The data showed overwhelming evidence of the positive benefits that the PPPod had on the participants, which exceeded the researcher’s expectations. This was evident in the depth of the bonds formed by the participants, their intense involvement and enthusiasm, the growth that they experienced and the quality of their insights. In addition the video made by the participants six-months afterwards indicates retention of the effects.
The basic structure of the Pod seemed to work well for performance preparation. Five participants and five 2.5-3 hour sessions were deemed to be optimal by the participants. It was important to have large rooms, preferably concert halls. The role of the researcher-coach was substantial, as she contributed to a positive atmosphere during the three workshops. A similar learning structure would require a facilitator who has: some expertise in the topic that is to be explored, so that students can trust and relate to the facilitator; ability to coach students on giving feedback that is free of judgements and analysis; a positive approach. Making goals, documenting progress and asking reflective questions should be an integral part of the pod structure in order to enhance self-regulated learning. The structure needs to be robust (having clear parameters, rules and guidelines), and yet flexible within so the students can explore freely. One essential aspect of an intensive short-term small group project is that every member is present at each meeting. Missing attendance would undermine the strength of the group dynamic.
The Performance Preparation Pod was only a pilot project involving five participants. The results, however, warrant broader larger scale interventions to see how similar semi-structured peer-learning environments can benefit the larger conservatoire population. In what way this can be viable and accessible would be a subject for future research.
Background and Aim
The idea of designing a peer-learning environment for students to explore ways of preparing their concerts and exam recitals came about at the end of the Quality Practice elective in December 2020. This is an elective that I teach where students explore motivation, practice methods and performance preparation. Several of the students asked how they could continue to work on the themes from the elective, and I asked myself if there could be a way to facilitate a peer-learning group to look at the topic of performance preparation. My hypothesis was that that by working together the students would become more motivated, gain more confidence and have better performance experiences. The main research questions were:
How did the participants experience the learning pod?
How did the learning pod effect the motivation of the participants – specifically their sense and experience of competence, autonomy and relatedness?
An additional question for the PPPod was:
What effects would the learning-pod have on the participants’ performance experience?
The Performance Preparation Pod (PPPod) was designed to help students of the Royal conservatoire to prepare their exam recitals. All of the participants of the pod were recruited from the elective Quality Practice and were invited because of their interest in improving their performance preparation and gaining a better understanding of the preparation process. There were five participants (2M, 3F) from the classical and early music departments. They ranged from 19 to 29 in age and from bachelor 2 to master 1. They each played a different instrument – this was deliberate, in order to avoid students giving each other instrument specific coaching during the peer-learning sessions. The aim of the sessions was to try out and share ways of preparing performances, but in a way that was non intrusive (not coaching each other, but rather asking questions). Each participant was encouraged to steer their own contribution and ask for the feedback they wanted from the group.
A positive performance experience is not limited to a successful performance. When things go wrong with technical and musical execution or if the performer experienced discomfort or anxiety, this does not mean the performance is not valuable to the performer. A performance is a learning moment, and when a musician has robust reflective skills and the ability to be objective, they can use the information from each performance to prepare the next one, resulting in a positive spiral of learning. In coding the data for performance experience the elements that were looked for were the ability to notice what worked and didn’t work, insights into reasons for errors, ability to recover after a mistake during performance, ability to focus during difficult and uncomfortable moments, ideas and strategies for future practice and performance preparation and a positive attitude in spite of any ‘imperfections’ during performance.
The participants experienced some challenges during the course of the project. Everyone reported time management problems, though these improved after a few sessions. Giving useful feedback was mentioned by everyone as being challenging – it was difficult to respond to someone’s playing without giving judgements and advice. Similarly, formulating the right questions to ask the group after performing or demonstrating something was often difficult. Sometimes – particularly in the fourth session, some participants suffered from a negative performance experience. When this happened, they were able to share it with the group and it became a part of the total experience.
PARTICIPANTS BEFORE & AFTER
The interviews at the end of the project were related to the pre-intervention questionnaire in order to find out what changes each participant recognised in themselves as a result of the project. All of the five participants were extremely intrinsically motivated when they started the project – something that probably led them to do the Quality Practice elective prior to the Pods project, and there was evidence that they had started to apply knowledge gained from the elective course. Two of the five participants had already developed strategies for preparing performances. All five participants had suffered from lack of confidence and sometimes performance anxiety and were hoping that by sharing ideas and playing in front of each other they would feel more in control during performing, be more confident and experience more enjoyment. The main changes for each participant as a result of the performance pod project are described below.
The main differences for participant 1 that could be extracted from the data were connected to dealing with the pressure of performance, treating a performance more as a learning moment than something that had to be perfect, being more concerned with self-evaluation than approval from others. Previously this participant had struggled with self-confidence, concentration and enjoyment on stage, and their preparation strategies consisted of running through the pieces every day leading up to a performance. The pod sessions led to an expansion of practice and preparation methods and strategies that included exploring the repertoire more by experimenting with different possibilities and versions, focusing more on the work as a whole and practicing ‘letting go’ by keeping a musical focus. Both confidence and general exam experience were reported as much higher than in previous exams: I would give it a 9 out of 10 where previously I could give a 3 out of ten – I’m not joking!
