Some Thoughts on Coaching and Mentoring

Mentoring is for the mentee. Most of all for the mind of the mentee. I think that Mentoring needs to focus on and develop the mentee’s finest independent thinking about their work, their career, their life, their dreams. The Mentor’s perspective is an important ingredient in this special relationship. But it feeds. It is not the feast.” Nancy Kline

The development of mentorship relationships for Composers has been a central part of Sound and Music’s work since our organisation’s inception. Coaching is a more recent addition to our offer to Composers, but one that is growing. We value both of these distinct activities very highly and we see the impact that they can have. When delivered well there are fundamental similarities between these two modes of support, but also some significant differences.

Earlier this year we asked Composers who have worked with us to tell us about their experience of Coaching and Mentoring within Sound and Music’s Artist Development programmes. Thirty-three Composers responded to the survey.

As Mentorship is a longer established practice within Sound and Music’s programmes the data set was sufficient to inform our work, evaluate previous impact, create some visualisations and move into some tentative qualitative analysis. As Coaching is an emerging offer there were fewer responses, though enough to draw some interesting quotes and initial findings. In this post I’d like to share some of the information that we have collected and begin to evaluate it against a couple of practice based models. We are sharing our findings in a spirit of openness. We welcome wider discussion about these important areas of our work.

Working Relationships and Alliances

When delivered well, Coaching and Mentoring both partake in Carl Rogers core conditions of effective helping relationships [1] . These conditions have been shown, across the various modalities of helping [2] , to be pre-requisites for a Client’s (Mentees or Coachees in our context) progress towards positive change and learning. Rogers describes these core conditions as:

Empathy from Helper towards Client – this is the listening bit, but not just listening to advise. What is required is active listening to get a true feeling for the Client’s concerns and the situation as experienced by the Client.

Unconditional Positive Regard from Helper towards Client – this is sometimes described as being ‘respectful’ towards the Client. It requires an accepting attitude that is essential to build trust and for the Client to feel confident to share what is really going on for them.

Congruence on the part of the Helper – often described as ‘genuineness’, this refers to the Helper’s ability to share their true feelings and thoughts with the Client. There is great skill in manifesting congruent behaviour whilst maintaining positive regard and empathy. People are very adept as spotting incongruence between, for example, verbal and non-verbal communication. Trust is lost when this happens and the alliance between the Helper (Coach, Mentor) and Client (Coachee, Mentee) can falter.

The key thing here is that these conditions are communicated to the Client. It is not enough for them simply to be present; the Helper must work hard to orientate themselves to the conditions, and, crucially, the Client must experience them in the relationship. Within the context of both Coaching and Mentoring the quality of the relationship is vital to the success of the work.

However, there is more work to be done than simply being together in this way, particularly within the time limited relationships that we are talking about within Sound and Music’s programmes. There has to be activity towards personal growth, learning and change. A working alliance has to be build. Contemporary thinking about such working alliances focuses them on four components [3] :

Tasks: Things that need to be done to reach the Client’s goals

Goals: What the Client hopes to gain, where they want to get to

Bonds: The nature of the relationship between the Helper and the Client. Rogers’ Core Conditions are the ideal ground here, though this component also includes the relationship style expected by each party (formal/informal, hierarchical/equal, confidential/open etc.)

Views: How each party views the activity (Mentoring and Coaching for example) and their own role within it

The chances of success are greater when the Client and the Helper have agreed on the four components; when Tasks are clear, Goals are set, ways of being together have been negotiated and roles have been outlined.

How does Coaching and Mentoring work at Sound and Music?

At Sound and Music Mentors and Coaches typically meet with Composers for an agreed number of sessions. Mentors attend workshops, rehearsals and project meetings, assessing when to put themselves forward and when to hold back and observe. Mentors are usually Artists or Composers themselves, they can give technical and aesthetic advice on work and they can interact with partner organisations and Sound and Music on behalf of the Composer. Coaching relationships are more private; Coaches don’t attend rehearsals, workshops and meetings within their role. The content of Coaching sessions is not discussed with Sound and Music or Partner organisations. Sometimes trained Sound and Music staff act as Coaches within our programmes (this never happens with Mentorship) but this work remains boundaried and confidential.

