Music as a coaching tool (2020)

Murray Palevsky

Music as a coaching tool

The spontaneous eruption of musical offerings in the shadow of the Covid-19 crisis is a phenomenon that we have all witnessed and are aware of. But what if anything, do these musical offerings invoke and what in general does music offer us?


In a recent article inThe New York Times, (03/05/2020) entitled: These Are the Bedside Concerts Comforting Virus Patients, Dr. Rachel Easterwood, a professionally trained musician-turned-physician, found a way to help her patients with Covid-19 through live and virtual classical music concerts. Hoping to offer a brief moment of comfort, distraction or beauty, a group of doctors and musicians decided to perform music for hospital patients. Although this not a particularly new idea, the high degree of effectiveness of musical performances in the context of helping and healing professions is frequently overlooked.


Prior to the Covid-19 crisis, One memorable musical experience that I recall was while taking a walk during the aperitif hour. In the gloaming and to my surprise, I heard a street singer singing the aria Mi Chiamamo Mimi from Pucinni’s La Boheme. I was dumbstruck by the sound of the soprano voice reverberating off the sidewalk and adjacent buildings of the narrow alleyway and the power of the undulating music. I felt transported and brought to a place where I was being spoken to directly and connected to the singer about how to introduce oneself simultaneously with humility and pride. Of course it may help if you are familiar with the music and know the words.


Church bells, the call of the muezzin, a solitary birdcall, even the sound of the wind can evoke powerful feelings that touch the human soul and evoke all kinds of emotions. Ferruccio Busoni, composer and virtuoso pianist (1866–1924), described in The Realm of Music (1910) that music is “sonorous air”. This seemingly reductionist description implies paradoxically, that more specificity attached to a definition of what music is, inevitably excludes some sounds or genres of music from a definition and mitigates music’s universality. Music, whatever its’ form or style, affects living creatures with amazing speed. In fact, it gives a new meaning to what the definition of The Speed of Sound can be.


So, what can we as coaches do to use music as a coaching tool? To start with, the use of music in helping professions should not be considered as the exclusive domain of medical doctors or for use in dire circumstance. Nor should it be a kind of high-minded intellectual exercise. Any form of music can be used as a vector for a deeper coaching conversation with almost anyone. The goal should never be to educate or inculcate the person into a particular genre of music appreciation. Equally important is that there is no hierarchy to using music as a coaching tool. Whether it is Bach, Brahms, The Beatles or Eminem, the purpose of using music in coaching is always the same. It is to act as a tool leading to deeper conversations that bring out the emotions, feelings and thoughts of an individual or a group.


The coach should try to use music that is referential or special to the coachee rather than to the coach. Always start with the question: Do you like music? If the answer is no, then that’s the end of it as far as using music as a tool is concerned. Forcing the use of music if a person is not inclined can actually alienate a person by feeling inadequate. On the other hand, if the answer is yes, then the follow up question is: What music do you like and why? The coachee’s answer will speedily lead to a conversation that creates a deeper connection between the coach and the coachee revealing important themes. He or she will name a piece and then you can listen together and discuss what feelings it draws out. This technique can also be used between coachees within a group coaching setting as a lead into a deeper group discussion and group revelations. By leaving the musical choices to the coachee or the coaching group it keeps the coaches initial biases and preferences for a particular style, form or piece of music from interfering with the conversation and short circuiting the discussion that would make it more about the coach instead of about the coachee or the group.


This should not a priori preclude the possibility of the coach suggesting a piece of music that has a theme which has already been initiated through a coaching conversation. The key is to be open and flexible in the use of music as a tool. That is what the music is in this context. It is only, albeit a very powerful, tool to initiate a conversation.


An easy example for how to use music as a coaching tool is Camille Saint Saens (1835-1921), Carnival of the Animals (1886). Like the use of a self-portrait drawing to start a conversation, this piece is a great way of providing playfulness, humour and creativity to a coaching conversation. The Carnival of the Animals comprises about a dozen musical pastiches that describe through music various animals. Introducing this music adds an important element over and above simply asking a group to associate with a particular animal, their personality and behaviours. By adding music, the coach can create a mood for reflection that brings people into the conversation by linking what the particular animal and the music does to them through the music. A typical question might be: Why are you like The Elephant (one of the pastiches) and what does Saint Saens’ musical description of an elephant bring out in you?


This exercise can be as short or as long as the coach wishes to make it and requires only that the group is prepared to go on a musical journey of self-discovery. The musical exercise adds an element of playfulness to a reflective journey that can deepen ones understanding of self and how you are perceived by others. How a person relates to music can be both insightful for themselves as well as for those who know or want to know them.


KDVI Research Lab, 2020

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