9 ways for musicians to think like top athletes

Carole Talbot-Honeck earned her Masters degree from The University of Ottawa studying the psychological prerequisites for optimal musical performance. Here, she outlines a number of sporting attitudes, which are of equal value to musicians


1. Love of your profession
My thesis advisor called it simply ‘joy’. Musicians have to remember that love of music is what got them started in the first place and they sometimes need to remind themselves of this. For the most part, elite musicians report that over many years in a long career, their love of music and the enjoyment they get from playing have grown along with their skill level and experience. This is as it should be, but sometimes, physical or mental problems can lead to a loss of enjoyment. These need to be addressed and rectified in order to restore the balance.

2. Commitment
Once a person decides to make music their career, they must commit to developing their full potential and to investing however much time and energy is required to achieve their goals. This is perfectionism in the most positive sense of the word: the never-ending story of taking up a concerto for the umpteenth time and finding new ideas or new inspiration to make it sound exciting or fresh.

3. Self-esteem
Musicians must believe in the worthiness of their pursuit and in their ability to achieve this. Self-esteem is the second most misunderstood or misused word in the dictionary of mental fitness (after positive thinking). I prefer the German word Selbstbewusstsein or self-awareness and maintain that you can never have too much of it. As David Finckel writes in his article (10 habits of successful musicians), know thyself… Self-confidence grows from knowing what you can and what you cannot do and of course, from accepting yourself as the person that you are, warts and all, without ever wanting to stop learning or improving. Such self-awareness has nothing to do with being arrogant or selfish; on the contrary, musicians who are confident in their own ability give readily to others (ie as teachers and/or mentors). They never feel the need to compare themselves to others. A healthy sense of self should be broad-based (different roles, interests, hobbies) and certainly not all tied up in one particular performance. My magic phrase here is, ‘I am what I am; much more than what I am doing right now!’

4. Idealistic, non-materialistic goals
Musicians have lofty goals. Their aspirations can be divided in three major categories: self-actualisation and personal development goals; goals pertaining to the music itself (do the music and the composer justice); and finally, they want to communicate with the audience or to express themselves through their music. Whichever category (or categories) applies, performance goals should be derived from these expectations if they are to give a lifetime of satisfaction or fulfillment.

I use three qualities to describe what I consider to be an optimal performance: creativity, spontaneity and flexibility. Creativity is the process of taking a piece of music and making it your own, of developing a vision of what this piece means to you, what you want to express with it. Spontaneity is ‘creativity of the moment’, it is inspiration or intuition and only possible if you are well prepared and have confidence in yourself and in your preparation. Finally, flexibility is also being open to whatever comes ‘in the moment’, but it relates more to external influences (what my colleagues are doing, the hall, the acoustics, the audience….)

5. Focus
Multi-tasking is out!  The human brain is not wired to concentrate on more than one thing at once (see Clifford Nass). This has implications with regard to efficient practice and being focused. Ironically, multi-tasking is an ‘ability’ that cannot be trained; the more you do it, the worse you get at it!

Central to the idea of self-control is the ability to concentrate and to focus attention thereby avoiding distractions. In a seminar with music school students recently, I was surprised that inability to concentrate had replaced nervousness as their number one concern.

Some musicians prefer self-effacement to self-esteem for fear of seeming arrogant but these two expressions are not opposites.  Selflessness is THE focus goal for a performance yet only a very strong sense of self enables you to forget yourself and concentrate on the task at hand!

6. Self-control
Will power is back in fashion! After years of neglect, it is again considered a very important skill. I avoid calling it a character trait because research shows that people can be very well organised and/or disciplined in some aspects of their lives and notoriously complacent in others. Many stressed out university students preparing for the finals wear dirty socks (see Baumeister and Tierney). The fact is that they probably have no choice. Think of will power as a finite quantity: no matter how different or unrelated the demands you place on yourself (concentration, patience, behavior control, etc), you only have one jar of will power at your disposal.  When the jar is empty, you’ve run out of it and only replenishment (nutrition, rest) will allow you to tackle the next challenge.

7. Proper perspective
Defining proper perspective in a few short lines isn’t easy. Proper perspective means being open; always looking for opportunities to grow. It means keeping sight of the big picture, not sweating the small stuff or getting caught up in small details.

And there you have it, THE most misunderstood and misused mental attitude or skill: thinking positive. Positive thinkers may live up to seven-and-a-half years longer according to a longitudinal study of thousands of Swedish nurses. They don’t get sick as often and heal faster when they do. All this has nothing to do with being unrealistic or kidding oneself. It means approaching problems and/or setbacks in a solution-seeking frame of mind. It means taking charge, which brings us to the next aspect of proper perspective: sitting in the driver’s seat. Successful musicians don’t want to feel like victims nor do they want to be seen that way by others. Setbacks are there to be analysed and understood. Solutions can then be incorporated into their preparation plan. What is beyond one’s control belongs in the ‘oh, what the hell’ category, to be related and laughed about later.

Finally, keeping things in perspective means having fun. Remember, it’s all about loving music and making music and being thankful that you can earn a good living doing what you love!

8. Health and physical fitness
When musicians ask why they should physically train and look after their body, I answer, ‘Why not? You’re a human being too, aren’t you?’ You can read everyday about the necessity of doing something for your health. Musicians (as opposed to most elite athletes) belong to the lucky people who can enjoy many years of music making as long as their mental and physical health allows it.  Besides, your body IS your instrument. If you take good care of it, if you train efficiently (see neuro-motor learning) and give it what it needs to function, it will be there for you. Being able to rely on your instrument is the single most important factor in dealing with stage fright!

9. Analysis
A famous conductor used to say, ‘If you choose to read and believe the good critiques, then you must believe the bad ones too!’ Feedback comes in many forms and musicians have to know how to deal with it. They have to analyse their own performance (while maintaining a good perspective), make sense of what other people are saying, incorporate anything useful into their preparation plan, then put the performance behind them and look forward to the next one…

 Carole Talbot-Honeck’s thesis ‘The Essence of Excellence; Mental Skills of Top Classical Musicians‘ was published in The Journal of Excellence, Vol. 1 Nr. 1, May 1998.

She has given ‘Fit to Play’ seminars at the VENIA Audition Academy, as a part of VENIA’s audition (including orchestral) and performance preparation programme for instrumentalists and singers. VENIA believes musicians are individual personalities, able to achieve their goals, and improve stage and performance presence by combining musical, mental and physical skills.