Behind the Curtain: Cailin Howarth

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)

I had the chance to speak to Cailin Howarth, who established her own performance coaching studio The Performer’s Edge in 2019. Cailin has a Bachelor of Music in classical singing under her belt, along with Graduate and Post Graduate Diplomas in Psychology. This background gives her an insight into the unique challenges faced by developing performers. Cailin offers a free ninety minute coaching session to anyone curious as to what coaching sessions with her might be like.

Further information can be found on her website here, Instagram page here, or on her Facebook page here. In response to COVID-19 isolation measures, Cailin will be releasing a number of talks through Instagram and Facebook live feeds on a variety of topics from Friday 27th March. Cailin recently accepted a place in a Masters of Science (Performance Science) at the Royal College of Music in London, to deepen her knowledge in this field.

What prompted you to establish The Performer’s Edge?

During my music degree, I didn’t fit the classic mold of what a quintessential classical singer was supposed to do. I always had a range of other interests. And I got the impression that because I had other interests, I was less of a singer, or something like that… Because of that I started doubting whether it was the right path for me. I know a lot of people have gone through a similar experience. Some of the people I work with say things like ‘Oh, but I have other interests, I like comedy, or finance…’

It’s taught in musical institutions is that there’s only one ‘proper’ way to do things. Perhaps it needs to be that way if you want to be right at the top tier, I don’t know… But I knew it wasn’t quite the right path for me.

I’m quite a practical person, and I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t pigeon-holing myself into an area that realistically, you probably have very little chance of getting far in, unless you absolutely dedicate your life to it.

The main reason I started the business is when I was in university, there was almost nothing taught about the psychological side of performance and how to deal with the pressures that are apparent when you pursue a career in this area. No one is really prepared for those issues. It’s fantastic that I got so many singing lessons, and masterclasses, and got to learn all about singing singing. But so much about being a performer is the idea of, can you deal with the life which comes along with it, which is not like a ‘normal’ life.

You have to learn your resilience skills in the real world, but you absolutely should have some training in that beforehand.

Exactly. I know a lot of sports psychologists, and if you look at the industry of sports, some AFL teams have three sports psychologists who work exclusively with the players! I’ve been living in London up until recently, and all of the big soccer teams over there have so many people working for them, just focusing on the psychological side of things. And somehow it’s not in any way a focus for the performing arts industry! It’s really strange.

I want to shake up the university system, and make what I am working on with my individual clients, something that is taught in the very early stages of performance careers, so performers can go on to have prosperous and successful careers. So many people burn out. They don’t pursue it to the extent that they want, and that means the world doesn’t get to see what they have to offer.

People working in the arts industry tend to have a higher rate of mental health issues than the average population. Which makes the fact there aren’t many targeted resources available is kind of baffling to me.

One of the first specialists I encountered in this field was Dr. Don Greene. He presented a one-off workshop at the Melbourne Conservatorium back when I was a student there. Later I took part in the Lisa Gasteen Opera School in Brisbane in 2013, and they had Dr. Phil Jouncey come in, another expert in performance psychology. He had worked predominantly in the sports industry. He did a workshop with us on personality types and how your personality might affect your performance. I found that really interesting. It was from there that my initial interest in the area turned into, this is something I could actually see myself doing.

At the Royal College of Music in London, they have two core subjects for the undergraduate students that are wholly devoted to performance psychology. That’s probably as good as it gets anywhere in the world. And even though that’s fantastic, that’s still only two subjects out of their entire degree.

I know the Masters in Orchestral Performance at Melbourne Conservatorium of Music has a performance psychology class called Peak Performance Under Pressure. I believe it was devised by Dr. Margaret Osborne. I’ve heard from friends of mine who have taken that subject, that it has really transformed their approach to their instrument.

Yes, Dr. Margaret Osborne is a major figure world-wide in the field of performance psychology. My hope for the future is that performance psychology is not seen as an additional nice extra, but rather as an integral part of forging a successful career in the arts. The people who I’ve been working with have said it’s made a big difference in their approach.

So what experiences did you gain over the years that led you to the field of performance psychology?

Starting the business was something I had wanted to do for a long time. A few years after I graduated from my music and arts degree, I went back to uni and studied psychology. I did that with the long-term goal of working in performance psychology. So I finished in 2015.

