We all have a voice in our head.

Sometimes it just offers a running commentary on the events around us (“Yikes, why would anybody wear that?”). Other times it just tosses some random weird thoughts into our stream of consciousness to keep us on our toes (“Hmmm…how would I escape an angry bear in the woods?”). And then there are moments when we engage in dialogue with it (“C’mon, you can do this…but what if I screw it up? Don’t be silly, you’ve played it dozens of times before…yeah, but….”).

This voice is harmless enough most of the time – except when it comes to something that is really important to us. Both in the practice room and on-stage, the voice can quickly turn to the dark side and become our worst critic.

Where it is not just critical, but discouraging, blaming, and plain old mean. To the point where it can impact our emotional state and actually cause performance to suffer.

Of course it’s not like this for everyone. Some folks have voices that are more compassionate, supportive, and encouraging, which can help to facilitate motivation and performance.

So where does this voice come from anyway? Is it something we are born with?

Or is it something we learn, and can be influenced by others around us?

Great teachers do more than teach

Great teachers aren’t just walking, talking, wikipedias of knowledge, but effective change agents as well. Unique people who can motivate, counsel, and facilitate learning in those they come into contact with.

We know from experience that the right teacher can help create all sorts of behavioral changes, from the mechanics of our playing to how we practice. But does their influence go deeper than this? Is it possible that teachers can have an impact on our thought processes as well?

Positive and negative coaching styles

Studies of coaches and athletes have indeed found that coaches’ actions can influence athletes’ self-esteem, confidence, and cognitive anxiety (i.e. the worries, doubts, and fear of mistakes).

In a 2010 study of 112 regional, national, and international-level wrestlers, participants were asked to rate their coaches’ behaviors and their own self-talk during their latest competition.

Using a pair of questionnaires, the researchers measured the positivity/supportiveness and negativity of both the coaches’ behavior and the athletes’ inner dialogue.

As you might expect, coaches’ supportiveness was associated with greater positive self-talk and less negative self-talk in the athletes, especially in the areas of confidence and anxiety control (“I can do this” or “It’s ok…keep calm”).

Similarly, coaches’ negative coaching behaviors – where they say or do things that demonstrate a lack of confidence in the athletes’ abilities – were related to more negative self-talk and less positive self-talk in the athletes, particularly in the area of disengagement and fatigue (“I want to quit” or “I’m tired”).

Changing self-talk

The researchers then did a follow-up study of beginning tennis players to see if exposure to either positive or negative coaching behaviors could change the positivity or negativity of an individuals’ inner dialogue.

The results suggest that yes, what we say to our students can change what they say to themselves.

When exposed to positive coaching behaviors (e.g. “Good shot, keep it up”) participants worried less about messing up.

When exposed to negative coaching behavior (e.g. “That’s a bad shot” or “You don’t follow my instructions”), the participants’ self-talk began moving in the direction of this feedback and their use of positive confidence-building self-talk decreased.

Now self-talk is not the only variable that influences performance. And coaching/teaching behavior is not the only factor that affects the voice in our head. But how cool is it that the things we say to our students can impact the thoughts that go through their heads?

It’s often difficult to know how much of an impact we are having on others until many years later. But in the meantime, it’s important to be aware that the things we say, and the behaviors we exhibit in lessons, rehearsals, and performances can stay with our students and become a much deeper part of who they grow to be as musicians, professionals, and people than we might realize.

Take action

Think of your own teachers who have had the highest of standards, but also made you feel that you were capable of reaching them. Contrast this with teachers who somehow made you doubt that you could ever rise to those standards.

Now, in your own teaching, how do you maintain a high standard of excellence for students without blaming and criticizing and causing them to doubt themselves?

I’m curious to hear what language/tactics work best with your own students – share below in the comments!

About Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.

Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.

After Countless Hours of Practice, Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills and a few tweaks in your approach to practicing. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to discover the 7 skills that are characteristic of top performers. Learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.

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