Mentor – an experienced and trusted adviser

(OED)

A mentor is not necessarily a teacher. The musician’s journey is a complex one, requiring many years of highly rigorous, focused training, and a consistent routine of work (practising) and performing and/teaching, and more…. While many of us have studied with particular teachers during this journey – teachers who have helped carve the path for us and form us into the musicians we are today – we may encounter or seek out others along the way to offer advice, support, encouragement and honest critique.

The most obvious definition of a musician’s mentor is someone you might play to – a master teacher (perhaps recommended by your regular teacher) or well-regarded musician who is able to offer a different perspective and insights on your music making which inform not only the evolution of a specific piece or pieces or music, but also your personal development as a musician. We might visit such a person on a number of occasions during our career – I know of several renowned concert pianists who still refer to a mentor for guidance.

A good mentor is able to offer advice and critique in an honest yet sympathetic way, providing support and inspiration, and instilling in one a sense of empowerment and personal autonomy – qualities which I believe are crucial in our ongoing development as musicians and which enable us to create our own artistic vision and persona. In addition, a mentor is a brain to pick, a sympathetic ear to listen, a nudge in the right direction and a guide in achieving one’s goals. The best mentor-mentee relationships are built on mutual trust and respect, and shared values, and while the mentor may be superior in knowledge and experience, there is a certain equality to a good mentor-mentee relationship.

Of course not all mentors are musical ones. We may seek advice in managing our career and dealing with the business side of being a professional musician, someone who can inform and guide us through the minefield of building a professional profile (including creating a website and online presence), approaching promoters, funding applications, tax planning and so forth.

Trusted friends and colleagues can also act as mentors, offering advice and support over a range of issues, musical or otherwise. I have a very good friend, a medic by profession and an advanced amateur pianist and piano teacher whom I regard as my mentor. His positive pragmatic approach (playing the piano is not a life or death scenario!), sheer pleasure in music making, and an ability to critique my playing honestly and helpfully without making me feel inadequate or insulted, has done more for my confidence as a performer and self-esteem as a musician in general than any teacher. Our friendship is founded on mutual respect and a shared enjoyment in playing the piano, exploring repertoire and attending concerts (and much more besides, as befits a deep friendship).

Another acquaintance, a concert pianist, has been helpful in acting as a kind of “coach”, challenging my interpretive choices and asking me to justify every decision made within the music (technical and artistic, specifically in relation to the late piano sonatas of Franz Schubert) in a way which was non-confrontational, stimulating and respectful. This was not “teaching” between master and pupil, but rather a more equal discussion about the music. One of many interesting outcomes of this particular relationship was when he told me our discussions had taken him back to his scores, to examine the music in new way in the light of our conversations. Thus, mentoring is a two-way exchange.

We may also cultivate “inner mentors” who resonate with us and who we have identified as offering us what we need for ourselves. These may include a fictional character or a great musician whom we admire. As we resonate with these mentors, we make them our role models, tune into their special qualities, and draw these into ourselves so that we can utilise and be inspired or motivated by them.

Having a mentor or mentors is not about dependency or neediness, but about growing, pushing boundaries, learning, exploring and allowing someone to guide you – more than you could do on your own – in a direction that is your own. Mentors can pave new internal ground too, giving one greater self-trust and confidence in one’s path and purpose.

 


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The musician’s life is a journey and sometimes there are setbacks along the way which challenge us and lead us to question what we are doing. Setbacks should not be regarded as negative obstacles, but rather an opportunity to pause, reflect, evaluate and then move on.

This week I had a setback in my musical life which initially caused me to question what I do – from my teaching to my own playing and performing. Fortunately, I have supportive family and close friends who were willing to listen to me while I allowed the news to sink in, who did not try to tell me to “snap out of it”, but who listened and talked to me with understanding, care and intelligence. In the great scheme of things, what happened was very minor, but it was important to me personally. But I am not given to wallowing in self-pity or endlessly asking “what if?”, and quite soon, with the support of a valued mentor, another close colleague, and friends, I was able to reflect on what had happened and begin to draw positives from it to enable me to move on and formulate a new plan.

We all have setbacks in our musical lives – a performance about which we are less than happy, a not so flattering review, an injury or a failed exam. These things can be tough, but any setback or failure can be turned into a positive resource from which we can learn and move on. Sometimes reflecting on what happened and why can be painful – holding a mirror up to one’s own weaknesses is never easy – but if one does so with an open, positive mind, trial and error, exploration and experimentation offer us useful feedback and enable us to adjust our approach, if necessary, before trying again and progressing. And remember that in the eyes of friends and trusted colleagues, we have not really changed because of the setback: we are still the same person these people around us likes and respects. So when a setback trips us up, it is worth recalling positive endorsements and feedback we have received from teachers, colleagues, friends, and others in the profession.

