A&HHE Special Issue August 2016AHHELogo-300x300

Enhancing performance: An exploratory study of performance coaching in practice in a UK conservatoire

Mary E Hawkes

University of Sheffield


A performance coach working in a UK conservatoire and seven of her pianist clients were interviewed to understand how psychological skills training for conservatoire students works in practice. This coach uses a performance enhancement approach, which includes mental skills training techniques and strategies largely researched in sports psychology, to help already capable student musicians realize their performance potential. The coaching is tailored to the client’s individual needs. Factors crucial to the success of performance coaching in this setting seem to be a belief that the training will work, mental skills practice, and solid musical preparation. Performance coaching provided a practical solution for clients with a variety of performance concerns, which seemed to develop in transition to specialist higher music education. Implications of the findings and directions for future research are discussed.


Conservatoire students, mental skills training, music performance, performance coaching, pianists


Performing and preparing for performance is the essence of specialist music education. Nine conservatoires in the UK offer ‘education and training in the performing arts to talented students from all over the world …’ (Conservatoires UK, 2015). The ability of conservatoire music students to perform to their potential in high-pressure auditions, recitals and examinations is crucial. Increasingly more cross discipline studies are showing that performance under pressure in any domain affects the human being in similar ways psychologically (Hays, 2002).

Performance Psychology is an emerging discipline ‘that addresses the way in which performers think, feel, and behave so as to obtain optimal results in their particular domain’ (Hays, 2012 : 24). Within Performance Psychology there are four domains of interest; sport, the Performing Arts, business and high risk professions. Sports psychology, having the longest research history of the performance domains has led the way within Performance Psychology (Hays, 2002). The practitioners within Performance Psychology are called performance consultants or coaches.

Performance coaching

Confusion can arise in terminology. Performance coaching in the business world is referred to as executive coaching. In the field of Applied Sports Psychology there is a range of accredited practitioners who call themselves sports psychologists and performance coaches. In both music and sport a performance coach can refer to the highest level of teacher or instructor. The work of the Performance Coach (PC) in this study corresponds with the work of an accredited sports psychologist or executive coach.

The aim of performance coaching in all performance domains is ‘… unlocking people’s potential to maximize their own performance’ (Whitmore, 2009: 10). The guiding principle is not instruction but ‘self directed learning’ (Wilson, 2014). And, while some of the techniques such as reframing or cognitive restructuring are also used in counselling and psychotherapy, the aim in performance coaching is not to treat individuals who are in some way dysfunctional but to enhance the performance of individuals who are already successful.

The emergence of performance coaching reflects the general changes in  psychology over the last 60 years from thinking about treating problems to considering what makes people healthy, happy and successful (Wilson, 2011). A four year research project funded by Conservatoires UK on ‘the Health and Well Being of musicians studying and working in Britain’ (Musical Impact, 2013) indicates a change in research perspective from a preoccupation with performance anxiety (Nordin-Bates, 2012: 97) to what it takes to be a healthy performer. And, there is a small but growing research interest in embracing the  performance enhancement approach from applied sports psychology, which includes mental skills training for elite performers.

Mental skills training

Mental skills training (MST) programmes in sport commonly include relaxation, imagery, self talk, goal setting and pre performance routines as strategies which are thought to improve concentration, confidence, arousal regulation and motivation (Weinberg and Gould, 2014:248). MST for music performance was at first regarded by researchers as another type of cognitive behavioural therapy or treatment for music performance anxiety (Valentine, 2002).  Gradually there has been a change from research interest in treating to managing music performance anxiety. There has also been recognition of the findings in sports psychology research regarding anxiety responses. It seems that it is not performance anxiety per se that is problematic but how that anxiety is perceived and whether the individual feels they are in control of their anxiety (Cheng, Hardy, and Markland, 2009). It has also been found that with experience interpretations of anxiety can become more facilitative (Hanton et al., 2008).

