This week’s guest post features an article by pianist, teacher and performance coach Charlotte Tomlinson. In her post, Charlotte shares her journey towards becoming a performance coach and her approach to helping musicians enjoy a free, enjoyable and inspired performing life.

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More Than Just The Music: My Journey Towards Performance Coaching

Performance Coaching is still quite a new concept in the music profession at large, although over the last few years there has been a much greater openness towards anything that supports a musician’s overall health and wellbeing. In the sports world, it’s a well understood term and Performance Coaches are common – you just have to google the term to see that there are far more performance coaches for athletes than there are for musicians. There is also a vast literature of performance psychology in the sports world that’s been around for about fifty or sixty years. For whatever reason, athletes appear to have understood sooner than musicians, that there is more to being successful in your chosen area than technique, talent and hard work.

In musical circles, nobody has yet defined what performance coaching actually is, or what it should be, so I am just going to share with you my version and what I offer. As a Performance Coach, I aim to support a musician in clearing everything that gets in the way of them performing to their full potential. This can be on a physical, emotional, psychological or musical level. The next step is to help that performer get into a good emotional state so that they give of their best while loving the whole performing experience.

I came to performance coaching through years of piano teaching and performing professionally as a piano accompanist. I was also fascinated by psychology in all its different guises. I read, researched, studied, experienced, had different types of therapy myself, all out of a fascination about how human beings tick. Similarly, I found myself drawn to ‘bodywork.’ (Bodywork is an umbrella term, more commonly used in the USA than the UK, that includes a wide range of practices and therapies: it can be Yoga, Feldenkrais, Tai Chi, Alexander Technique on one hand, and all the vast varieties of hands-on massage type work on the other.) I explored everything that I found interesting at the same time as working as a professional musician. I discovered that I didn’t want to be a bodyworker as such, nor a psychotherapist, but that by exploring those two areas in such depth, I had gained invaluable insights into my own teaching.

I was beginning to understand that how a musician feels in themselves really impacts the way they perform. This is shown both physically or psychologically depending on the musician, or a mix of the two. Let’s say a musician has volunteered to play in either a masterclass or an individual coaching session. They will play a few phrases and then we will then discuss how they feel about it. Very often, they feel anxious, nervous and generally unhappy about their performance. My role is to help them feel better and more comfortable in whatever way is right for them in that moment. This could be encouraging them to breathe as they play, a simple but powerful exercise which helps them to free up physically but also has a positive effect on calming them emotionally.

If a musician’s Inner Critic is very strong, then first of all they need encouragement to notice their negative self-talk and then to re-frame that self-talk in a non-judgmental, non-emotional way. It can take quite some time to build in this new way of thinking, something that may need to be done over weeks and months, and predominantly in the practice room. Alerting them to this in a class is an important first step; the unchecked Inner Critic can cause major problems for musicians and wreak havoc with performance nerves.

A musician might be physically very tense when performing. This could be because they don’t have a healthy, free technique or limited body awareness, but it could also be part of the physiological fight-flight-freeze response. If on some subconscious level, they feel that performing is ‘dangerous,’ meaning they might feel exposed or judged, then they will tense up in order to protect themselves. I might then be able to help them free their shoulders or wrists or any areas where they are locking down, encouraging physical freedom that will in turn help them emotionally and musically. Or I may approach it from another angle, by helping reassure them. If this is in a class situation, bringing the audience on board to support them is incredibly powerful for the performer.

A few examples come to mind of how performance coaching can bring positive results. An advanced violinist who played a simple melody with terrible intonation; once he had freed up physically and emotionally, the intonation was flawless. A pianist who had frequent memory blanks in performance and panicked; once she had calmed herself emotionally through breathing techniques and reassurance, her memory was far more stable. Everything works so much better when musicians feel good and are in a good emotional space.

Following from these talks, classes and individual sessions, I’ve developed an online course called Inspired Performance. This course comprises a series of insights and strategies put together in bite-size chunks as the best way for absorbing new ideas and information. The aim of the course is to help individuals clear their limitations and find a way of being in a really good emotional space. It is my hope that this will result  in turn enable musicians to  play with greater honesty, vulnerability and overall humanity as it’s these qualities that move, touch and inspire the audience.

– Charlotte Tomlinson

Further reading & resources

The first week of Charlotte’s comprehensive online course, Inspired Performance, is now available to subscribers on the Online Academy, in addition to her complete introductory course, Managing Performance Nerves. Week two will be added in early May and her eBook, Music from the Inside Out, is also available from our eBook store.

Please click here to find out more about the Online Academy or here to view Charlotte’s profile.