Performance and Auto Suggestion

A fortnight ago I wrote a post about deliberate practice. Whilst writing that post I was thinking about Sergei Rachmaninoff.
I had read about his anxiety after the premiere of his first symphony. Maurice Kougell quoted Martin Bookspan:

The year was 1897 and the place was St. Petersburg. The occasion was the premiere of the First Symphony of the twenty four year old composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff. It was a complete fiasco; Rachmaninoff himself described how he sat in rapt horror through part of the performance and then fled from the concert hall before it had ended. At a post concert party which had been arranged in his honor for that evening, he was further shaken and ill at ease but the crowning blow came the next morning when the reviews appeared in the News. Cesar Cui wrote: “if there was a conservatory in hell, Rachmaninoff would get the first prize for his symphony, so devilish are the discords he places before us.”

Maurice Kougell observes that “this combination of events was too traumatic for a personality as sensitive as Rachmaninoff’s. He was seized with a fit of depression and apathy from which he could not rouse himself. For two long years it lasted. Finally, friends persuaded him to see one of the pioneers in the field of autosuggestion, Dr.Nikolai Dahl.” Some years later Rachmaninoff dedicated his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor Opus 18 to Nikolai Dahl.
Peter Chou adds the following information:

From the beginning of January 1900 until April, he went daily to Dr. Dahl to receive treatment while lying in an hypnotic doze in an easy chair in the doctor’s apartment. This treatment consisted of the almost ceaseless repetition to him of the words: “You will begin to write you concerto… You will work with great facility… The concerto will be of an excellent quality…”
So remarkable was the success of this principle of auto-suggestion over the inertia of his inner self that his creative powers began to function by the beginning of the summer. He wrote anew with increasing fluency. Ideas and thematic material welled up with all the facility of those now so seemingly far-off days when he wrote “Aleko” in little over a fortnight. The andante and finale of the C minor Concerto, Op. 18, came to him in this way, before the opening movement, and were completed by the autumn of 1900, and given their first performance at one of the Prison Charity Concerts organised by Princess Lieven in Moscow in connection with a prisoners’ aid society. Siloti conducted when Rachmaninoff played; and at these concerts as well as the composer other notable artists who appeared were the cellists, Pablo Casals and Brandoukov, the violinist, Eugene Ysäye, and Fedor Chaliapin.
The C minor Piano Concerto was completed by the spring of 1901, and also the Suite, Op. 17, for two pianofortes, briefly sketched out the previous autumn. As already mentioned the concerto received its first performance in England at a London Philharmonic concert of 1902, the soloist being Basil Sapellnikoff. Rachmaninoff dedicated the concerto to Dr. Dahl as an expression of his gratitude for the success of his care. As no one saving the doctor, the patient, and his cousins knew of the “cure” there was considerable speculation as to the reason for the dedication. The completion of this large work shattered whatever remained of an inferiority complex in the psychology of Rachmaninoff.

Marianne Tobias (2003) points out in a book with the delightful title Classical Music Without Fear that, after spending time with Dr Dahl, Rachmaninoff produced his second symphony “which weighd in at 320 pages in the original manuscript”. She observes that “herein you can find all the Racmaninoff hallmarks: luscious melodies, boisterous dances, passionate introspective writing, emotional fervour, and bold, rich orchestration.”

This story and the discussion of deliberate practice focus my thoughts on the confidence coaches and athletes need to perform. I am particularly interested in how coaches develop their narratives with athletes and how athletes themselves use (if at all) self talk. Perhaps this is why I am so interested in the possibilities of horse whispering.
Photo Credits
Like Whispers in the Fog
When photography turns social experience


  1. Hi Keith,
    From the recesses of my brain, a bit of recent self talk research, if you haven’t already seen it.
    “The popular idea is that self-affirmations enhance people’s ability to meet their goals,” Professor Albarracin said. “It seems, however, that when it comes to performing a specific behavior, asking questions is a more promising way of achieving your objectives.” (
    Summer is in full swing here, with the promise of a few tomatoes from the garden if the raccoon family residing in our elm tree leaves them alone long enough:-)

    • Thank you for sharing this, Carmen. I had not seen it. I had seen some research that looks at the role of questions and/or direction in relation to developmental stage.
      Summer sounds great. We are in the depths of winter here. Delighted you are sharing the produce of your garden with your visitor.
      Best wishes


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