There are only three studies to date that have explored MST programmes for musicians. Hoffman and Hanrahan (2012) examined the effects of a three hour MST programme for 33 musicians including students, amateurs and professionals of varying ages. The programme included cognitive restructuring through positive self talk and imagery for a treatment group of 15. Clark and Williamon (2011a) and Osbourne et al.(2014) explored the delivery of more comprehensive MST programmes to student musicians where sports psychologists were directly consulted and involved in the organization and content of the programmes. Clark and Williamon (2011a) conducted a nine week programme combining group and individual sessions for an experimental group of 14 students. Osborne et al. (2014) administered a short MST programme of lectures and masterclasses to 31 students over three weeks based on a technique called centering developed by Greene (2002). Participants in all three studies found the training beneficial in particular with regard to performance preparation and perceived reduction in performance anxiety. Due to the variety of strategies and skills set out in the MST programmes it was not possible to say which skills were particularly effective for which outcomes.

Few studies have considered individual mental skills and related training for the benefit of musicians. Imagery is the most studied but the evidence is not clear about the functions of images or whether self reported images are exact representations of the images described. Holmes (2005) interviewed two solo performers to explore imagery in their performance preparation. She describes a ‘rich tapestry’ of mental images, which were found to be ‘multi layered and interdependent’ p 225 . Clark and Williamon (2011b) in a study of methods for assessing imagery found the strategy most used by participants was mental rehearsal which included ‘singing or hearing their music in their minds, memorizing music away from their instruments, or playing on a surface other than the instrument (or finger practice) p480. Gregg et al. (2008) suggested that a structured teaching approach towards using imagery might help musicians understand and use it more purposefully. A recent study suggests that deliberate teaching in a piano studio using imagery can improve technique, the quality of the music and memory security dependant on the individual’s skill level and motivation (Davidson-Kelly et al., 2015).

Elite musicians develop and use mental skills without any specific training. For example, several authors have noted the use of pre performance routines (PPRs) of classical musicians (Bellon, 2006; Clark et al., 2007; Skull, 2011;Talbot -Honeck and Orlick,1998) which are similar to those described in the sports psychology literature. These studies reveal a variety of routines which seem to depend on the demands of the musician’s job, the instrument they play or the performing situation.  Development of these skills appears to be through ‘trial and error’ (Bellon, 2006). PPRs, which often include other skills such as imagery and self talk, appear to help performers achieve the ideal performance state and consistency in performance as well as control attention. At present the claims for the effectiveness of PPRs and other mental skills are not based on research that has specifically examined such claims (Cotterill, 2010).

Despite a lack of understanding regarding the outcomes and effectiveness of MST programmes and individual mental skills, current research suggests that the training is useful because the musicians themselves reported beneficial effects. MST however is largely missing from Performing Arts programmes (Hays, 2002). Ford (2013), who compared the training of actors and musicians in the same conservatoire, observed not just a lack of psychological skills training for musicians but that the musicians’ training did not prepare them with the coping skills they would need in their future careers; also noted by Creech et al. (2008). Performance simulation and consideration of the audience was normal for actors’ training but absent in musicians’ training.

Simulation training can recreate performance pressures in practice,  and has been considered valuable in sport (Mellalieu and Hanton, 2009: 209). Simulating performance in practice was shown to be valuable by Williamon et al. (2014) for 11 violinists who tested a virtual performance environment in recital and audition conditions. They reported the usefulness of this type of training both in the ‘wide ranging benefits for musical learning and performance’ and for revealing both performance strengths and weaknesses. For this type of training to succeed it was noted that individual differences need consideration, to make the simulation beneficial to musicians at various ‘levels of skill, with varying degrees and types of performance exposure, and with very personal experiences of performance anxiety symptoms’ p8.

Successful professional musicians develop mental skills and coping strategies by themselves (Partington,1995). The development of these skills has been identified as Psychological Characteristics of Development Excellence (PCDEs) by MacNamara et al. (2006). Not only is the development of psychological characteristics, common to elite performers in sports and music, important but it seems that certain PCDEs have more importance at key stages in a musician’s development. MacNamara and Collins (2009) noted that these stages were ‘key transition points’ which were entry into specialist music education and entry into the music profession.

