Stage fright is something most people feel at some point. Many musicians struggle with performance anxiety beginning with their earliest years as students. Defining and explaining what occurs with Music Performance Anxiety (MPA) is the first step in understanding it and then choosing appropriate treatment. As Sir Francis Bacon said, “Knowledge itself is power.”
MPA is not a one-size-fits-all situation. It is a confluence of factors including individual biology, personal psychology, social environment, and philosophical outlook. As a result, there is no one solution to it that works for everyone. There is currently quite a bit of research being done on MPA, but many of the studies are small, so broad conclusions regarding treatment are hard to draw.
Identify Sources of Stress
Career stress and MPA go hand in hand according to experts in the field. The following are common career stressors in the music profession:
Loss of Control: In the circus-style event that is music performance, there are many things that are simply outside the performer’s control including illegible music, conductor stress, ambient temperature fluctuation, disorganized rehearsal time, final exam schedules, seasonal programming, etc. Other things that can feel out of players’ control might include being crammed in a pit, playing second flute to someone they struggle to match, or playing principal flute on a performance with lots of huge flute solos are some examples. (I once subbed on a concert where the principal flutist played Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Appalachian Spring, and Daphnis and Chloé all on the same program.)
Relationships: The music world can be cliquey, and players who do not feel a part of the group may feel a lack of social support. Conversely, others may struggle to maintain amicable, professional relationships with some colleagues. Music making is a communal, yet highly personal activity. Relation-ships at school and work have a huge impact on how people experience career stress. This can also include one’s role in an organization. For example, it can be stressful to play in a chamber group where decisions are made by only some members.
Balance with Personal Life: Many rehearsals and performances take place on evenings, weekends, and holidays. That can make socializing and relationships challenging, which can definitely take a toll on job satisfaction. There are also many couples who are both musicians, and career advancement for one can mean unemployment for the other.
Judgment: Music performance is full of judgment and competition both internal and external. This includes juries, auditions, competitions, and performances.
Normal Adolescent Development: Adolescence (about age 11-early 20s) is a stage when people often create an imaginary audience, complete with hyper attention to and scrutiny toward their actions. They create a personal fable of greatness which engages with that imaginary audience. None of this is bad, it is just part of how people create a sense of ego, aesthetics, and independence. People run into trouble, however, when they think others are as obsessed with their actions as they are. Unfortunately, this normal developmental stage occurs at the same time musicians begin performing and competing at higher levels.
There is also a stage around this time, called Formal Operations by Jean Piaget, where people begin to apply logic to abstract concepts. They think about how things could turn out differently in a variety of situations. They also can create “what if” scenarios that are not always rooted in reality. These scenarios can affect people positively or negatively.
Perfectionism: This can be a mixed bag. The negative aspects of perfectionism include excessive concern over making mistakes, extremely high personal standards, perception of high parental expectations, perception of criticism, doubting the quality of one’s actions, and a rigid preference for order and organization. However, it also includes motivation, effort, achievement, focus on goals and organization. Overly high expectations for oneself and concern over public perception can increase somatic issues, emotional distress, and lead to MPA.
Environment and Culture: The context of one’s culture and environment has a huge impact on a person’s experience of performance. A recent study stated that classical musicians reported fewer positive and more negative performance-related emotions than non-classical musicians. On the other hand, I have colleagues who grew up playing in the church; for them, making music is a way to commune with God, and music is played with open love and humanity. Environment can play a large role in emphasizing or mediating the effects of MPA.
There are many therapies that people utilize to combat this problem. The following are a few of the more standard, evidence-based practices that have been shown to help, along with some things you can do yourself.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: CBT is the standard in evidence-based practice for treating anxiety disorders. Working with a therapist (psychologist, social worker, or counselor), you explore the thoughts, emotions, and actions that are causing the anxiety. CBT usually uses cognitive strategies, exposure and experience building, arousal management, and learning adaptive strategies to help you to deal with the type of anxiety experienced.
Reframe the Experience: This takes the physical sensations felt with anxiety and reframes them in a positive way. For example, a player might feel springs in the legs or heat on the back of the neck. Instead of thinking of it as being nervous with all of that word’s negative connotations, the sensations can be rephrased as feeling energized. Arousal symptoms are neutral. It is the person who decides what the symptoms mean. You can also decide how much to react to the physical arousal.
Self-talk: Think about what you say to yourself when things go right and wrong. Begin with positive cheerleading. You need someone in your corner and that someone is you. It is important to keep in mind, however, that any play-by-play while you are performing is a recipe for distraction. Positive or negative, you are listening to something that is not your playing. Instead, talk to yourself between pieces, movements, or long rests – when you have a minute to regroup. Definitely talk to yourself before and after a performance. If thinking encouragingly feels challenging, try starting with a neutral statement like “Today’s show is going to happen.” Then move on to “This is going to go okay,” and gradually get on your own good side.
