In the Zone: On the Field, and the Concert Platform

In the Zone: On the Field, and the Concert Platform


Artist Development Manager

“Mind over matter; winning isn’t everything, but wanting to is; practice makes perfect” (Or is it perfect practice makes perfect?) 

Sentiments that inspire us to persevere, thrown around in everyday life, are part and parcel of being a Classical musician. Preparing for and performing in high-pressure environments – be it in concert, or auditions for employment – is constant, and requires discipline, motivation and sheer mental and physical stamina to sustain throughout a long-term career. Add to this, the potential performance anxiety and coping with inevitable setbacks and that’s one potent mix. 

Here at Southbank Sinfonia, we’re committed to preparing our emerging musicians to meet the changing demands of the orchestral profession, and to developing the breadth of skills required to thrive: the artistry, the professionalism and most importantly the resilience. 

What better way to prepare our musicians than to learn from those performing in similarly high-pressure environments?

Enter: elite athletes (trumpet fanfare included)

Over the past year, we’ve been exploring the parallels between elite athletes and musicians with performance coach and Double Commonwealth Gold Medallist Fencer, Claire Bennett. Discovering the relatively untapped potential of sport psychology for musicians in a series of workshops and 1-2-1 mentoring sessions, Claire said: 

“The overlap is fascinating. On the one hand, you might have someone in a concert hall, or you’ve got an athlete on a pitch, someone holding a violin, or a rugby ball. The fundamental thing that brings us together is the fact that we’re striving for that perfect performance.”

When Claire and I first met about a year ago, we knew we were on to something worth exploring. Eyes wide with fascination, we were immediately struck by the fundamental parallels that extend far beyond just the pitch and the concert hall. 

Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset

Claire told me elite level athletes continually employ a range of ‘key mindsets’ and attitudes as an intrinsic part of their everyday training and practice before they even step out to compete. She shared some of these key mindsets, imparting her wisdom in applying these to her daily practise and performance throughout her fencing career: growth mindset, continuous improvement, positive self-talk, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and reframing failure. 

Our fast-paced workshops involved Claire’s personal athlete story, open discussions on motivation and failure, and lively physical challenges to enhance the learning and application of these key mindsets.  

Challenge #1 - objective: get your team of 12 through one hula hoop in as fast a time as possible, while putting into practice the concept of growth mindset and continuous self-improvement. 

Challenge #2 - objective: get an entire orchestra of 33 to jump a super-sized skipping rope at the same time, highlighting the importance of failure and building a resilient approach.

Southbank Sinfonia's musicians working on the first challenge 

The outcome of these workshops? Our musicians began redefining their approach to practice, finding ways to embed these mindsets, which drive world-class performance, into daily routines. They committed to a reflective practice approach, inserting reflective exercises between any given practice and preparation session. This change understandably doesn’t happen overnight, rather something to be worked at throughout an entire career – but the small steps lead to significant progress. 

The long-term goal? To sustain their discipline and drive, reframe setbacks as opportunities to grow, and to have the confidence to take risks out on the concert platform. 

During this lockdown period, we’re grateful to be able to continue our work with Claire through online Zoom sessions. Providing a virtual platform for our musicians to continue to connect, seek guidance and support, and motivate each other during this challenging and uncertain time. We set ourselves a wellbeing goal after each session, and check-in on one another in the days that follow.

Peak Performance Training Zoom Session with Claire Bennett

We’re just a year into developing our work with Claire, and we’re excited to dig deeper into the potential of elite athletes and musicians working together. Claire and I were lucky enough to present our preliminary work at the 2020 Association of British Orchestras Conference with two of our alumni musicians, putting forwards our vision of athletes and orchestras working in partnership. The positive response was enlivening, and the unexpected pairing of the music and sport worlds also caught the attention of The Evening Standard and BBC London. 

When I first met Claire to explore the possibilities of working together, one of her colleagues wrapped up our initial meeting with a quote:

But I interrupted halfway through to cheekily ask: “Are you finishing this meeting with an inspirational quote?"

To which they continued: “It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe” – Muhammad Ali.

Read more about Claire Bennett's work on her LinkedIn page
Find out more about Marcus and our Artist Development Programme

Written April 2020