Category Archives: Expressivity

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


Do You Hear What I Hear?

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

In many ways, the label “self-taught musician” is a misnomer. Even those who learn from YouTube videos avail themselves of the musical models of others. Most people who become skilled musicians only do so with the involvement of other people such as teachers, mentors, and musical peers. One of the most important functions they serve is giving feedback. Whether in the formal contexts of school classes or private lessons, or in more informal settings like a friend’s garage or basement, budding performers learn a lot about their musicianship from other people’s evaluation and advice.

At some point in their development, young musicians become less dependent on the appraisals of others and engage more in self-evaluation. Accurately hearing one’s own performance, however, is not always a straightforward process. In fact, self-awareness may not be a strong suit for some performers. I was recently asked about this by someone in audio production and engineering whose experiences had led him to believe that many musicians are poor judges of their own work. He wondered if there’s a psychological phenomenon by which performers mentally replace what is actually sounded with a version from their “mind’s ear.”

I think he’s onto something. In my own research, I’ve had numerous experiences in which musicians I’m working with are unaware of aspects of their own performance. In some ways, this is hardly noteworthy. Many of the expressive features that musicians put in their performances are done fairly automatically, presumably the result of much musical enculturation and practice. In one experiment (Woody, 2003), I asked advanced pianists to play a “deadpan” version of a melody—one with no expressive variations in tempo or loudness—and found that they were consistently unable to do it. But what’s more interesting are times when performers believe they have added certain expressive features in their music, when in fact they have not. It would seem that their musical intentions interfere with their ability to accurately hear their performance.

To understand this phenomenon better, I offer up a model of cognitive skills used in music performance (I believe it also can be applied to other types of skilled performance such as sports, but I’ll stick to music here). When people make music, there are three kinds of cognition going on:

  • Goal imaging is the ability to generate a clear idea of what the music should sound like. Because music deals with sound, this “image” is primarily aural, but it may also include some visual or conceptual aspects (e.g., focusing on a “high point” in a phrase). While most everyone holds goal images of music in memory—it’s how people can decide whether a particular rendition of a familiar song sounds good or bad—skilled musicians create precise images to guide their own performance.
  • Motor production is the ability to carry out the physical movements and responses needed to sing or play a particular instrument. At first thought, this ability might not seem cognitive in nature, but remember that “muscle memory” resides not in the muscles but in the memory (i.e., the mind). Learning a physical skill involves remembering the “feel” of it. New motor skills start off requiring much conscious effort, but with adequate repetition, they can reach a level of automaticity.
  • Self-monitoring is the ability to accurately hear one’s own performance. This is not always easy to do, which is why musicians can be surprised when they hear recordings of themselves (“Did I really sound like that?”). The importance of self-monitoring is seen in the research showing that musicians’ motor learning is significantly impaired when they cannot hear their performance (e.g., Brown & Palmer, 2012).

It is the interaction between these three skills that accounts for improvement made in musicians’ practice sessions. With a clear idea in mind of what they’re trying to sound like (goal image), musicians can compare it to how they do sound (self-monitoring). Identifying discrepancies between the two should guide them in adjusting their technique (motor production).

Especially when performing unfamiliar music, carrying out these cognitive skills can demand all of a musician’s attention. It may, in fact, demand more. Performers can cognitively “max out” just from concentrating on what they’re trying to sound like and on executing the physical skills required. They may not have attentional resources available to accurately hear the results of their efforts (see also Keller, 2001). This is why younger musicians can be so dependent on the feedback of others to know whether they performed something well. They simply cannot encode into memory both the goal and the outcome of performance. More experienced musicians may become so focused on the expressive intentions of their performances that they forget—or simply do not want to be bothered—to listen objectively to the sounds they’re producing. Instead of comparing the products of goal imaging and self-monitoring to guide their performance, they linger over the goal.

This model can be useful to musicians as they attempt to diagnose their performance problems. It can also be useful to teachers—perhaps even music producers—when they are trying to get performers to change something about their playing or singing. The key comes in pinpointing where a breakdown is happening. Does the musician not have a good idea of what he or she is supposed to sound like? If so, goal imaging can be built through additional listening, both to recordings and expert models (certainly school band directors would have an easier time in rehearsals if their students actually listened to band music). Alternatively, some musicians’ practice sessions may be ineffective because they are unaware of what they truly sound like. Perhaps they are practicing music that so challenges them technically that all their cognitive resources are devoted to merely producing the desired sounds on an instrument. In this case, I’d recommend they audio record their practicing and listen carefully upon playback.

