A Composer's Adventures

Buttons and Panels


How can you adjust emotionally to difficult people in a work setting? Such moments can occur between conductor and player or between two musicians in rehearsal to the point of interfering with the performance. Musicians are by nature sensitive people, particularly prone to being affected by conflicts. Maybe that led me to study neuro linguistic programming many years ago, and I have included it in my workshops ever since. I teach that no one can create an emotion or thought in you unless you invite them in. Someone might be rude or insulting to you, but how you react is your choice.

How is that done? I like to imagine that people have a breastplate with a row of buttons they can push to control their emotions. With friends and loved ones there is usually no need to guard your emotions, so the panel is open. You expect that privilege to be respected. If things go awry, a mental command can close the panel to remove the heat of the situation for all concerned. Only the individual has access to those buttons, nobody else.

An example of how it works: Once I was conducting a short opera of mine and one of the singers didn’t like what I asked for, so he rained insults on me, saying I didn’t know what I was doing. I slammed my panel closed fast, so he couldn’t get access to my buttons. When he finished, I calmly told him what I wanted and he simmered down.

Afterward another singer said, “How could you keep your cool when he was yelling at you like that?” By using my panel of buttons, the irate singer suddenly seemed like a stranger. I had closed him out of my emotional range. My detachment allowed me to hear what he was saying, so I understood what was bothering him and could explain what I wanted and why.

With a little practice, everyone can exercise this ‘panel control’ and maintain their emotional balance. It is especially helpful when working with others in a demanding performance setting like a symphony orchestra or other professional pressure cooker. The ability to keep a cool and rational head can be learned in more ways than one, but the panel control is a skill that is easy to understand and use. You can probably think of people, especially leaders you admire, for maintaining their balance when criticized. With this recipe, you too can do it.



  1. It is a challenge Michael. I am always careful to have non-competitive and sensitive players in my groups. This is just as important as musical prowess to me. Openness and supportive attitudes on the bandstand make for an emotionally uplifting performance.

    Often, of course, you don’t get to choose who you work with or how someone will react to a ‘train smash’ so emotional detachment is very important. Why can’t that be a subject in schools? Thank you for addressing this vital life-skill.

  2. Thanks, Bruce. Many vital subjects are not addressed in schools—basic nutrition, how to balance a budget, basic cooking skills, on and on. But I think this buttons and panels idea is very important today especially because of the rise of bullying in our schools. I’m appalled when I read about some youngster taking his or her own life because they were bullied and not realizing that they are almost inviting it when their panels are wide open.
    And, as you say, on the bandstand or in the symphony orchestra, emotional control and concentration on the music is the goal of every artist. It’s so unnecessary to let your state of mind be diverted by something so easy to avoid.

  3. Thanks for including NLP stuff on your blog. I’d like to see more of it. In your stage-fright workshop you gave actual NLP type guidance regarding the eyes. In this case, I think a little more pointed feedback would be helpful, too, since many people can’t simply close the panel, especially if the wrong buttons have been pushed. Conscious control over certain of the voluntary mechanisms can help, right?

  4. Adam, thanks for your good question. Panel control is something to think about before you need it. Be aware of the potential need for it and practice opening and closing the panel. I taught the buttons and panels idea to a group of graduate musicians and they cottoned onto it quickly. One of them emailed me a couple of weeks later say, “I’m getting very good with my panel. I have three basic settings for it—partly open, half-way open and fully open. So now before I go into a situation I anticipate the setting that will probably be best and go with that.” And of course with her kind of advance awareness she can obviously adjust the panel somewhat as needed after she enters the situation. With her kind of control she can ‘flutter-panel’, so to speak , so she can play with it somewhat while in the situation. Any technique you learn must be practiced so it becomes automatic when needed. Or set up beforehand as she does.

  5. Adam, An afterthought to my remark above is this: sometimes you can be caught off guard with your panel wide open and someone gets into your buttons. What to do then? I do what I call ‘A New Now,’ which is also what I would do if I made a mistake in performance: make a slight physical shift and think, “A new now.” this puts you into your next now and leaves the old now behind. The physical shift helps to mark the new now since you are no longer the person you were in the previous now.
    That physical shift can also be the action of stepping into your personal Circle of Excellence, an imagined circle about one meter in diameter in which you are at your very best. Of course, the Circle needs to be practiced (reviewing times when you were at your excellent best) so it’s always there when you need it.

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