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Christie Headshot with books and flute

Carolyn Christie on her path from OSM musician to mental skills training specialist

by Carolyn Christie, MHK uOttawa 2016, Montreal Symphony Orchestra (retired) | email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

From musician to Mental Skills Consultant

I started in the orchestra business at the age of 18, first with the (long-defunct) Canada Symphony Orchestra, later with the Edmonton Symphony. At age 23, I won the position of 2nd flute in the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (OSM), where I played until my retirement at the tender age of 60.

Though my flute skills were solid, I had very few of the mental skills to manage the job in a healthy way. I did not know how to handle the massive amount of repertoire, the stress of the concert schedule, or work/life balance. I did not have a method for handling distractions in concert so I could play my best under pressure. This led to serious burnout and stage fright problems.

At the time, no one spoke about these issues openly. Personally, I was worried that my conductors and colleagues would lose confidence in me if I showed weakness of any sort, so I told no one about my struggles. It took me several years to find strategies that helped ease my stress and allowed me to enjoy the job again, but I had to do this work alone, a hit-and-miss process.

Several years ago, I heard my niece Sommer Christie speak about her work as an Olympic-level Sports Psychologist. I was thrilled to realize the many correlations between performance excellence in sports and the arts. In the last 50 years, many athletes have worked with coaches for their sport in tandem with sports psychologists and Mental Performance Consultants (MPCs). Physical skill training is complemented and enhanced by mental skills training, allowing athletes to become mentally equipped to perform optimally.

After I retired from the OSM, I returned to university to study for a masters degree to become a trained MPC. My goal was to normalize mental skills training in the performing arts and to provide the kinds of instruction I could have benefited from, as a student and later on as a pro.

In my private practice, I work with professional musicians, students, and the occasional amateur. Musicians come to me with diverse concerns, such as dealing with stress, finding motivation, building confidence, managing harmful inner dialogue, focusing under extreme pressure, and career planning. Here are examples of some mental skills that can be taught, practiced, and learned:

1. Identify what you can and cannot change

Mental skills training often begins with assisting the client to learn how to identify things they can and cannot change, and teaching them skills that can help them manage their reactions to situations in real time. This could involve learning refocusing techniques while in concert, evaluation after a less-than-optimal audition, or planning after an unexpected career roadblock.

2. Managing your inner dialogue

Healthy self-evaluation is a skill that must be learned and is essential for orchestral musicians. How often do we say demeaning things to ourselves that we would never say to a student? In my case, it was frequent. By learning a clinical self-evaluation process and reshaping our internal dialogue, errors may be corrected without damaging self-esteem or sapping motivation and confidence. 

3. Check in with your motivation 

It can be difficult to stay motivated as a musician, both in the thick of the job and while on hiatus. By teaching clients to recognize where they are on the motivational scale, they can better find tangible ways to improve motivation and focus their practice.

4. Take inventory of your stressors

Musicians know many skills that are transferable. We often use “chunking” techniques when practicing; separating repertoire into smaller parts to work on bit by bit. This technique is also very helpful when dealing with stress. By making detailed lists of our stressors and looking at each element one by one, issues can be tackled individually, often reducing overall stress.

5. Prepare for concert stress while in the practice room

When preparing for a concert or audition, it can be very challenging to reach the same stress level as the live performance itself, but there are effective ways to do it. MPCs work with individuals to experience performance stress under controlled conditions, so the stress of performance feels more manageable. 

So much is said about the Flow state in performance, but we don’t always get there and that’s fine. Striving to perform at our very best even when we are not so comfortable is the key. By amping up the stress before the “Big Day”, a musician can practice refocusing techniques that can be employed in the concert itself. These techniques must be practiced and internalized in a similar way to the process we used when we learned our scales, so the mental skills are more likely to be strong even under stress.

6. Set mental goals for performance

For effective concert goals, I encourage musicians to describe how they are playing when they are at their best. What matters most — sound, rhythm, harmony, phrasing, just having fun? It is so individual. For example, of course our goal for auditions is to win, but by thinking about winning while performing, our heads are not in the music. We should be concentrating on our intrinsic goals to guide us while performing. This sounds like a no-brainer, but it takes practice to truly learn and automatically employ a method to get back into the music when distracted.

7. Know when (and where) to seek help

The biggest thing I have learned in my work is that no two musicians are the same. A technique may work for one musician that does not work at all for another. Working one-on-one with an MPC or sports psychologist is the most expedient way to match the skills needed with each individual musician.

8.  Facing major career choices

I have had many different types of artists work with me on career planning. No one knows better than an orchestral musician that life doesn’t always give us the job for life that we want. MPCs work with clients in many different life situations to help them pivot in ways that serve their dreams.

I am delighted that more people are going into mental performance consultation work in the arts. If you are interested in working with an MPC, look at the Canadian Sports Psychology Association (CSPA) website for lists of certified consultants. MHK candidates at the University of Ottawa participate in supervised internships at the end of their studies each spring and offer free consultations. I would be happy to connect you with their supervisor if this interests you.

Pianist and PhD candidate Naoko Sakata, occupational therapy professor Dr. Christine Guptill, Schulich School of Music psychologist Liliana Araujo, and I are in the process of creating a new network specific to the performing arts, Mental Performance in the Arts Canada (MPAC). Please see page 5 for suggested readings and more information about how to connect with us. 

While mental skills training does not come with a guarantee of success, it has helped many musicians perform more up to their level of excellence and rediscover enjoyment in their careers. I encourage you to look into mental skills training for yourselves, as performers and as teachers. How I wish this training had been available to me when I began my career all those years ago.

Carolyn Christie | This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

(Note the ‘r’ after carolyn!)


Suggested readings on mental health and performance:

  • In Pursuit of Excellence, 5th edition, by Terry Orlick
  • Achieving Peak Performance in Music by Sarah Sinnamon
  • Musical Excellence: Strategies and Techniques to Enhance Performance by Aaron Williamson
  • Bulletproof Musician : website of Juilliard performance psychologist Noa Kageyama


Mental Performance in the Arts Canada (MPAC) is a network of performing artists, practitioners, researchers, and students based in Canada who are devoted to mental performance and mental well-being in the arts. Created in 2023, MPAC is committed to furthering mental readiness for optimal performance and well-being through facilitating knowledge sharing across disciplines and between professions. The network offers professional development opportunities and evidence-based resources in support of its mission. (Website:

Naoko Sakata (PhD Candidate, University of Ottawa, School of Rehabilitation Sciences; MMus. ’21, Piano Performance, McGill University)  |  Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.