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The Intersection of Music and Psychology: An Interview with Lisa Chisolm of Master Performing

Canadian Bassoonist and Coach

Canadian Bassoonist and Coach

As I manage a busy summer season in upstate Western NY with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, I wanted to take a little time to share what some other amazing people are doing in the fields of music, medicine, movement, the brain, and more.  This week, I have an interview with Canadian Bassoonist and performance coach Lisa Chisholm of Master Performing, who began her career exclusively as an orchestral bassoonist, and has since branched out, while still retaining a performance career.  

KM: Tell us a little about your varied career these days -how did you get where you are today, in terms of your multiple degrees in music performance, as well as psychology and counseling.

LC: I studied music at McGill and at Juilliard, and have enjoyed 20 (egads!) years of a variety of freelancing and full time orchestral positions. Today, I am equal parts performer and coach. As an aside, I find this very helpful - it's important to be able to relate to clients on the level of having experienced elite preparation and performance, and I do often hear that feedback from clients. There is so much about sports psychology that translates nicely and directly into the performing arts, but so much that does -not- translate quite so directly. Filtering it all through the lens of a seasoned artist has proven to be, in my opinion, a wonderful combination.

The question of how I came to develop a parallel career with the Master Performing curriculum is a great one! Originally, I went in search of consumer-grade sport/performance material in order to bring more Olympic-level consistency to my own auditions. However, in my search, I found that there was a great lack of relevant and/or high quality consumer-grade material available, so I decided to go right to the root of the material, academically - so, I went to school when nobody was looking! I pretty quickly realized that there was a vital piece of curriculum that I wished I had had in my own training, and that I wanted to bring to other performing artists. That is why/how I developed my Master Performing program.

It's important to note, I am still as active as ever as a performer, by the way. Sometimes people assume that I have left playing in order to coach - quite untrue! One aspect of my coaching that I feel is vital is the fact that I am still very much on the stage, and am constantly filtering sport/performance psychology through the lens of a performing artist. I'll never stop playing; it is so much a part of who I am - and I also think it adds a vital dimension to my coaching.

KM: I can totally relate to that with my own dual career life.  What is the intersection between psychology and music, and how has learning more about the brain/mind/body connection changed your life and music making? 

LC: Wow, that question could take an all-afternoon chat -- and it would be a great one!!!! I think what I love the most is the idea that "psychology" is "the study of the brain/mind".... Often in a colloquial sense, people think of psychology strictly in the therapy/counselling sense, and often associate it all with stereotypical "problems", anxiety, depression, "seeing a shrink", etc. All these things are of course part of the field; but not to be overlooked is the part of psychology that is about how our mind learns, processes, recalls, executes... all these things that help us as performers! How to better acquire (learn) our material - memorize better, execute a passage more smoothly..How to be more efficient at practicing. How to handle distracting thoughts or occurrences during a performance; focus and distraction control. How our minds process the worlds around us and how we behave/perform. All these tools of excellence in preparation and consistency in performance - that is all psychology!  It is tremendously exciting to catalogue all this great stuff together into batches of information that is relevant to a high-level performer.

On this note, the Master Performing curriculum is a mix of sport and performance psychology, social psychology, the psychology of learning and memory, delivered through a coaching approach rooted in the approaches of positive, narrative, cognitive, behavioural, and solution-focused schools of thought. 

What I love most on a personal level is how EASY it has made things for me. As all performers know, a wonderful side effect of teaching and coaching others is that is brings clarity to that area in your own skill set. So it's a cute little triangle, that I originally sought out this information for my own betterment, instantly realized I wanted to collate it all together and bring it to other artists, and in the process of delivering it to other artists, presto-change-o, there is a degree of ease in my own preparation and performance that I am very happy about. Talk about win-win! :-)

KM: In terms of your client base, who do you primarily work with right now?

LC: In the performing arts, I work with approximately 50%-50% actors - musicians, and some dancers. (But presently mainly actors and musicians.) 

KM: What can working with you do for musicians, and how might they get started?  

LC: Working with me will make you smarter! Better-looking! You'll get more dates!!!! (*KIDDING!!!*)  Seriously though... Working with me, my goal is to educate performers on the mechanisms and concepts at play when we are getting in our own way, and to equip artists with a variety of tools which they can apply at the right moment. I feel very strongly that You Are The World Expert on You, and the best approach in terms of lasting improvement is a psycho-educational approach, where you learn the mechanisms at play in your own world, and can learn how to create a more efficient and effective performance approach for yourself. 

I am fairly no-nonsense and practical/tactical. I teach as much factual, evidence-based material as I can find. I avoid pseudo-science and soup-du-jour tactics, and I encourage critical thinking. I always want an artist to understand -why- they might employ a certain strategy for themselves, because what may work beautifully for you this week, might not work so well for you next week. I want you to have knowledge and tools to reach for in order to develop your own best approach for consistency. We are ever-changing and unpredictable in our vulnerabilities, and there will never be a one-size-fits-all answer. I am very wary of any approach which says, "Here are your X-number of steps and here is just what you should say/do pre-performance."

My workshop curriculum is loooooong. Presently 19 hours long. This is the best way to get all the foundational information and concepts. After that, 1-1 coaching is the best way to tailor those to the individual - we come up with strategies together that the artists will use for themselves.

KM: What are some of your upcoming projects or events?  

LC: Funny you should ask, particularly on the heels of that last question. :-)  Actually, very soon, in Boston I am hosting a 5-day intensive workshop from 7-11 August. It will cover the full Master Performing curriculum as well as some drills and "road-testing" of the skills. Here is the link to that:

KM: Any last words/things you'd like to add?

LC: Kayleigh, you have asked some great questions! Thank you so much for having me as a guest. If I would add anything, it would be how delighted I am to be a part of this field, in a time where the performing arts field is really beginning to recognize that what we ask of our minds and bodies in performance is truly Olympic - and yet typically we have only had training on our artistic craft, and not the auxiliary areas necessary for prime performance. I am so thrilled to hear of schools which are beginning to incorporate this material into their curriculum, and practitioners who are bringing complementary physical and mental pieces of the puzzle to the artistic field. Outside of this interview, we spoke about Body Mapping - that is one great example! I would describe Body Mapping as "functional anatomy awareness for performing artists". Did anyone teach me about me rotator cuff and my ulna and radius when I was in school? No. Did I use my rotator cuff and ulna and radius 10 hours a day while practicing, reed-making, carrying my instrument, etc? Yes! When I think of it, how can we NOT be teaching this in conservatories?!? We're asking Olympic level duties of our bodies, and yet how many of us know how our arms and hands are put together?  Same goes for the mental preparation. So, I am so pleased to be here at a time that I would consider "the forefront". I hope that in 10-15 years, this material will be commonplace in artistic training institutions, and that we will all look back and marvel at this stage.

KM: Thanks so much, Lisa!

For more about Lisa and Master Performing, visit

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