As a musician, it is likely that you will be active in the music scene as a live performer. This is not always an easy task, and the challenge can often trigger performance anxiety – especially as a beginner in an unfamiliar environment, but also, surprisingly, can still be a hindrance for more experienced performers.
Music Performance Anxiety (MPA) is similar to anxieties that other performance tasks exhibit, such as sports performance, test taking, sexual-performance and public speaking. These tasks do not only take on the pressure of judgment of others but they can also carry the weight of competition and self-expectation. There are various strategies that a performer can use when the symptoms of anxiety are negatively impacting on performance quality or mental stability. However, “music performance anxiety is a relatively neglected psychological phenomenon that rarely appears in mainstream journals or textbooks” (Kenny and Osborne, 2006, p. 126). This makes it difficult for performers to find a dependable approach to control or reduce the anxiety. Making a decision of how to deal with this fearful reaction comes down to each individual’s innate temperament. The current research that is available does provide various methods that can reduce MPA; it is necessary to assess individuals to find which ones may be effective for them, as there is not a “one size fits all method for combating stage-fright.” (Bahmann, 2009, p. xii)
The world of music is a highly critical environment as “a fair share of criticism comes from parents, teachers, critics and audition panels” (Winspur and Parry, 1998, p. 181), producing an understandable “fear of social disapproval” (Lehrer, 1987, p. 143). It is our inclination to react in such an anxious way – the fight or flight response, explained in Ted-Ed talk by former psychology and neuroscience researcher Mikael Cho, is natural in a threatening situation.
Paul Lehrer (1987) highlights that the symptoms of MPA, or any anxiety for that matter, such as perspiring, muscle tension and increased heart rate, were designed to help humans survive when confronted with dangerous situations, allowing the body to stay and fight, or flee from the danger quickly. Further symptoms may be shaking, dry mouth, stomach cramps and difficulty breathing, all natural reactions to stress.
Priyanka Potdar, a competitive pianist since the age of 9, provides further insight in a TedX Talk below.
In a survey conducted at the Music and Audio Institute of New Zealand (MAINZ) these symptoms are also evident. A total of 55 performers from MAINZ responded to a survey, with questions focused around anxiety levels, how long they have been performing and preparation methods for a performance. This sample of 55 included students, past students and tutors.
MPA can be “a serious problem for a substantial proportion of musicians”; it is “a critical problem for 15-25% of musicians” (Sloboda, 2010, p. 733). This is also shown in the surveys of MAINZ students and tutors, with 20% of them scoring an 8 or more out of 10 (extremely high) when measuring the amount of anxiety they felt typically impacting on their performance. Also of interest was the degree to which performers suffer from MPA into the long term. In the results, displayed in the chart, we can see that out of the 10 performers with 20 years or more experience 4 of them still experience high levels of anxiety while the other 6 appear to be more relaxed in public performance.
The MPA symptoms respondents experience are shaky hands or voice; forgetting parts of music; stiffened body (muscle tension); unnecessary/exaggerated worrying (negative or biased thinking); throat issues (singers); playing too fast and an increase in heart rate. These feelings can then cause more stress to the body, creating a cycle – and such “cycles are very effective in that they are good at keeping stress and fear going” and allows symptoms to worsen (Kennerley, 1997, p. 20). This is also a negative effect evident across survey results, with respondents saying that they “hold back” or there is “self-doubt” and a “loss of confidence” when facing a performance.
It is important how a performer controls their anxiety, rather than letting it control them with its internal and external manifestations. Drugs, alcohol, beta-blockers, or pharmaceutical solutions for MPA are not highly recommended across the board in past and current research. They may be effective in reducing any physiological arousal, and even improving mood, however, they also come with addiction, side effects and negative withdrawal effects, such as, muscle fatigue, gastrointestinal upset, cold, extremities, hypotension and no development of personal strength to create a long-term solution for the anxiety, as the drug becomes a crutch (Bahmann, 2009, p. 52).
If the symptoms of MPA are channeled in the right direction they can have a positive impact on the performance as they “prepare the body for forthcoming task, increasing motivation, improving concentration, and improving the quality of performance, particularly in experienced performers” (Sloboda, 2010, p. 733). Dealing with the anxiety and finding the balance can be acquired through physical, technical, mental and emotional strengthening methods to ensure relaxation, minimizing any stress or indicators of anxiety. These processes may require different approaches for each performer “because individual’s performance anxiety thresholds vary within different performance contexts” (Welch, 2008, p. 2). Long-term solutions for stage fright are focused around building this strength in mental, physical and technical ability.
