Source: Connolly, C. (2002) Mental Skills to Optimise Musical Performance. In: Proceedings of the 7th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition, Sydney, 2002. London
Cognitive-behavioural interventions, including mental imagery and relaxation techniques, have been used for many years to strengthen the quality of performance in elite athletes and dancers. In addition, a number of studies have examined the impact of such interventions on music performance but have focused primarily on reducing stage fright rather than performance enhancement (see, for example, Clark & Agras, 1991; Kendrick, Craig, Lawson, & Davidson, 1982; Nagel, Himle, & Papsdorf, 1989; Steptoe & Fidler, 1987; Sweeney & Horan, 1982).
Considering the wide applicability of mental skills training to other performance domains, it was hypothesised that particular techniques within the cognitive-behavioural repertoire would be of use to elite or highly skilled musicians. The objective of this project, therefore, has been to design and pilot a curriculum of mental training that draws on techniques from applied sports psychology to enhance musicians’ performance. Indeed, it has begun to employ a range of techniques that have been applied in and elite sporting contexts to music through systematic and progressive programmes.
The primary research questions were:
- What did the musicians want to achieve through using Mental Skills Training?
- Which mental skills were most useful at the time of and following the training?
- How did the musicians employ the mental skills?
- What did the musicians achieve from using Mental Skills Training?
- What were the musicians’ opinions of the utility of the training process and environment?
Twelve Royal College of Music students participated in the study. In year 1 of the project, students took part in a training programme with three elements. Classroom sessions consisted of approximately 30% lecture on the nature and application of the techniques; 40% on practice of the techniques; and 30% on feedback and discussion. In year 2, it was decided to revise the relative proportion of teaching methods. Since individual coaching was more highly valued by participants in year 1, lecture content was reduced by 50% and individual coaching increased accordingly. In both years, there were three main areas of practice: relaxation techniques, mental imaging techniques and planning/analysing techniques.
Performance Profiling was used to help students establish goals and objectives. The profiling process was broken down into three instrumental groups: keyboard, strings and woodwind/brass/voice. Within these groups, the skills were limited to four different categories each with ten characteristics: Life Style, Mental Skills, Musical Skills and Technical Skills. Within each category, there were common and differentiated characteristics to all instrumental groups (differences occurred mostly in the areas of Musical and Technical). Students were asked to identify their current state and their ideal state on a scale of 1-10. Differences were identified and the performance profiles were used as self-assessment tools for planning and goal setting.
Individual coaching sessions were conducted with all of the students. These were typically 45-minute sessions and took place three to four times over the course of two terms. Sessions were conducted on a one-to-one basis and focussed on three areas: (1) the review of the performance profile and its use as a goal setting technique, (2) the application of mental training techniques for enhancing performance and (3) addressing issues arising from the current situation of the student (e.g. preparation for exams, technical difficulties and preparation for concerts). These sessions were used to ground and integrate the techniques taught in the classroom.
To address the five core research questions, a qualitative methodology was chosen and retrospective interviews conducted. The interviews were completed after the training over a one-week period by two interviewers, using a semistructured interview schedule. Participants were encouraged to talk from actual experience, which facilitated detailed, meaningful descriptions of their approach to the training. Each interview was recorded, transcribed and coded according to inductive content analysis procedures.
The interview transcripts were analysed using Atlas/ti, a software program designed for Inductive Content Analysis. The first stage of the content analysis converted the interview transcripts to meaningful units of information: a meaningful unit was defined as a text segment containing all of its meaning when taken out of context within the interview transcript. The meaningful units were categorised according to each research question, and within each question, the coded units were compared, contrasted and categorised. The process of developing, naming and choosing categories was carried-out by two investigators to balance investigator bias.
The emergent themes and categories were organised within each of the research questions. The following sections detail typical findings and quotations from each.
3.1. What Did the Musicians Want to Achieve?
3.1.1. A useful state of mind for practising or performing
“A state of mind which allows me to relax, to be confident and give my 100% when performing.”