By proposing this model, I’m not suggesting that making music should be experienced as an analytical process. Although I do believe these cognitive skills underlie performance, I’d suggest that musicians only try to bring them to the surface while practicing. Successful performance is marked by more fluid or “natural” music making. I suspect that through initial consciousness and the careful repetition of practice, these cognitive skills become automatized in expert musicians. It’s likely they come to use extramusical ideas—emotions, mental imagery, expressive metaphors—to more efficiently encode into memory the sounds and “feel” of performance that they acquire through experience.


Brown, R. M., & Palmer, C. (2012). Auditory-motor learning influences auditory memory for music. Memory & Cognition, 40, 567-578.

Keller, P. E. (2001). Attentional resource allocation in musical ensemble performance. Psychology of Music, 29, 20-38.

Woody, R. H. (2003). Explaining expressive performance: Component cognitive skills in an aural modeling task. Journal of Research in Music Education, 51, 51-63.

Copyright 2012 Robert H. Woody

Source of image: christophheinrich on Flickr Creative Commons.

Music Made for Peak Perception

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

Music possesses the power to evoke human emotions, some extremely intense and meaningful in the contexts of our lives. For many, live performance can do this especially well. Even in the current age of omnipresent digital recordings, live music is still in great demand. For those of us who take the stage as performers, it can be difficult to think of a concert solely from the perspective of a spectator. We are used to focusing on how best to produce expression and transmit feeling through our music. We may not think as much about how audience members receive our expressive messages, and how they experience emotion during performances. But the emotional rewards felt by concertgoers can be just as powerful—if not more so—than those felt by the people on stage.

These magical moments that are so cherished by musicians and music lovers have also been the target of psychologists’ study for some time. The notion of peak experiences, first advanced and by Abraham Maslow in the 60s and 70s, refers to mental states in which people have strong feelings of wonder, enthrallment, and ecstasy. The 80s and 90s saw the popularization of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of flow, which describes how people can become so completely engaged in a challenging activity that time flies by and they experience the intrinsic rewards of the activity free of self-consciousness. One of the conditions of the flow state is a balance between the challenge of a task and one’s skill in carrying it out. With this in mind, it’s no wonder that music performance has been a frequent context for the study of flow, with Csikszentmihalyi himself often citing it.

Many musicians aspire to have peak performances in their activities. Ideally the presence of a public audience is not seen as a source of anxiety, but an opportunity to further enhance the strong emotional rewards of performance. As musicians seek these for themselves, I believe most would also like to provide peak experiences for their audiences. Although music listening and concert attendance aren’t typically thought of as challenging activities or tasks, they can still engender flow experiences. They are, however, clearly different from the act of performing music. Musicians can gain much with a better appreciation for all the factors that are present during a performance, specifically from the perspective of an audience.

One of my favorite chapters in the 2011 Handbook of Music and Emotion is by music psychologist Alf Gabrielsson, who reviews the research on “Strong Experiences with Music.” He tackles a few of the more fantastic examples of music-induced peak experiences, such as transcendental and religious experiences, trance states, and synesthesia (visions of colors and lights). He also identifies some of the most important contributors to peak experiences during a live music performance. These influencing factors, in the broadest terms, are the musicthe person, and the situation (see also Lamont, 2011). These three things interact to create the added dimensions that make live music so unique and powerful—the thrill of real-time vocal and instrumental production, the visuals on stage and around the venue, and the social aspects involving performers and audience members.

The sound properties of the music that make it expressive include timbre, rhythm, pitch, tempo, dynamics, and articulation. You might say that the art and craft of musicianship consist of choosing the right order, combinations, and variations of these things in order to communicate to a listening audience. There has been some interesting research that has provided insight into how certain musical devices can even elicit physiological responses from listeners. For example, John Sloboda’s (1991) study of classical music lovers was able to identify some pretty specific musical triggers among Westerners. Among them, tears were linked to melodic appoggiaturas, shivers occurred after sudden harmony changes, and a racing heart followed instances of rhythmic syncopation.

