Note: This post is cross-published on my “Live…In Concert” blog on the Psychology Today website.
For many musicians, it’s a common scenario: You stand backstage about to go on, and you can feel the adrenaline coursing through your body. You may feel your chest pound, your breathing grow shallow, or a swarm of butterflies attack your stomach. As you take the stage, you notice your hands shake. 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.
For those who’ve struggled with it, performance anxiety can seem like a fact of life. They accept it as an inevitable part of performing. And accordingly, they may come to believe that they’ll never sound in concert as good as they did in rehearsal. Performance quality—how accurate or otherwise “good” the music sounds to an audience—is paramount. So dealing with anxiety means somehow compensating for the drop-off in quality that happens onstage. “If I play it 95% well in rehearsal, but only 80% in performance,” one might think, “then if I can get it to 110% in rehearsal, I can expect 95% on stage. Right?”
From this perspective, 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. Practice so you know it incredibly well, then practice it some more so that your body will deliver it onstage without thinking, without trying. Then, according to this view, you can have utmost confidence and no reason to worry going into a performance.
I’m certainly a believer in the necessity of practice for building musical skills. But I don’t believe it is always the key to overcoming performance anxiety. In fact, I would suggest that if you can play or sing your music well in rehearsal, but not in the concert, then additional practice is a poor strategy for managing stage fright. Instead of accepting and coping with a drop-off from practice to performance, I’d recommend seeking to remove the factors that diminish quality onstage.
Psychologist Glenn Wilson has divided the sources of musical performance anxiety into three categories: the task, the situation, and the person. Many musicians and researchers, including myself, have found this model useful for understanding performers’ anxiety issues and selecting effective treatments (Klickstein, 2009; Lehmann, Sloboda & Woody, 2007, ch. 8; Wilson & Roland, 2002; Valentine, 2002). When musicians experience anxiety because they believe they’re physically incapable of playing or singing their music, then the task is the source, and additional practice is a viable treatment. However, the situation is a more likely source when worry is brought on by the conditions of a public performance. Situational factors include the presence or absence of co-performers, the makeup of the audience, and any consequences of performance (e.g., an audition or competition). The person as a source of anxiety refers to the influential role that musicians’ own thinking plays. As I mentioned in a previous post, performers’ own thought processes can be empowering or debilitating.
As prevalent as performance anxiety is, the value of diagnosing it has not seemed to catch on. More common are recommended cure-alls, ranging from the silly (“imagine your audience in their underwear”) to the simplistic (“practice, practice, practice”). Also popular are reactive strategies for confronting anxiety. Breathing and muscle relaxation exercises have been found effective for many, and some turn to beta blocking drugs. I think this reflects the fatalist attitude mentioned above, in which musicians accept anxiety as fact and resign to battling symptoms without considering what’s causing them.
A preventative approach starts with identifying the source. While practicing the musical task is undeniably important when approaching a concert, much research suggests that also very influential are the performance situation and what goes on inside the heads of musicians themselves. Here I’ll share a couple recent studies that highlight the impact these can have and the value of addressing them specifically in treatment strategies.
In a 2011 study published in the journal Psychology of Music, three researchers in the UK compared perceived performance anxiety experiences of several different types of musicians, including classical, jazz, and popular (Papageorgi, Creech & Welch, 2011). Across all of their participants, solo performance elicited more anxiety than group performance. Additionally, classical musicians tended to report higher levels of anxiety. The researchers concluded that the traditionally formal context of classical performance may create additional pressure and increase anxiety levels.
That higher anxiety is linked to solo performance (vs. group) and classical contexts (vs. more informal) has been reported in much previous research. These clearly represent situational factors. Greater mastery over one’s music (the task) through practice does not address the intense “on the spot” feeling of a public solo performance, or additional pressure that may be brought on by formal concert settings. Instead, musicians can deal with situational stress through mental rehearsals, in which they try to remain calm while vividly imagining aspects of public performance. When situational anxiety is particularly debilitating, performers may choose a program of systematic desensitization. In this treatment approach, musician carry out a series of performances, learning to control their physiological arousal while gradually progressing from least anxiety-inducing to most anxiety-inducing conditions.
In another recent study, British conservatoire students underwent a “mental skills” training program that addressed sources of anxiety within the categories of the person and the situation. Participants learned to manage anxiety through goal-setting, cognitive restructuring (changing thinking through self-talk), and vivid imagery in mental rehearsals. Compared to a control group, those who received the training experienced a significant increase in their self-efficacy (i.e., perceived competence) toward performing. The post-training comments of these musicians “revealed greater levels of self-awareness, confidence, facilitative views toward and heightened control over anxiety, and healthier perspectives toward music-making” (p. 342).
As the old joke goes, the way to get to Carnegie Hall may very well be practice, practice, practice. But it may not be the key to having performance success once onstage. What’s more, excessive practice may not lead to enjoyment of the experience. Not only can stage fright harm the musical product being presented to an audience, it can prevent musicians from enjoying performance for themselves. I would suggest that many would be better served to focus not on the quality of their music—which may just drive them to more practice—but on finding greater “in the moment” awareness and reward for themselves during performance. This may prompt them to think more carefully about the situational factors that affect their performance experience, and reexamine their thought processes during music making.
Clark, T., & Williamon, A. (2011). Evaluation of a mental skills training program for musicians. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 23(3), 342-359.
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.
Papageorgi, I., Creech, A., & Welch, G. (2011). Perceived performance anxiety in advanced musicians specializing in different musical genres. Psychology of Music. doi: 10.1177/0305735611408995
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.
Copyright 2012 Robert H. Woody
Source of image: luxorium on Flickr Creative Commons.