“A positive frame of mind, to get a feeling of my best performances.”
“A clearer picture within my mind of what I want to get from the music and what the music’s trying to say and, therefore, a clearer picture that I can deliver to an audience.”
3.1.2. To benefit practice
“To learn the pieces quickly and internalise them.”
“Use imagery to work out why I cannot play a piece.”
“To save myself time.”
3.2. Which Mental Skills Were the Most Useful?
3.2.1. Most Useful
The most useful technique was mental rehearsal, specifically mental practice of the ideal or actual performance. Mental rehearsal was used to correct and rehearse specific techni, for developing musical memory, for practising technical pieces in the music, and for improving communication, performance and musicality. Relaxation was also rated as an extremely useful technique and was often applied to general well being outside of music. “You can become completely obsessed…but at the same time, you have to look after your body and try relaxing…something that many musicians forget to do… By having that space, many things settle that you’re trying to grapple with.”
3.2.2. Not Useful
The musicians responded less favourably to those techniques that had no immediate or apparent connection to music or their own musical performance. Two of the techniques designed to induce relaxation and an absence of distractions – the Quiet Place and Black Box visualisations – were infrequently mentioned as being useful or were specifically stated to be of limited or no use.
3.3. Employing the Mental Skills
3.3.1. How Employed
Relaxation was used both in practice and in concert, when switching from one piece to another, to calm nerves before a performance or to induce a feeling of calm or ideal performance state. Several students used the relaxation techniques at night to help them go to sleep. Mental rehearsal was used to visualise an ideal performance both when practising and before concerts, or to visualise a specific passage of music to overcome some technical difficulty (e.g. students envisaged themselves in the concert hall, on the stage, playing their instrument to a supportive audience). It was often supplemented with physical movement (e.g. looking at the score whilst moving the fingers). Mental imaging was also used to help projection or communication in performance. Adaptations of mental imaging included imagining the music as different colourful landscapes; imagining an “ideal self” rather than an “ideal other”; creating stories, paintings and images to help the performer to find a way through a piece and connect with it emotionally. “I look always at the musical side of the piece from the first time I see it… Once that’s gone in, then I often use different stories, paintings, visual images to find my way through a piece of music.”
Increased self-awareness was achieved by noticing physical movements, bodily sensations, thoughts or feelings. Some participants improved their focus by taking the time to relax prior to practice or performance. Others became aware of distractions and gave time to their worries by creating lists. Many of the techniques were used together, often simplified, particularly the relaxation and visualisation. “Before I go on, I’ll probably just try and totally clear my mind, may visualise going somewhere really quiet if I can’t go somewhere quiet, but usually I can.”
3.3.2. Experience When Using The Techniques
Changes in bodily state included feelings of relaxation; an awareness of the whole body; a sense of increased physical space – of more space between their muscles, longer arms, or a taller, stronger body; a heightened awareness of tension (and the consequent ability to choose to release that tension); a feeling of being in control of their body and of not wasting physical (or mental energy). “The amount of energy I can now put into channelling my thoughts and my technique…means I’m not wasting so much making unnecessary movements because I’m worried about technical things or just wasting mental energy.”
Emotional impact was identified by students who stated that the mental skills training helped them feel more confident, more positive, happier and “warmer.”
3.3.3. How the Techniques Were Used
Students used mental rehearsal techniques when they had a piece to learn quickly, did not have access to their instrument and did not have enough time to practice. Relaxation techniques were used when switching from one piece to another in both concert and practice, to calm nerves before a concert, to improve the quality of their practice and to help sleep. Ideal performance mental rehearsal was usually used in preparation for a performance, both in advance of the concert and immediately prior to it. Many students did not use the techniques in a consistent manner. The participants that seemed to benefit most used the mental training whenever and wherever required; they did not need a special place or time to use them. Techniques were as likely to be used whilst on public transport, walking in the park, eating lunch or standing in the shower as they were while seated in front of a piano or waiting backstage.