This would suggest that it is a worthwhile endeavor to develop mastery over one’s instrument in order to allow expressive musical devices to be carried out with control and precision. But just because performers can produce expressive features in their music, doesn’t mean that they always will do so. My own research has shown that even among advanced musicians, expressive intentions don’t always make it into the sound properties of performance (Woody, 2002, 2003). Some musicians trust that their own emotions will naturally infuse their music and elicit the same feelings from listeners. It doesn’t always work. As part of developing expressive performance skills, it can be fruitful to simply direct musicians’ attention to the acoustic sound properties that they’re producing—and how they’re perceived by listeners—instead of dwelling only on their inner intentions to be expressive (Juslin & Laukka, 2000). Take, for instance, a pianist who wishes to communicate sadness and longing in melody. Her strategy for making the melody expressive may be to muster up feelings of sadness and longing in herself while performing. This emotional process could divert her attention from accurately hearing whether her sounded music contains features that will be perceptible to listeners. In fact, her own felt emotion could wrongfully convince her of the expressiveness of her music. As far as the music is concerned, listeners have no other way to access the heart of the pianist but by the way she presses the keys on the instrument (and the sound it produces). This is why listening to recordings of themselves can be so helpful to musicians; it can afford them more objective appraisals of their performance quality.

The other two factors of strong experiences with live music are the person and the situation. Many things can affect an audience member’s disposition and extra-musical associations during a concert, some of which are clearly outside of the control of any performer. (Though this doesn’t mean they should be dismissed altogether, as we’ll see below.) Situational factors, however, are often chosen—or passively accepted—by performing musicians. Anything that affects how audience members receive the sounds and sights of the performance can be extremely influential. This is why much pre-concert time is spent on sound checks to ensure the best acoustics given the physical layout of a venue. But the visual aspects of a performance are also critically important. A recent NRP Music interview brought one case in point to my attention. Aside from her impressive technique, some of cellist Alisa Weilerstein’s notoriety can be attributed to how physically expressive she is in performance. She points to the moving and dancing that rock musicians commonly do onstage, saying “it always struck me as sort of surprising that people would find that strange in classical music.”

Concertgoers take many cues about emotionality from what they see in musicians’ facial expressions, bodily movements, and other physical attributes. Quite a few research studies have confirmed that what people hear—or think they hear—can be heavily influenced by what they see (among them Behne & Wöllner, 2011). Even among musically sophisticated audience members, judgments of musical quality are often biased by things like performer attractiveness, wardrobe, and stage behavior. There is also the prestige effect, which says that listeners’ perception can be skewed by whether they believe they’re hearing, say, the “naïve interpretation” of a student musician, versus a “bold rendition by innovative expert.” It also explains the famous (among classical music followers, anyway) Joshua Bell subway experiment, in which the world-class violinist went ignored while playing virtuosic repertoire in a busy Washington, DC Metro station.

No doubt some musicians lament that elaborate costuming, scenery, and stage “antics” may be used to compensate for poor command of one’s musical instrument (i.e., technique, including sounded expressiveness). Such visual elements are often referred to as extra-musical factors. I would suggest, however, that they are more para-musical, in that they are necessarily part of live performance. No music can be perceived and understood outside of some cultural and personal context. Music performance has always been about more than the pleasantness of the sounds produced. Audio-purists should take heart, though, to know that research affirms that the music does matter. But it’s also clear that performers can no more afford to ignore the para-musical factors that affect perception than they can what’s accomplished through technique.

One clear message musicians can take from this research is that audiences do not parse out various aspects of live performance. Many times an intense emotional response to music is less about the music, and more about the person taking it in. Music-induced peak experiences can often be cathartic in nature, characterized by the feeling of releasing something within. In another study, John Sloboda (1992) reported how many listeners described music as a trigger or an outlet or a way to deal with things that are “bottled up” inside. He concluded that in many instances, “music does not create or change emotion; rather it allows a person access to the experience of emotions that are somehow already ‘on the agenda’ for that person, but not fully apprehended or dealt with” (p. 35).

Perhaps the most successful performers try to know the types of people who are in attendance at their concerts. They not only practice the notes that they will produce on stage, but they consider the other factors that will affect the audience’s perception. Instead of merely accepting the conventions of their performance genre—for better or worse—they more actively select the physical and social factors that hold sway in live music. The may even have some insight into the kinds of emotions their audience members seek to have stirred up or released by the music they take in. Playing or singing for a crowd of engaged and emotionally responsive people will likely make the experience all the more rewarding for the performers themselves.


