Performance anxiety is an issue for numerous musicians, from beginner to veteran. With symptoms ranging from the shakes to a full blown disappearance of skill, once that ball is rolling how do you stop it? Classical Music Indy asked Dr. Miranda George, a trumpet player, vocalist, and teacher who has lectured and written about performance anxiety, to write a three part series on the topic. In this first article, Dr. George explains the signs and root causes of this issue, and how engaging in a conversation of the topic may help teachers reach their struggling pupils.
Antidotes for Performance Anxiety, Part 1: Awareness
A soloist walks onto the stage with her pianist and begins to perform. Her entrances are hesitant, her tone quality is rigid, her musicality is tentative, she is inaccurate in a few places, her technique is uncoordinated, and she loses endurance. The irony? She was prepared. She played well in lessons and in her dress rehearsal. All of her best playing seems to have disappeared on her in one moment.
Her sound was the result of performance anxiety. Performance anxiety, often referred to as “stage fright”, is a physiological response to varying stressors that create a barrier between a musician and the intended musical product. Performance anxiety is identified by the physical reactions from the “fight-or-flight” response, including: shaking, increased heart rate, muscle tension, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, dry mouth, hearing loss, and tunnel vision.1 There are cognitive elements as well, including: increased attention to undesirable sounds (stimuli), negative perceptions toward uncertainty,2 and perceived control.3
Performance anxiety is a common issue for music students and it manifests in different ways for everyone, leaving teachers scratching their heads. A common suggestion is to perform more often or to practice consistency through repetition. What should a student do if that doesn’t work? In order to learn how to move through performance anxiety one must understand its origins.
I theorize that there are three main causes for musicians’ performance anxiety:
- Thrill: excitement, bringing with it a rush of adrenaline.
- Instability: a removal from habit caused by unforeseen events, setting off the fight-or-flight response.
- Shame: the fear of disconnection, setting off the fight-or-flight response.4
Everyone is familiar with the shakes that come from excitement or added pressure. Thrill-based performance anxiety is relatively the most mild because there is a belief in one’s abilities, a positive outlook. There are numerous strategies for dealing with the adrenaline rush, such as slow breathing and power posing, and the feeling of shakiness passes as long as it is felt and mindfully accepted.
Instability-based performance anxiety is a little harder to deal with as the unforeseen events tend to remove the ground from beneath the musician. There is a subtle awareness surrounding the temporary obstruction of a moment of instability, like recently being in a car accident, dealing with a breakup, recovering from injury, or having an unexpected death in the family. Sometimes musicians react to these events with added pressure or desperation to play well. Mindfulness and self-compassion are necessary for navigating through performance anxiety associated with instability.
Shame-based performance anxiety is the least discussed. According to renowned shame researcher, Brené Brown, shame is the deeply held belief that one is “not good enough”, the idea that one is unworthy of love and belonging. “Shame lives and thrives in secrecy, silence, and judgement”. Musicians who are not resilient to shame will either over-function or under-function in response to it.5
Examples of over/under-functioning in response to shame include:
- negative self-talk/self-imagery
- unfair expectation
- self-sacrifice or lack of self-care
- over-practice, obsession
- mistrust, faithlessness, evidence seeking, constant surveillance
- scarcity mindset, “never enough”, hustling
- perfectionism, fear of disapproval
- social inauthenticity, fitting in, adjacency, or alienation
- procrastination, apathy
It is possible to move from being locked down by shame to performing with worthiness, but it is slightly more complicated than using a few strategies from one of the many books available on performance anxiety. The first step in helping students overcome shame-based performance anxiety is awareness, and Brené Brown’s TED Talks and books are excellent resources for getting started. Performing with worthiness requires authenticity and a realignment of motivation.
Part two of this series will discuss short term and long term solutions for alleviating the symptoms of performance anxiety, and for teaching confidence to students. Start a conversation about performance anxiety with your fellow musicians and students. “Do you ever feel nervous or tense when you perform? How do you feel when that happens? What do you do to get past it?” Teachers and students will find that the greatest antidote of all is hearing someone else say, “I’m with you.”
Read Antidotes for Performance Anxiety Part 2: Strategies, here, and Antidotes for Performance Anxiety Part 3: Environment, here.
1. [Henry Gleitman, Alan J. Fridlund and Daniel Reisberg (2004). Psychology (6 ed.). W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-97767-6.]↩
2. [Reid, Sophie C.; Salmon, Karen; Peter F. Lovibond (October 2006). “Cognitive Biases in Childhood Anxiety, Depression, and Aggression: Are They Pervasive or Specific?”. Cognitive Therapy and Research. 30 (5): 531-549.]↩
3. [A. Wallston, Kenneth; Strudler Wallston, Barbara; Smith, Shelton; J. Dobbins, Carolyn (March 1987). “Perceived Control and Health” Current Psychology. 6 (1): 5-25.]↩
4. [Brown, Brené. The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings on Authenticity, Connection, & Courage. 2012.]↩
Dr. Miranda George is an active writer and lecturer on the topic of performance anxiety in musicians. She has received invitations to speak in public schools, universities, and in conferences such as the Texas Music Educators Association Convention and the Midwest Clinic. Dr. George recently finished her fifth year on the music faculty of the University of Texas at Arlington, and she is a private trumpet and voice teacher for Coppell Middle School East. To learn more about Dr. Miranda George and to read more of her writing, visit her Facebook Page here.
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