Get Out of Your Head: When anxiety begins to increase, it can be a very noisy experience – in thoughts, bodies, and emotions – and sometimes things just need to quiet down a bit. Do this by getting in the act of what you are doing. Amy Poehler says, “The doing is the thing. The talking and worrying and thinking is not the thing.” (Poehler, 2014.) By shifting your attention to what you are currently doing, you give yourself a breather. So pay attention to the strings during the Brahms 4 solo and listen to the chords unravel themselves in Scheherazade. In other words, take part in the music around you. One way to get better at this is through mindfulness meditation, a way of directing your attention purposefully upon whatever is happening in that particular moment in an accepting, nonjudgmental way. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to quiet brain regions that become overactive when people think about themselves. This helps quiet down the anxiety noise and all of the attention it is getting. By practicing mindfulness meditation for a bit each day, you will get better at coming back from distractions to the current moment. Strengthen this process outside of the practice room, so it becomes easier when you are playing.
Drugs and Alcohol: Self-medication is a bad choice. Substance abuse often accompanies anxiety disorders because many people use harmful substances in an attempt to regulate symptoms and enhance social skills. Do not do this. Prescription drugs are sometimes an option. SSRIs can be quite helpful for anxiety disorders, and research suggests that up to 31% of classical musicians use beta-blockers prior to performances (Finch and Moscovitch, 2016). Have an honest conversation with your doctor or therapist about medication.
Imagery: Musicians and athletes who experience heightened levels of anxiety in performance-based areas find that imagery is helpful to use as a mental rehearsal technique and as a form of exposure to anxiety-provoking situations. Some musicians use imagery to envision performing well in the presence of anxiety, called “confident coping” (Finch and Moscovitch, 2016). The key here, though, is to not only practice acceptance imagery, but success imagery as well.
ACT: Acceptance and Commit-ment Therapy considers behavior as being functional or nonfunctional, depending on the context. ACT uses mindfulness strategies as well as cognitive and behavioral concepts to encourage psychological flexibility. This is relatively new, but some studies have shown it may be as effective as CBT in treating anxiety disorders.
Social support: You are not the only one that has felt ever this way. Musicians tend to approach MPA as a taboo concept, almost contagious even. “Anxiety is a really real experience,” though, and can feel very isolating (Haithcock & Diamond, 2017). There are so many ways to reach out, but you must take the first step. Some ways to connect include talking with a teacher, trusted colleagues, friends, classmates, a therapist, calling a hotline, reading books, or going online. Make a connection to others who can listen to or empathize with your experience.
It can take persistence and effort to overcome the challenges of Music Performance Anxiety. However, relief of symptoms is possible, and musicians can experience more confidence both onstage and off.
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Many people who experience Music Performance Anxiety also experience Social Anxiety Disorder. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) lets clinicians diagnose SAD as applying to “performance only” if the anxiety is restricted to performing or speaking in public. Social Anxiety Disorder can be described as the following:
Marked fear or anxiety specific to social situations, in which a person feels noticed, observed, or scrutinized. In an adult, this could include a first date, meeting someone for the first time, or giving a speech.
SAD and MPA share many similar aspects. Australian research scientist, psychologist and MPA expert Dr. Dianna Kenny explains,
Music Performance Anxiety is the experience of marked and persistent anxious apprehension related to musical performance that has arisen through underlying biological and/or psychological vulnerabilities and/or specific anxiety-conditioning experiences. It is manifested through combinations of affective, cognitive, somatic, and behavioral symptoms. It may occur in a range of performance settings, but is usually more severe in settings involving high ego investment, evaluative threat (audience), and fear of failure. It may be focal (i.e., focused only on music performance), or occur comorbidly [at the same time] with other anxiety disorders, in particular social phobia [Social Anxiety Disorder]. It affects musicians across the lifespan and is at least partially independent of years of training, practice, and level of musical accomplishment. It may or may not impair the quality of the musical performance.” (Kenny, 2011)
In other words, MPA is generally a combination of feelings (apprehension, dread, panic), behaviors (avoid performing, meltdown), thoughts (loss of focus, memory problems), and physical sensations (trembling, sweating, dry mouth) that happen when performing. It can happen no matter what the musician’s achievements or experience level.
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If you would like to share your experiences and thoughts, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. You may indicate if you would prefer to remain anonymous.