Behne, K. E., & Wöllner, C. (2011). Seeing or hearing the pianists? A synopsis of an early audiovisual perception experiment and a replication. Musicae Scientiae, 15, 324-342.

Gabrielsson, A. (2011). Strong experiences with music. In P. N. Juslin & J. Sloboda (Eds.), Handbook of music and emotion: Theory, research, applications (pp. 547-574). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Juslin, P. N., & Laukka, P. (2000). Improving emotional communication in music through cognitive feedback. Musicae Scientiae, 4, 151-183.

Lamont, A. (2011). University students’ strong experiences of music: Pleasure, engagement, and meaning. Musicae Scientiae, 15, 229-249.

Sloboda, J. A. (1991). Music structure and emotional response: Some empirical findings. Psychology of Music, 19, 110-120.

Sloboda, J. A. (1992a). Empirical studies of emotional response to music. In M. R. Jones & S. Holleran (Eds.), Cognitive bases of musical communication (pp. 33-46). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Woody, R. H. (2003). Explaining expressive performance: Component cognitive skills in an aural modeling task. Journal of Research in Music Education, 51, 51-63.

Woody, R. H. (2002). The relationship between musicians’ expectations and their perception of expressive features in an aural model. Research Studies in Music Education, 18, 53-61.

Copyright 2012 Robert H. Woody

Source of images: Flickr Creative Commons: 12.

Taking Stock Before Taking the Stage

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

When great musicians are on stage, I am amazed by how naturally the music seems to flow from them. There’s great energy in what they’re doing, but it seems to happen without much obvious exertion. The performers communicate through their music, and it moves my thoughts and emotions as I watch and listen. It would seem that in the ideal performance situation, this process happens almost organically, naturally driven by the musicians’ inner passion, and free of contrivance and strain.

In an ideal world, all musicians would perform with the goal of heartfelt expression that deeply moves audiences. Unfortunately, this may not be the norm in most of our concert halls. Some musicians are so preoccupied with the work involved in giving a public performance that they lose sight of their expressive goals. They would love to take the stage with clear minds and more fully channel the emotion they wish to communicate. But this can be an elusive endeavor. To make matters worse, sometimes the only emotion a musician brings to a performance is fear, as stage fright takes hold.

Because of the ideas described above, some may come to believe that performance success depends on shutting off the intellect. It can be an appealing prospect: quit thinking and planning and analyzing, and just trust that your love for music will guide you to an expressive performance, right? Perhaps not. Research in the psychology of music suggests otherwise. Our thinking may be our most powerful resource toward fulfilling performances. It is our thinking—specifically our beliefs and attitudes—that guides our motivation patterns in our musical activities. It is mindful and deliberate practice that most efficiently builds performance skills. And there is great value in our mind’s capacity for reflection, that is, our ability to monitor our musical behaviors and even change the way we think.

Let me start with an example of how beliefs and attitudes can affect the way musicians approach performance. Some psychologists who study motivation have suggested that there are two broad orientations that people can have when pursuing something like music: ego-involved and task-involved. If I have an ego-involved goal orientation, I’m primarily concerned about how I am judged through my musicianship. Performances are opportunities to garner favorable recognition…or to lose it. If I have a task-involved goal orientation, I’m thinking about the musical activity itself. Thought processes center on producing a performance that measures up to a self-set standard.

In a 2005 study of the goal orientations of collegiate instrumental musicians, beliefs about musical talent emerged as an important underlying factor (Smith, 2005). Those who thought of musical talent as an inborn stable trait (“either you got it or you don’t”) were more likely to take an ego-involved approach to performance. They thought about how they would compare to other musicians and expressed concern about looking bad. This came in contrast to those who believed musical ability is acquired through effort and practice; these musicians were more likely to embrace new challenges and to do so out of personal interest. Further, task oriented musicians tended to take more varied and in-depth strategies in their practicing.

I think there’s much to be gained by examining our motivations as performers, perhaps even using the ego- and task-involved goal designations. Past research suggests that musicians driven by ego goals—without much task involvement—are more likely to experience negative feelings in their music making. Their orientation may actually hinder the effectiveness of their practicing and make them more susceptible to stage fright. I know I’ve gone into performances primarily concerned about how my musicianship would be judged by others. Instead of focusing on my expressive aims, I’m worried about wrong notes. Performance is no longer an opportunity to enjoy, but an ordeal to endure.

