The piano and Neuro-Linguistic Programming

Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) was created in California in the 1970s by Richard Bandler and John Grinder. The name asserts a connection between the neurological processes (“neuro”), language (“linguistic”), and behavioural patterns learned through experience (“programming”) which can be altered or harnessed to achieve specific goals in life. Popularly known as “the study of human excellence”, NLP uses the criterion “does this work?”, and gives us the tools and processes to deconstruct how we do things to discover the key elements of a positive strategy to enable us to do something more successfully. Equally, it can highlight negative issues and help us to discard unsuccessful actions and impulses.

In NLP the word “strategy” is used to describe how we organise sensory representations – external and internal images, sounds, sensations and feelings. This determines how successful we are in doing something, assuming we have the relevant skills.

NLP has been much used in sports training after the writer W. Timothy Gallwey formulated a coaching method which employed the “inner game”, that of focus, concentration and self-belief, discarding bad habits, and learning to trust oneself. In simple terms, sports men and women were encouraged to visualise a positive outcome and to imagine the physical and mental processes they would employ to be successful. When a player relaxed and held a picture and feeling of the desired result, the player improved. Mr Gallwey has gone on to write many popular books employing the inner game strategy, including the excellent Inner Game of Music with Barry Green, a manual for overcoming anxiety and self-doubt to achieve excellence in playing and performing. I have found this book enormously useful in my own development as a musician, and a teacher.

These principles of coaching, enhanced by the tools of NLP, can very successfully be applied to teaching and performing music. In my teaching, I use NLP techniques to encourage positive development and learning outcomes in my students. This includes aspects such as:

Positive feedback and reinforcement. The student may have played with errors, but I would never start a teaching session by saying “Oh that was dreadful! So many mistakes! You haven’t been practising this properly, have you?”. I will always try and find something positive even in the most ropey performance. This gets the lesson off to a good start and the student feels rewarded for his/her efforts. Rewards lead to emotional and physical relaxation, which encourages a positive learning experience, and (hopefully) better playing.

Avoid calling attention to incorrect movements and ‘mistakes’. Instead, draw attention to what the student is doing correctly – a good hand position, a lovely tone, an understanding of the technique of arm staccato, and so forth.

Visual, aural and kinesthetic techniques:

  • “Imagine the sound” is frequently heard in my studio. It is a technique I use myself in my own playing, and one I find students respond to easily. By reminding students that the piano can be any instrument – or indeed any sound! – we want it to be, they can imagine the sounds they want to create: trumpets, bells, violins, voices, growls, raindrops, deep bass drums. Hearing, both internal and external, is a crucial element of a successful strategy for learning and studying music.
  • “telling the story” – what is the music about? what kind of picture are we trying to create for the listener? how are we going to tell the story?
  • “what colour is this note/notes/chords/passage”? I’m a grapheme-synaesthete – I see numbers, letters, days of the week, months, and musical keys in colours – and I use this “colouring” of music a great deal in my own study and teaching. A note that is red might have a strong, proud sound; a gold note might be shiny/sparkling; a dark purple chord might be rich and sonorous.
  • How did it feel, when you played that passage beautifully? Can you recreate that feeling each time you play the passage?

Problem solving and seeking solutions Students learn more if they are encouraged to find the answer to a problem themselves, whether technical or artistic. How might one approach this or that passage? What kind of technique (staccato, legato, rotary) might be helpful? What is the composer asking of you at this point in the music? A right answer is rewarded with praise and positive reinforcement, and, hopefully, this will ensure the student remembers the answer/s in the future.

Banishing the fear of failure: Older students, particularly adults, can suffer from the fear of failure, of making a complete hash of their playing in front of teacher, and there can be some very harsh, self-critical and perfectionist internal dialogue going on in these students. If the student is hesitant and anxious, when their level of skill should be allowing them to play more fluently, it is likely that a negative internal dialogue is getting in the way. Most people are unaware of their internal dialogue until it is pointed out to them, and it is often derived from things our parents and teachers said to us when they were either cross with us, or frightened for our safety. NLP seeks to turn negative thoughts and feelings into positive ones. One of the lessons of the Inner Game of Music is the ability  “switch off” that voice inside us that seeks to remind us of our weaknesses, and instead turn to the one that says “I can do it”.

And in performance situations:

Positive thoughts, positive outcomes Performance anxiety can be the bane of the musician’s life, and can develop at an early stage (unpleasant exam experiences, a memory lapse in a concert). Learning how to deal with anxiety is an important part of the musician’s training.  We have different experiences of performance through our individual thoughts and beliefs, and we can use good experiences and positive thoughts to achieve an optimum performance. This is the “neuro” element. Meanwhile, language can be used to enhance learning abilities by simply ruling out any negative comments (“linguistic”). The “programming” is putting these tools into practice in a stressful situation.

Here are some of the strategies I employ when approaching a performance:

  • Continual affirmative reinforcement of my abilities, and a positive outlook when practising.
  • I am well-prepared: I have nothing to fear. Even if I make a small slip, I can recover
  • I know I can do it.
  • My last performance was good. I try to recall the positive feelings and sensations from that performance.
  • No one in the audience is going to boo or slow hand-clap if I make a mistake. In fact, it is unlikely anyone will even spot an error.
  • Just before going on stage, I visualise myself walking across the stage, taking a bow and sitting at the piano.
  • As I approach the piano, I visualise the opening bars of the music and hear the music in my head.
  • After the performance: I try not to dwell on imperfections, except in the most positive “how can I make it better next time?” way. I try not to post-mortem a performance and instead look towards the next one.

Self-belief and identity issues also play a role in creating a successful strategy: while most self-belief must come from within, the positive endorsement and praise of peers, mentors, and colleagues (and even reviewers and critics) can be invaluable to building confidence. How special it is to walk off the stage to a group of friends/colleagues applauding warmly and telling you how well you played!

Another strategy I have employed successfully is not to constantly compare myself to others – something I used to do far too often, in the mistaken belief that I too could be a great concert pianist! (this chart, while somewhat tongue-in-cheek, is a useful reminder of the negative thoughts and feelings musicians can experience). One can look to professional pianists and great performers for successful modes of behaviour, values and beliefs; one can attempt to emulate them, be inspired by them, but one should not seek to compete with them. Instead, one should learn to listen to one’s inner voice, and to trust one’s own instincts and musical integrity. The striving then becomes a personal quest, to meet the standards set by the composer and the literature, rather than by others in the profession.

A good article on the Inner Game of Music by pianist Alisadair Hogarth

The Musician’s Way Blog has many useful articles on strategies for successful practising and confident performing

The Inner Game of Music website

An earlier post on Synaesthesia and music


  1. Fascinating and very useful indeed. The effect of negative feedback perhaps epitomised by the suffering of Rachmaninov who was I believe eventually helped by hypnotism. If NLP had been around then, would he have tried it? Probably. And synaesthesia is surely an amazing thing-is it disturbing? Pleasant?

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