Below is a graphic visualisation of the Mentorship Data we collected from our first ever Coaching and Mentorship evaluation survey in January 2017. We wanted to try to find out more about our Artist’s experience of these relationships.

• Did they meet with their expectations?
• Where there any suggestions that the Artists would make for the future of this work?
• What benefits had the Artists gained through participation in Coaching and Mentoring?

For quantitative responses we asked responders to score out of 5, with 5 being the highest score. The first three questions inquire into the quality of the working alliance (Views, Tasks and Goals) and the last three questions assess the quality of Mentor/Composer relationship. The visualisation shows average scores.


We find the results very encouraging. There were some reported hiccups though, and it is informative to note that when they occur they can often be traced back to violations of Rogers’ core conditions. The two examples below demonstrate failures of Empathy.

“When I did voice serious concerns with him (the Mentor) s/he told me it was just teething troubles and it would probably sort itself out” – failure of empathy in terms of failing to grasp the true nature and scale of the Composer’s concerns.

“During our last meeting X repeatedly interrupted me every time I tried to say something…, until I basically stopped trying”  – failure of empathy in terms of poor listening. This results in the breakdown of the alliance between the Mentor and the Composer and the Composer gives up, frustrated [4].

In reading through the many qualitative feedback responses to the Mentoring experience I am drawn to a few examples of working alliance failure in the Views component, where Composer and Mentor has differing expectations of, or where there was a lack of clarity about, the Mentor’s role:

“My mentor was so ‘light touch’ that he was almost not there. Perhaps he felt I didn’t need his help. Perhaps my expectations were too high.”

“It would have been nice to organise an exact description of what the Mentor was there for, and how much time we were allocated with them.”

“My Mentor for this project was very much on the front-line when we met the group, and introduced themselves to everyone as my Mentor before I’d said anything…s/he was chiming in from the sidelines whilst we worked. Unfortunately this…probably didn’t help the group develop immediate confidence in my own ability…As the Mentor is not working directly with the group, and is solely there for the benefit of the Composer, there is really no reason for them to introduce themselves or get directly involved at all.”

A few Composers regretted that they has not been able to be involved in the selection of their Mentor and, admittedly, this has been a limitation on certain projects where (for budgetary reasons) one Mentor has been assigned to a small group of Composers on a single project. The evaluation highlighted the limitations of this way of working. Generally those Composers who were involved in the selection of their Mentor had successful relationships and reported less frustrations; there was a greater propensity for working alliances to struggle when Composers were not involved in Mentor selection.

When Mentor relationships went well Mentors were reported to be supporting emotionally, advising with wisdom after really listening, inspiring, questioning and showing genuine interest in the Composer’s work [5] .

Back To Listening

Being heard was an important factor. The benefits described in the quote below remind me that the quality of our listening directly affects the quality of another’s thinking. The Composer here is describing the benefits of their Mentee experience:

“Having to put what I’m doing into words that make sense to someone who knows their shit. Just having them listen to me shows up where my ideas are fuzzy.”

By way of contrast here are extracts from three responses describing how Mentorship could be better delivered within our Talent Development programmes:

“…they (Mentors) should be good listeners.”

“Listen to the needs of the participant”

“Listen to what the Composers want”

What is the difference between Coaching and Mentoring?

We have touched on some of the fundamental similarities between these two approaches and considered some responses from Mentees on our programmes. Beyond the core level of relationship and alliance building there are some major differences between these two forms of helping.

Good Mentorship clearly involves an advice-giving element as one of its Tasks. Your Mentor needs to have walked the path before you and needs to be able to offer the benefits of their experience. They can open up contacts, make suggestions (after listening well) and guide the Mentee. In contrast Coaching uses a non-directive approach; your Coach won’t give you advice and will be able to work effectively with you if they have no knowledge of the professional world that you are in. Indeed many would consider this an advantage in that the Coach can remain ‘clean’ and avoid the temptation of slip into advice giving mode.