The typical time spent on relaxation or mental rehearsal was in a range between 5-20 minutes. There were exceptions to this – some used a quick relaxation, which took seconds or a few minutes. Two performers used quick internal images to induce specific states.
3.4. What Was Achieved by Using Mental Skills Training?
3.4.1. Improved learning and playing from memory through mental rehearsal
“We had to do things from memory for our final. I find that really, really difficult because I’ve never done anything from memory before. I spent an awful lot of time playing the music through my head, without it in front of me, playing it through, seeing what it felt like, trying to play it on the piano mentally as well.”
“I find now I am more comfortable playing from memory … I really used to worry about whether I could actually remember the whole piece of music…”
3.4.2. More efficient, focused practice
“Fundamental practising [has] been a lot more focused. The time passes quicker, and I’m more focused on the music.”
“[I] achieve things in shorter amount of time in practice because I make sure I am doing it properly.”
3.4.3. Technical benefits in practice
“Mental rehearsal helps with body/mind awareness, which helps correct technical difficulties in pieces – rather than go over and over, I try and fix it first time.”
3.4.4. More interest in the music
“Through learning about this mental practice it made me aware of other things I wanted to check out about the piece. And when you start thinking about playing the music rather than just doing a physical thing, it helps. I’ve found myself interested.”
3.4.5. Skills to control the negative aspect of emotions
“By imagining myself performing, I think it takes away the fear of the unknown, unknown places, unknown circumstances.”
“Whenever I got up there I used to be a little bit more uptight, but now it’s more ‘well if it goes wrong it does, it just goes wrong, and I can’t do anything about it’…. I think it made me more aware that if you want to be more focused you have to be more relaxed instead of being all uptight.”
3.4.6. Increased awareness of the impact of thoughts and control of focus
“Probably having confidence in myself to be able to control what I’m thinking and how that will influence how I play. Knowing that I can help myself is probably that. Just using all the tools that are available to use.”
3.4.7. General confidence/resilience
“Using the relaxation allows my mental landscape to take over the circumstances, this means the environment has less impact on the performance. Using relaxation, I have more resilience and ability to cope with adversity.”
3.4.8. Clarity of mind, complete focus on the music and heightened sensory awareness
“I’m aware that the only thing that matters is the music.”
“It’s really subtle but it makes that difference – just to collect your thoughts.”
“My focus becomes blinkered and determined, not in a teeth clenching determination way but in a fairly relaxed way.”
“More aware of my sound, more aware of what I am doing, More aware of what I can do…and experimenting and…clarity of thought for executing something difficult.”
3.4.9. More connection, presence, clarity and expression when communicating with audience
“I’m closer to the music I suppose than I have ever been before, and hopefully therefore the audience is too. They’re closer to what they’ve come to experience.”
“Mental imagery helps to convey and direct my emotions. I link images with the music, and this helps me to project my feelings and the meaning of the music.”
“I had the first real performance after last year’s course of the mental skills. There were 800 people in the audience; I was being sponsored to play, so it was quite important, and it was lovely because I went on and the pieces were internalised from when I learnt last summer, so it was a question of bringing them out, and for the first time I forgot I was playing – not forgot, although I was communicating with the audience I detached myself from them and concentrated on the music and let the music bridge rather than myself playing a violin and looking at the audience. The high afterwards was great.”
3.5. Utility of the Training Process and Environment
3.5.1 Encouragement during the learning process
“[The techniques] gave me ways to efficiently use time, different ways to improve.”
“From the very beginning I thought [the techniques] were very productive, the ones I used worked. I latched onto mental rehearsal really quickly, the exercises related to what I was doing.”
3.5.2. Group sessions
“It was very nice being in the group doing something different, rather than specifically music.”
“It was useful sharing unusual experiences with others. I did not feel as alienated.”
“The group sessions were useful because we were introduced to so many tools.”
