What is performance anxiety?
For many musicians, it’s a common scenario: you stand backstage about to go on, you may feel your chest pound, your breathing grow shallow, your stomach fluttering, your hands sweaty, sometimes shaking, your shoulder blades hurt. It’s bad enough that you have to experience these unpleasant feelings, but you also worry that they will ruin how your music sounds onstage. You head down, to the center of the stage and can feel the sweat trickling down your neck. Perhaps, if you’re lucky, you might faint (a good exit strategy from the situation).
Anxiety is a normal part of life, and a small amount of anxiety can help kick us into action to do something we have avoided. But stage fright or performance anxiety is the anxiety or fear which may be aroused in an individual by the requirement to perform in front of an audience, whether actually or potentially.
MPA or Music Performance Anxiety
MPA has been divided into two distinct types:
Cognitively anxious musicians portray consistent thinking styles about their playing and performing. They might have negative biases in their self-perceptions before and after a performance; “It’s going to be rubbish,” “I’m a terrible musician,” They can show heightened concerns about the consequences of performances; “Everyone heard that note,” “I am disappointing the audience”.
Somatic anxiety refers to the physical symptoms that are experienced during an anxiety provoking event — tremors, dry mouth, dizziness, all caused through over arousal of the sympathetic nervous system.
Source of MPA
For those who’ve struggled with it, accept MPA as an inevitable part of performing. For them it is a “conditioned fear” that was acquired in childhood, when they were made to perform and had a bad experience. The brain learns quickly to avoid danger and once it decides that audiences are scary, it’s not about to change its mind. Fear associations are stored in a small organ in the brain called the amygdala, and there they remain for the rest of our lives.
There are many contrasting reasons for why a musician feels anxiety when taking the stage. Psychologist Glenn Wilson has divided the sources of musical performance anxiety into three categories: the task, the situation, and the person. (Klickstein, 2009; Lehmann, Sloboda & Woody, 2007, ch. 8; Wilson & Roland, 2002; Valentine, 2002).
How to deal with performance anxiety
Many have advised musicians that the key to a successful performance is over-preparation. “Practice your music so much that even your worst rendition still sounds pretty good, your body will deliver it onstage without thinking”. According to this view, you can have utmost confidence and no reason to worry going into a performance.
When well-intentioned performers pass on their advice of “what worked for me,” the result can be a diagnostic mismatch: one person’s prescribed treatment does not fit the underlying cause of another person’s anxiety. For example, the common recommendation of doing extra practice performances in the recital hall (source = the situation) will not help if your anxiety really comes from attempting music that is just too difficult for you (source = the task). No amount of breathing exercises or relaxation techniques will erase symptoms that have been brought on by irrational and/or negative thoughts and perfectionism(source = the person).
More common are recommended cure-alls, ranging from the silly (“imagine your audience in their underwear”) to the simplistic (“practice, practice, practice”). This reflects the fatalist attitude mentioned above, in which musicians accept anxiety as a fact and resign to battling symptoms without considering what’s causing them.
Performance means different things to different musicians. It seems that many musicians adopt an anxiety-related performance perspective early in their development (Thomas & Nettelbeck, 2013). A preventative approach starts with identifying the source.
A recent study showed that how you think about your musical instrument can affect your susceptibility to anxiety (Simoens & Tervaniemi, 2013). These researchers identified several attitudes that musicians may hold. They can feel united or “as one” with the instrument, they can see it as something to hide behind, or they can think of it as an obstacle to overcome between themselves and an audience. As might be expected, the research revealed that those with a united mindset had the lowest scores of performance anxiety. They also scored favorably in other measures of well-being, including confidence and the experience of positive feelings or boost during performance. The researchers suggest that those who feel united with their instruments can more freely express themselves and be less vulnerable to the opinions of others.
As musicians, the way we think about performance results from our past experiences and the musical cultures in which we’ve developed. It can be a difficult and unpleasant exercise to try to identify the attitudes and thought processes in ourselves that undermine our performance success. But the wealth of past research on performance anxiety has indicated that the most damaging thoughts are those that are irrational and negative “I am going to forget the words” “I’ll never do well” “I’m going to miss that note” “I never get this right”. What needs to happen, however, is to acknowledge these negative thoughts, expose them for their faulty quality, and, most importantly, replace them with realistic and task-centered thoughts (see Hoffman & Hanrahan, 2012).
Effectively changing your own thinking or cognitive restructuring, as psychologists call it does not happen without some work. Fortunately, the work that is required is, in a way, familiar to musicians, practice. If you’ve determined that the source of your performance anxiety is your own inner dialogue, then you can practice new thought patterns. Irrational and negative thinking will fade as you deliberately rehearse thoughts that are realistic and that focus on the true nature of music making.
Hoffman, S. L., & Hanrahan, S. J. (2012). Mental skills for musicians: Managing music performance anxiety and enhancing performance. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 1(1), 17–28.
Klickstein, G. (2009). The Musician’s Way. New York: Oxford University Press.
Lehmann, A. C., Sloboda, J. A., & Woody, R. H. (2007). Psychology for musicians. New York: Oxford University Press.
Simoens, V. L., & Tervaniemi, M. (2013). Musician–instrument relationship as a candidate index for professional well-being in musicians. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 7(2), 171-180.
Thomas, J. P., & Nettelbeck, T. (2013). Performance anxiety in adolescent musicians.Psychology of Music. Published online before print July 31, 2013.
Valentine, E. (2002). The fear of performance. In J. Rink (Ed.), Musical performance: A guide to understanding (pp. 168-182). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Wilson, G. D., & Roland, D. (2002). Performance anxiety. In R. Parncutt & G. E. McPherson (Eds.), The science and psychology of music performance (pp. 47–61). New York: Oxford University Press.
Woody, R. H. (2013, August). Stage Fright: What to Do When the Problem Is You. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/live-in-concert/201308/stage-fright-what-do-when-the-problem-is-you
Woody, R. H. (2012). When Practice, Practice, Practice Isn’t the Answer. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/live-in-concert/201207/when-practice-practice-practice-isn-t-the-answer
M.Phil (Psychology), Associate London College of Music (ALCM)
Vocal Instructor –Academy of Western Music, Chennai.