Dr Margaret Osborne Interview

I believe you identify yourself professionally as a "performance psychologist", among other things. What is performance psychology?

Performance psychology seeks to help people develop and execute the mental and emotional knowledge, skills and abilities required for achieving their full potential in performance domains. In the past this has typically focused on sport and exercise, and now the field of performing arts is getting growing recognition. We work to identify and prevent the cognitive, emotional, behavioural, and psychophysiological inhibitors of consistent, excellent performance. Essentially, as a performance psychologist, my goal is to help people consistently perform in the upper range of their capabilities, and actually enjoy themselves in the process!

You have a strong and lasting connection to the musical world and you also work at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music (MCM). How have you employed your skills as a registered psychologist and researcher in this field?

Learning and performing a musical instrument to a highly skilled level is one of the most cognitively and physically demanding activities we can undertake as human beings – a concert pianist, for example, may bimanually coordinate the production of up to 1,800 notes per minute. Music making also promotes mental health and well-being, yet the significant distress experienced when performing music causes many people to avoid it. An inability to effectively cope with stress and anxiety can have a serious negative impact on adult, adolescent and child musicians alike. This leads to poor occupational and educational outcomes and unhealthy coping strategies such as an over-reliance on illicit and licit drugs, which can compromise or prematurely end promising musical careers. I have always found this paradox between the joy and pain of music performance perplexing and deeply concerning, and that drives me to identify strategies to help people experience pleasure, and be well, when making music.

My research journey started when I was in the first BPsych (Hons) cohort at Macquarie University Sydney, with Prof Ron Rapee, a leading researcher and clinician in social phobia. At the same time I was looking for a research project, I’d re-commenced classical singing training (the first time was in high school, where I choked in my final year 12 music performance exam). I noticed that my anxiety was exacerbated in social settings – when I was practicing alone, I was OK, but in front of a group, however small or large, anxiety was much greater. This was my paradox – I wanted to learn and perform to experience and share the beauty of music, but the social act of doing this made it so emotionally aversive I wanted to avoid it altogether.

At that time only a handful of articles had investigated this phenomena. So I set about investigating the diagnostic and theoretical adequacy of conceptualising music performance anxiety as a social phobia. This flowed into a PhD investigating the assessment and treatment of music performance anxiety in adolescents, a virtually untouched area when I began and now thankfully gaining more awareness given adolescence is often the time when people start to invest heavily in developing musical expertise.  A few years later I won an Australian Research Council postdoctoral research fellowship offered by Prof Gary McPherson, Director of the MCM, and we are now researching how to optimise musical expertise using theoretically driven strategies for optimal learning to enhance practice (and therefore performance) efficacy.

What are some of the difficulties that performing musicians face, and what kinds of interventions have you developed to overcome them?

The difficulties can be simultaneously simple, and complex. In simple terms, musicians tend to become unstuck when trying to control what seems to be uncontrollable – the spike in adrenocortical arousal prior to a performance that precipitates shaking, rapid heart rate and dry mouth. These responses throw them off guard, making it potentially more likely for them to make a mistake. This may trigger a downward spiral of negative self-talk around their potential lack of competence, the likelihood of them making a mistake which results in a performance catastrophe, and the consequences of negative evaluation for themselves, their education, their career. Generally, I work on energy regulation, which includes psycho-education to drive acceptance towards the inevitability of increased physiological arousal, and reframing (reappraising) that arousal as a benefit, not a hindrance, to optimal performance. This empowers affirmative action and behaviour change through acclimatisation training, which also works to address the classic errors in negative self-talk. So we’re essentially talking about cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) principles drawn largely from sports psychology, and most research and treatment work in music performance anxiety has used these techniques.

Sometimes I encounter experienced musicians who have had ample opportunity to habituate to high-pressure performance demands but still come undone with excruciating, debilitating performance anxiety. If they have undertaken psychotherapy, they may have achieved only short-term relief from CBT work. They may benefit from therapeutic techniques that investigate the impact of early life experiences, and that’s why my current research is investigating the potential impact of early maladaptive schemas to exacerbate music performance anxiety, and the role that psychological flexibility (a.k.a. emotional agility) may play to circumvent negative effects.

You have played a key role in developing innovative curriculum in our fourth year honours program? In general terms, can you briefly describe what you have done and how you believe it enhances the training of future psychologists?

I was given a fairly blank canvas (within APAC guidelines) to flesh out a brand new curriculum to give fourth year students an opportunity to apply codes of ethics and professional practice values to dilemmas encountered in psychological practice. My brief was also to provide a taste of pre-professional applied skills in administering and interpreting some of the most commonly used tests of cognition and personality, as well as in implementing a program of behaviour change. What a rare and exciting opportunity! I looked to my own clinical practice to guide this. What were the core counselling skills that I used in every session (and in fact, outside of the clinical space to negotiate behaviour change in a myriad of circumstances in daily life e.g., colleagues, young children practicing their musical instruments, the number of steps I take each day…)? What were the common emotional issues that were experienced in the population?

Two cohorts have been through the curriculum now and it’s been met with an overwhelmingly positive response. Students have relished the opportunity to practice basic counselling and assessment skills, investigate clinical cases, and use themselves as their own behaviour modification assignment. The feedback I have received attests to the enhanced training and development. Students have indicated that the teaching led them to consider clinical training for the first time, helped them develop important life skills. What I have witnessed in the students' dedication, their meaningful, personal goals, and their willingness to be open about the challenges faced in achieving behaviour change gives me hope that the profession is in safe hands moving into the future.