Over the past few years I have been working more so in business psychology- doing similar things to what I do now, but with a different audience. It turned out that way because I wanted to go overseas and work in London, and I was getting to the age where I wasn’t going to be able to do that anymore. So I decided I would investigate the performance psychology on the side, while spending most of my time doing something that was more profitable in the short term. But then it got to the point where I realised that performance psychology was really what I wanted to do.

So I ended up going to see a career coach of my own! He’s a serial entrepreneur and helps people get their businesses off the ground. And that was really, really helpful. I don’t know how I would have gone about doing it if it wasn’t for that support, because there was so much stuff I just didn’t know what to do!

Over the past few months, my business has gone from being a pipe dream, to something that I am earning an income from. And I am really enjoying it, and feeling like I’m making a positive contribution to this community that I’m so passionate about.

Over your first six months of being a coach, what have been some rewarding moments in helping your clients?

A lot of people come to me with similar challenges that they are experiencing in their performances, which are can be apparent in their general life as well.

I think the most rewarding thing, is hearing that people feel as though they can pursue the things they thought they weren’t good enough to do before. As performers we’re put under so much pressure to be perfect. It’s an impossible goal.

I want to help people to be kind to themselves. People often see themselves very differently to how other people see them. We tend to be our own harshest critics by far! What I’ve found rewarding is helping people see that they’re actually doing a lot better than they thought they were. And when they see that, they gain the bravery to try things they perhaps haven’t done before.

Do you feel that artists in the classically trained realm are particularly susceptible to these issues?

Up until this point, I have mainly worked with classically trained musicians or actors, purely because that’s the community I come from. Eventually I want to be working with a whole range of creatives: drag queens, writers…

But in answer to your question, yes, I do think this particular area has its own stresses. There is such a focus on perfection, and not necessarily as much creativity afforded to people. There’s such an emphasis on the idea of, it’s always been done this way, this is the right way…

Whereas with other kinds of music-making, there’s more of an openness and ability to explore. I wouldn’t say classical music is any more stressful than any other performing area, but there are very specific challenges that are apparent in only the more classical world. As long as you play well, that’s the only thing.

It’s okay to talk about the challenges you are having. The conversations I have with clients really vary. Some people have specific problems with concentration, others with their levels of performance anxiety. Others have had some more personal things which are impacting their ability to perform. There’s no specific right or wrong as to how coaching is meant to go. As I see it, my work is to help people work out what they want to achieve and create a plan with them, and support them in order to help them get wherever they want to be.

That goal might be, they want to perform and not feeling like throwing up from anxiousness beforehand, or perhaps they want to simply enjoying performing more. Some people have specific concerns, but other people come to me and say, I don’t really know what the problem is, I’m just looking for someone to help me figure out what it is I need to do to fulfill my potential.

A lot of people I’ve spoken to feel quite similarly to how I felt. They say things like, I feel like I don’t really feel like I fit in here, so should I stop? Having a place where people can speak openly is so important. And being able to assure people that despite what they might be told at uni, there is no right or wrong way to pursue a career in this area.

As the world changes, so too will the way people interact with arts and culture. The old school way of going to see an opera at the opera house is not as much a part of the culture as it used to be.

Cailin also writes a blog which can be accessed on her website. I found her post on the concept of cognitive interference theory particularly interesting. I have included a snippet of this post below:

Throughout university, no one ever really spoke about what to do about performance anxiety. I knew everyone was suffering from it, but the extent of the advice I ever got was, “Take a few deep breaths; you’ll be fine.” I wasn’t fine.

I would go into a state of panic, and that panic would only subside about three-quarters of the way through a performance, by which point I hadn’t sung anywhere near my best. I would leave the stage feeling like I’d let myself down.

Cognitive interference theory proposes that cognitive anxiety, in the form of worry, is resource intensive; in other words, it’s mentally exhausting.”

Cailin goes on to describe how a session with a performance coach identified the fact she was a natural ‘over-thinker’. If she followed the conventional wisdom of sitting by herself without any distractions before an audition, she would only increase her own performance anxiety. After experimenting with other methods such as completing a distracting puzzle or talking to a friend on the phone before her audition, she experienced far more positive results.

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