Just being aware of our thought processes heading into a performance can be beneficial. In another study with college music majors, two researchers asked their participants to complete “diary” before 15 performances during a school year (Sadler & Miller, 2010). For each entry, always done within an hour before performing, they described their thoughts and feelings heading into their performance. Over the course of the 15 performances, there was a significant decrease in performance anxiety reported by the music students. And note, these musicians were not directed to use any particular strategy to combat stage fright; they simply took note of what they were thinking and feeling. It would seem that even some basic self-awareness can have a therapeutic effect.

So it’s not the avoidance of thinking that facilitates a gratifying performance experience. More likely, the key is being able to direct your thoughts to the right things. For years, psychologists have treated anxieties of many kinds through cognitive restructuring. In this approach, people struggling with anxiety learn to change their thinking, primarily through self-talk. But it does not entail reciting undue praise to yourself in a shallow “power of positive thinking” way. Rather, self-talk is used to monitor and reshape thought patterns, in order to replace irrational negative thoughts with more realistic and task-centered ones. The approach has been effective with musicians, including very recently in a study by two performance psychologists (Hoffman & Hanrahan, 2012). They provided three workshops in which musicians were guided in examining their thought processes related to performance anxiety. They identified the negative thinking that they commonly engage in, and learned how to replace dysfunctional “all or nothing” thought patterns with more constructive ones. Even with this relatively modest intervention—just three hour-long sessions offered over a three week period—the musicians experienced a significant drop in perceived anxiety while performing, as well as a significant increase in the quality of their performances, as determined by independent musical judges.

Ultimately your musical performances will be judged by how expressive or feelingful they are. And you can’t “play it with feeling” if all you feel is dread! We cannot simply shut off our minds just prior to taking the stage. I suppose for some of the greatest musicians, their skills are so practiced, so polished, and so deeply rooted that they can deliver a stirring performance with their thoughts wandering to others things. But most of us are not there yet. We have to think about something as we prepare to present our music to an audience. There can be some serious drawbacks of stepping on stage while thinking about the performance—what’s riding on it, what could go wrong, and other potentially threatening aspects. A better alternative would be to focus your thoughts on your music making, and that in its plainest context. I would suggest that fundamentally, music is about the sharing of expression with others, done because it’s a meaningful, enriching, and even essential part of being human.

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.

Sadler, M. E., & Miller, C. J. (2010). Performance anxiety: A longitudinal study of the roles of personality and experience in musicians. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 1(3), 280-287.

Smith, B. P. (2005). Goal orientation, implicit theory of ability, and collegiate instrumental music practice. Psychology of Music, 33(1), 36-57.

Image source: Photos taken by Liz Love of

From the Mouths of Music Majors: Loving and Learning

Every year in the Spring semester, I teach a class called “Music Learning and Development,” which is populated by sophomore music education majors (the course counts as their educational psychology training). One of the first topics of the class is motivation. Among other issues, we cover the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic sources of motivation, similar to this previous post. A couple weeks ago, as part of an application assignment, my students identified a musical activity of theirs that they do out of intrinsic motivation. I asked them to think carefully about why it’s so rewarding and describe their motives in a brief essay.

As you might expect, their responses were varied and insightful. I was not surprised by what I read, but I was impressed with how articulately and passionately they spoke of their musical loves. Their comments, some of which I share below with their permission (and names changed), fall in line with some general principles supported by recent research in music education, as well as much anecdotal evidence relayed to me by musicians and teachers over the years.

Musical tastes affect learning.

There’s no substitute for intrinsic motivation. No teacher-generated incentive (or threat) can match the attention and drive produced by intrinsic motivation. If students generally like what they are doing, it can yield a commitment that’ll sustain them through many challenges. And if they love many aspects of an activity, it can spark rapid and long term growth.

In my students’ comments about what intrinsically motivates them, I saw a trend toward performance opportunities that typically include more vernacular music. Mentioned by several students were show choir, marching band, pep band, musical theatre, and jazz groups. Others expressed their enjoyment of playing popular songs on guitar or piano. One student told of the fun he has playing in a polka band!

