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In conversation with Deborah Hart

I first witnessed Deb's work at a workshop she held on performance anxiety at the Australian Flute Festival last July and was firstly so moved by her presence and strength as a speaker, and secondly the content: the rigour of research behind her presentation which brought together aspects of her history as a professional orchestral musician, ACT practitioner (Acceptance and commitment therapy) and counsellor. I've personally been so excited about this blog, and grateful for her expertise, which she has been so generously sharing with me in past months as we collaborate on an upcoming workshop that we are co-teaching in partnership with the Flute Society of NSW & the Sydney Alexander Technique School. Read on to hear more about her extraordinary journey as a musician, music teacher, and ACT practitioner:

Describe your work

My first work was as an Avon Lady, walking around the streets of Birrong in south western Sydney, where I grew up. I was about 15 and I had loaned a few hundred dollars to buy my first horn from my parents and I needed to sell Avon to pay it back. I remember walking to the Boosey & Hawkes shop in Artarmon in the late 70s to pick up my first instrument on a hot sunny day.

My work now is a long way from selling overpriced perfume and talcum powder, but it still largely revolves around music. I have a few horn students at home, I do a bit of orchestral work (with SSO and WASO in 2019), I run performance workshops for my own business and organisations such as The University of Melbourne & Association of Music Educators, and I have private counselling clients at The ACT of Livingand at home.

But my ‘work’, my life, is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT (pronounced as the word ‘act’). I live my life constantly thinking about how to implement this work, how to help myself, musicians and the general public through these processes.

How did you come to discover this work, and how has it benefitted you personally?

I always wanted to ‘do music’ and I remember that I begged my parents for piano lessons. I don’t know how I even knew about ‘piano lessons’ because nobody I knew played the piano. When I was ten years old the local brass band was looking for new members and all of a sudden I found my tribe in the band. Free lessons, free instruments, free group instruction, a red coat with silver buttons, a regular group of friendly, kind people and time out of the house. I spent my life either going to twice weekly band practice, helping with the training band, Christmas Carols on the back of a truck with chairs tied to the tray or shaking a collection box, solo competitions, ANZAC and Remembrance Day marches and services.

Music gave meaning to my life. I had the most wonderful connected high school music teacher, Debbie Dietz and became involved in music camps, what is now call the NSW education music unit. Days and days spent in the Opera House, country tours, more band practice, more nice people.

Music was meaning, but performing became more and more terrifying the better I became on my instrument. I was told I was good enough to be professional, so there was now that extra pressure. My experience was that I couldn’t perform at the level that I was capable of. I would completely fall apart when it most counted.

Fast forward through perhaps hundreds of thousands of hours of practice and working, and gradual professional success, culminated in finally winning an audition for a professional orchestra. I survived the stress of being ‘on trial’, but then the reality of playing music for a living became an ever spiralling loop of anxiety, perfectionism, competition, over practicing and stress.

In 2010 I had enough and went to see a psychologist to ‘work out what was wrong with me’. One of the first things she said to me was ‘You know you don’t control your thoughts, don’t you?’ and for me it was a lightbulb explosion moment. I suddenly realised that I am not a bad person! It wasn’t my fault that my brain couldn’t stop thinking these negative thoughts about myself or my playing.

The other part of that moment, was I thought that this ACT stuff would be really helpful to musicians who struggle like I do. We have nothing like this to help us explain how our brain works and how to help us perform.

The psychologist helped me to let go of my job in the orchestra that was making me so miserable, and I even stopped playing completely for three years. But through that whole time I started reading about ACT and thinking how I could help other musicians by teaching them these skills. I ran my first workshops for free for the Queensland Conservatorium and WAAPA in 2017 and I am pleased to say I have run a number of workshops for Masters and undergraduates at The University of Melbourne in 2019. Paid!

What would a lesson with you look like, or involve?

It depends what you would like to do. We can do confidential ‘therapy’ together and we can talk about really personal troubling experiences, or I can teach you some mindfulness skills and talk about how you would really love to have music serve your life. You can play and we can video and watch back and talk about how your mind made trouble for you and got in the way of you doing what you deeply care about.

What are some of your experiences working with musicians or other performing artists?

I must say I have the whole spectrum in the last few years. My very first client went from being out of work and frustrated to a principal in an Australian orchestra. I also have clients that come once and I never hear from them again. I have given workshops to extremely high achieving young musicians who just stare at me blankly and don’t engage at all. I have given a workshop where the performer completely broke down and walked out of the room in tears (and then soon walked back in and kept on going).

But of course the most treasured and meaningful experience is actually quite a common occurrence. I can take a musician through the ACT experience and you can see in their eyes that the same lightbulb lights up. They ‘get it’. They report that they are playing like they have never played in front of others before, that they feel the love and joy coming out of their instrument and I have felt the difference watching them as I watch.

From your experience with teaching musicians, what are some common areas of concern that you get asked about?

Many people come asking for ‘tips and tricks’ – how to stop being anxious while they perform. I do try to reframe my work so those clients feel like they are getting what they came for, but I am noticing those clients are often wanting a quick fix and aren’t really willing to consider a fundamentally different way of doing things.

There are another group who are surviving professionally, but are struggling to cope with the pressure of high expectation of the our classical music culture. There are also the people who can’t seem to win auditions or even get professional work because of how anxious they are. I have also had clients who aren’t sure they even want to be musicians anymore and we work through what it would be like to leave it behind and move onto something else. What motivates you to be in this line of work?

I strongly believe that ACT processes, and the world of contextual behavioural science from which it evolved, can change the world. It has changed my world and I want to help others with these teachable, but counter-cultural attitudes and ways of being. There is a growing body of research to show how effective these tools are. I know how deeply so many people, including musicians suffer and I strongly believe that ACT can help. It is also so nurturing to be in the ACT tribe and I have met the most kind, supportive and generous people. I want to do whatever I can to contribute in some small way and give back to the community that has already given me so much. ACT and being an ACT therapist and coach is new and evolving and I get to learn new skills and techniques all the time.

What would be your top three pieces of advice for musicians, especially young musicians, in relation to creating sustainable music practice?

  1. Focus on enjoyment, learning and mastery.Your mind and our culture will often focus on achievement, perfection, comparison, but we now know from a massive about of research now that using those things to motivate yourself increases anxiety and lowers your performance quality and your general wellbeing.

  2. Focus on how your performing can enhance the lives of others. When we focus on ourselves and our inner experiences (including our thoughts, judgements and our physical sensations) it tends to amplify our discomfort and anxiety. When we can focus on sharing our love of music with others the difficulties tend to move to the background and not be so problematic.

  3. Be kind to yourself when things don’t go to plan. A really helpful and kind thing that I say to myself is ‘Deborah, you are doing the best you can with what you’ve got’. And ‘what I’ve got’ is a tricky human mind that is constantly raising the bar, looking out for threat (of not being good enough and being kicked out of my ‘tribe’), a mind that needs connection to others. Kindness soothes the anxiety so it is quicker to recover and refocus on the music ahead.

Where can we find you, or take a class?

You can contact me via my website.

ACT founder Steve Hayes talking about his own anxiety and his new book.

Excellent podcast talking mostly about ACT stuff and me on a podcast.

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