Background and aims of the present study

Research interest in the potential of MST for musicians has developed from my work as a practitioner in both sport and music, where I observed the similarity between performance pressures for performers both as a tennis coach and piano teacher. Through professional development as a tennis coach I received training, which enabled me to teach mental skills. During this time I recognized the potential of this kind of training for piano pupils and for over ten years I have included MST in my piano teaching. The PC in this study also saw the potential of MST through her own interest and knowledge of sport; initially for herself as a professional musician and subsequently for her present career.

The aim of this study was to explore the potential of performance coaching through the work of the PC and a sample of her clients in a conservatoire. In contrast to the MST intervention studies reviewed the aim was to explore such training in practice from an individual perspective, to discover how and for what reason MST techniques and strategies might work in a conservatoire setting.


This study forms part of a project using a multi phase mixed method design investigating the development and training of mental skills for musicians. The aim of the study in its choice of method was to be able to explore MST in depth.

Participants and procedure

Participants in this study were a PC and seven of her pianist clients. The clients were all students at a UK conservatoire at the time of their coaching. The coach was found through an internet search. She volunteered for the study and offered to contact her client database for potential client participants. Pianists were specifically requested because of the author’s research interest. Three male and four female pianists volunteered. At the time of the interviews clients C1 – C5 were all aged between 20 and 30 years, and C6 and C7 were over the age of 50 years. C5 and C7 were no longer students at the conservatoire. All clients spoke retrospectively about their coaching. Table 1 gives further details.

Table 1.  The Client Participants

Client Code Gender Training and Degree

Level at the time of the

Performance Coaching



Female Classical


Final Year




Female Classical


Doctoral Programme



Female Classical


Masters programme



Male Jazz





Male Jazz





Male Classical





Female Classical

Personal Study Programme



Data collection and analysis

Individual semi structured interviews of at least one hour were conducted for the PC and each of the clients over a period of a six weeks. Interviews were audio recorded and transcribed verbatim. A flexible structured interview approach was chosen so that certain topics would be covered with each participant, whilst  ‘the order can be modified based on the interviewer’s perception of what seems most appropriate’ (Robson, 2002 : 270). The aim was to get a view of performance coaching from each individual’s perspective not to seek a true representation of performance coaching for all (Gillham, 2000:16). Interview questions were developed from both the responses of an exploratory focus group study conducted at the same conservatoire and from the literature. Some questions were piloted through the focus group interviews.

Summaries were made of each interview, followed by content analysis to distinguish general categories and themes (Harding, 2013). Emergent themes from coach and client interviews could be compared to further understand how performance coaching worked in practice. To ensure the interpretation of the data does not stray from what was actually said quotations are given in the findings (Gillham, 2000).

Ethical issues

Participants were sent information about the research before the interview, and written consent was obtained at the interview itself. All participants were assured of confidentiality and anonymity (Willig, 2008:19). The anonymity of the coach was discussed at the start of her interview. She understood that her identity could be discovered from information in this study. Nevertheless she agreed to proceed and to be referred to as the performance coach. She did not know which clients had volunteered for the study. The client interviews were not discussed with the coach. Neither did the coach refer to any individual clients by name in her interview.


For validation purposes one of the closing questions was to ask participants if the author had led them in any way during the questioning. To an extent a comparison between the way each client reported working with the coach and comments from the coach herself served to validate interpretation of the data. Transcripts were sent to the participants to give them the opportunity to change or add anything to their responses. The coach was satisfied with her transcript but felt there was more she wanted to say. An invitation was subsequently accepted to informally observe seven coaching sessions at the conservatoire. Whilst these observations are not part of the data they served to validate the way the coaching process was interpreted.

I was aware using MST in my own practice could both inform and bias my interpretations. In order to prevent this the transcripts were deliberately checked for evidence that the training did not work or whether there was any skepticism on the part of the clients.


The performance coach

At the time of writing, the PC works both as a private consultant and as a member of the “Student Health and Well Being Group’ at a conservatoire; the first to introduce a performance coaching programme in the UK. She works as part of a team, which includes both coachee and the first study instrumental tutor.