With many of the musical styles and activities represented above, I wonder if some of students’ attraction is due to the overt energy—even physicality—associated with them. Perhaps young people’s engagement and learning is boosted when the activity is…well, active! One student Katie said this about performing in show choir:

I really do not need to be in it for any reason other than the personal joy I get out of rehearsing and performing with this group. I love to dance, and I do not get to do so anywhere else. I also get to sing pop music, something that does not happen often in the School of Music.

Does this mean we should abandon classical music and the repertoire of traditional school concert ensembles? Of course not. These are the perfect vehicles for accomplishing some critical outcomes of music education. But given the facilitating power of intrinsic motivation to learning, I would like school curricula to continue to broaden and be more inclusive of multiple musical styles, including those that are familiar to and preferred by students. Some very important learning objectives—improving aural skills, building technical facility, and increasing musical creativity, among many others—can be effectively attained using styles of music that students love.

Music is a means of knowing others and oneself.

Research is establishing that two broad benefits of music participation are social development and identity formation. Many of my students pointed to their preferred music activities as means of making friends and stimulating personal growth. Of his favorite musical group, Jared said: “When practicing or performing, I get to be myself. I don’t have to put on a ‘societal mask’ because I’m truly in my element. I am in it purely for the love of the art.” Similarly, Aurora said playing her own singer-songwriter material on the piano is “a way to express what I feel on the inside into something more tangible and musical…and help me remember why I love music and why I am working hard at school.”

Another student Melinda described it this way:

It is important for me to have a group I participate in only out of the pure passion I have to express myself. I also make tons of friends, all whom I consider my family. There is no possible way I could be in this group out of extrinsic motivation because we don’t compete, so there are no rewards or grades or gain other than the feeling you get when you are doing what you love, with the people you love.

The social rewards of a music group don’t just happen outside of rehearsals and performance. It would seem that significant bonding can occur during the music making itself. In Hector’s comment below, you can see that improvisation not only serves a self-expressive purpose, it allows connection to others.

One very important musical activity for me is free improvisation with friends. It allows me to get away from any written music, and focus solely on the people around me. Free improvisation doesn’t mean going crazy on your instrument with no rules. If one person plays an idea, then you’re bound to the dynamics, tempo, and roughly the same style of rhythm and articulation. It’s similar to someone asking you to paint a rainbow, but they only give you white and black paint. You have certain limits, but you’re free to do whatever you need to do in order to reach what you feel is necessary, musically.

To optimally learn, students must feel empowered.

Hector’s comment above also illustrates how motivating it is to feel autonomy or a sense of control in music. Many of the groups cited by my students have an increased element of student leadership. Marching bands, for instance, often utilize students as rank leaders or section leaders. I suspect that young musicians are more willing to do hard work when they feel it is their work. Rene noted the adversities of outdoor rehearsals in Nebraska’s sweltering summer heat and bitter winter cold, but concluded, “I miss every second of it in the off season and I crave to go back and work on more drills.”

In order for students to feel empowered or invested in an activity, teachers need not relinquish their leadership role. But they may benefit from extending to students more decision-making opportunity. However it is accomplished, student musicians thrive when they feel their contributions are valued and significant. Kellen admitted that playing a melody instrument provides a “huge feeling of satisfaction and importance.” He went on to explain it greater detail:

It is kind of selfish reasoning, but I just feel important to the group as I play the melody so often, and with an instrument that can be heard by most the audience. I feel like the success of the performance has a great deal to do with me, and I enjoy that responsibility.

While these student don’t typically use the term “intrinsic motivation” when they speak of their music making, they definitely understand the concept. They have experienced it, and for most of them, it’s what led them to choose their major. I hope that these sophomores will continue to connect with their musical loves as they get deeper into the music education degree, and throughout their teaching careers that follow. They may face more and more musical expectations (i.e., extrinsic factors) going forward. Ideally they won’t allow those things to dominate their time such that they stop engaging in self-selected music activities. Here’s one final student quote, from Wilson, that says it well:

This group has provided me with an enjoyment that I think all music students should have. Playing in this group is not about making money or even advancing yourself musically, it’s about making music for the group.

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Image source: Photo taken by Liz Love of

The Artist’s Battle Within

Artistry and expertise are domain specific. This means that someone who’s particularly creative as a musician will not necessarily be creative as a writer or a painter or a chef. But there are major commonalities in the creative process across all disciplines. I’ve noticed that music composers and creative writers sound very similar when they talk of the challenges faced and the rewards gained in their endeavors. There may be a kind of creative mindset that is needed to be successful, regardless of whether your medium is music, words, paint, or food.

