Editor’s Note: Grace Ueng is the founder of Savvy Growth, a noted leadership coaching and management consulting firm, and an expert on wellbeing and human performance. Grace writes a regular column on Happiness & Leadership for WRAL TechWire.


 RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – At the start of this year, I reached out to my friend and Triangle business leader Adam Broome, to ask him questions about piano, given our mutual interest. He suggested I check out The Bulletproof Musician. Given how much I respect Adam, I immediately took his advice.


Performance Science: Sports, Music, Business, Life!

Noa Kageyama is the creator of powerful coursework to beat stage fright and performance anxiety with research-based insights from performance psychology.  He serves on the faculty of Juilliard and specializes in teaching performing artists how to utilize sports psychology principles to more consistently demonstrate their full abilities under pressure.

For years I have studied how sports coaches work with their players to help them achieve peak performance.  I am especially intrigued with the power of visualization (How Visualization Creates Champions).

Noa’s coursework and coaching have made a world of difference in both my piano practicing and performing this year.  While his teaching is targeted for musical performers on stage, his wisdom applies equally to business and to life.

Music: Key to Success?

Over the years, much has been written about the correlation between individuals who are successful in their chosen career and are also talented musicians. And multiple studies have linked music study to academic achievement.

In the New York Times article, “Is Music the Key to Success?”,  Joanne Lipman interviewed top flight professionals from tech to finance to media who made a connection between their music training and their professional achievements.

Grace Ueng



“It’s not a coincidence,” says former Fed chair Alan Greenspan regarding the relationship between musical talent and success in life, who himself was a professional clarinet and saxophone player. “I can tell you as a statistician, the probability that that is mere chance is extremely small.” The cautious former Fed chief adds, “The crucial question is: why does that connection exist?”

Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, offers an answer. He says music “reinforces your confidence in the ability to create.”  Allen began playing the violin at age 7 and switched to the guitar as a teenager. Even in the early days of Microsoft, he would pick up his guitar at the end of marathon days of programming. In both, he says, “something is pushing you to look beyond what currently exists and express yourself in a new way.”

Additional benefits they cite include:

  • Opens up pathways to creative thinking
  • Sharpens collaboration
  • Improves ability to listen
  • Creates a way of thinking that weaves together disparate ideas
  • Requires focus on the present and future simultaneously

Noa’s Musical Childhood…Revelation at Conservatory

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Noa and learn about his parents who had reverence for music and the determination of his mom to have him as a very young boy go study with Dr. Suzuki in Japan. Then fast forward many years, of Noa’s realization in the first weeks at Oberlin, that he may not want to spend time focused on all the elements required in studying at a conservatory such as music history, theory, and ear training.

To get out of the stuff he didn’t want to do, Noa started to pursue a five year double degree program in psychology and violin and then when he had enough credits to graduate with a single major, he finished in four years with a degree in psychology and dropped the conservatory portion of the five year double major. He was then able to focus on the portion of music he enjoyed, his lessons and chamber music, and avoid that which sapped his energy.

This reminded me of my time at MIT when I very early realized that I did not want to study engineering and creatively found places at the Institute that I could enjoy and excel instead – leadership, starting new things, and organizational behavior and marketing at Sloan, which ended up being my major.  While Oberlin is perhaps best known for its world class conservatory and MIT for engineering, Noa and I both matriculated thinking we would major in these fields, and both realized very quickly, these were not really fields we enjoyed studying.

Juilliard…a turning point

 He went on to graduate studies at Juilliard as per his long term plan, and realized he was unusual as all his classmates would amplify their work in music even if they were to win the lottery and could do anything with their lives, whereas it would not be his choice to continue with violin.

His sports psychology class at Juilliard with Dr. Don Greene, the renowned peak performance psychologist proved pivotal, as this was the first psychology class he really enjoyed.  His psychology classes at Oberlin had simply replaced the music theory and history classes he loathed.

Greene’s teaching changed the way Noa practiced, allowing him to gain confidence and improve at a rate like never before.  This was made evident when he traveled to an International competition and in the first few rounds performed better than he hoped or even deserved, given his “substandard” preparation.

Greene’s TEDEd talk viewed by over 13 million, discusses how practice affects the inner workings of our brain and offers advice on effective practicing:

  • Minimize distractions when practicing/studying
  • Start out in slo-mo with repetitions, then speed up, and take frequent breaks
  • Once a skill is learned, it can be reinforced just by thinking about it. Practice in your brain with vivid detail (ala visualization). This is what I did in the final week before my October concert, as I had little time actually at the keyboard, given everything I was dealing with in the aftermath of my epic car accident along with my work.

He cites part of a basketball study of 144 basketball players that I also mention in my TED talk. Group A practices one-handed free throws.  Group B practices the free throws only in their minds. Both groups improved about the same amount. In my talk, I discuss how in a study a Group C did both, and outperformed the other two groups

Sports Psychology – A Century Old

Sports Psychology has been around for a long time. Sport and performance psychology focus on helping athletes, performers and others reach goals and cope with the anxiety that can impede performance in many venues, from athletics to the boardroom.

While athletes have spoken about mental health challenges for years, more prominent ones such as Michael Phelps, Naomi Osaka and Simon Biles have come out more recently.  This normalizes these challenges and helps to remove the stigma around mental illness, which is good for all of us.

Sports psychologists emphasize the importance of:

  • Self awareness – knowing what works and doesn’t work for you
  • Goal setting
  • Energy management
  • Self talk (How to Win the Inner Game)
  • Managing distractions
  • Routine + flexibility
  • Pre performance routine
  • Post reflection and recovery
  • Imagery via watching reels of self playing
  • Stress management

Enjoying the Journey

When I asked Noa the secrets of getting around the 10,000 hour rule or even my 728 hour rule (The Art of Listening & My 728 Hour Rule), he informed me that with elite musicians, the 10,000 hour increases to a +20,000 hour rule.  He suggested throwing any hour rule out the window and instead focus on whether you are on the right path.  He shared how his wife gave him George Leonard’s book, Mastery, during his Juilliard studies which really helped him realize that since so much time is spent on a plateau before we can move up just one step in the long progression staircase, that what we need to do is focus on the being on the right path.

I shared that this was similar to what serial entrepreneurs always say, to focus on enjoying the journey rather than reaching the top.  This is in line with Carol Dweck’s Mindset, of having a growth versus fixed mindset.

What Drives Winning Performances

Noa also referred to Brad Stevens, when he was coach of the Celtics, as focusing on relentless growth, not trophies.  He was focused on the process of progress, rather than the result.  In one interview, Stevens said “It’s an honor to be a member of the Boston Celtics. We’ll continue striving for growth in pursuit of Banner 18.”

The significance of this quote is (1) he made himself an equal, a part of the team, not superior as the coach (2) their why or purpose is growth, not the championship.

I hope you enjoy our interview:A conversation with Noa Kageyama, performance psychologist on faculty at Juilliard.

About Grace Ueng

A management consultant, leadership coach and human performance expert with Savvy Growth, Grace has been covered in The Wall Street Journal, Inc., and MIT Technology Review. Her company offers workshops to improve team effectiveness: Savvy’s Seven: What You Will Learn. Join her Happiness & Leadership community to be more productive leader: click here