Route to referral and reasons to seek help from the coach

The PC reported that the majority of students were referred to her by word of mouth through teacher or student recommendation. In this sample three clients were referred to the coach by their teacher. One was a student recommendation. The other three clients referred themselves following either an introductory course or an advertisement for performance coaching (see Table 2). The PC organizes group introductory courses as well as individual taster sessions for students to experience and understand the potential of performance coaching. The PC emphasised that the ‘real work’ is conducted in one to one sessions. All the clients in the sample undertook one to one performance coaching and the number of sessions varied according to the client’s needs. The funded allocation for students is five hours.

 Table 2.    Route to referral and reasons to seek help from the coach

Client Route To Referral Reason For Referral


C1 Introductory course Self doubt about preparation and practice


C2 Teacher referral Self doubt about ability as performer, and musical life in general


C3 Teacher referral On stage problem.


C4 Recommendation Overuse injury
C5 Advertisement Feeling insecure and overwhelmed in conservatoire environment


C6 Teacher referral Performance anxiety


C7 Introductory course Problem with teacher


Client reasons for referral were varied and individual. On their arrival at the conservatoire two clients had not anticipated the pressures of the new competitive world. C1 an undergraduate from overseas said she doubted her own preparation and practice strategies when she felt ‘hit in the face’ by meeting people ‘who are as good if not better than you’. Similarly C5 a jazz pianist from the UK sought help in his second year because:

… I was very depressed and insecure about a lot of things and I think a lot of that was part of growing up …and being at music college where there’s quite a lot of pressure I guess to be good…

In contrast the other jazz pianist was so enthusiastic about being at the conservatoire that he joined in everything and sustained an overuse injury early in the first term.

…  the Summer before I started college I was just at home and I didn’t really do much playing and then I started and I was playing 6/7 hours a day … I had a diary full of all these exciting things … I didn’t want to slack anything off, so I basically played through it until the end of term and I think it really ground itself in then …I really overdid it.

The two postgraduates clients developed performance concerns at specialist academies in their home countries before attending the UK conservatoire. In both cases they attributed lack of performance opportunity and negative comments from teachers to their self doubt (C2) and on stage concerns (C3). Both mature students talked about the pressures of playing from memory at the conservatoire, as well as the high standards expected. C7, who experienced a problem with her teacher, was reluctant to seek help at first because she felt it was difficult to criticize a teacher in such an environment. What these individual stories had in common was that performance concerns for this sample appeared to arise in transition to specialist higher music education.

Performance coaching in practice  

Techniques and their perceived benefits. The PC discussed and described MST techniques researched in applied sports psychology (Weinberg and Gould, 2014). The aim of the PC is not to treat but to support the student by helping them find ways to enhance their musical performance and/ or their musical life in general. She emphasized that her approach was adapted to each individual.

…there’s quite an art to coaching… someone sitting across from you is  a person first and foremost and what they do is play the violin or piano, so you have to be alert I think to being flexible and drawing on these different tools in the kit.

The MST techniques and other strategies were confirmed in the client interviews and are listed in Table 3 below.

Table 3 – ‘Tools in the kit’

Mental Strategy/ Technique Clients


Pre Performance Routine C1 C2 C3 C5


Imagery C2 C3


Positive Self Talk C1 C2


Simulation Training C1 C2 C3


Goal Setting C1


Cognitive Reframing C3 C4 C5 C6


Education regarding own ‘nerves’ C1 C2 C3 C5

Not only was the skill set used by each client tailored to the individual but also the perceived benefits of a particular strategy varied from one individual to another. The benefits of PPRs reported by different clients were to:

  • feel in control of the performance;
  • achieve the ideal performance state;
  • relax during the day of the performance and focus on the music;
  • achieve better focus in performance by ignoring distractions.

Some of the techniques were used in combination. For example C2 used a combination of key words, mental practice and relaxation in her pre performance routine.

The PC said the benefit of routines was:

…trying to take care of as many of the variables as possible, around this thing called performance in which anything can happen …so actually that all the stuff around the notes is as much taken care of as possible, and managed so that the notes have the best chance of happening.

The way the coach used language in general seemed to be important. For this sample she used cognitive reframing to encourage clients to think positively and think differently. C6, who was not convinced about coaching initially, noticed that the coach was ‘ very good at listening to what you say and presenting it back to you in a way that you may not have considered at all’. C4 said:

She was like very positive in her language. She was like, I noticed that if you kind of like throw out a negative thought she’d be like can you rephrase that in a positive way… yeah it’s really easy to get into a detrimental thought pattern and you know especially when you have an injury … it’s helpful thinking positively.

