Performing On Your Mind

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Karen O'ConnorKaren O'ConnorI spent all day Thursday at a workshop on applications of sports psychology to musical performance, run by performance coach Karen O'Connor. Karen started out as an oboist (she played with the CBSO for many years), and I knew her when I worked at the Birmingham Conservatoire, where her work with students on mental skills for performance was widely admired

I am sure that knowing of her work has encouraged my own investigations into such things as adrenaline, self-talk and NLP, and it was a delight to hear her present her work, rather than learning about it piecemeal by hearsay. The ideas involved a pleasing mix of things that resonated with my current praxis, and concepts/approaches that were new to me, and the discussions between the delegates added a rich range of different perspectives on them and possibilities for their application. I would highly recommend the day to anyone involved in facilitating performance.

As you can imagine, I have far more notes on the day than could be summarised in a single post, so for today I am going to focus on the key elements of her coaching model. Later posts will explore some of her key tools and methods, and yet others will mull over intriguing observations that popped up tangentially in the discussions.

Karen's Coaching Model

  • Coaching is about unlocking, about working to potentiate already acquired skills, as opposed to training or teaching, which is about helping people acquire new skills and knowledge. Teaching tends to be more directing in method ('do this, do it this way'), whereas coaching is more interrogative ('what do you want help with? why?)

    In this light, an interesting gambit Karen used as part of this process of eliciting the needs and ideas from musicians was to ask them to describe something in very basic terms. 'Tell me about [the subject they had raised],' she'd say, 'Assume I'm very stupid and don't know anything about it'. This was effective not only in getting them to identify the fundamentals of their issues, but it also helped relax them. By claiming stupidity, Karen explicitly removed any sense of hierarchy of status; the musician was under no pressure to impress her. This was a very effective ploy - simple and efficient, and (in case you can't tell) I rather admired it.

  • Coaching is based on a team approach; following the model of sports psychology, the performance coach is only one of a range of specialist resources available to support high-level achievement. A sports team will have coaches for specific technical skills and health professionals (physios, nutritionists, etc) as well as the psychologist to give support on attitude and mindset.

    So, in this spirit, the first thing Karen does when approached by a student for coaching is to contact their first-study teacher, to make sure they are working together effectively in their support. She also pointed out how relatively unsupported musicians often are once they are into the profession, which I guess I had not really questioned until she made the direct comparison with professional sports.

  • The coach's aim is to make herself redundant. A successful outcome is for the musician to feel they have the personal resources to manage themselves.
  • The coach works with the person first, the performer second. Many of the obstacles we make for ourselves originate from outside the practice room: habits of thought, beliefs, emotional states. For the performer to be effective, the person needs to be well, balanced, in good form. Karen used the image of the iceberg: her remit is what you see above the waterline, but this arises from a much bigger, hidden mass of underlying issues. The performance coach may need to refer on if the primary needs turn out to be underneath the waterline, but even when this is not the case, it is the person that performs, and therefore the person's wellbeing is primary.
  • Coaching focuses on the positive. 'Focus on what needs to be done, not what needs to be avoided' is one way she expressed this (and has resonances with rehearsal tactics I have written about before). This positive focus is evident in her language - she describes her work as performance enhancement, for example, and makes some points about the poverty of discourse in music that only allows adrenaline to be conceived in terms of nerves or anxiety (another area in which I felt affirmed in my approach).

    Her coaching method likewise steers people's attention on to what their desired outcomes are, rather than dwelling on the problems that cause them to seek her out. 'What kind of performance would you like to give?' elicits a positive articulation of goals as well as starting the imaginative/envisioning process needed to realise those goals.

    Another method for focusing on the positive is to find someone's 'zone of self-efficacy' - i.e. situations in which they feel as confident and competent as they would like to feel in performance. Exploring what they do there then provides ideas for what they could do achieve the same sense in their performances.

The coaching methods have much in common with the methods of non-directive counselling I've been trained in on a couple of occasions, in that the agenda is driven by the needs of the person being coached. The coach uses techniques like reflection (giving back what they've heard as ideas for the musician to comment on) and gestural matching to enter into their world and help them have a more purposeful and self-aware relationship with their own experiences.

But it is nonetheless more directive: once the musician's needs and goals have been clearly articulated, the coach has a range of concepts and activities to help the performer achieve those goals. More of these tools in later posts, however - this is plenty long enough for now.

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