including showing up 10 minutes early (do not show up too early, to not be underfoot), dressing professionally, having CV or resume copies ready, having a list of references, presenting video performances, and being prepared for any additional presentations required for the interview. 

Another aspect we can control is our behavior and manners throughout the interview. General advice would be to err on the side of too formal rather than too informal when it comes to interacting with the committee members. Some examples of this include eliminating slang or jargon from your vocabulary, using formal customs and courtesies “Dr., Mr./Mrs., Sir/Ma’am,” and saying please, thank you, and you’re welcome. These will go a long way, believe it or not.

Additionally, a great way to practice interviewing is to video record yourself answering sample interview questions. Self-evaluate your interview videos and determine what you can improve on, but also what you did well. Generally speaking, smiling and nodding makes people feel comfortable and can lead them to think more favorably of you. Having well-thought-out questions for the committee at the end of the interview can help determine if the job is a good fit for you, as well as show which aspects of the position in which you are most interested. Overall, you can always prepare and improve your professional image and composure leading up to an interview, but similar to auditions, once the interview begins all you can control is your authenticity. Just be yourself.

In addition to interviewing skills, time management is the most crucial skill to develop as a professional musician. If you are unsure of how to develop it, consult your mentor. If you do not have a mentor, find one. Talk to colleagues or other students in your classes who appear to be organized. 

Here are some suggestions to help you manage your time: keep a daily, weekly, and/or monthly planner, make a list of activities or tasks, write out and prioritize all of the activities, ensembles, or clubs that you are involved in based on deadlines, timelines, etc. This can help you evaluate your commitments as well prevent you from over-committing yourself.

  Control    No Control
  Time Management


  Hiring Committees
  Outcomes of Interviews
  Other’s Behaviors
  Other’s Manners
  Other’s Opinion of You

As students, we cannot control what a teacher thinks about us, but we can control our preparation for a given course. We can study, ask questions, and find additional resources if we are struggling with the material. We can show up to class every day on time, be respectful to our colleagues and professors, and help with any setup required for the classroom. This will have a positive effect on how our professors, teachers, and colleagues view us as students. In turn, this will likely help us to be more motivated to study and prepare for a course, which will lead to success in the class. For private lessons, we can control our preparation, show up early to lessons to set up, provide copies of music for the teacher, and have practiced the required etudes, excerpts, or solo repertoire. Being prepared for lessons will inspire teachers to be more enthusiastic and engaged in working with their students.

From a teacher’s perspective, we cannot control if the students are on time or what the students think about us. We can control our preparation for each class period and use various teaching methods to engage the students. This will likely keep the students more motivated, and increase the chances for the students to be punctual and well-prepared. In a rehearsal setting, empowering students to lead sectionals or sub-sectionals may motivate them and make them feel like a part of the process. Once students take ownership of the aspects of rehearsals they can control, they become more invested in the product and will yield a more productive learning environment.

  Control (Student’s Perspective)   No Control (Student’s Perspective)
Sleep Schedule
Work Ethic
Attendance (showing up early)
Finding additional resources if struggling with a specific class (tutoring, additional meetings with the teacher)

Amount of Homework/Assignments
Amount of Tests/Exams
Number of Performances
Number of Rehearsals
How You Are Perceived
Teacher’s Approval



  Control (Teacher’s Perspective)   No Control (Teacher’s Perspective)
  Amount of Homework/Assignments
  Amount of Tests/Exams
  Number of Performances
  Number of Rehearsals
  Teaching Tools/Foster Motivation

  Student’s Approval
  Student Engagement/Interest/Motivation
  Student Attendance


Life is full of outcomes that we cannot control. Without awareness of the things we have the ability to change, we may focus valuable energy on aspects outside of our control. This can be very detrimental to our mental health. Fortunately, there are steps we can take to ensure that we are prepared for whatever comes our way.

The same is true when it comes to building your career. Professional opportunities can arise at any time and, when they do, you want to be in the best possible position to seize them. Start with honing your daily routine: getting enough sleep, maintaining a healthy diet, exercising, and finding an appropriate amount of time to relax. Like most things, balance of these factors is necessary; too much or too little of one can have negative results. If things start to feel overwhelming, one way to stay grounded or focused is to write out a list of “things to do” and know that you will accomplish what you need to, but on your terms. Also know that it is okay to ask for help. None of us would be where we are without the support of our peers.

Ultimately, focusing on what is out of your control is simply not productive. Take our advice and stick to control.

Ten Percent App 
Calm App 
Better Help
Trello App
How to Audition (Rob Knopper)
Motivation & Practice Goals (Rob Knopper)

Matthew HalliganDr. Matthew Halligan is an educator and percussionist from Annapolis, Maryland. He serves as Director of Instrumental Activities for the Department of Musical Activities at the U.S. Naval Academy and is the Director and Percussion Caption Head with the Naval Academy Drum & Bugle Corps.

Tyler TollesDr. Tyler N. Tolles
is an active performer and educator based in Annapolis, Maryland. He performs as a percussionist with the United States Naval Academy Band and maintains an adjunct professorship at the University of North Alabama.

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