A more practical method to examine why something happened is the Root Cause Analysis (RCA). It is often used in medicine, and it helps answer the question of why the problem or setback occurred in the first place. RCA assumes that systems and events are interrelated and the process seeks to identify the origin of a problem using a specific set of steps, to find the primary cause of the problem, in order to:

  1. Determine what happened.
  2. Determine why it happened.
  3. Work out what to do to reduce the likelihood that it will happen again.

In music, we might use RCA to determine why the performance we had worked so hard for did not live up to our expectations. Factors leading to this might include: lack of proper preparation, insufficient warm up, feeling under the weather. Writing these things in a chart (usually under 5 headings) allows us to de-personalise them and examine everything in an objective way. A RCA exercise may not give us all the answers we are looking for, but it can go a long way in helping us identify and process what happened and to dig deeper beyond merely superficial factors. In this way, we can draw positives from the experience and, hopefully, find solutions or adjustments to enable us to progress.

So I did a RCA to examine my setback this week, and formulated a plan to enable me to move forward, but by far the best tonic has to be the support of trusted colleagues and friends, including the person who brought me this beautiful bunch of roses which are now filling my piano room with their special scent and sunshine.

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Further reading

The Musician’s Journey with Christine Croshaw

I recently attended an interesting and inspiring workshop with acclaimed pianist and teacher Christine Croshaw.

Using the metaphor of The Hero’s Journeya pattern of narrative identified by the American scholar Joseph Campbell that appears in drama, storytelling, myth, religious ritual, and psychological development, Christine showed how this template can help us understand the challenges of the musician’s life.

In the workshop we first explored our initial “call”, the overwhelming desire to become a musician, and discussed how this dream and aspiration gives us energy and direction. Of course we may not achieve our dream in the form in which we originally imagined it, but pushing at boundaries forces us to develop and discover resources to help us, including guides and mentors, to overcome our demons and cross thresholds, and, on the way, learn to transform failure into a valuable resource.

Though we may face “demons” such as:-

  • injury
  • illness
  • dismotivation
  • negative feedback and criticism
  • lack of support from family and friends
  • mental & emotional issues
  • financial issues

– we should always be aware that there are people out there to help us. Sometimes these “mentors” are people already known to us – teachers, colleagues, friends, family – and sometimes they are “inner mentors” who resonate with us and who we have identified as offering us what we need for ourselves. These may include a fictional character or a great musician whom we admire. As we resonate with these mentors, we tune into their qualities and draw those qualities into ourselves so that we can utilise them.

We then engaged in an exercise (“Mentor and Resonance Pattern”) in pairs in which we named three mentors, arranged them metaphorically around us and identified the special qualities which we felt each mentor could offer us. We then offered these qualities from each mentor to our own selves. At first I found this exercise slightly daft, but the more I thought about and engaged in it, the more I found myself carefully considering what qualities I wanted to take from these mentors (one of whom is the pianist Maria Joao Pires, who I much admire not only for her exquisite playing but also her mentorship and support of young and emerging musicians).

Just as the Hero’s Journey is fraught with difficulties and dangers, so is the musician’s, and sometimes along the way we may get “stuck”. Often this is because our focus becomes too narrow and we forget to look at the bigger picture: perhaps we are obsessing about a small section of a piece of music we are working on rather than standing back to consider the piece as a whole, its landscape and choreography. As our music becomes more “embodied” within us, so we become more adaptable, able to react to anything that happens without losing a sense of the whole or the structure of the music, and more open to possibilities. A good example of this is the pianist who because he/she has done the right kind of preparation does not allow mistakes or a memory slip to throw him/her off course during a performance. In this state of “relaxed alertness”, we are more able to connect with self, music and audience.

A person’s errors are his doorways of discovery

James Joyce

Failure may come from external factors such as poor exam results or a bad concert or review. This can be tough, but any failure can be turned into a resource from which we can learn and move on. Trial and error, exploration and experimentation allows us to gain feedback and adjust our approach if necessary, before trying again and progressing.

The person who never made a mistake never tried anything new

Einstein

Much of Christine Croshaw’s approach is drawn from Neuro Linguistic Programming, a way of identifying how people are able to excel in various fields (business, sports, therapy, the arts and many others), and which, put simply, teaches one to “accentuate the positive” by understanding how we create and influence our own experience and behaviour. The techniques of NLP may seem obvious, but putting them into practice can be more tricky, especially if one is prone to negative thoughts, low self-esteem and lack of confidence. The practice of NLP sits well with mindfulness: taken together, the two practices can give us powerful tools to progress in our musical lives with flair and success.

Related articles

The Piano and Neuro-Linguistic Programming

Mindfulness and Piano Playing

Christine Croshaw’s website