The PC also encouraged positive self talk and key words as part of performance routines. Two clients used key words chosen by them to either help deliver the emotion of the music or to create an “inner peace” before the performance. Another client said that she had developed very negative self talk that she could not control. She said ‘I was simply telling myself on stage that it’s rubbish and no one enjoys it so just go off stage so I did (.) “ The coach helped her remove these thoughts, giving her positive things to do and think in a performance routine so she could be calm and prepared both before and during the performance.

Factors in developing successful mental skills

Each client came with different levels of knowledge and ability regarding psychological techniques and strategies, and their own psychological understanding of themselves as musicians. This seemed to affect how quickly they accepted the performance coaching. In order for the techniques to be effective three factors emerged from the data:

  • A belief that the coaching would work;
  • Mental skill practice;
  • Solid musical preparation.

Developing Belief.. From the PC’s interview and subsequent observations of other clients it was evidence that in the first instance she had to enable clients to understand their own behavior and responses to performance and practice. This was apparent with regard to four clients and their interpretation of their physiological symptoms of arousal; which they all referred to as ‘nerves’. Understanding ones own ‘nerves’ and having a belief seemed to be connected here. It was a revelation for these clients to understand their own physiological response to pressure. They all reported similarly:

… one of main things that helped me was erm the interpretation of the physical sensations that you feel leading up to  a big performance and you know up to then I just assumed I was terrified, but she was like, she made me realise that those sensations are the same as when you are extremely excited about something coming up or when or even when you are in love …it’s all about what mind you’re in …that was very a big key thing for me to remember.

Several clients confirmed that once they understood their own psychology it seemed easier for them to accept suggestions from the PC. C3 said:

…so for me when I first started to work with the PC I didn’t practice any of these things. I would listen and I agreed but I didn’t follow up on anything so it took about two years to really become part of me…

She thought initially that practicing mental skills would be a waste of her valuable practice time. After reading widely about psychology however, she said this helped her to accept suggestions from the coach. Other clients referred to websites and books that they had found useful.

Mental skills practice.  Evidence from the clients showed that psychological skills also need practice like any other skill. How long you should practice for, and for how long before the strategy became automatic or normal seemed to depend on the individual. For example, C2 talked in detail about the practice required for her to achieve her ideal performance state and make this an automatic part of performance. She practiced regularly every day at first until it became an automatic part of her performance, and when she went on a concert tour she said she did regular maintenance practice.

I remember doing it a lot so I think it took time but it paid back really well in a way that after a time it was automatic and I remember going for a masterclass, it was a very busy day and I really wanted to perform well … I felt quite under pressure …  and well erm it took me a moment and well it really felt amazing it felt automatic.

Solid preparation. For any kind of mental skills training to work mastery of the music through effective practice was essential. The coach said:

… the work that we do will strengthen the work that’s done  …if somebody hasn’t prepared well then there’s no doubt they are going to be under confident when they go on stage because they can’t trust their preparation.

She mentioned that a number of clients arrive thinking they have a particular psychological problem when it is their preparation that is at fault. In this sample, C6 thought he had an anxiety problem but after a disappointing end of year recital he conceded that:

 …it was just that I hadn’t prepared in the right way. I wasn’t sufficiently prepared to go out and do the job…

The PC talked about helping clients organize their practice and performance preparation. She particularly helped C1 in this aspect of her training. The coach helped her set goals for practice sessions and discussed building in breaks so she could concentrate better. They discussed how athletes in major competitions plan their training to peak for the performance. The PC used the idea of tapering off in the week before the performance, which led the student to know:

… I was putting in the time in an efficient and productive manner and I no longer have the panic practice that people have you know the week before the concert when you know I need to do 8 hours a day.

Together they also worked on practicing the performance pressure. The PC said she worked on practicing the pressure ‘a lot’ with her clients. She used simulations, role play and suggestions for performance practice in differing environments to prepare C1 for the pressure of her final recital and a masters audition. The client said it helped her to become used to responding to different pianos as well as help her cope with pressure on the day.