We asked musicians to share how performance anxiety has affected their musical lives. They answered the following questions:
1. When did you first experience it and when does it affect you?
2. What does it feel like?
3. What has helped you deal with it?
1. I think my performance anxiety has always been there. Emotions range from excitement to overwhelming fear. My level of negative emotions is directly related to my level of preparedness. Only when I know every note, rhythm, breath, phrase and dynamic marking am I able to live in the moment and play without fear or holding back. My best performances always grow out of this concept. Know your music and know what you want to say to your audience.
2. Symptoms of my performance anxiety can range from non-existent to feeling sick, shaky and agitated. Loved ones have commented that I can be quite scatterbrained before a big concert.
3. Over the years my performance anxiety has improved. Teaching helped with this tremendously. Suddenly I had a flute studio and students with the same problems – some of them have it worse! I learned to coach them through their roadblocks and decided I needed to listen to my own advice. It is important to realize that you must practice performing. Playing a tough section fifty times in a row and finally perfecting it is not the same as playing it once in front of an audience. You must prepare for the performance, not just learn the music.
1. I first started noticing the physical symptoms of performance anxiety when I was about 13 years old. The mental afflictions of performance anxiety came around junior year in college, and it has gotten progressively worse the more involved I become in the musical world. (I attribute it to caring more.) It used to affect me when I played any sort of solo in orchestra, but after having experience as a principal player, I find that it is not nearly as bad anymore. I view orchestral playing as more of a team effort rather than me playing a solo. I get nervous when I have to play alone (i.e. audition, orchestral excerpt, solo repertoire) and when I have an audience.
2. It varies on the type of performance I am giving, but generally I have sweaty palms, shaky fingers, sometimes shaky legs, shortness of breath, inability to take a deep breath, and mental chaos. In fast or tricky passages I feel as though I can’t control my fingers, and they feel like they are flying all over the place. Performance anxiety affects me throughout all aspects of my life – it is not just when I’m on stage. Although I’ve been getting better at this, performance anxiety has stopped me from volunteering in masterclasses, auditioning for summer music festivals, and competing in competitions. It is a constant albatross around my neck.
3. I have recently started changing my mentality about playing and it has been helping. When I perform poorly and those negative thoughts come rushing in, I force myself to say, “Stop thinking those things. You did the best you could in that situation.” This semester has been easily the most difficult for me, and my performance anxiety and the negative effects of anxiety have been at an all-time high. A few weeks ago, I was sitting in bed, bummed out about how I played, and I thought, “You know, I’m really tired of feeling like this all the time.” That was the start of my change in mentality. I also notice that when I am feeling anxiety, having really solid technique helps me execute fast passages well even if I am shaking and don’t feel in control. In the practice room, I set my metronome at a slow tempo and then play the passage I want 5-10 times perfectly in a row; if I mess up, I go back to 1. Once I have played it perfectly, I bump my metronome up one or two notches. It is a very grueling process, but effective. Also, I drink peppermint tea when practicing and during breaks of performing. The smell calms me.
2nd-year masters student
1. The first time was in my graduation concert, I was not really ready. I had a lazy teacher at the time and I made silly mistakes. After that I always played a solo part in orchestra or in concerts.
2. It affects my finger technique.
3. When I play a recital, talking with the public helps me a lot. When I play in orchestra really nothing, only knowing I have a problem and thinking about it.
Florencia Ruiz Rosas, flute teacher
National Conservatory, Lima, Peru
1. I had a memory slip at age 11 playing a Boccherini Concerto. It was very traumatizing. I also had a “stage mother” who never praised me to my face, telling me I’d never be anything “but a two-bit cellist,” and a tough military captain who was a fine hornist but was fond of saying, “you’d better never consider going into the arts professionally, Sissy.” It was a perfect setup for failure, but it motivates me now.
2. I feel confused, angry, worthless, and absolutely insecure about myself in every way, not just musically.
3. At first, alcohol and drugs did the trick, but we all know where that leads. I tried biofeedback. acupuncture, witch doctors, cranks, psychiatrists, and psychologists who never truly understood that the joy and act of being an artist and a cellist was being ripped from me, but I was holding on for dear life. Real help has come in forms I would never have expected: family (my wife and kids), trusted friends, time away from the instrument, having hobbies, writing music and a book on cello pedagogy, and also addressing this issue very candidly, and lots of healthy practicing. Most importantly, though, is teaching.
