Read Your Checklist

Photo of airline cockpitPerforming is Complex

Performing music is complex!  Even without a professional’s stresses of marketing, running a business, bookings, travel, meals, lodging, and getting your instrument to the hall, there’s plenty to do.  Setup, tuning, warm up exercises, greeting guests and other musicians, and introducing the piece are all important before you play your first note.  Then after your performance, there are other tasks to remember: mingling with the audience, packing everything up, and arranging your next performance.  If it’s a formal recital, there might be refreshments to make and serve; and a program to design, print, and distribute.  When you think about it, this is getting to be as complex as flying an airplane.  And all that complexity leads to stress.  Fortunately, this source of stress can be controlled.   By controlling this stress, you can better focus on your performance and consistently play your best.

Too Complex To Fly

Speaking of aircraft, Boeing introduced a new bomber in 1935.  Other aircraft of the time still had primitive controls systems – flying them was still a matter of “gut feel” and instinct.  The new plane’s technology was far advanced beyond other aircraft of the day, so it could perform missions other pilots could only dream of.  Finally, the test day came and the crowd of dignitaries and military officials gathered to watch an aviation miracle.  The plane took off, climbed, and then crashed.  The investigation found that the pilots had so many gauges and controls to keep track of that they had missed unlocking the elevator.  Consequently, they couldn’t control the plane’s climbing or diving.  The press declared the plane was too complex to fly.  Boeing was given just a few weeks to make the plane flyable or face bankruptcy.

Turning Novices into Experts

After intense meetings, the test pilots came up with a brilliantly simple, flexible, solution that didn’t require redesigning the cockpit: the checklist.  Using checklists, today’s commercial aircraft fly 100,000 flights every day, making them the safest form of transportation we have.  And Boeing’s airplane, the B-17 “Flying Fortress” returned their relatively inexperienced pilots home from over 200,000 combat missions.  The checklists concentrated the test pilots’ lifetimes of thought and experience into an easy-to-use form and turned new pilots into experts.  In a matter of weeks, raw recruits were flying an aircraft that had been deemed “too complex to fly”.

Will a Checklist Help You?

If checklists can work for pilots, astronauts, and wedding planners, they can work for you too.  What’s on a good checklist?  It lists all the tasks that need to be done, but not in detail.  You already know what the tasks are and how to do them.  The list is there to remind you to think about the task and to make sure it gets done.  As you’ve probably already experienced, when you’re in the moment, it’s easy to forget something important – especially when some problem grabs your attention.  For instance, you get caught up in a conversation with a guest that arrives early and forget to check the sound system.  Or while you’re fixing a sound system problem, you forget to pass out the programs.  Or while talking with the host about how well the concert went, you forget to book a return performance.

Developing Your Checklists

It’s so easy to get caught up in problem-solving, that pilots even have a checklist for emergencies.  The first item on the checklist is “Fly the plane!”  Experience has shown that while the pilots are busy trying to figure out why an engine is on fire, they forget to keep the plane flying straight and level.  The checklist doesn’t have to tell them how to fly the plane, but just to remember to do it.  And so it is for you.  Your checklist doesn’t have to tell you how to soak your reed, tune up, or which warm-up exercises to run through.  It just has to tell you to do them and in a reasonable order.

Typically, there are multiple checklists – one for each stage in the process.  For pilots, there are separate checklists for before during, and after the flight.  For a musician, there might be checklists for everyday marketing activities, travelling, the performance, and after the performance.  The goal is to do all your thinking ahead of time, so that when you’re in the moment, you don’t have to do as much thinking.  The checklist tells you what to think about and when.  Then you can be efficient and thorough.  It doesn’t contain instructions on how to do the tasks.  If you need those instructions, write them somewhere else and put a reference to them in your checklist.  For instance, your checklist might have a line item, “Pack equipment (see ‘Equipment List’, page 2)”.  The text in parentheses tells you where to go to make sure you don’t forget to bring your rosin (or violin!) while you search for batteries for your electronic tuner.

