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Dr. Tawnya D. Smith

Navigating the spectrum of Music Performance Anxiety

7 minutes read

March 11,2021

Have you ever experienced stage fright? Most of us have, at least to some extent. Musicians and other performing artists generally deal with some level of stage fright that may vary in intensity based on the performance context or their state of mental wellbeing. Some musicians experience the 'butterflies' and an optimal level of hyperarousal that helps them perform their best. In contrast, others report disruptive and even debilitating symptoms that are more akin to Music Performance Anxiety (MPA) (Kenny, 2011). The range is wide, and it might help to think of an individuals reaction to performing as being somewhere along this spectrum. By considering their situation, it's possible to understand the types of practices and therapies that could help them manage both the long- and short-term causes of MPA symptoms. Although often dismissed under the umbrella term of 'stage fright', we can learn a lot about performers by dissecting MPA and maybe, realise how we can truly support those who dedicate their lives to the arts.

In the book "Performance Anxiety Strategies: A Musician's Guide to Managing Stage Fright" (McGrath et al., 2017), we provide an overview of various treatment approaches and therapies that have been used to treat MPA and help musicians work towards peak performance. For those who experience mild to moderate symptoms, several exercises can help identify elements of their history and current situation to determine the best way to cope.  For example, some may benefit from physical health and wellness solutions when they experience symptoms due to their bodies being out of balance. However, others may find that mental health challenges or learned behaviours prevent them from coping with the stress of both preparing for and executing a performance. No matter the cause, at any given moment, different solutions or a combination of them might be helpful to manage MPA symptoms for artists. It's important to be extremely mindful of your inner state and the context in which you are attempting to perform.

There are several things you can do as an artist to support a healthy level of stress. One of them is to take an honest inventory of your history with performing and preparing for performances. What does this look like? Some may discover that they have learned unhealthy coping strategies and thought patterns from childhood caregivers, teachers, or coaches. It's difficult to learn healthy habits as a child if we are surrounded by those who do not gracefully manage stress or are abusive or neglectful.

It is also possible that some people with severe MPA may have a personal or family history of trauma, substance abuse, or mental illness. Children who have been raised by caregivers with frequent or more serious mental health conditions may be more at risk to internalise negative coping patterns. If a person does have such a history, its important to consider seeking therapy to address childhood wounds and negative thought patterns. And in cases where a person is recovering from PTSD or extreme childhood abuse and neglect, imbalances in their brain or nervous systems must be confronted (Herman, 1992; van der Kolk, 2014). Many people who are well into trauma recovery or who have experienced less serious harm in their lives may find help in talk therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy, somatic therapies (such as expressive or arts therapies), and yoga (van der Kolk, 2014). The intention is simple; first, to understand and acknowledge the possible causes for your symptoms and then realise there is a path to recovery without dismissing your experience as 'normal stage fright'.

While childhood and family history is important to recognise, it may not be the cause of MPA symptoms. Many people have negative experiences with performing that disrupt their ability to build experiences of mastery needed to develop self-efficacy (Hendricks, 2014). When young performers are pressured to perform before they are adequately prepared or in conditions that are not emotionally or physically safe, they can have unsuccessful performances. And when a person holds such experiences in their memories, it can be hard to shake. Some performers use negative memories to motivate themselves to prepare; others find that this strategy sets up a stress response that cripples their performance. In other words, if you practice using fear as a motivation, you are reinforcing the fear, which is likely to carry into your performance. So if you are an artist or performer who is plagued by negative memories, it's crucial to consider building mastery over time and engaging in low-stress performances where success is likely.

Fortunately, it is possible for us to reconstruct our memories with a healthier perspective. Our memories are linked to our emotions, so it may be easier for us to recall incidents that cause emotional distress. However, we may sit and work with the negative memory and possibly identify neutral or even positive details about a bad experience. If you can engage with your memory at this level, perhaps you can recreate your story. You can add details so that a more honest and less emotionally damaging version of the memory can be recalled instead.

All this is obviously easier said than done. While it may not always be possible to recall positive aspects of an event, it is usually possible to at least reposition the meaning of the story from one of victimisation to one of power. In this case, you can identify what you have learned from the experience and then make a conscious choice to see the event as one that helped you grow or become more aware. Choosing to reinterpret the meaning of a memory is powerful and can slowly help build your confidence again. And, of course, you can always intentionally recall positive performances as well. In fact, we recommend that artists create a 'backstage book' that includes written reflections of positive performances and the feedback and encouragement they received from others (McGrath et al., 2017).

While its important to manage your thoughts, emotions, and physical well being, its equally important to acknowledge if you are in a negative performance environment. If you assess your surroundings and discover that you are in an abusive relationship or in a competitive environment where peers undermine your success, you may need to consider changing where, how, or with whom you work. Working in hostile environments can rapidly chip away a person's resilience and magnify even minor mental health challenges. If this is the case, it’s critical to reassess your journey forward; look for positive opporunitites, try to manage your exposure to toxic individuals as much as possible, and begin to reclaim your sense of safety. Being self-aware of your potentially harmful tendencies is equally important, so you don't contribute negatively to relationships with others. In an environment that may already be hostile, the lack of this self-awareness can continue to add toxicity and create a vicious cycle for the entire community.

Most of us go through life enjoying the performing arts and connecting with them in our own ways, oblivious to the experiences of the artists themselves. However, to truly move forward and support the creative community, we must not only understand the wide spectrum of Music Performance Anxiety but acknowledge that it's not necessary for unhealthy ‘stage fright’ to be normalized or dismissed. Perhaps we can even encourage an environment where artists enjoy their preparation and performance as much as the audience loves the final show.

  1. Hendricks, K. S. (2014). Changes in self-efficacy beliefs over time: Contextual influences of gender, rank-based placement, and social support in a competitive orchestra environment. Psychology of Music, 43(3), 347-365 https://doi.org/10.1177/0305735612471238
  2. Herman, J. L. (1992). Trauma and recovery. Basic Books.
  3. Kenny, D. T. (2011). The psychology of music performance anxiety. Oxford University Press.
  4. McGrath, C., Hendricks, K. S., & Smith, T. D. (2017). Performance anxiety strategies: A musician's guile to managing stage fright.
  5. van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Viking.
  6. Rosenberg, M. B. (2003). Nonviolent communication: A language of life. (2nd ed.). PuddleDancer Press.
Written By
Dr. Tawnya D. Smith

Dr. Tawnya D. Smith is assistant professor of music education at Boston University. She is co-author of the book Performance Anxiety Strategies and co-editor of Narratives and Reflections in Music Education: Listening to Voices Seldom Heard. Dr. Smith has published articles in the Journal of Applied Arts and Health, Music Educators Journal, and Gender and Education. She has also contributed book chapters to Art as Research; Key Issues in Arts Education; and Queering Freedom: Music, Identity, and Spirituality. 

Dr. Smith teaches graduate courses in research, curriculum, arts integration, and undergraduate courses on the topic of creating healthy classrooms, and arts and the environment. She is an integrative researcher who explores expressive arts principles to promote holistic learning. Her background in music education has led her to experiment with free improvisation and multi-modal art response as a means for learners to explore the self in community settings. Her recent work focuses upon arts integration and social justice.

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