Participant 2 joined the project in order to be able to be more in touch with and to be able to show their potential more. They did not have any specific strategies for preparing exams except for playing the program through for the teacher directly beforehand. A change in approach included more musical focus and finding flow and less focus on technical details. They reported the importance of finding more balance in their daily routine (more free time and relaxation) leading up to an exam and learning to change stress into excitement and they felt closer to showing their ‘fire’ than in previous exams, whilst recognising that they were on a journey: In the exam I didn't do that fully, but did everything that I can right now. This is enough. I need time to show the people more.
Before the pod project, Participant 3 experienced performing as both joyful and frightful, and had an extensive toolbox of strategies and methods for practicing and preparing exams. They saw performances as opportunities to learn. Their preparation consisted of performing in front of others, practicing different kinds of focus and visualizing the performance beforehand. The sessions help them to gain more stability and confidence by playing demanding repertoire and trying out ideas in front of the pod members and playing from memory, all of which helped to ‘go into performance mode’ better. The result was that in spite of an extremely difficult program, they were able to navigate fatigue and errors to produce a convincing performance. This participant reported that the gain in confidence also affected their teacher, who showed them more confidence and trust than usual. Approval from the teacher was, however, not as important as before: it didn’t really matter, because now I trusted myself.
Participant 4 suffered from nervousness during performing to the extent that their performing level was considerably lower than in during practice. They had no preparation strategies. The pod sessions helped this participant to feel more comfortable on stage to the extent that they experienced calmness and enjoyment during their exam – this was attributed to playing in front of others during the pod sessions and experimenting with focus and physical relaxation: it helped me to discover the joy of performing even in stressful situations.
Participant 5 had spent considerable thought and energy on understanding how to practice and perform, but had experienced discomfort when playing under pressure. They used strategies to be in good physical and mental shape for performances and hoped that sharing insights and experimenting in a group would be helpful. As a result of the pod sessions this participant reported that working with the group brought an increased level of focus and a lot of other insights than if they’d worked alone. Being able to try out their pieces and in particular difficult passages in front of the group and exploring strategies (both their own as well as strategies from other members) brought more confidence and ease in their exam: There was this additional level of confidence, knowing that we had gone through this process together.
The performance preparation project took place between the 18th of April and the 13th of June 2021. The participants first filled out a preliminary questionnaire asking them for demographical details, and about their previous performance experiences, how they usually prepare their performances, their perceived musical strengths and weaknesses and their reasons for joining the project.
The project began with a two and a half hour group workshop with the researcher/coach where the purpose of the project was explained as well as the structure, rules, and guidelines for the group sessions. The participants were instructed on how to give and receive feedback respectfully in accordance to the Critical Response Process. Each participant was sent an informed consent form to sign and templates for their group log and individual logs.
After the introduction and explanation, there was a facilitated brainstorming where questions about what is important, and what types of goals and problems might occur. Individual goals, ideas and strategies were shared and there was time for questions and insights.The participants were asked to formulate their individual and group goals for the first session and to state which performance they were preparing.
The introductory workshop was followed by five peer-group sessions (each of two and a half hours) in a performance room of the Royal Conservatoire. After the first three sessions, the group requested a group coaching session with the researcher/coach. The last two peer-group sessions were then followed by a de-briefing workshop. Every peer-learning session was documented in both individual and group logbooks. The participants filled out a performance log for their performance/exam that took place after the Pods project. At the end of the project each participant filled out a post-project questionnaire and took part in an interview asking them about how they experienced and valued the project.
At the end of the project, the participants were asked to describe in one word or a short phrase the underlying/overarching quality of their group: Their answers reflected a rich, positive and connective learning atmosphere.
CONFIDENCE and SELF-EFFICACY
Musicians often suffer from negative judgements and an overly critical approach to themselves and their playing, based on unrealistic comparisons and expectations, inappropriate or too vague goals and on how they see themselves and their potential. Criticism, analysis and judgement are not as effective for growth as objective ‘noticing’ and awareness. Confidence and self-efficacy are related to one’s belief system as well as experiences of success and failure – or more importantly – how one relates to success and failure. A healthy attitude to failure would be to regard all outcomes (and especially negative ones) as valuable information.
All participants reported that the pod sessions had a positive effect on their confidence for learning and for performing. There was ample evidence in the data of changes in confidence and self-efficacy in each of the participants. All participants reported nervousness before the exams as well excitement. Everyone said that they were more confident for this exam than for any previous one. Three participants mentioned that even though some things were not optimal, they had learned something and had ideas about how to improve, as well as confidence on how they were going about their process.
Examples from the data include: After the fourth session, I had my exam. I enjoyed being on the stage and sharing my music with the jury, instead of seeing it as a place to be anxious about. I was not surprised to examine the positive outcome of the previous sessions over my self-confidence [P1]; My goal was to show the fire inside me and play with self-confidence. In the exam I didn't do that fully, but did everything that I can right now. This is enough. I need time to show the people more. Next: I will practice and show myself with full confidence and trust [P2]; I gained a lot of trust during the sessions and now practice and performance are much closer to each other, which is really helpful [P3]. The pod sessions made me more comfortable in performing for others as well as being more objective in my goals for my performance. Having concrete goals before I performed allowed me to evaluate my performance on a less emotional standpoint, which helped boost my confidence for learning and performing […] Confidence-wise, these exams were the most confident I have ever been – I can attribute that to the pod a lot [P4]; It was valuable having a space like this to try out things I had been working on in my practice and to see how it works in a more public environment. This experience of experimenting with these things in front of others built confidence [P5].
Materials used included a pre-project survey, individual and group logbooks, comments made in the workshops, performance logs, a post project questionnaire and post-project interviews. The data was analysed to determine the themes that emerged from the participants’ experience, as well as effects of the intervention on their motivation, confidence and performance experience.
