Developing 'Schema Coaching' for Musicians

My research interests focus on the psychology of music practice, performance and teaching. I am currently developing an approach to music pedagogy that draws inspiration from aspects of Schema Therapy, a form of psychotherapy. This might be referred to as 'Schema Coaching' for musicians.

The backdrop here is my long-held belief in the importance of wellbeing to 'good' music-making. I see that establishing a sense of wellbeing as a first port-of-call in turn helps us to learn more effectively, realise more of our potential, and sustain more satisfaction over the long term.

Investigating the concept of wellbeing brought me to various models within psychotherapy, with my interests centering on
Schema Therapy. I believe its concepts and various practices not only offer a way of cultivating wellbeing in daily life. For me, they seem especially relevant - and potentially very helpful - to music-making in a number of respects.

One example would be the concept of 'schema modes'. These can be understood as states of mind-and-body with cognitive, emotional, physical and behavioural aspects. The various modes that we shift in and out of through our days relate to broad underlying themes - or schemas - in our life, which themselves relate to core emotional needs, and the extent to which they are met.

On one occasion, for instance, we might become quite nervous as we start to play, feeling an underlying sense of pressure to attain certain standards. We all have emotional needs for validation and affirmation of our creative expressions, and freedom to be ourselves as we play. But the external pressure to be 'good' overwhelms our ability to meet those needs ourselves in the moment. Yielding to the idea that we must instead 'measure up', we might have worrisome thoughts about how our performance will go, and maybe tremble in our hands or feel trapped or rigid in our bodies. As we continue and - inevitably - make some 'mistakes' (as we all do), we might notice a more self-critical mode getting stronger. We could get frustrated at our own playing, even chastising ourselves for our lack of facility in the face of our nerves. That frustration might bring more physical tension in different parts of the body, unfortunately increasing the likelihood of mistakes. A vicious cycle might be set up. But this isn't our fault. It's a common pattern that can arise when we cannot satisfy our core needs for self-validation, freedom of expression, autonomy, spontaneity and playfulness, and realistic limits. This is understandable in our sometimes overly critical and demanding music culture. We try to find ways of coping - such as yielding to the idea that we must meet those perceived demands - but they don't necessarily help us in the best way.

But then, maybe something happens that triggers a more positive and helpful thought that does help us meet our needs, and in turn enhances our sense of wellbeing. We might notice that we're feeling trapped again by the sense that we must live up to external pressures. We might then remind ourselves that we don't necessarily agree with some of the standards and demands we see around us. We remember that there's a deeper connection with the music that comes about when we play in our own, authentic way, and that this resonates much more with audiences. And yes, we've done enough of the technical work as well. It's never going to be 'perfect', but it is 'enough'. We are enough. We find a little more courage to be in charge of the music, be our own standard-bearer, and express ourselves more freely. We perhaps remember when we went with this approach previously and how well our performance felt, or when we saw somone else play in this way and how inspiring it was. We might feel both soothed and re-energised by all of this, and become more physically relaxed. The reduced tension could then lead to fewer note errors, so we feel more contented with our performance in the moment. We might then get an inner sense of freedom and energy and move in bigger gestures, even dancing along playfully to our own music, enlivening the sound yet further - a result of our freer movements. There's a positive loop of increased enjoyment, fulfilment and success.

The condensed narratives here might play out much more slowly or subtly in real life, or might reflect experiences in different performance situations. But this kind of shifting between modes over time - or 'mode flipping' - is something I think musicians experience and recognise as part-and-parcel of musical activity. Music itself makes us feel lots of different moods and emotions. Sometimes we can feel that shift of mood - or mode - from bar to bar. We also tend to have at least some understanding that our mental state or mood can affect how we play. What we do not tend to have - at least through more mainstream music education (for want of a better phrase) - is so much of the language or tools to address these psychological or mood-related aspects of our practice.

In similar ways to how Schema Therapists guide people in their personal lives, I believe there could be a real benefit for musicians to cultivate more awareness of and healthy responses to our modes and schemas in as we make music. That would be to: notice and identify different modes that arise, and when we 'flip' between them; understand the underlying patterns, themes or schemas and how these come about; discern modes that are helpful or inhibiting to us and what triggers them; explore ways to strengthen modes that are helpful to us; learn how to approach and respond to modes that we find difficult or hold us back with compassion; and even find ways to reduce or bypass unhelpful modes. It's not a straight forward process, but in theory, the result could be better management of our state of mind and body - and therefore an enhanced sense of wellbeing - during music. In turn, we could potentially experience more freedom of expression, spontaneity, playfulness and creativity, and greater technical command and facility through lack of mental obstruction and physical tension. This could lead to more overall satisfaction of music-making in the longer term.

The kind of teaching approach that incorporates this process is what I wonder might be called 'Schema Coaching' for musicians: helping musicians find adaptive ways to work with their modes and schemas in relation to musical activity, with the goal of creating better musical outcomes. I believe that the process of learning how to do this can be integrated successfully into regular music tuition.

The potential, limitations, risks and benefits of this pedagogical approach are what I am currently researching. To this end, I am consulting with a range of Schema Therapists, clinical psychologists and psychotherapists from other fields, safeguarding experts, and professional musicians, and undergoing training in Schema Therapy through Schema Therapy Associates. The aim is to try to understand how to formulate this approach so that it can be accessible, relevant, appropriate, practical, and safe. I am also developing Schema Therapy-informed tools for musicians with psychologists, and practicing aspects with willing long-term students, with supervision.

Some questions underpinning this work include:

What are the central concepts and approaches of Schema Therapy? To what extent is it possible to integrate these into music practice, performance and teaching? What might be the potential advantages, disadvantages, challenges, risks and limitations?

What would be the aims of a 'schema coaching' for musicians'? What would be taught to music students? What techniques or practices would be involved? What resources and materials would be used? What would be the teaching methods and style? What requirements would be needed of the teacher to teach in this way? How could the teaching be implemented safely? How would this kind of music training be different from Schema Therapy?

I would be delighted to hear from anyone interested to explore these questions further with me.