INTERVIEW: authors of Play: a psychological toolkit for optimal music performance



Play, issued by the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM), is described as “a psychological toolkit for optimal music performance”. Who is it for? Anyone who makes music. Peter Bacon found out more from its authors, sport and exercise psychologist Gregory Daubney and music teacher trainer and researcher Dr Alison Daubney. 

LondonJazz News: There are a lot of books out there helping musicians to perfect their instrumental technique, advising on their practice schedule, giving them practical exercises with notation, new repertoire, etc. Your book, Play, is different. What is its essence and what prompted you to write it?

Greg Daubney: There are a lot of really engaging and very well-written books out there encouraging musical development with enjoyment and many of these skirt around the periphery of psychology and how it can really help performers of all levels and across all genres. We felt that there was a very distinct lack of helpful, research-informed practical strategies to help musicians get the best out of themselves every time they perform. That was our reason for writing Play.

Ally Daubney: Throughout the past decade I noticed that more and more musicians were telling me about the psychological and emotional stresses they were experiencing and how hard it is for them to overcome them. It’s something that came up in conversation often at the ISM too. Consequently, we started working with the ISM Trust to develop two toolkits – one for teachers (Performance anxiety: A practical guide for music teachers) which provided music educators with immediately usable practical strategies for their pupils; and Play: A psychological toolkit for optimal music performance, which is aimed at musicians directly.

We recognise that a very common reason why musicians don’t perform at their best is due to their mental preparation for performance – including the stress they experience in their everyday lives. We set out with the aim of producing a toolkit of practical strategies to give musicians their best chance to produce their best performance every time they play. We also wanted to reintroduce musicians back to the notion of “playfulness” to reconnect with their music, hence the title Play.

LJN: Your experience stretches far beyond musical performance – tell us about that and the common characteristics which stretch across the fields you work in...

GD: I am a HCPC-registered Chartered Sport and Exercise Psychologist. My work is focussed on the application of psychological research to improve performance and the mental health and well-being of sportspeople and athletes. A couple of years ago I attended a mental health and well-being conference for musicians and realised there was a need for performance enhancement and mental health interventions within music and wider, the arts in general. We therefore collaborated to establish how psychological research from music, dance, drama, exercise and sport could be used to support musicians and other artists.

AD: As well as working with music teachers and musicians of all ages we’ve done a lot of work researching and evaluating music intervention programmes for mental health and wellbeing. We’ve also worked with stage performers (actors, singers, dancers and musicians) helping them to cope with the psychological demands of performance and how to consistently produce their best through enhancing their mental health and well-being. We've also worked with composers and musical directors, as they also sometimes experience psychological challenges. In conjunction with the ISM we've run many courses so that musicians can get to try out these ideas and ask questions in a small and safe environment.
Greg and Ally Daubney at the launch of Play
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LJN: What are some of the wrong ways to deal with performance anxiety or “stage fright”? And what are some of the right ways?

GD: The experience of performance anxiety or stage fright will vary from person to person and so there is no right or wrong way to deal with it. Instead, it is important for performers to be aware of how it is impacting them (if at all) and then put in place practical strategies to help them handle their symptoms. This should be embedded in their practice over time so that when they perform, the strategies are as well rehearsed as their technical skills. Practising mental skills at the same time as other musical skills is essential and improves the deliberateness of your practice, thereby making greater use of your time. It also promotes a higher level of performance and encourages greater confidence in your ability.

LJN: It’s not only the moment of actual public performance that you deal with, is it?

GD: Often, a musician’s experience of anxiety will be most intensive around the immediate feelings in the lead up to and during a performance. However, a holistic approach to performance preparation is needed to get the best out of yourself. Play (and our earlier publication) provide practical strategies to help handle day-of-performance symptoms, but a large focus of the toolkit is around using reflection to confront wider sources of stress that may be impacting an individual in their performance life, some of which they may not actually be presently aware of.

AD: Our motto is very much that psychological skills are not sticking plasters – they are whole skills sets that not only help you perform well as a musician but also in life in general. Our strategies are informed by research across clinical, organisational, sport and exercise, music and counselling psychology. Therefore we consider how the individual is located in their own world as being central to their optimal functioning.

LJN: Can you tell us a little bit about the idea of "X-raying your body”?

GD: This is a very useful mindfulness based exercise contained within our toolkit. Mindfulness is an eastern philosophical idea that is great for helping performers to relax through meditation type exercises, but for our purposes mindfulness provides the dual purpose of keeping performers in the present moment (not worrying about the future or ruminating on the past) and allowing them to develop skills that help them keep their attention focussed on what they need to do to perform well. That is a vital psychological difference between performers at different skill levels.

The X-ray just asks musicians to imagine their attention is an X-ray beam scanned down their whole body from top to bottom. It sounds very easy but it is in fact extremely difficult to do. This is because our attention gets dragged away to somewhere else. If you try to scan your head alone, it is likely your mind started asking you questions like “why are you doing this?” Or “isn’t this is a waste of time?” Or “shouldn’t you be doing useful instead?”. The practice here is to develop an awareness that your mind is distracting you and then coming back to continue the scan. It is very helpful to be aware of how you can control your attention as a musician because you will always get distractions when performing.

LJN: Who should use Play? And will it benefit those who don’t suffer from performance anxiety?

GD: To be clear, we wrote Play for the benefit of all musicians, across all genres, styles, traditions and skill levels. It’s a toolkit to help all performers get the best out of themselves. The sections of the toolkit allow musicians to optimise the performance levels and move them to being the best performers they can be every time they play. It really is for everyone and will help musicians right throughout their career.

AD: Absolutely, we wrote this with a positive view of performance in mind. This is not about overcoming problems, it is about making yourself perform at your best more and more often.

LJN: How do we all get a copy?

Play: A psychological toolkit for optimal music performance can be downloaded HERE. An electronic version costs £4 (for ISM members) and £5 (non-members). A hard copy can be ordered from the ISM for £8 and £10 respectively.

Our other resource (Performance anxiety: A practical guide for music teachers) focusing on practical ways music teachers can help their students handle music performance anxiety can also be downloaded for free from the ISM website HERE. A hard copy can be ordered for £10 directly from the ISM.

Without the assistance of the ISM, these publications and this practical advice would not be available to the music world, and their foresight and ingenuity in recognising this need is exceptional. (pp)

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