Data analysis was carried out using an open coding method, to determine the emerging themes and then coded for the dependent variables mentioned above.
The main results can be found below, and detailed descriptions and results from each element are in the right hand column.
As a retention test, the participants were asked, after a six-month interval, to produce a short video based on the question In your own opinions based on your own experience from the project: “What are the most important things for performance preparation?” The result can be seen in the video below.
The research question asked what effects the learning-pod had on the participants’ motivation, confidence, and performance experience. There was a large amount of rich qualitative data obtained from the surveys, interviews, logbooks and workshop sessions, the results of which are reported in detail in the right hand column.
The results connected to each of the dependent variables are summarised and discussed below. An example from each of the five participants [P1; P2; etc.] is included for each variable. There is some repetition in the report below due to the overlap of some of the themes.
The data was analysed to see if there was evidence of changes in intrinsic motivation as well as for competence, relatedness and autonomy – the three important aspects of motivation according to the self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 2000).
All five participants entered the project with strong intrinsic motivation. They were committed and disciplined musicians who had each attained a high level of playing. In spite of this they suffered during exam performances – much more so than in concerts. The need to please their teachers and awareness that they were being compared and judged seemed to add to their already strong self-criticism. All participants mentioned that the pod project helped them to strengthen their intrinsic motivation, and deal with their negative self-talk as well as external judgement.
Examples from the data include: I am not trying to prove myself anymore. Am I just wanting to be accepted and congratulated, or am I just waiting to open myself up to myself? And I chose to accept myself instead of acceptance of other people [P1]; Now there are no (critical) voices in my head, nothing to give me stress, just the stress of beauty – I’m going to go somewhere, but I don’t know where, but I can imagine it [P2]; My joy and love for playing were really present and I had a good time [P3]; I was inspired to go to the practice room and try out new stuff [P4]; It has helped to approach learning more like a scientist in a laboratory, trying things not with the aim for perfection but to see what would happen [P5].
Participants reported that their skills improved through the pod sessions – in particular musical, musicianship, and especially metacognitive skills. Some technical improvements were noted, but most participants thought that changing technique takes more time, though several noted that musical focus enhanced their technical accuracy.
All five members of the PPPod reported feeling more competent in their ability to structure their practice as well as to play and perform convincingly. There were also mentions of being able to communicate better (both verbally and musically), come up with new strategies, practice methods and ways to focus. Over the five sessions their time management and ability to give and ask for feedback improved.
Examples from the data include: learning time management, formulating appropriate goals and intentions for practicing and performing, collecting ways of focusing whilst playing, collecting and designing practice methods and strategies for improving technical skills (e.g. stamina, co-ordination) and musical skills (e.g. phrasing and expression), learning how to formulate good questions for giving and receiving feedback, being able to give feedback without judgement and advice, learning how to deal with negativity (from self and others) and learning how to deal with mistakes and failure. The participants also learned how to function well in a group: The more we share with each other, the more we receive [P1].
Examples from the data indicating a growth in competence are: I was able to experiment with some of the strategies I've encountered through various fields. Each led to an observable improvement over one specific skill – self-trust. Obtaining a higher level of self-trust held light upon the existing technical and musical skills of mine. Furthermore, becoming aware of my capabilities supported the process of development over my musicianship skills [P1]; In these sessions, I believe that my musical skills developed much more than my technical skills, because in this group, everyone had a high level of technical knowledge [P2]; The pod sessions helped me to experience playing difficult repertoire in front of people, teaching me how to find ease and expression at the same time, developing my musical intentions and session intentions (they apparently need to be very clear and varied in order to work) [P3]; I have learnt to be very objective in what I focus on during practice [P4]; The pod was an exciting space where ideas were constantly flowing. Because of this, there was never a shortage of inspiration for things to try. Each of us would enter the sessions with our own ideas and things we wanted to try, but we were also able to ask others for suggestions, as well. Because we all play different instruments and bring our own experiences, we had a unique range of ideas to experiment with [P5].
Connection with the wider world and in particular with other musicians is important to students in a conservatoire, especially during the pandemic situation where they suffered from lockdown isolation. Musical and social interaction and the opportunity to perform were severely limited in the period during which the research took place. The participants were grateful to be offered a safe and creative space to explore performance preparation together. Before the intervention only two of the participants knew each other well. As each participant played a different instrument, they were forced to relate on a musical and metacognitive (e.g. talking about strategy and sharing observations) level rather than discussing instrument specific issues related to technique and repertoire.
Relatedness was evident by the warmth and enthusiasm that was present in the group sessions and the willingness of the participants to share ideas and show vulnerability and to help each other. They all expressed the view that theirs was a special group and that they gained a lot from sharing a journey that included group goals as well as their own individual goals.
Examples from the data: Each session was an opportunity to share and learn from the sharing. I was aware of that my words were valued by others. Naturally, this boosted my confidence to show up and speak. Working with other peers created an awareness over the common questions that are dealt within our routines. Observing the fact that I am not alone in the world, helped me to approach myself from a place of humaneness [P1]; We learned to brainstorm immediately. Thus, it makes us a ‘team’ and we realize that team does not need a coach at some point, it felt like an ensemble without a conductor. It is really interesting to see how people handle their situations or issues [P2]; For me it was so interesting to look at other peers perform and discuss our struggles and ideas so openly and in a very safe space [P3]; It humanises our problems and it makes it seem less of an issue when there are people going through the same things. I felt that there was a sense of community with this group and we could trust each other. It was a special feeling that I had never felt before while performing for others. And I also realized that my relationship with performing grew better through the pod sessions week after week [P4]; In addition to sharing ideas with each other, it was also very valuable to hear what the others are working on. I found that there was much to be learned by sharing our own struggles with each other. Even if we're all on slightly different levels, it's perhaps easier to engage with this topic than with teachers or coaches [P5].
