Ep. 36: Mental Skills for Stress Reduction and Peak Performance, with author Dr. Vanessa Cornett

March 31, 2020

We have a choice of where we focus our awareness, and these choices fundamentally affect how we perceive our experiences, and how we perform (whether the performance is athletic, musical, social, or otherwise). Dr. Vanessa Cornett explains that “Awareness is the most valuable resource we possess as humans… If stress isn’t what happens to us, it must be the result of how we interpret what happens to us.”


Dr. Vanessa Cornett is the author of “The Mindful Musician: Mental Skills for Peak Performance,” published in 2019. Vanessa is the Director of Keyboard Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN. An international clinician, she has performed or presented in 23 of the United States and in 14 countries across six continents. Her current research focuses on contemplative practices, performance anxiety management, sport psychology, peak performance, and the mental health of musicians.

Quotes from Vanessa’s book, The Mindful Musician: Mental Skills for Peak Performance:”

  • “Any human being, musician or nonmusician, can benefit from the material here, because it transcends the stage and spotlight. After a few years of working through these practices, I began to realize that these are skills for life as much as they are for music.”
  • “Awareness is the most valuable resource we possess as humans. Through awareness, we experience our individual realities and direct our consciousness at will… It is the very foundation of our perceived experience.”
  • “ [A]dequate talent and preparation are not enough if musicians don’t develop the mindfulness skills that can positively influence their own mental processes.”
  • “Throughout this book, I encourage you to consider two processes of personal growth that can lead to improved mental health: (1) developing a keen awareness of how you think, while learning to direct your thoughts in a way that leads to happiness and well-being; and (2) cultivating the ability to detach from those thoughts as a friendly and compassionate observer of your reality.”
  • “On stage and off, the mind is every performer’s greatest asset. As Plutarch wrote, ‘What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.’”


Vanessa says: I like to advocate for free improvisation as a form of active mindfulness, in order to facilitate creativity and flow states of consciousness.  Many musicians aren’t comfortable improvising because they lack experience and think they won’t be “any good” at it, but this type of improv is nontonal, nonmetrical, and completely rule-free.  My improv challenge will be to invite your listeners to improvise for 10 minutes using any instrument, and watch how their minds engage during the activity.  Here is an audio example: My St. Thomas colleague (Dr. Sarah Schmalenberger) and I thought, what would it sound like if we just improvised a ridiculous nontonal fugue together?  So, the recording is of our first attempt (no planning, no rehearsal).  It is pretty hilarious; we almost couldn’t finish because we were laughing so hard and having so much fun. We did put all of our improvisations into a multi-movement collection and called it Suite 2th. Our point, of course, was to throw out all the “rules” of improv and just have fun.

(Dr. Vanessa Cornett, piano; Dr. Sarah Schmalenberger, horn)



Vanessa says: My father was a composer, and he used to compose little preludes for me when I was growing up.  He passed away in 2002, but left behind stacks of original compositions, mostly for children’s theater.  I recently found two of his piano pieces for me, written in his neat handwriting, with little secret messages (hugs, etc.) hidden for me in the manuscript.  The song shared in today’s coda is called “Vandy’s Theme.”

 Composer: Ewel Cornett

Performed by: Vanessa Cornett

Closing Words

What a beautiful song and beautiful connection between a father and daughter that endures through music even after the passing of Vanessa’s dad. Thank you so much for sharing that touching song and story with us, Vanessa.

I hope the information Vanessa shared in our conversation and in her book is as inspiring and enlightening to you as it is to me. With all of the social distancing and quarantining and uncertainties going on right now, this is a great time to develop and strengthen these mental skills in relation to stress reduction. And hopefully it won’t be long before we have more opportunities to use these skills in performances although, keep in mind Vanessa uses a broad definition in her book of “performances,” which certainly can include situations we’re still having while quarantining, like participating in a virtual meeting or having a difficult conversation (in person OR on the phone).

You can find The Mindful Musician book wherever books are sold, including Amazon. If you don’t want to leave your home and prefer to NOT purchase on Amazon, you can purchase directly from the publisher. Use discount code AAFLYG6 for 30% off (this will help cover the cost of S/H).

Speaking of books and quarantine-time reading, there is still time to enter the drawing for a free copy of Indre Viskontas’ book, “How Music Can Make You Better.” Indre is a scientist, psychologist and working musician who was a guest on Episode 35. This is also a phenomenal book. It’s made up of short sections that each touch on a different fascinating way that music benefits our lives – great quarantine-time reading or a great gift for someone who could use a little lift at the moment AND it’s a beautiful book that would look great on a nightstand!

To enter the drawing for a free copy of Indre’s book:

  1. post a screenshot of episode 35 to social media and mention something interesting from that episode
  2. tag me so I can see your post/enter you in the drawing AND – if posting on Twitter – tag Indre: @indrevis

Post on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn before the end of the day on Tues/April 7, 2020. The winner will be notified the following day, April 8.

Thank you so much for joining me today. Hang in there during these interesting and challenging times. In Vanessa’s book, she quotes Jon Kabat-Zinn, who said: “We can’t stop the waves, but we can learn to surf.” Happy surfing and, until next week, may your life be enhanced with music.



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5 responses to “Ep. 36: Mental Skills for Stress Reduction and Peak Performance, with author Dr. Vanessa Cornett”

  1. Love this episode! As an athlete I found the psychology connection to performance particularly interesting. I also, like you am not a big meditation fan but I like the focus on mindfulness and being aware. My favorite point was that being aware and mindful is the best way to improve. Great episode!!

  2. What a wonderful episode! From an athlete’s perspective, I can particularly relate to the performance psychology thoughts. I also thought that the coda was enchanting.