Can the lessons of sports psychology be applied to music?

Jaime Diaz-Ocejo’s seminars in Dublin about student-performance profiling and performing under pressure prove fascinating

Computers played a part in the success of Germany at the World Cup. The country's football association has been working with the software company SAP, and the team has been able to analyse data from cameras placed around the pitch. The analysis has even been given to players to view on their mobile phones. The change in the team's speed of passing has been remarkable. At the 2010 World Cup the German team's players had an average ball possession time of 3.4 seconds. After SAP became involved, this was reduced to 1.1 seconds.

You don't hear much about the use of computer analysis in the training of pianists or other musicians, and the traditions of instrumental teaching have been slow to change. Reginald R Gerig's celebrated 1974 study, Famous Pianists and Their Techniques, doggedly revealed how unscientific much of the lore around piano playing has been over the centuries.

You don’t hear much about the musical equivalent of the sports psychologist either, although musical performance is as physically exacting as any sport, and competitive performance is a reality of life for many young musicians.

The Dublin International Piano Festival broke the ice last year by inviting Qatar-based Spanish sports psychologist Jaime Diaz-Ocejo to talk to the young students of its summer academy. He was back again this year for two seminars, one about student performance profiling, the other about performing under pressure.


Diaz-Ocejo, a former pole vaulter, has what in a doctor you would call an excellent bedside manner. He is soft-spoken, positive, encouraging and always keen to respond to any question or inquiry in a positive way. He’s like a good-natured uncle with a mine of useful information and a fondness for leaving you in a better frame of mind than he found you.

Friday’s profiling session involved a pooling of ideas about 27 characteristics – or “psychological competencies” – that are important for anyone who wants to be a serious pianist. He discussed every suggestion that was made, and elaborated on its possible significance before adding it to the list. And he shoehorned a few that seemed a little wide of the mark so that they had a more general applicability.

The first 10 to be mentioned will give you a flavour of the suggestions: motivation, patience, curiosity, perseverance, sense of humour, humility, goals, discipline, self-worth/confidence, and positive attitude. When all 27 were in, he encouraged a collective debate to reduce the number to 20, and then had everyone score themselves on each of the 20 on a scale of one to 10.

The scoring was done on a circular chart, and what everyone ended up with was a dartboard-like image, overlaid with a pattern of dark spaces: low scores marked towards the centre, high ones towards the circumference.

If any of the students expected an immediate avalanche of insights, they will have been disappointed. The final profile was obviously subjective, a self-assessment on a self-agreed list of criteria. What would be interesting, he suggested, would be for all to take their profiles to their teacher, and see how the teacher-pupil appraisals stacked up against one another. Would the verdicts on musicality and control match up, or those on ear and heart?

The success of the session was obvious from the number of requests for blank profiling forms. Clearly this was a process that people wanted to explore again.

Under pressure

Saturday’s session on performing under pressure came with a number of health warnings. There are no quick fixes. The human factor can’t be replaced, because we learn from people. The hard-working, talented people will reach excellence. It takes about 10 years to reach excellence in sport, he said, and probably about 20 in music.

There was nothing in his presentation that didn’t seem sensible. Set goals and make sure they’re achievable. Many athletes, he pointed out, work on four-year cycles, because of the Olympics. Seek problem-focused solutions. Rationalise your fears. Become self-aware, and self-regulate. Work very, very hard. Enhance your confidence.

It wasn’t until the end of the second session that one of the key differences between sport and music came up for discussion. It followed from an issue raised from the floor about the negativity the questioner perceived in music lessons versus the positivity she saw in sports coaching. Success and achievement in sport can be easily measured. Someone wins. There’s a score, or a time, or a length. In music, it’s subjective. One expert or teacher says one thing, another says something else. It’s bound to be more complicated.

And success in music is dependent on far more than the skills of musicianship and technique. Certain talents are so big that they seem destined to rise to the top. But lower down the scale, success can be more a matter of business acumen than music. It’s a common perception, for instance, that many conductors go to more trouble to be liked than to give a good performance on a first appearance with an orchestra. Good concerts are well and good. But the chances of a second engagement are much higher if you manage to ensure that the players and management really like you. Whatever your skills or achievement, it can pay to be liked.

Diaz-Ocejo made everything he addressed seem obvious and easy, apart from the hard work. But the questions that came to him were a reminder of just how difficult not just the matter of learning and mastering the music itself can be, but also the matter of putting yourself on a public platform to perform it. Even the greatest of performers suffer from nerves, and it was wonderful to see how Diaz-Ocejo dealt with a question about how someone might improve a particular pre-performance breathing routine. Routines are all individual, he said. If yours is already working – and this one was – there is no need to fix it.

Get a life

Gerig's book has been reissued in a revised edition for its 30th anniversary. It now comes with a wise foreword by Liszt scholar Alan Walker. He recalls how the great 19th-century pianist Hans von Bülow responded to a listener who complained of not being able to see the pianist's hands at the keyboard from where he was sitting. "One does not play the piano with one's hands," said Bülow. "One plays the piano with one's mind."

And he quotes Liszt: “For the formation of the artist, the first prerequisite is the development of the human being.” In brief, says Walker, you must first get a life. “You must experience the joys and sorrows, the pain and pleasures, that are part of the condition of being human. Only then will you have something to say. And when you have something to say, everything else – including the technical means to say it– will come of its own accord.”

If only it were that easy.