3.5.3. One-to-one sessions
“Talking things through helped me to get organised, be practical and focus on the things I needed to work on, sometimes my weaknesses.”
“The one-to-one sessions were a smack in the face and made me realise I was not pulling my weight.”
3.5.4. Problematic issues concerning the techniques
“I did not see the point of some exercises and sometimes did not see how they related to music.”
“I did not find it easy to relate the techniques to everyday practice and performance.”
“I did not pay attention to or commit to mental training as much as I would have liked because it was not part of course work.”
“I stopped myself using techniques particularly when I did not have time, when I was busy and when I had other priorities.”
“With others in the group with different needs, it was difficult for my own needs to be met.”
(3.1) When using the mental training the participants wanted to influence their mental state, particularly whilst performing. Some wanted clarity of mind, an absence of irrelevant thoughts and a pure focus. Others wanted to feel more confident and positive when performing, and others wanted to feel relaxed. The participants wanted to develop a state that allowed them to express their emotions freely.
(3.2) Overall mental imagery and relaxation were the two most useful techniques. The participants mainly used imagery to rehearse upcoming performances, particularly important performances, and to correct and rehearse specific techniques. For some of the participants, the use of relaxation and mental rehearsal was integrated. In particular, colours and images were used to evoke a relaxed state. Images and stories were connected to the music and used to aid emotional interpretation of music. Awareness was often mentioned, some becoming aware of tension and releasing it, others learning to control irrelevant thoughts and channel their focus onto the music.
(3.3) The participants that benefited most from the training had experimented, adapting the techniques (often simplified or shortened) and finding out what worked for them. Commonly, participants found that one or two particular techniques had the most influence. Mental practice was used to aid memorisation, to help conquer technical elements of a piece of music, or even to make corrections. Relaxation was used for general well-being and to help the participants sleep. The participants who most integrated the techniques would use the techniques almost anywhere, generally finding a space for themselves either on their own or anonymous on public transport. One clear advantage of these techniques is thus that they are portable. The techniques were mostly used before practice and performance and some students found ways of using the techniques during performance to adjust their focus and state.
(3.4) One of the key benefits noted was the participants’ ability to influence their state of mind. They reported improved focus while practising and performing and greater confidence and resilience from the ability to control unhelpful emotions, thoughts and tensions. They also experienced more connection with the music and an enhanced ability to express themselves when communicating with the audience. Practice became more efficient, and their ability to learn and play music from memory was improved. Relaxation helped with their overall state and sense of well-being.
(3.5) The participants were encouraged by their first experiences and impressions of the group sessions. Some participants had clear reasons for their participation. Most found the group sessions useful as they gave an opportunity to experience a wide range of techniques. The process of talking things through one-to-one was generally found to be the most useful for individual needs. A few of the participants were sceptical and found it hard to relate to some of the techniques, particularly those where there was not an obvious application to music. To help people take on ideas it may be useful to discuss the application of techniques in specific musical contexts.
1. Clark, D. B., and Agras, W. S. “The assessment and treatment of performance anxiety in musicians,” American Journal of Psychiatry 148: 598-605, 1991.
2. Kendrick, M. J., Craig, K. D., Lawson, D. M., and Davidson, P. O. “Cognitive and behavioral therapy for musical-performance anxiety,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 50: 353-362, 1982.
3. Nagel, J., Himle, D., and Papsdorf, J. “Cognitive behavioural treatment of musical performance anxiety,” Psychology of Music 17: 12-21, 1989.
4. Steptoe, A., and Fidler, H. “Stage fright in musicians: A study of cognitive and behavioural strategies in performance anxiety,” British Journal of Psychology 78: 241-249, 1987.
5. Sweeney, G. A., and Horan, J. J. “Separate and combined effects of cue-controlled relaxation and cognitive restructuring in the treatment of musical performance anxiety,” Journal of Counseling Psychology 29: 486-497, 1982.