For student musicians who aspire to be professional performers, one of the indications of a good learner is autonomy. Weekly one-to one-lessons with a main subject teacher need to be combined with the student’s ability to plan, monitor and reflect on their own process, to assess their own playing, process, and progress, and to rely and trust in their ability to be a self-trainer.
The pod environment seemed to nurture autonomy. This was evident from comments relating to not needing as much approval from others – even their own teachers. The Critical Response Process feedback that they used emphasised not giving judgement, advice and analysis of each other and this was not always easy to for the participants to put into practice. Over the course of the sessions they improved being able to ask each other questions and listening to each other – thus inviting each other to be more autonomous.
Examples from the data include: I've realized that the only person whom I was seeking approval from was no one but myself. This realization led me just do what I know and believe, instead of 'trying' to gain approval of others [P1]; From this year it was my main goal to be my teacher and audience. In those sessions, I learned how to listen to myself as an audience, instead of being a teacher. Moreover, being an audience brought me to understand the details and listen myself carefully and it also supported me to teach myself like a teacher [P2]. I feel much more in charge of my own development and study process. I enjoy practice so much more than before and give myself the time I need while challenging myself more, with an ideal version in mind and a positive mindset. Fun to do and working out well! I felt much more motivated and autonomous to experiment and to discover than in a main subject lesson [P3]; This time I was able to be under pressure and still enjoy performing – being able to enjoy the music [P4]; It has helped to approach learning more like a scientist in a laboratory, trying things not with the aim for perfection but to see what will happen and then reassess [P5].
Sunday 18 April Workshop 1 ONLINE
Sunday 18 April PPPod Session 1 LIVE
Sunday 25 April PPPod Session 2 LIVE
Sunday 2 May PPPod Session 3 LIVE
Sunday 9 May Workshop 2 ONLINE
Sunday 9 May PPPod Session 4 LIVE
Sunday 16 May PPPod Session 5 LIVE
Friday 21 May Workshop 3 ONLINE
Friday 21 May Three individual interviews
Sunday 13 June Two individual interviews
The first session began with a long (40 minute) discussion, and then everyone played and applied their own exercises and strategies. There were a variety of strategies and methods used, and some suggestions were offered. In the following sessions the opening discussions became shorter, leaving more time for playing and feedback. Organisation, structure and time management – both group and individual – improved over time, as did the ability of the participants to give feedback that avoided closed questions, judgements and opinions. Sometimes suggestions were offered to each other, but they kept trying to adhere to the rule that the performer is in charge of the feedback. In the first few sessions they felt they ran out of time and this improved by the last two sessions. The goals became clearer throughout the process and the ideas for exploration became more efficient. After session 3, it was decided to have an ‘in between’ workshop with the researcher coach to debrief a little and collect impressions before finishing the project.
The first three sessions were characterised with exploration whereas the last two sessions were related more to practicing performing: by performing through entire works, testing stamina and ease of playing, musical focus, confidence, and finding and maintaining a state of flow. In session five there was more focus on enjoying performing.
The participants were generally enthusiastic, but also able to persevere even when they were less motivated: Some of us felt a bit less enthusiastic to play today. This is quite different from the vibe in previous sessions where we’ve all generally been more enthusiastic. Instead of brushing this aside, though, we really sat with this and discussed it, which we found very helpful. We acknowledged we’re all humans and sometimes we will feel a bit more down (from session 4).
It was clear from the logbook entries that the participants were extremely supportive and respectful towards one another and there was enough space for each individual. The observations and feedback from the group were generally very directed and insightful. The participants were reluctant to finish the project and keen to continue the group themselves: The challenge was to finish the session because no one wanted to leave these beautiful sessions…
A list of goals and strategies that were used during the five sessions can be found on a table in the right hand column.
Participants reported that their skills improved through the pod sessions – in particular musical, musicianship, and especially metacognitive skills. Some technical improvements were noted, but most participants thought that changing technique takes more time, though several noted that musical focus enhanced their technical accuracy. Some examples of skill development included: It had an observable improvement in self-trust (self efficacy), which highlighted technical and musical and musicianship skills [P1]; enjoying with musicality was a problem sometimes because of technical passages or fears. I figured out that, in those kinds of passages, when I concentrate on music, I started to have more free time to play these tough passages with the joy [P2]; The pod sessions helped me to experience playing difficult repertoire in front of people, teaching me how to find ease and expression at the same time, developing my musical intentions and session intentions (they apparently need to be very clear and varied in order to work) […] “technical” aspects like breath and fingers seem to take more time [P3]; I have learnt to be very objective in what I focus on during practice now [P4].
All participants reported that their confidence for learning and for performing were positively affected by the pod sessions, even when things did not go well: I gained a lot of trust during the sessions and now practice and performance are much closer to each other, which is really helpful […] Even though sometimes suddenly things do not work on a rehearsal, I know I can do it and try to stay positive and find new ways to play difficult spots under pressure/during performance and rehearsal [P3]. Everyone mentioned a contributing factor was the connectedness and support and sharing of thoughts, feelings and ideas they experienced in the group.
