Managing Music Performance Anxiety
Tracy Dempsey
Performance Coach
11th October 2016
Managing Music Performance Anxiety

Some level of stress or anxiety is normal and to be expected when performing in public. Healthy stress helps us give optimal performances. When it becomes extreme, however, it can develop into a disorder, Music Performance Anxiety (MPA).

State versus Trait anxiety & anxiety disorders

MPA can be experienced alone, or alongside other anxiety disorders. Social Anxiety Disorder primarily concerns worry about what others think of us and fear of being negatively judged. Generalised Anxiety Disorder is broader, encompassing a range of topics. State anxiety is a temporarily feeling of anxiety in response to a specific situation, whilst trait anxiety is more general and long-lasting. There are genetic components to trait anxiety, and our childhood experiences can play a huge part in whether or not we develop it. However, change is possible by working on issues in adulthood.

Symptoms of MPA

MPA - or “stage fright” - symptoms can be physiological, cognitive and behavioural. Physiological symptoms include increased heart rate, sweating, ‘butterflies’, dry mouth, dizziness, nausea, tics, tense muscles, trembling hands, lips and knees, distorted vision and rapid, shallow breathing. These occur when the body releases adrenaline into the blood stream, activating the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) responsible for the ‘fight-or-flight’ response we need in dangerous situations.

Cognitive symptoms include negative thoughts about the performance (“I’m going to mess this up”), its consequences (“people won’t come back”), oneself (“I’m useless”), and others’ opinions (“people will think I’m a terrible musician”). These can create a vicious circle, when they affect performance and thereby strengthen negative beliefs.

Behavioural symptoms include tense/anxious facial expressions, tense/nervous bodily movements, performance errors, poor sleep and self-medication through alcohol and other drugs.

All of these can contribute to impaired performance and poor mental health, but thankfully there’s lots we can do to improve matters.

Causes of MPA

There are many factors affecting MPA; the performance context, the piece(s) being played and the performer’s skill, the culture or social grouping the performer belongs to, personality traits and, crucially, the performer’s interpretation of the situation. As a coach, my work with clients usually includes exploring how it’s not what happens to us that directly affects our experiences so much as how we interpret what happens to us. Cognitive behavioural work focuses on changing our stories to bring about positive behavioural changes, and vice versa.

What can I do about it?

Try these coping strategies and see which helps you most:

1. Change your story, change your experience

List your anxious thoughts about performing and for each ask yourself, ‘Is this really true? Partly true? No longer true? If it’s true - so what? How much does it matter? What’s the worst that could happen? What’s a better thought to focus on?’ Talk to friends/family, your GP, a therapist or coach. (Try the book “Mind Over Mood” by Greenberger and Padesky.)

2. Build self-esteem

Most of us internalised messages in childhood of being ‘not good enough’ or ‘unloveable’. Recognising hurt and unmet needs from your childhood is important for moving on - it’s not about blame but self-healing. Mind how you speak to and about yourself, and be kind and compassionate to yourself. Focus on your strengths and find ways to use them in your life.

3. Know yourself

MPA’s been linked to personality traits of neuroticism, introversion, trait anxiety and perfectionism. Neuroticism and introversion are measured by psychologists’ favourite the “Big 5” personality scale - test yourself at The Big Five. Building self-esteem helps with neuroticism and trait anxiety. More introverted people get drained more quickly by social interactions than do more extroverted people; manage your levels of interaction pre- and post-performance.

Many artists think that perfectionism is necessary for mastery, but perfectionism is linked to depression, anxiety, eating disorders and other mental health disorders. It can help to replace the idea of ‘perfection’ with ‘excellence’ - striving to be excellent feels more achievable. Decide what’s ‘good enough’ for when your resources are stretched.

4. Consider context

Challenge unhelpful thoughts and beliefs about performing, audiences and peers, replacing them with more helpful ones. Mentally rehearse and visualise successful performances. One common anxiety is ‘What if people feel ripped off?’ If you know you’re putting your all into your work, you could argue that’s all that can be expected of you. If not, then it’s a useful question that can prompt you to commit to raising your standards.

The culture you belong to influences your experience too. A 2014 study exploring MPA in classical and non-classical performers found that classical performers were significantly less people-oriented and more self-oriented than non-classical performers, and experienced significantly fewer positive, and more negative, emotions about their performance. Reflect on how your experience is shaped by your cultural environment, and discuss it with your peers.

5. Build abilities 

Self-efficacy is the belief in your ability to perform a task; low self-efficacy is linked to MPA. Imposter syndrome is a belief that you’re not as capable as others think, and a fear of being exposed as a fraud. Increase self-efficacy by developing effective practice and learning strategies, and take credit for your successes.

Excellent performers use ‘deliberate practice’; isolating weaker passages, using a metronome, using mental rehearsal, working with ‘models’ (recordings/midi files) and recording and reflecting on practice sessions. Learning is more effective in frequent bursts than longer, infrequent sessions; developing supportive habits is critical.

Plan repertoires or set lists carefully and allow enough rehearsal time before performances.

I interviewed world-class guitarist Greg Howe, who talked about how some of his signature techniques were actually workarounds for things he wasn’t able to do. So your so-called weaknesses can themselves be part of what makes you unique and interesting!

6. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable

Anxiety is a normal part of being human and shouldn’t be pushed away. Practicing putting yourself out of your comfort zone helps you cope when life throws you out of it Get comfortable with being uncomfortable, and ask for help when you need it. 

8. Try other strategies

Try mindfulness meditation (quick guide here) and deep breathing techniques before performances and as a regular habit. Research has also suggested that the Alexander Technique, biofeedback training and hypnotherapy could help with MPA. Consider talking to your GP about medication.

Where there’s a problem, there’s an opportunity 

Taking your MPA as an opportunity to deepen your self-awareness and learn new coping strategies can have positive, knock-on effects in other areas of your life. Keep trying new techniques, keep talking, and keep making music!

Tracy is currently researching music and wellbeing with the University of Jyväskylä, exploring how cognitive behavioural coaching, positive psychology and musical education can be combined to boost wellbeing in adults. Her aim is to raise awareness of how everyone has innate musical potential and can improve their skills at any age, with the right mindset and learning strategies. Read a longer version of this article at dreamdolove.com.

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