Performance Coaching explores practical techniques to enable teachers and performers alike to better understand and effectively manage performance anxiety. This will done through workshops, individual coaching and articles.



 Workshops will be presented by Derek Fennell

Teaching Reflections

As a busy flute teacher it is sometimes difficult to remember the reasons why it is so important to share my knowledge of flute playing with the young...and not so young. What is the value in someone learning how to play Kookaburra on the flute! There is a wealth of empirical data showing how music making can positively influence our higher cognitive functions. This knowledge can be lost when I’m in the trenches and showing a student for the seemingly hundredth time how to finger a high F# and play it in tune. It is healthier for me to be inspired by the cellist of Sarajevo, Vedran Smajlović and more recently by the cellist of Iraq, Karim Wasfi. These musicians play their instruments in environments that have recently experienced unspeakable horrors such as mass massacres, bombs, snipers etc. Smajlović decided to “daily offer a musical prayer for peace” amongst the war rubble of Sarejevo. For 22 days Smajlović played at 4pm at the site where 22 people were killed by a mortar bomb. Wasfi played in the blast centre of a car bomb in Western Baghdad that had killed a dozen people only one hour earlier. Wasfi’s and Smajlović acts of artistic defiance demonstrated to the world that no human force was going to have the authority and power to blast away their tender human response through brutality and sheer bloody terror. These artists remind me that teaching music requires me extend myself and learn to how resonate with my students and humanity. There is much in the world that is ugly, fractured and painful. As musicians and teachers we are in the privileged position of being able to bring beauty, refinement and provide an opportunity to exercise and develop our tender human response to our world. 

Look at the State of You!

The first step in getting into ‘the zone’ is being aware of what the building blocks or ingredients are which influence your emotional state. We spend a lot of our practice time getting to grips with the technical demands of the work but pay minimal attention to working out how to tweak and manage our emotional state.   

Take a moment to reflect how you subjectively feel when you are happy or excited. How does your body feel? Is your heart rate fast or slow? Is your inner voice active or quiet? What is the quality of your mental images like? Are the images small, big, panoramic, monochrome or in colour? Where is your attention focused? Is it focused on your inner thoughts or is it more expansive, noticing external details and events outside of yourself?  

Are there certain associations you can make to evoke or conjure up these feelings? For instance, you may have a strong emotional reaction or association with someone you care about deeply. Even if you see their face in a picture you feel qualitatively better and happier. Conversely you may see a picture of your least favourite teacher and feel your stomach knot and your mood darken!

The brain forms these associations easily and unconsciously. Successful performers are aware of the value of these associations and can consciously calibrate their emotional state according to the demands of the situation. Top performers are able to identify and distil all the required qualities necessary for optimal emotional functioning quickly and effectively.

They are then able to associate this state with a physical trigger or gesture. You may have noticed this in a tennis match. The server may have a series of habitual gestures which happen before the serve, such as a fixed number of ball bounces. These preparatory ‘getting in the zone’ steps are also evident in sports such as basketball and golf. Once you start noticing these individual quirks when watching sports you will be surprised by the myriad of preliminary movements which take place before a performance.  

The following step-by-step exercise will help to provide more clarity and structure in exploring how we can manage our emotional state effectively for performance.

·        Firstly, identify a resource state you know would like to be able to access during performance. For example feeling focussed and self-assured, projecting an air of effortless poise on stage.

·        Recall a specific time when you accessed this state of mind.

·       Return to that time and relive this state as fully as possible. The following cues may help: What were you subjectively aware of? What did you see, hear, feel and even taste?

·     Come back to the present and carefully select a series of cues to help induce the emotional state you require. These can be a combination of a specific image, word or phrase and a physical trigger or gesture. For example placing the instrument to your mouth, tightening your bow, lifting the instrument up (not recommended for pianists).    

·      Now in your mind’s eye return to your desired resource state and become acutely sensitive and attentive to what you see, feel, hear or taste. If there is a sequence of episodes which help you enter this state, replay them with all necessary body movement.  

·      As you feel the resourceful state growing and ratcheting up to its apex, combine all your anchors: see your image, say words or phrases and feel your physical trigger or gesture.

·       Repeat the above sequence many times to strengthen and refine all the necessary connections and associations.