All five participants felt more equipped to steer their own learning process as a result of the project and mentioned the importance of developing a sense of kindness towards oneself that can lead to efficiency and confidence. The critical response process of giving and receiving feedback was recognised as being helpful – even when dealing with themselves: I feel much more in charge of my own development and study process. I enjoy practice so much more than before and give myself the time I need while challenging myself more, with an ideal version in mind and a positive mindset. Fun to do and working out well! [P3]. The importance of being non- judgemental and more objective was also mentioned: It has helped to approach learning more like a scientist in a laboratory, trying things not with the aim for perfection but to see what would happen [P5].
Working with peers was seen as valuable by all participants, and different from working with experts and coaches. It offered opportunities to share ideas, thoughts and feelings as well as struggles: it’s perhaps easier to engage with this topic (performance preparation) than with teachers or coaches [P5]; I felt much more motivated and autonomous to experiment and to discover than in a main subject lesson [P3]. The participants reported feeling less alone and supported.
All five participants expressed the wish to do something similar in the future. They were unanimous in the opinion that semi-structured peer-learning structures should be embedded in a conservatoire curriculum: since it is a rare occasion to mix students and to explore without the need to speed up to get something ready. I think students will learn a lot from each other, gaining moreover more performance experience and benefit from the safe space to open up, share and experience [P3]; I feel that it is totally necessary to have this kind of setup. When we graduate, we will take on the role of the next generation of musicians and we would slowly have to assume the roles of teaching as well as performing. What we are doing in the pod is not just learning how to perform for each other but also to help guide our friends along when they need help. I feel that this goes beyond the learning aspect but also having hands-on teaching practice in a safe space, which is not very common in our education system [P4]; I believe that the students would be able to approach their passion from a wider perspective [P2]; There are exciting possibilities for incorporating peer-learning into the curriculum. I do think that students really need to be interested and invested [P5]; Unfortunately, worldwide, the current system leads individuals to constantly examine their insufficiencies, rather than to provide a safe environment for improvement. Therefore, we should create more space for these types of events within our educational institutions [P1].
Workshop 2 took place on 9th May 2021, after the 3rd of the 5 group sessions, and lasted for one hour. The reason for the workshop was to make contact with the group, monitor how things were going, remind the participants about the logbooks and ask if there were any problems that needed talking over. The workshop took one hour, online on Microsoft Teams and was recorded. The points addressed were:
What are you each getting out if the project so far?
Are there any difficulties, and if so, what?
How will you shape the last two sessions?
Introduce the Performance Log
The participants reported that they were getting a lot out the project: motivation, confidence, strategies, a feeling of being in a supportive community and many insights about performing, about themselves and each other. They were grateful for having the opportunity to do the project and recognised that it offered not only a safe ‘comfort zone’ but also a ‘playground’ to explore in: We have a very unique group. Very inspiring – every session. Having space to try things we're working on, and seeing what the others are working on and getting perspectives and ideas from them – seeing the progresses they are making from week to week based on what they’re trying. I’m able to take ideas from that [P5]; I’m inspired by the sessions, and every Sunday I came back so happy and motivated for the next week. Very lifting for the soul. The last months we’ve been in lockdown and it’s been a bit dreary, so it’s been a real mood-booster for me. Having the non-judgemental approach is like a practice not only for giving feedback to others, but I internalise it for my own practice sessions as well [P4]; I experienced trust and confidence, acceptance and allowing. It is interesting to see other people perform in an empathetic way, go with them in their process and see what they need; it’s also helping me to look at how people develop - what helps and what doesn’t. I feel very humble and aware that we are in this together [P4]. Some recent performance experiences were shared (including positive external feedback) that illustrated how much the project was helping and inspiring them: I had a beautiful performance class – it was an amazing experience, I never felt like this [P2]; I never felt so powerful […]The first three sessions helped a lot for this [P1]. The discussion revealed how the participants were becoming more autonomous learners and relying more on their intrinsic feedback. The atmosphere during the workshop was extremely positive and supportive.
Challenges that were mentioned were: not enough time, initial difficulties in giving non-judgemental feedback (this was improving), self-judgement, and formulating good questions to ask their peers. The group was asked to discuss how they would shape the last two sessions themselves after the meeting, and the session concluded with the researcher/coach explaining how to use the performance log.
The main things learned and obtained from the group sessions included: the value of sharing and daring to be vulnerable; dealing with stress and tension; motivation to practice and ideas for practice methods and strategies; value of playing in front of others even if the piece is not yet ready; exploring in front of and together with others & coming up with new ideas; observing the others; being able to experience lows as well as highs within the group; that there is more to a performance than right notes – for instance engagement, sharing music that you love, communicating, and taking risks; having a space for trying to figure out how we can improve; practicing performing; building trust; having space to work on one’s own goals within a group.
When asked about envisioning an optimal scenario for a peer-learning group to explore performance preparation, all participants agreed that the participant number of 5 was just right –not too big or small. It was important to work in a large room, preferably a concert hall (especially for the last sessions). Five sessions was comfortable (although everyone wanted to continue) and 2.5 - 3 hours for each session would be optimal. It is important that each participant has their own goals. The option of using an accompanist, include other colleagues in a chamber music setting was mentioned as well as inviting ’audience’ to some of the sessions.
