Monthly Archives: August 2013

Stage Fright: What to Do When the Problem Is You

Note: This post is cross-published on my “Live…In Concert” blog on the Psychology Today website.

Musicians who struggle with performance anxiety would love to discover the secret to a stress free life onstage. Performers can do much to alleviate the symptoms of stage fright, yet unfortunately, it is rarely a simple problem to solve. There is no single solution or preventative measure that will work for everyone. That’s because there are many contrasting reasons for why a musician feels anxiety when taking the stage.

As I’ve written about elsewhere, treating performance anxiety can be most effective when first identifying the source of it. One popular model identifies three broad sources that can trigger stage fright: the task, when performing the music is over-challenging; the situation, when performance conditions cause stress; and the person, when a musician’s own personality or thought processes is the root of problems. 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 just too difficult for you (source = the task). Also, many recommended treatments do not address any source at all, but merely try to ease symptoms. I’m convinced that no amount of breathing exercises or relaxation techniques will erase symptoms that have been brought on by irrational worry and perfectionism (source = the person).

Many musicians’ stage fright is fundamentally caused by what’s going on inside them—their attitudes, beliefs, and thought patterns related to performance. I suspect that this source of the person is the least dealt with by musicians. We are quick to step up our situational and task-related performance preparations—more practice, greater dress rehearsal, mentally imagining performance conditions. Yet we are less inclined to enter the messier confines of ourselves to address our own thinking related to public music making.

Performance means different things to different musicians. Perhaps the best way to think of it is also the simplest: it’s an opportunity for musicians to express themselves, and usually to people who wish to hear it and are predisposed to enjoy it. Of course, it’s easy for performers to lose sight of this simple notion amid the extensive time and energy they devote to their music activities, and the real-life pressures and consequences attached to their performances. It seems that many musicians adopt an anxiety-related performance perspective early in their development, and it may be a product of more general personality traits (Thomas & Nettelbeck, 2013).

A 2011 research study in the journal Psychology of Music probed the performance anxiety of children and adolescents, and offered some interesting insights (Allen, 2011). This research considered the state anxiety of these young musicians, that is, their feelings of fear, worry, and unease around performance. Kids in the study were introduced to free improvisation as a performance activity, in contrast to only playing pieces of music from the solo repertoire. The results showed that the free improvisation experience reduced anxiety. In interviews with the researcher, the kids talked about worrying less about “hitting the right notes” and being more able to “expressive myself” (p. 84). Of course, free improvisation is not the only kind of music making that allows performers to truly express themselves through music. I believe the main takeaway of this research is how one’s conception of performance contributes to the amount of anxiety felt going into it. It matters whether you think of it as an opportunity to communicate expressively to others, or as some kind of test of performance correctness.

A more 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 I believe it’s well worth it. The wealth of past research on stage fright has indicated that the most damaging thoughts are those that are irrational and negative. One of my favorite terms from the performance anxiety research is catastrophizing, which refers to those vague but overblown feelings of gloom and potential disaster. While we just try to push these thoughts out of our mind…until the performance is imminent and they overwhelm us. What needs to happen, however, is to acknowledge these negative thoughts, expose them for their faulty “all or nothing” 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. It’s 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.


Allen, R. (2011). Free improvisation and performance anxiety among piano students. Psychology of Music, 41(1), 75-88.

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.

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.

Copyright 2013 Robert H. Woody


Source of image: Lisa Forget