Los Angeles Philharmonic
1. I remember it from 5th grade. Always when I am performing.
2. Dry mouth, shaky fingers.
3. Nothing really.
1. I have found that my performance anxiety shows up mostly when I am the focus of the attention: solos, solos in orchestral literature, auditions, etc. I first experienced it during my undergrad years, and the symptoms, though I could fight to overcome them, affected my playing. During my master’s years, I had an excellent teacher who helped me redirect my focus to help with my anxiety. Even today there are still some symptoms I have yet to overcome. I know it stems from both fear of failure and fear of success. I came into music school as an underdog because I did not come from a musical family. In addition, because of the family business, it wasn’t an option for me to attend summer intensives, and music was not seen as a serious career in my family. This left me feeling like I did not measure up to everyone else. I knew that I loved to play the flute, and I was certain the rest would come with time, practice, and patience, but I was incredibly sensitive to what people might think of me or my playing, and it was debilitating. I found that the support and kindness of my teachers worked wonders for me and my performance anxiety, the feeling of being “taken under the wing.” As long as they believed in me, I could believe in myself.
2. My symptoms usually progress like this (it is a journey):
• 10 minutes before performance: lots of little pee runs to the bathroom. Sweating and mild shakes.
• 5 minutes before: sinuses start draining phlegm down the back of my throat, even if I don’t have a cold. (I kid you not! I screwed up an orchestral audition once because I had phlegm drop to the back of my throat just as I was breathing during a bar rest and it totally threw off my timing because I choked!) This will usually continue off and on throughout performance.
• 5 minutes before performance through first half of performance: crazy amounts of saliva. Sometimes I will have to swallow three times before I can even make an entrance. Which then leads to inability to swallow and a full feeling after that, which affects my ability to take deep breaths.
• 5 mins through first half: sweaty palms. Tingling if it is a big stressor performance like Firebird. Also, my brain will race, it can be difficult to focus.
• About halfway through: severe cotton mouth sets in. Which makes tonguing difficult and then of course affects the quality of my sound.
• Last 1/4 of performance: everything subsides. I gain control of my fears, command my performance and have fun!
3. My teacher during my Master’s was extremely helpful in teaching me how to address my performance anxiety. She would tell me to create a roadmap out of my piece and Follow the Plan! (which I would write as a reminder at the top of my piece). If I had a plan of attack, I could focus on specific techniques that aided my performance and thus keep my mind focused on the music and task at hand, and not on my own fears. (This might be things such as “lift ribcage,” “relax,” “tiny specs of sunshine between notes,” “check embouchure,” “freely,” “blow through line,” etc.) I had specific points during a one- or two-bar rest that were a reset. It was a brief moment that I could take if I was struggling; I could reset the structure of my embouchure, let go of tension and check my posture, and then take off again. These nuggets of information kept me focused and freed me, and would stay with me as I memorized the piece and then played from memory. I still struggle with performance anxiety, but at least I have a plan of attack that helps me overcome it. If I can knock out several symptoms in a performance, and only have one or two, I consider it a huge success!
flute teacher/free-lance performer
Michigan and Florida
1. I don’t remember when I first experienced it, but the first memory I have of it is was when I was asked to perform a concerto with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra.
2. Shaking and scared
3. It helps to perform as much as possible in front of anyone (the mailman, next-door neighbor) and having them sit or stand very close and staring at me or trying to distract me with coughing etc. so that I could practice concentration. I got this idea when working one summer at a lodge in the Rocky Mountains where I had to perform every Saturday in a staff concert. I got really tired of being nervous all week for the upcoming performance. I also find that visualization helps but I didn’t discover that until after I took a break from performing while writing the first edition of my flute dictionary. It’s much harder and is taking longer to deal with the nervousness the second time around.
flutist, teacher, editor, author
1. I would have to say during auditions for area band and orchestra festivals. To this day (it has been well over 30 years since high school) I still struggle most with auditions. My anxiety level correlates with that of my hope for the spot. For some reason, which I have yet to pin down so I can apply it to auditions, actually performing, though still an anxious affair, is manageable. The anxiety I experience during performance is more of an exciting, enjoyable experience than that experienced during auditions.
2. I get the usual symptoms of anxiety: heart racing, constricted throat, shallow breathing, dry mouth, wobbly embouchure, leaden tongue. It is frustrating, and at those times when my audition performance suffers so badly, it is embarrassing – almost shameful.
3. Occasionally, (for the stubborn audition nerves) I have found that an attitude of “whatever” has helped. As in, I’ve done the work and regardless of how well or poorly I do, I may or may not be the best person of the group. It also helps to plan my practice like I would a training program for a marathon: setting small, manageable milestones to meet over the course of months rather than trying to cram the practice in over a couple of weeks. And, of course, I take several deep breaths before starting.
Donna Brown Moore