When asked about the underlying/overarching quality of their group, the participants responded with: understanding of empathy, communication, honesty, openness, sharing feelings and ideas, inquisitiveness, positivity, trust, desire to help others improve, initiative, thinking together, powerful and vulnerable.
At the end of the session the participants decided to share and compile a list of inspiring books connected to learning, performing and self-confidence.
At the beginning of the project/intervention, the participants were asked to write answers to the following questions:
1. During the last two years:
- Describe how you generally experience performance
- Describe how you generally prepare your performances? What strategies have you used?
2. How would you describe your strengths and your weaknesses as a musician and instrumentalist?
3. Why did you join this project and what do you hope to experience and learn?
When describing their previous experiences of performances, all participants mentioned often struggling with confidence and focus and experiencing anxiety, stress (both physical and mental) and lack of trust resulting in performing below their practice-room level. Two participants also mentioned joyful performing experiences, and one mentioned sometimes experiencing performing as a chance to learn.
Two of the five participants had detailed strategies for preparing concerts including physical and mental preparation and playing through their pieces in front of others. The other three participants did not have a preparation strategy, only mentioning playing through the pieces in the days before the concert.
Each participant provided an insightful list of strengths and weaknesses, showing a good degree of self-knowledge and self-reflection. The most common strengths were about musicality and conscientiousness; the weaknesses mentioned were about lack of confidence and specific skills that were not yet developed.
The participants’ goals for the project included excitement about sharing their playing and ideas with others, understanding themselves, their music, their instrument and their learning processes better, and to gain insights through practicing performing.
The introductory workshop was a online session that lasted for 2 hours 18 minutes. The participants were very eager to hear about the project, why it came about and the procedure. They then engaged in an animated brainstorming discussion revolving around the following questions:
What is important for the sessions?
What types of goals could you imagine?
What problems and pitfalls might there be?
What ideas and strategies do you already have?
Are there other questions or insights?
The participants were very open about their ideas and also revealed their own vulnerabilities. The safe environment that they reported experiencing in spite of not knowing each other well was probably due to the fact that they all took part in the elective Quality Practice earlier in the year with the researcher/coach: Usually when you talk with friends about your playing and practicing – everyone just says its fine. Here – and in Quality Practice – we can really share.
Many themes arose from the discussion. The main ones are described below.
Confidence, self-worth, mindset, dealing with negativity (inner & outer)
The participants were very aware of the importance having confidence on stage and how that is related to belief systems and dealing with negativity both from themselves as well as in their environment: I have a critical voice in my head during the concert – I would like to get rid of it; A former teacher told me “you could be a fantastic amateur and a mediocre professional”. A part of me still believes it and it holds me back, 9 years later. I am still dealing with these damaging comments during my practice; We can also have space for recovering from toxic critics.
Potential & talent
Several participants reported how both positive and negative beliefs about potential and talent can be damaging: ‘Potential’ - It's a big pressure; Even ”you’re super talented” can be damaging [a burden].
Exploration, developing strategies, practicing performing
Everyone was exited about having a ‘playground’ to explore and develop strategies and try things out in front of others. Each participant already had formulated ideas on what they wanted to explore and why, and these varied from experiencing their own focus during playing or their own and external reactions to a performance to demonstrating preparation techniques and formulating questions for the group to discuss and explore.
Vulnerability, comfort zone, dealing with & sharing weaknesses, developing trust
This theme came up several times. The participants were all grateful to have a space where they could explore their vulnerabilities as musicians within a trusted group: Explore how I could deal with my weaknesses – sharing weaknesses. Talking about it.
Sharing & feedback
Sharing was an intrinsic part of the project and one of the reasons the participants signed up. Because of the Corona pandemic there had been restricted possibilities for music making or socializing. The researcher/coach took some time to go into detail about what feedback is and isn’t and how to use the Critical Response Process as a guide to giving respectful and useful feedback.
Goals, intention and focus
The importance of having clear goals – both individual and for the group, for each session was stressed by the researcher/coach and echoed also in the participants’ approach: deciding on what is important to work on, what goals and intentions are appropriate for a performance and what kind of focus helps for learning and performing.
Working in a group, group dynamics, flexibility and adapting, organisation & structure
Although the participants were looking forward to working together, they also expressed concerns about how to structure sessions efficiently without a facilitator present. They were aware that there needs to be room for everyone and to not let anyone dominate or hide. The researcher/coach pointed out that this could be learned through the course of the sessions – that they could learn to be flexible and adapt and what structure works can vary from session to session: Shared responsibility but not for the other. Help each other in a non-intrusive way. Not imposing on someone. We don’t know each other, everyone can shine. The Researcher/coach commented: There are no wrong things! You decide how each session should proceed.
Some participants shared their impatience for not ‘being there’ yet: I hear from my master teachers: “you have great potential”. I listen to my playing and there is a fire in there that’s not coming out. This group could help. The researcher/coach responded with: No one’s finished. When are you finished? The idea of thinking of yourself only as ‘potential’ can be damaging – are you not real yet? It’s not about perfect technique, so what is it about? What is a good performance?
There was a high quality of insight and self-reflection, trust, openness and curiosity. Many of the comments were deep and personal and participants revealed high and varied expectations. The dialogue set a positive tone for the project. Results from the introductory workshop show that from the outset, the relevance of such a project was very clear.