Focusing on something as simple as breathing can impact on a performance state. Exhaling in long breaths is a well-known, natural way to act against physiological reactions that come with anxiety. Marianne Bahmann (2009) suggests breathing as a useful anchor while performing, keeping the mind focused away from anxiety or negative thoughts. A technique called differential relaxation is used for treatment of tension related disorders (Lehrer, 1987, p. 145). This can help a musician focus his/her energy on breathing and the muscles required for their performance, allowing an increase in control and dexterity. The more control a musician has the less likely they are to experience extreme anxiety.
“Lack of preparation is the number one culprit on every anxiety list” (Bahmann, 2009, p. 33). Practice is important for both mental and physical groundwork and development for a performing musician, as well as preparation for a performance. Over 75% of the musicians surveyed at MAINZ regard rehearsals or practice as significant contribution to preparing for a performance. The rehearsals for a performance make up a larger amount of time than the performance itself; to perform sufficiently we must also practice sufficiently. Along with solitary practice, practice in the form of live performance often can be helpful for building confidence. An effective way to overcome a fear is to face said fear more frequently, known as massed practice. Although we have “a natural inclination to avoid doing things that produce anxiety” performing frequently is considered effective in the treatment of stage fright (Lehrer, 1987, p. 149).
It may only take one imperfect performance to create an experience that is unfavourable for a musician to constantly remember. Some people are faced with anxiety no matter how many times they confront their fear; a negative memory of a performance or the urge to play perfectly can be enough to trigger stage fright, with performers “tying themselves in knots” because they feel their “self-worth is on the line every time they appear” (Bahmann, 2009, p. 13). Taking time to practice can make all the difference for the execution of a performance, and this also counts for mental rehearsal. A technique that can be useful to those who cannot practice live performance often, or need another way to prepare for performance, is visualisation. Using visual practice exercises can therefore enrich rehearsals and allow preparation for performances.
Biofeedback is another technique that has undergone research for decreasing anxiety; it works in a way that allows a performer to reduce muscle tension and other physiological parameters. Performers become aware of the way their body reacts when they are exposed to the threat of performance and learn to control these reactions.
Balance is an essential part of all methods for overcoming MPA. Too much or too little practice can have a negative effect on performance, with too little resulting in under preparation and too much resulting in mechanical performances. Mistakes are what we learn and grow from, they are valuable to us. This is how we know what to practice and how to prepare ourselves for a certain part next time and work toward “a clearer more reliable technique” (Nachmanovitch, 1990, p. 88).
Although it is hard to find a single solid method to combat MPA, it is clear that by utilising a range of methods to prepare, performers have a better grounding for approaching performances. Practicing alone may not be enough for those who have higher levels of MPA. By introducing breathing exercises or visualisation to a preparation routine the few performers who did this entered a performance in a more calm or excited state, rather than a panicked, highly nervous one. Also, the frequency at which MAINZ survey respondents performed in front of audiences seemed to have an impact on anxiety levels, suggesting that massed practice is effective in reducing MPA.
Performance Strategies for Musicians (2006), David Buswell
Music Performance Anxiety: New insights from young Musicians (2006), Dianna T. Kenny, Margaret S. Osborne
Music Performance Anxiety: Origins, Phenomenology, Assessment and Treatment (2008), Dianna. T Kenny
The Psychology of Music Performance Anxiety (2011), Dianna T Kenny
Coping with the Limelight (2009), Marianne Bahmann
A Theory of Music Performance Anxiety (1994), Albert Leblanc
A Review of the Approaches to the Management of Tension and Stage Fright in Music Performance, (1987) Paul M. Lehrer
The Musician’s Hand (1998), Ian Winspur, Christopher B. Parry
Overcoming Anxiety (1997), Helen Kennerley
The Handbook of Music and Emotion (2010),
Investigating Musical Performance Performance anxiety across musical genres (2008), Graham Welch
Free Play Improvisation in Life and Art (1990), Stephen Nachmanovitch