The Transformative Power Of Mentoring And Coaching

It’s that time when we are (or we should be!) focussing on resting and recharging, but we can’t help ourselves – we also start thinking about our goals for the coming year. So many of us stagger over the line of the Christmas holidays feeling exhausted, yet after some time off, we tend to set even more ambitious goals for the next year. And the biggest trap we fall into?

We allow ourselves to think that this year will be different; we will achieve more; and because we are “experts” at what we do, that we can (or even should) do it all without help – because no one else can understand what we do as well as we do ourselves. In doing so, we neglect the importance of self care, and of nourishing our mental health and resilience – which in turn can make us both more successful – and even more importantly- happier. We also ignore the opportunity to acquire strategies and insights with have nothing to do with our subject matter expertise and everything to do with how to be more effective, and realise even more of our potential.

The expert coaches, mentors and other professionals who can help us achieve this don’t have to be subject matter experts in what YOU do, they just have to be experts in what THEY do – creating a safe space for us to explore our worries, concerns and fears, and providing constructive and supportive strategies to help with focus, courage, resilience and confidence.

One of the greatest examples I can think of involves the supremely talented composer and pianist, Rachmaninoff. Despite his talent, he was tortured by issues with confidence, creativity and writers block for much of his life. And yet his work WAS his life, as well as his main creative outlet: so when he was unable to give his best to it, he suffered dreadfully.

The worst time in his life was after the premiere of his Symphony Number One in 1897, which was an absolute disaster (not helped by under-rehearsal and an obviously drunk conductor).The critics were BRUTAL. One of the most famous music critics of the time, Cesar Cui, wrote :”It would have given acute delight to the inhabitants of hell”.

Unsurprisingly, Rachmaninoff fell into a deep depression and completely lost his mojo.This resulted in a case of writer’s block that lasted for years. Then, as can still be the case now, there was a focus on just trying to cope and “getting on with it”.

Then, one of Rachmaninoff’s family suggested he try seeing a therapist, Dr Nikolai Dahl. Although an amateur musician, Dr Dahl’s musical talent was in no way comparable to Rachmaninoff’s, and the type of treatment that he was offering was considered both avant-garde and experimental for its time (especially when so many of Rachmaninoff’s other “mentors” were telling him that the best solution was to just “keep working”).

And yet, Dr Dahl EXCELLED in his own areas of expertise (medicine, hypnotherapy and psychotherapy), and the results spoke for themselves. In January 1900, the two men started meeting daily, and by April of that year, Rachmaninoff was back to composing, and at a completely different level. His contemporary, Igor Stravinksy (of Firebird fame) wrote that “it was as though he (Rachmaninoff) went from composing in watercolours to vibrant oil paint”.

So what was Dr Dahl’s secret? There was no magic – he was a very accomplished and expert coach.

Rachmaninoff wrote that in his diary that every session involved a “a long conversation” with Dr Dahl as well as a session of hypnotherapy – with what we would now describe as positive messages/reinforcement to build his confidence.

There followed an incredible period of productivity, including some of Rachmaninoff’s most famous and beloved works, such as his Symphony Number Two, which he dedicated to Dr Dahl.

In the words of Dr Natalie Timoshin: “Rachmaninoff is universally regarded today as one of the outstanding musicians of the 20th century but likely would have been a barely remembered footnote in music history were it not for the effective intervention by Dr. Nikolai Dahl”.

PS in a wonderful footnote, Dr Dahl subsequently emigrated from Russia to Lebanon, where he played the Viola with the Orchestra of the American University of Beirut. Towards the end of his life, when Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto was performed, The audience were informed that the dedicatee of the concerto, Dr. Dahl, was a member of the viola section of the orchestra, and they asked him to rise and take a bow.

** In writing this article, I thank Ronald Vermeulen , Delegue Artistique of the Orchestre National de Lyon, for suggesting the topic, and providing so much useful information- and inspiration!

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