·     Test the associations by repeating your words, images and gestures. Be aware of how this exercise helps you experience your resourceful state. If you notice any gaps or shortfalls repeat the earlier steps as often as necessary.

·         Retest.

·         Experiment frequently with the above steps during your practice time.

·         Use your associations before and during performance.

You can have as many emotive triggers as you wish and adapt them for whatever performing situation you face.

It is important to remember this exercise is generative, like practising your instrument, the more you do it the easier and more natural it becomes. It will positively influence all aspects of your playing. It will give you more of an understanding of how what happens between your ears influences what happens between your bar lines.

“Every human has four endowments - self-awareness, conscience, independent will and creative imagination. These give us the ultimate human freedom... The power to choose, to respond, to change.” Stephen Covey




Going with the Flow

I am excited to introduce a series of articles which will specifically focus on the psychological and mental aspects of performance. The series of articles aim to provide you with some helpful suggestions and hopefully clarify some of the more cognitive issues inherent in performance. The articles form part of a Performance Coaching initiative at Beau Soleil. 

As a music teacher one of the more common refrains I hear from students: “Please don’t make me play in the concert. I get so nervous…I’ll mess up and then I’ll look stupid.”

A teacher may reply: “Well you’re just going to have to practise harder and be 100% on top of your piece.” The standard result, the students visibly sags, mumbles a reply and surrenders to an inner crisis. In their mind’s eye already picturing their performance in IMAX quality, feeling the fear and skilfully scripting the worst possible outcome. But before you can stop yourself you hear yourself saying (a week or two later): “You’ll be fine…just practise more.” Once you’ve shared this nugget of teaching wisdom, you smile reassuringly and ask for the next scale…Sound familiar?

Many musicians have a slightly twisted relationship with ‘all things performance’ which begins when we are expected to step on stage. When a performance does not go as well as planned we tell ourselves that we fully deserved it as we clearly did no pay enough homage to the gods of practice. We grit our teeth, cruelly admonish ourselves and prepare for the next post-performance flailing. Reminding ourselves ‘you are only as good as your last performance’ and replaying the teacher’s advice ‘just remember to go out there and have fun!’ It’s all very confusing.

So how do we tackle performance anxiety? A good starting point is to explore successful players’ general attitude and perception of performance. 

Experienced performers accept that intimately knowing the score and material is only the first step in getting ready for a good performance. The knowledge of the score ensures that any tricky technical sections pose little difficulty and are established under the fingers. Skilled performers realise that it is nearly impossible to perform successfully if you still require active ‘thinking’ time. Practise time is the ideal opportunity to gather verbal instruction and correction. Effective performance requires minimal instruction. The performer reports having an emotional state of being in the ‘flow’ or ‘zone’ which can also be described as effortless attention. 

This positive performance experience has been extensively researched and is described by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihályi (I can’t pronounce his name either)! For additional information check out his 2004 TED talk:

Some of the characteristics of this positive performance state:

• The ability to focus intently on the musical task. 

• Managing all distractions comfortably and easily. 

• Having a vivid inner musical picture and intention. 

• Physiological feedback that supports their musical purpose. 

• Fluid responses to the challenges of the performance situation. They are able to absorb and handle any performance ‘blips’ without losing their musical voice or meaning.  

• An altered perception of time passing – sped up or slowed down. 

In tackling any issue such as performance anxiety, it is always helpful to know that there are tangible characteristics which many successful performers share. This research provides us with a template which will help us begin the process of understanding and managing our ‘between the ears’ life. 

How does your performance experience relate to being in the zone? Are you able to summon up powerful vivid images which help you keep to your attention and focus when performing? Is your inner voice quiet or is it a busy channel broadcasting constant correction and unwanted advice. Are you able to move on easily when you trip over something in the score? Do you perceive your body as a supportive influence or a stumbling block that just isn’t ‘getting with the programme’? 

Give yourself a little time to reflect on your relationship with your body and performance. These moments of insight might be the catalyst you need to start the required change of behaviour and renewed mind-set to put performance anxiety in its place. Eloise Ristad in her book ‘Soprano on her Head’ summed it up perfectly ‘Trying fails awareness cures’.

In my next article I will explore how we can learn to manage and manipulate our emotional state in order to set ourselves up to enter the ‘zone’ more consistently and easily.


Derek Fennell

Performance Coaching