Tom WaitsMuch music making around us is reproductive, rather than creative. Formal groups from professional orchestras to school choirs perform the published works of composers. Aspiring rock bands play “cover” versions of others’ songs, and even the most popular artists can feel obligated to offer in live performances exact replicas of what they recorded in the studio. As much as audiences enjoy hearing the familiar, there are some insights into music that can only be gained by creating original material for oneself. Unfortunately, immersion into reproductive music performance can make composing or improvising new music a scary prospect. But a disinclination to creativity is not natural. On the contrary, young children are natural creators, be it through singing spontaneous songs, drawing personally expressive pictures, or thinking up imaginative stories. To paraphrase Picasso, the problem is remaining creative when we’re grown up.

The parallels between creative writing and creative music making are striking to me. I’ve tried to do both, and my struggles have led me to take a real interest in the similar processes involved. I’m not the only one. I recently came across a podcast by WNYC’s Radiolab called “Help!” This episode–subtitled “What do you do when your own worst enemy is…you”–includes a stimulating discussion of the artist’s struggle to be creative. We’ve all been there. We stare at the blank page (whether literally or figuratively) and there are no ideas flowing. Instead of tapping into deep emotions to drive our creative expression, we experience feelings of self-doubt, disinterest, or just desire to do email/Twitter/Facebook!

It seems that many artists successfully overcome these writer’s block experiences by separating from themselves. Some have conceived of it as being visited by a muse. Or receiving inspiration from a source outside of themselves. Or simply accepting the ideas that are “out there” and looking for an artist-portal through which they can enter reality. In the “Help!” podcast, Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert tells of an interview she did with singer-songwriter Tom Waits when she was a writer for GQ magazine. Here’s a clip in which she recounts Waits’ philosophy that each song is its own entity and must be dealt with as such:

Unlike Waits and Gilbert, other creative artists look inward. They believe the ideas come from within, and that their job is to allow that part of themselves to speak. In her book The Right to Write, Julia Cameron describes her solution to writer’s block as thinking of writing as taking dictation, not giving it. “Once writing becomes an act of listening instead of an act of speech, a great deal of the ego goes out of it,” she says. “We retire as the self-conscious author and become something else–the vehicle for self-expression. When we are just the vehicle…we often write very well–we certainly write more easily.” This sentiment is echoed by author Oliver Sacks, who wrote among other books the wonderful and provocative Musicophilia. At one point in the “Help!” Radiolab podcast, he describes one of those break-through moments:

Whether conceived of as coming from within or without, interfacing with that expressive source is a key to creativity. It requires us to suspend our own critical voice. In his series of Inner Game books, author Timothy Gallwey describes all performers as having both a Self 1 that’s controlling and judgmental, and a Self 2 that’s free and naturally expressive. (Gallwey’s ideas are anecdotal to be sure, but I’ve found many to line up well with what the research says about managing performance anxiety.) Sometimes that critical voice is plainly negative and floods our minds with self-doubt and defeatist thinking. Other times we more subtly sabotage ourselves with the mindset of perfectionism. We may even believe that perfectionism is an asset that ultimately ensures our work will be of the highest quality. But more frequently a perfectionist mentality prevents artists from having the freedom to be creative at all. One of my very favorite writers is Anne Lamott. In her book Bird by Bird (which I love) she offers advice to struggling authors who cannot let their thoughts flow into a first draft because they’re too concerned that the initial wording doesn’t sound like a polished final product. “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor,” she says. She gives great encouragement toward quieting the inner critic to allow more free personal expression. She also calls perfectionism a “mean, frozen form of idealism” but says “messes are the artist’s true friend.”

The hard and messy work of creativity can be especially difficult for musicians whose training and performance activities have been dominated by the realization of other people’s music. They may need to learn a new kind of mental discipline in order to silence the self-critical voice. But even experienced composers–and writers and painters and chefs–struggle with the creative process. Many are constantly devising new strategies to disable that judgmental force within, and strengthening their resolve to battle against it (with this metaphor, I must acknowledge Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art…I’m a fan). It seems that most artists believe that creativity involves both inspiration and perspiration, though there’s less agreement about how much of each is required, and from where the inspiration comes. For her part, Elizabeth Gilbert offers: “I think the angels reward people who are at their desk at six o’clock in the morning working.”