It was evident that the perceived benefits for each client helped them achieve positive ways to approach both preparation for performance and the performance itself. It was not possible in this study to discover if a specific outcome might be achieved by using a particular mental skill or combination of skills. The interviews revealed more about how they felt about performance and their general musical lives rather than whether they were achieving a better standard of performance. The findings perhaps suggest that a specific understanding of how each mental skill and strategy works alone or in combination may be not as crucial as understanding the benefits of the skills for each individual. The success of the coaching seemed to lie in the PC facilitating an understanding and development of each individual’s metacognitive processes. Future research using the theory of metacognition (Flavell,1979) as a framework, as suggested by MacIntyre et al.(2014) to further understand how MST works in sport, may further understanding of MST for music performance.

The individual way MST was delivered in this study may question the delivery of mental skills training in general programmes. However, the participants in the three MST intervention studies mentioned in the literature review perceived that this kind of training was beneficial. Future research may show that a combination of general training with additional individual support from a PC could be effective. Some kind of compulsory generic MST training for all students would ensure that every student has the chance to benefit.  A PC could be the person to advise on and help organize such general training.

Mental skills need practice like any other skill. The evidence from this study was that these skills and strategies took a considerable time to become embedded in the students performance behaviour. This was much longer than the time allocated for training in the three MST intervention studies previously discussed. An investigation into the length of time it takes to embed mental skills into performance behaviour could inform future planning of psychological skill training for conservatoire students.

The reasons that this sample of clients asked the PC for help seemed to stem from circumstances that arose in transition to specialist higher music education.  Besides helping with practice and preparation for performance the clients in this study needed additional support in the following areas:

  • Insecurities relating to peers and musical life in general;
  • Management of injury;
  • Relationships with teachers.

A similar variety of problems for students in transition to higher education have been highlighted in a number of studies from school to conservatoire (Burt and Mills, 2006; Juuti and Littelton (2012) or university (Burland and Pitts, 2007) and also from higher education into a professional career in music (Creech et al., 2008). MacNamara et al. (2008) noted that musicians who successfully negotiate key transitions, one of which is from school to conservatoire are the ones who develop the relevant coping strategies or PCDEs. It seems that in this study the PC is providing practical solutions that directly address challenges arising in transition. The implication is that more students could benefit if a PC was employed in every conservatoire.

One practical solution was to help clients with their private practice and also with performance practice. More needs to be understood about the types of changes that students may need to make to their practice when they arrive in the specialist environment. Juuti and Littleton (2012) found that the ten classical solo pianists in the masters programme at the Swedish academy had various fears and feeling of inadequacy regarding practice which affected their training. Practising the performance in a variety of pressure conditions was encouraged by the coach. How much pressure practice is required prior to a performance is not clear. Future research may discover the optimum ratio needed between the amount of solo practice needed to learn the repertoire and the amount of performance practice required to ensure students achieve their performance potential.


This exploratory study, an investigation of a PC using mental techniques and strategies largely researched in sports psychology has shown the potential of this kind of training to enhance performance for music students in a conservatoire setting. This study was limited to a small sample of pianist clients. However, during subsequent informal observation of seven more clients undertaking taster or coaching sessions the wider applicability of the methods to other instrumental and vocal students was clearly evident. Whilst mental skills for musicians may be learned incidentally, this glimpse of performance coaching in practice has given an insight into how mental skills might be also be learned and developed with the help of an expert.

This study has demonstrated how and for what reasons a performance enhancement approach tailored to the individual can benefit conservatoire students. It would seem that for some students more specific help is needed to cope with the challenges faced in transition and that a PC can provide such help. More detailed understanding of the mental skills of musicians and the use of MST using qualitative methodology (see Holmes and Holmes, 2013) should offer further insight into the development of the psychological aspect of performance training for conservatoire musicians. This research adds to an emerging interest in the potential of the application of research from other performance domains for the benefit of musicians.


I would like to thank my supervisor Professor Stephanie Pitts for her continuous support during my Ph.D. studies, and the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at the University of Sheffield for scholarship funding.


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