The participants each filled out a questionnaire at the end of the project. The questions were formulated to see how the project affected their motivation, skill development, self-efficacy and confidence, as well as find out the efficacy of the pod structure and it’s relevance in a conservatoire setting. The questions were:
Individual session logbooks and performance logs
The logbook entries varied in style, reflecting very different personalities. Many of the themes and goals however were shared. All (even the younger and/or or non-English native speaking) participants provided extremely articulate and insightful comments.
Insights from the individual participants can be found in the table on the right.
The logbook entries of participant 1 were full if ideas, strategies and insights as well as evidence of reading and applying literature about musicians’ learning.
The goals started with getting to know the team, exploring musical expression, focus, and objective observation of themself. In the second session, goals moved towards time management, having space for discussion & sharing views and feedback and improving trust during playing as well as exploring establishing and keeping task focus & dealing with distraction during playing. The goal for the third session centred on letting go of (over) control whilst playing – physically and cognitively, and to be an objective observer whilst playing: “experiencing the experience”. In session 4 the focus was on having endurance and confidence. The goal for session 5 was to ‘celebrate’ and ‘have fun’ through performing a demanding piece.
Challenges during the sessions were connected with timekeeping and giving objective feedback.
Participant 1’s strategies were creative and well matched to the goals, and the insights reported were astute and inspired. Comments about the sessions included noting how a high empathy and flow of communication and decision-making occurred, and that efficiency of the meetings progressed over time. Over the period of five weeks, this musician developed in their ability to learn from both positive and negative outcomes.
I’ve tried the method of ‘imagine yourself as in a practice room during performing’. It was interesting to see how my muscles immediately adapted to the mindset and relaxed in turn. I played the piece, very slowly and focusing on the musical direction within the phrases, instead of allowing the challenging passages to cause tension over my body. I felt that I was improvising among the notes, which was exactly the point! It was an amazing experience for me and I am really grateful to have the opportunity of being able to explore this on stage.
This participant made two performances at the end of the project, with four days in between. The performance logs listed engagement, expression, enjoyment, connection with the pianist, self-confidence and flow as important criteria. Both performances were scored highly (self-report). A striking insight was that the exam (2nd) performance was missing stress: stress is a really significant component for engagement and without it, one may miss the ‘flow’ – focus does not bring flow.
Participant 2 used the project to explore and understand how stress affects their performance and gain objectivity and ways to focus. Goals began with getting to know the others, try out and observe strategies and enjoy expressing themself via music. In subsequent sessions, goals involved more specific and gradually longer passages of music. Finally the goal was to be in a state of flow whilst performing.
The strategies used involved stepping out of and expanding the comfort zone, increasing of task difficulty & complexity over the sessions and trying new ideas, strategies and ways to focus. The results included collecting useful technical insights as well as being able to extract valuable information and insights from each session (even from disappointing performing experiences), and building up trust resulting in a feeling of confidence for the exam: I saw the importance of ‘excitement’… not stress […] I know that I will do my best and it will be great!
The performance log for the exam showed a satisfaction that this participant was able to play in an authentic way that demonstrated their actual level, fulfilling their goal of showing what they learned during the year, express their feelings and telling a story with the music: I played more like me, I was not imitating anyone during my exam and it felt / went very well. I played every passage correctly and freely. Reflections also included a desire to learn more self-trust and show more ‘fire’.
Participant 3 was interested in playing difficult repertoire and challenging themself to play under pressure, using the peer group to see what was coming across. Other goals included building confidence, improving performance both technically and musically and finding more ease/efficiency and therefore endurance. The goal for the final session was to keep a musical focus (in anticipation of the upcoming recital). These goals were explored by developing strategies for focusing more on musical intention and less on technique, finding ways to use less effort and tension, finding more characters connected to the music and playing by memory. Challenges experienced included playing in front of others, playing without involving too much tension and staying in the moment.
The sessions brought insights about balancing aspects of playing and knowing what to focus on and resulted in more confidence and joy: My joy and love for playing were really present and I had a good time, which was evident and also coming back to me from my peers. This moment was very significant for me and I am eternally grateful to have felt this way – in flow and fully engaged – on stage, sharing with other musicians. A huge, remarkable step in the right direction and very visible and audible for the audience.
The participant made two performances with performance logs with 4 days in between. The second (exam) performance was preceded by a week of intense stress and nausea. In spite of this and the extremely demanding program the participant had a very positive experience: was able to play expressively, navigate the physical challenges, remain focused on musical intentions and enjoy sharing the music better than expected.
The goals of participant 4 revolved around avoiding performance anxiety. Over the sessions this was expressed in a more positive way e.g. finding a state of flow, using external focus of attention (musical intention) and playing with more musical nuance. The process involved practicing how to recover from mistakes, looking for more physical ease, focusing on connection between notes and imagining the ‘ideal’ player. Challenges included formulating the right kinds of questions – avoiding yes & no answers as well as too much and complicated responses, and being able to stay in the moment and not tensing up too much whilst performing: […] remind myself to search for ease from the beginning of the performance and try to enjoy and be present in the performance no matter what happens.
The goals for participant 4’s exam were looking for ease and enjoyment, and staying present no matter what happens. The performance log indicated that these goals were reached. Reflections included wanting to search for the right kind of external focus to facilitate more ease in physically strenuous passages.
Participant 5 wanted to try out some of their ideas and strategies in front of others in order to get more insights in order to be able to play with more flexibility and ease, and for the last session the goal was to experience enjoyment.