Blurring the Lines

I consider myself to be a real appreciator of clarity. Among my big messages to musicians, I emphasize how important it is to clearly define goals and strategies to attain them. For many of us, it’s almost second nature to break down tasks into smaller pieces, stages, and responsibilities. This is common in the formal approach to teaching and learning, including in music education. We often think of a future performance as a goal, and then outline what needs to happen for that performance to be a success. The teacher will provide instruction on how to perform effectively. Each musician will practice individually. If it’s a group venture, then the ensemble will rehearse behind closed doors in order to coordinate their music making. All this leads up to the performance…when the results of our efforts and improved musicianship are presented to an audience.

Pat MethenyThis approach works. A coming public performance is an effective motivator to many musicians–in some cases, the only thing that’ll get them to practice! And obviously for any large-scale production, advanced planning, organization, and division of labor is a must. But is it possible that other musical benefits may come with less clarity in some ways? I propose that there can be some real advantages to blurring the lines between practicing, teaching, and performing.

What might this blurring looking like? Let’s first consider what defines practice (and I’m including in this group practice, a.k.a. rehearsal). Practice is when musicians are in learning mode. They feel a freedom to work on skills they want to improve. They receive instruction from teachers and interact with other musicians. They’re focused on music making, and why it’s important to them. In contrast, performance can be seen as a finished product, and one that is presented for the evaluation of an audience. The spirit of growth and exploration can be suspended. Sometimes the specialness of performance comes with a certain pressure–at best a “one shining moment” experience, but at worst a “do or die” mentality.

I’m convinced that performance can remain a meaningful and culminating experience for young musicians without losing the learning orientation associated with practice. I recently came across an interview with guitarist Pat Metheny, in which he recounts growing up in then-rural Lee’s Summit, Missouri. His music learning really took off when he started playing gigs in the Kansas City area. “That changed my life and gave me an incredible head start,” he says, describing how he learned so much while performing, especially by observing a particular piano player he gigged with often. “Watching him play was probably the best instruction I could get.” Metheny goes on to share how these early performances were key in his development. They were a virtual testing ground for the musicianship that later made him great.

When I read Metheny’s description of these gigs, it struck me: they sound like practice, teaching, and performance…all rolled into one! I wonder what’s really in play here. What allowed these experiences to be so multi-functional for him? And most importantly, how can we apply these things to traditional music teaching to reap the benefits? Here are some considerations that I think are important:

  1. Performance as presentation vs. sharing – A presentational performance style is defined by a considerable psychological separation between musicians and audience members. Music students may benefit from a more relaxed setting, or even a participatory style with greater interaction between performers and audience. Many music teachers have had great success using “informances,” in which they and their students explain the processes behind their music as they share it. They can even involve the audience members in making music along with them (blurring the line between performer and audience).
  2. The occasion as special vs. customary – Having been a part of some great concerts and musical productions, I’ve felt the buzz of a big performance. But it may not be ideal if the specialness mainly comes from performance being rare and “fancy” (i.e., so different from practice). When young people see performance as a frequent and regular part of being musicians, then they may be able to get more out of the experiences. They may then have the necessary mental wherewithal during performance to observe and learn from co-performers, and to push their own skill development.
  3. The goal as being error-free vs. expressive – This can be tricky, especially when the performance is of composed music learned from notation. The development of technique is critical, since a certain facility on a musical instrument is required in order to be expressive on it. But too often, young musicians come to believe that the main goal of performance is simply to “not mess up.” To convince our students otherwise, we must first believe it ourselves! Perhaps there’s an alternative to the common approach of waiting until all pitches and rhythms are learned before adding in expressive elements. Can these things be addressed concurrently while working on a piece? Is it even possible to give expressive aspects higher priority than technical ones?

Above I’ve mainly addressed blurring the line between practice and performance. I’m sure there are other lines that could be blurred as well, to the additional benefit of developing musicians. What about the line between practice and teaching? There are music cultures in the world–Balinese gamelan, for one–in which individual practice is unheard of (instead, music learners develop exclusively in group settings under the supervision of experienced musicians). What about challenging specialized roles of musicians, and encouraging students to simultaneously develop as performers and composers? And what about delineations between styles of music, like classical, jazz, and popular music? I welcome your comments below, perhaps to share ways that you blur the lines in your performing and teaching.