It is also worth reminding ourselves that Coaching is a contained relationship existing within contracted boundaries of confidentiality. Whilst Sound and Music often collaborates with Mentors, freely discussing with them the best ways to work on particular Composer obstacles, this would not happen with Coaches that we contract in to deliver work, unless there was explicit permission from the Coachee.

Apparently there is some confusion in the sector about the differences between these two practices. In a recent survey that Sound and Music conducted of music organisations engaged in professional development with Artists, 13 out of 19 (68%) responding organisations didn’t make a clear distinction between Coaching and Mentoring in their delivery of services to Artists.

Coaching is a powerful intervention [6] when delivered by trained and supervised professionals who have a clear grasp of best practice and how this modality is distinct from Mentorship. It is my view that organisations would be wise to understand these two approaches and their distinctive features in greater depth so that we can all do better at delivering professional development services to Artists.

What next?

Coaching and Mentoring are growing parts of Sound and Music offer for both artists and employees.

From the data collected in our evaluation, and from our own supported reflection on how we grow this work, we will commit to the following:

• On Sound and Music led projects Composers will be involved in the selection of their Mentors
• We will work with Composers to help them identify clear goals for their Mentorship relationships
• We will collect Composer feedback on all Coaching and Mentoring sessions
• We will develop the use of Action Learning Groups as a means of confidential sharing and professional development for Mentors and Coaches
• We will lead in sector wide advocacy to support the understanding of best practice in Coaching and Mentoring

To end I’m going to share some quotes gathered from those who experienced positive benefit from Coaching on our programmes:

“Skills and confidence with putting myself forward, communicating with musicians and other people I work with; self-belief in high pressure situations.”

“Use of time and how to be creative whilst experiencing different emotions”

“It was useful in breaking down situations into manageable parts, and thus helping to figure out a helpful solution”

“I became more aware of my own artistic goals”

“I developed a clearer sense of how to plan my composition time into my schedule and how necessary that is for me”

All of these quotes demonstrate a clear sense of Coachee movement delivered through a non-directive approach. Coaching is a powerful tool, but it is not something that happens by accident or something that ‘we just do’ without any training. At its best it is delivered by trained professionals who receive supervision. A failure to grasp its fundamental nature, and its distinctiveness from Mentoring, leaves those we seek to offer our services to short-changed.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of the Composers who participated in our survey. Your thoughts are of great value to us. We keen to learn and to develop these tools and to share all that we discover openly and in a spirit of collaboration and genuine curiosity.


[1] I’m working from Gerard Egan’s definition of ‘Helping Relationships’ in this post and have adapted some of Rogers’ terminology to reflect this. Egan’s helpful definition is broad enough to include professional helping relationships (Therapist, Counsellor, Mentor, Coach); relationships where helping forms an integral part of a professional role (Medical, Police, Clergy, Teaching) and informal helping relationships within social support circles (friends, family). Egan notes that it is within these informal relationships that most helping takes place.

[2] In psychotherapy for instance (within which there are generally regarded to be over 500 different approaches currently being practiced worldwide!) Rogers’ Core Conditions have been shown to form the skill set that effective practitioners, regardless of their theoretical orientation, use as a basic approach to building effective working relationships with Clients.

[3] The working alliance model was conceived Edward Bordin and later developed Windy Dryden. Windy added the Views bit.

[4] See my Institute of Composing post here for further thoughts on the negative effects of interruption.

[5] Clearly there is a complete lack of feedback from the Mentors themselves in the data that we collected. A comparison of the Mentors’ experiences of the working relationships and alliances with that described by the Composers would be fascinating.

[6] Anecdotal evidence from Fellows within the Clore Leadership Programme suggests that many Fellows report Coaching as the most helpful intervention that they engaged with during their fellowships.

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