Strategies involved working on focusing on connecting notes, inner hearing, anticipating the next notes and musical fragments, using cross-brain exercises and affirmations, and creating clear characters for each phrase. This participant was able to take risks in front of the group and make good use of their feedback. The process resulted in more confidence, how to warm up and prepare – both physically and cognitively – immediately before playing, and insights about what to focus on during each piece: I felt more flexible and buoyant!; more often I was able to stay concentrated on the character.
Participant 5’s exam performance goals were to find enjoyment in playing and sharing the music and to maintain a musical focus, and the success was reflected in the comments. They attributed the success to the high level of preparation and interaction with the ensemble. Although endurance was previously a concern, it did not pose a real problem in the performance. Reflections mentioned recognising a development of self-confidence and growth mindset: it’s important to recognize my own transition to a growth mindset, where I’m able to approach more difficult repertoire and come up with a plan to learn to play it.
Workshop 3 was a debriefing session that occurred after the five group sessions. The participants were asked each question individually and there was also some discussion. The three points raised were:
How have the pod sessions affected your ability to develop technical and musical skills? Please give some examples.
Did the pod sessions have a positive influence over your confidence: for learning? for performing?
Please say something about this.
How have the pod sessions affected your feeling of and ability to be your own teacher/trainer? Please give some examples.
What was the value of doing the sessions together with four other peers? How was this different from working with an expert teacher or coach?
From the whole trajectory: what are the main things that you got out of these sessions?
Imagine an optimal scenario: how could this project be done differently, and what in your opinion are the essential and desirable criteria in a peer-learning group?
Describe in one word the underlying/overarching quality of this group
A Collection of Insights
- It can be helpful to do brain integration exercises before performing
- Being able to observe yourself during playing may lead to a further level of engagement with the music
- Acting with good intentions will make your realistic dreams come true
- As long as the artist is capable of having task focus, and accepting the situation as it is, will significantly decrease the amount of the distraction
- Being aware of our position within our own performances enables us to freely improvise on stage, thus, to give our distinct interpretations without any limitations: considering ourselves as the boss who is in charge of determining the qualities – such as tempo, dynamics and phrasing – can be a starting point to embrace this behaviour
- Allow the space to be present in order to breathe when necessary
- Synchronize the tempo that is in your head with the speed of your fingers
- Don't try to match the level of your current performance to an imaginary version that only exists in your head. Having intentions and goals often supports consistency in the long run. However, the aim of obtaining that exact version can create pressure that may interfere with one’s ability to improvise spontaneously and to let go of the knowledge and past experience
- Interference can be perceived as a way to strengthen engagement
- Eliminating the ‘self’, leads to ‘music is a performance art’
- The quality of the performance should not be dependent on one's current state of mind
- Stress is a unique feeling that should be present, because it is the most explicit representative of caring
- Sharing begets encouragement
- Asking: “How would I teach this particular piece to another person?” enables one to look from a wider perspective and explore various approaches to phrases
- Play by experiencing yourself as an outsider and do not think yourself as a judge
- Being freer and less controlling helps me to get in the movement easier
- The importance of perceiving ‘excitement’ rather than stress
- When I really went for the music and let go of technique, it was all about the gestures, which were very clear then and it communicated much more
- Keep calm and play music
- Stay in the character during the (bars) rest
- Playing by heart increases confidence, sound, ease and projection
- When I breathed where I needed, I felt more connected to the phrasing and to my body
- Exaggerating made my musical intentions and ideal phrasing clearer and improved my playing and ease overall
- It is important it is to be fully engaged and present, to communicate and to enjoy the music, forget yourself and give your best
- Search for ease from the beginning of the performance and try to enjoy and be present in the performance no matter what happens
- Ask good questions!
- The audience doesn’t always see and hear what you think they do
- If something goes wrong, just move on
- Learning to accept yourself helps you to accept others
- Learning to appreciate others helps you to appreciate yourself
A Collection of Goals
- Looking for (physical, technical & musical) buoyancy and flexibility during playing
- To have physical and mental endurance
- To share the stage with someone else and connect with that person
- Use the space & music without forcing – ask the group what came across and what needed more clarity
- Play a longer section of music using a method on practicing trust (recommended by another group member)
- Experiment with ‘letting go’
- Focus on making clear characters and keeping the focus on the music
- Maintaining self confidence throughout a performance
- Play ‘authentically’ by keeping a musical focus in spite of any mistakes along the way
- To be in and stay in a state of flow
- Practice endurance by looking for ease, with a demanding program
- Use an affirmation and focus on musical intention
- Listen to one’s self during performing & be in the moment
- To enjoy the performance
- Give more space to every note to be free and less controlling
A Collection of Strategies and Methods
- Focus on being totally present the whole time, whatever happens
- Practice playing ‘cold’ – without playing a few notes beforehand or warming up
- Formulate and use an affirmation (positive statement)
- Use brain integration exercises (involving cross body movements)
- Practice trust
- 'Letting go’ strategies: 1. letting go to the overload; 2. letting body take over; 3. letting go to the impossible
- Keep a musical focus in spite of any mistakes along the way
- Practice being in the present moment
- Make video recordings and observe them afterwards
- Exploring ornamentation as a practice method
- Develop endurance by playing longer than required
- Develop endurance by focusing on ease
- Determine characters for each section of music
- Practice musical intention whilst playing
- Practice playing under pressure – or setting up added distractions
- Play by memory
- Explore a piece connected to text by reciting / declaiming the related poem
- Imagine one’s ideal performer and pretend to be that person
- Play blindfolded
- Exaggerate the musical ideas
- Focus on the audience and see what happens