By Isabel Serra Bargalló, Master Degree in Music Performance, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London.
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There are many factors that can lead a musician to an anxiety situation before, during and/or after a performance. Not all individuals necessarily experience all the factors I will list here at the same time or in all situations. This is simply the written report of the shared experiences of a group of music students in a psychology class (Prof. Dr. Jane Davidson, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London, Psychology for Musicians, 2001) to explain what generally makes them to get anxious about their playing in front of an audience.
The major factors influencing on the onset of performance anxiety developed in this essay will be the following:
- Internal Factors:
- Stage Fear
- Sense of Failure
- External Factors:
- Lack of Preparation
- Communication Problems
- Physiological Sympthoms
A better understanding of each factor is also a route to control and solve performance anxiety. That is why it is worth for a musician to understand what makes him/herself to feel anxious about performing.
Classical music in western cultures has developed a high standard of musical achievement. This cultural elitism often detaches the musician with high levels of performance anxiety.
Two of the possible internal factors causing anxiety could be stage fear and the performer’s sense of failure.
Stage fear can arise from events in the past where the performance is remembered as significant of anxiety, humiliation or embarrassment.
It has been proved that good experiences with music happen when nothing is being asked from the individual. Positive experiences usually happen in a good environment, at home rather than at school, while listening rather when performing and with family or with friends rather than with a teacher.
Being made to perform in front of others, being critisised, being laughed at in the past… may lead the performer to feel anxious. This anxiety is even increased in some social situations such as recitals, where the music takes on an almost sacred character.
A possible solution to solve this fear could be to foment the performer’s strong wish to reproduce the inner feeling of good positive musical experiences in performance situations too.
Sense of failure
Like in sports, music teachers at primary schools are usually specially trained professionals with a supposed specific interest in the subject. The same person teaches all the other subjects, but not music or sports. This relationship from the very beginning between the two subjects may produce a general social belief that music is a sort of competition.
The student will think that his/her performance is not good or enjoyable when others can perform at more advanced levels and will feel a deep sense of failure when performing. That is why it is important to foment a good musical self-image in the student. Every individual should notice its own progress above and beyond that of him/herself and not beyond that of the others.
Differences in experience, motivation, practice, interests, temperament, attentiveness… will make individuals to develop at different speeds. But only self-confidence is the route to achieve a high performance standard in music with no fear or sense of failure.
Fear to an external factor like critics can be closely linked to an internal factor like sense of failure in a stressful performance situation like an exam or competition. It is also a fear to the teacher’s opinion.
The assessment of musical performance in Conservatories and Music Colleges is often based on the opinions of the music professors. They are allowed to firm pronouncements about the musicality of their students. But in music, final decisions can not be verified by being right or wrong beyond objective technical standards. The judgements of a professional are grounded in their own performance training, since other professionals have made subjective assessments on them.
Hence why the student should not be flattered by the opinion of a teacher or anyone else, as external judges can be extremely unreliable.
Lack of preparation
It has been found that the best and more confident instrumentalists accumulate double time of technical practice than the less able ones before the age of 21.
But preparation for a performance does not only mean to be able to perform a piece technically. A good performance has to be imaginative and expressive, with no anxiety.
In a stressful situation, nerves and anxiety may eliminate the expressive ‘micro-variations’ of the performance. Studies have shown that expressive performing becomes, in fact, more systematic with experience. In other words: expressive confident performance can be improved through practice, but it is a separate skill from the technical expertise.
Technical expertise is a matter of hard work, but this does not mean that anyone who works hard and regularly can become a confident player. What keeps someone relaxed and confortable in a recital is the pleasure and sense of fullness the instrument gives to oneself. Finding practice easy and pleasurable, enjoying music all the time will move the player to forget about anxiety in public performance.
The quality of a performance it is not normally evaluated in its technical ability, but in the more subtle features of expression.
A potentially good performer can lose part of the ability to communicate in a situation under high levels of anxiety, being erroneously judged by experts as ‘unmusical’. This will lead the player to consider him/herself as a less talented person and will add an extra factor of anxiety in the next performances: trying to be communicative.
But the correct route to achieve consistently appropriate expressive performances in a wide variety of situations can be only determined by experience. Should we then consider that communication problems in performance are due to a lack of preparation? Yes in some way…
It is clear that musicality is not a fixed attribute. Communication has a lot to do with engagement with music, which can be increased and developed in the hope of repeating once and again positive musical experiences (see ‘stage fear’) in the practice. The absence of an intrinsic focus (enjoying music, finding practice pleasurable) will prevent the musician to learn how musical structures affect the emotions during the preparation of the performance and the performance itself.
Tired muscles, too much tension, over relaxation, shaking… are all physiological symptoms which may cause anxiety to the performer. They are related to the performer’s arousal level.
Depending on how aroused is the player, the performance will achieve a different level of quality. A certain level of arousal is needed for good performance, as an under-aroused performer will not have enough energy to accomplish its task, while an over-aroused performer will not be able to feel calm and concentrated.
The performer has to develop certain strategies in order to achieve the right arousal level at the right time, which depends on its very individual characteristics. Being healthy and sportive may help to reach the best body conditions for performance.
Sloboda, Davidson and Howe, Is everyone musical?, The Psychologist, 7, 1994, 349-354