Continuous Improvement

Checklists are “living documents”, because you don’t make it all up just once.  Checkslists change over time as your experience grows.  After each stage in the process, and especially after the performance, take some time to go back over the entire sequence.  Did you forget to do something?  Figure out when it should have been done and add it to that checklist.  Was there a near miss, where you almost forgot something?  Add it to the appropriate checklist.  Did someone give you a good idea for what you might do to improve next time?  Add it to your checklist.  As you gain more experience, you’ll find more and more things that did or could have gone wrong, or could go better.  By putting them on your checklist, you’ll learn quickly and efficiently and deliver consistently.

Here are some ideas for the types of checklists a musician might develop:

Practice checklist:

Ÿ Posture exercises

  • Stretching exercises
  • Mind-centering exercises
  • Breathing exercises
  • Specific muscle groups used by your instrument
  •   Legs
  •   Arms
  •   Hands and fingers
  •   Face and throat

Ÿ Technique exercises

  • Scales, arpeggios, chords, etc.
  • Speed (unusually fast or slow)
  • Pitch accuracy
  • Loud/soft
  • Expression
  • Specific techniques needed by repertoire development or maintenance


  • Maintenance of existing repertoire
  • New pieces
  •   Technical analysis
  •   Interpretive analysis
  •   Research of composer, original techniques, and history of interpretation
  •   Practicing new passages slowly
  •   Ramping new passage speed
  •   Difficult passages

Ÿ Planning

  • Analysis of  this practice session
  • Analysis of  strengths and weaknesses
  • Goal-setting for next practice session
  • Creation of a checklist for the next practice session

Creativity Checklist:

Ÿ General:

  • Listen to recordings of _____ (features my instrument)
  • Listen to recordings of _____ (featuring an instrument I don’t play)
  • Listen to recordings of _____ (a different genre than mine)


  • Analyze harmonic progression of _____

Ÿ Hands-on:

  • Transpose _____ to a new key
  • Improvise a new ending to ______
  • Improvise a new harmony for ______
  • Create a new melody

Business Process Checklists (or sub-lists):

Ÿ Everyday marketing activities

  • Ÿ Bookings
  • Ÿ Travelling
  • Ÿ Packing (local, overnight, domestic travel, international travel)
  • Ÿ Set-up at the venue
  • Ÿ Dress rehearsal
  • Ÿ Refreshments
  • Ÿ Programs
  • Ÿ Pre-performance
  • Ÿ Performance
  • Ÿ Post-performance

Read Your Checklist – Reduce Your Stress

Developing good checklists will reduce your stress at performance time.  By giving your processes concentrated thought when you’re thinking clearly, you develop a complete list of tasks needed for success.  When you go through your checklist during each step in the process, you know you’ve done all of those tasks.  Your stress is reduced, because you know you’ve done everything you need to.  And because there won’t be distracting thoughts about whether you’ve forgotten something, you’ll be able to concentrate on your performance.

One final word.  The more stressed you are, the more important it is to follow the checklist exactly, because you’ve already determined the right tasks and the best order.  When the engine is on fire, you need to follow the list exactly so that you see the “Fly the plane!” instruction first.  Just before your performance, read through your list and check off each item.  Presumably, practice sessions are more relaxed, and you’ll probably remember the plan you made at the previous session.  But it’s important to review the checklist at the end of the practice session to make sure you actually did everything on the list, even if it was in a different order.  In time, you will probably memorize sections of it through repetition.  To avoid a false sense of security, review it anyway to make sure you didn’t overlook anything.  When you’re on your next tasks or performing, you don’t want to be distracted by a nagging feeling that you forgot something.  You don’t want to discover that you knew to do something, but didn’t do it.

Ready for Takeoff!

A music performance is the sum of many complex tasks, some of which are done while you’re stressed.  You can reduce that stress by preparing a checklist of tasks that must be done in order to succeed, and then following that checklist.  The checklist is a living document that changes as you discover more factors for success.  By keeping it current and referring to it always, you guarantee your continued success.