What We Are Reading: The Inner Game of Music

This post comes from one of guitar Guides Felix Stickland and is about a book that has been a huge inspiration to him in both playing and performance. Working on ‘natural skills’ such as awareness, trust and will power it addresses head on the question of nature vs nurture and for those interested in combating nerves, fear of failure or self doubt this is a must read.

The Inner Game of Music

The Inner Game is a principle that was first developed by Timothy Gallwey in his book The Inner Game of Tennis, first published in 1972. The book explores how tennis players mentally prepare and execute the way with which they play. These situations may vary from preparation to been given a situation on the spot that they have to deal with there and then. Over a decade later The Inner Game of Music was published (1986). Musicians were some of the first people to see the benefits to making the comparisons between performance in the sporting world to that of the musical world. This book, which has transformed the way many musicians approach their craft, is written by Barry Green, (American orchestral and solo double bassist, who was the principle bassist for the Cincinnati Symphony), with very close collaboration with Timothy.

Child genius or nurture?

The beginning of this book starts with an interesting question, was Mozart and child genius or just nurtured in the right way? It is often commented on how easily and effortlessly children learn, be it language, walking, sitting down or standing up, etc. All children have an incredible capacity to learn and absorb. They are constantly watching and learning from their surroundings. We wouldn’t doubt that a child from England would speak English, in the same way that a child from Norway would speak Norwegian. A huge part of learning is the environment and music shouldn’t be any different, it is a language in its own right.

Learning through awareness

When a child makes a mistake during the possess of learning language we don’t get frustrated or angry, we usually laugh because it sounds so ridiculous to us. We learn through awareness, watching our parents, and this is key when it comes to learning music. A lot of tuition on musical instruments has a “do this” approach. “Make sure your thumb is parallel with your fingers on the other side of the neck. You must apply the right amount of pressure. Your right hand should be at 45 degrees with the fretboard. Don’t be tense.” Many students might not understands exactly what is needed from these kind of instructions, “How much is too much pressure? How big is 45 degrees?” Here are a few examples from the book;

“Do this” instruction: Draw the bow perpendicular to the bow string.
Awareness instruction: Notice the angle of the bow when the resistance is steady.

“Do this” instruction: Play louder as you go to the higher notes.
Awareness instruction: Pay attention to the degree of increase in volume as you play the higher notes.

“Do this” instruction: Play with the correct intonation.
Awareness instruction: Be aware of your intonation.

Just like tennis, with it’s two players, there are two games at work when we think about the inner game. An “outer” and “inner” game. The outer game is the real world, the tennis court or the concert hall. The obstacles are your opponents 130mph first serve or a intricate fingering. The goal is to win the point or to play this difficult passage. The second game, the inner game, is played out in our minds. The obstacles are mental ones such as a lapse in concentration, nervousness or self-doubt. The goal is to express your full potential. Throughout the book there are various mind maps and formulas about how to mange your mindset before a performance or during practice. The one I find particularly useful is Performance, Potential & Interference.


“P” stands for Performance, “p” stands for Potential and “i” is for Interference. Performance equals potential minus inference.

For example, last year I had to play I Dreamed A Dream from Les Misérables with a soloist and full orchestra in China. This starts with very prominent arpeggios on guitar. On the first night my mind was going mad, “Everyone knows this piece… I don’t want to get that look from the conductor… I hope I don’t slip out of position… Why are my hands so sweaty?” At this point in time I had been playing guitar for over thirteen years, I knew how to play a few arpeggios, I knew how is piece should be played and, most importantly, I had been practicing this concert pieces for hours. The problems where all mental ones and once I had cleared my mind of any doubts I was absolutely fine. The occasion, the venue and the audience were what was filling my head with all these doubts.


Just like in sport, you have to go for it and leave nothing “on the pitch”. We all have this incredible potential when we push ourselves over the edge and let go. We begin to react in new ways and begin to see a whole new side to ourselves. Sometimes, when I look back at performances, I can’t remember why they were good, all I know is that it was great. I had no idea what was going through my head at that time. This is just one aspect of what the inner game helps us achieve.

I would thoroughly recommend this book for anybody learning an instrument, teaching an instrument or a parent of a student of music. It is a constant source of knowledge and insight into how the mind works when we are tested and pushed into new places.


Felix Stickland

Felix is a professional guitarist, composer, arranger and teacher living and working in London. He is MusicMaps guitar Guide and teaches in variety of styles to students between the ages of 6 and 60. When he is not teaching he can be found in studios, orchestral pits and on stage performing myriad genres with his trusty armoury of guitars and pedals.

Felix on Twitter
Felix on Facebook