Music and You

When music becomes identity.

Butterflies and Black Holes

The basics of performance anxiety

Reading, performance, performance anxiety, wedding

Reading outloud to the crowd

Welcome to the world of performance....

Your stomach is fluttering, your paws are sweaty, you’re clutching your musical instrument (or presentation notes, or a reading) so hard that your knuckles are going white and your shoulder blades begin to hurt. You shuffle, head down, to the center of the stage and can feel the sweat trickling down your neck. Suddenly the edges of the world start to fall in. Perhaps, if you’re lucky, you might hit the floor in a dead faint — that would be one clear exit strategy from the situation. Most of us, however, just have to get on with it. Personally, I can now confidently lecture or lead a congregation, and I’m quietly starting to really enjoy it. Presented with "the opportunity" to improvise, I still want to hide, run, faint, exit stage left…. Performance Anxiety is a cluster of disorders which effect us all in a range of settings and disciplines. My first group of linked posts for the summer holidays will be exploring MPA, music performance anxiety; the theory behind it, who it effects, when it begins, how it is relevant to you (even if you don’t believe you’re a musician), and possibly, most importantly, its treatment or management.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Basic forms of anxiety

Anxiety can be a quite normal part of life, and perhaps a small amount of anxiety can kick you into action to do something you’ve avoided. (That certainly was the case for me, until like many I became a serial procrastinator in the later part of my PhD). For others, moments of anxiety can be overwhelming, terrifying, and /or see you collapse in a panic attack — essentially physically avoiding the situation because your body and mind have gone into overdrive.

Some of us have constantly slightly raised levels of anxiety throughout our everyday lives. Clinicians will readily treat Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), which seems to manifest as raised daily levels of anxiety, with no specific cause or trigger — often defined as excessive, uncontrollable, frequently irrational worries, which are disproportionate to the object of worry. As well as GAD, psychologists identify Social Anxiety — clients will illustrate significant difficulties in interacting with others, and again this is something which can be readily treated and the most effective combination, like depression, seems to be medication and therapy. These forms of anxiety are distinct from Performance Anxiety (hereon in referred to as MPA), but they may become comorbid disorders for some musicians. (That’s certainly not saying that if you have social anxiety you would develop performance anxiety, or vice-versa).

MPA or Music Performance Anxiety

MPA has been divided into two distinct elements — cognitive anxiety and somatic anxiety.

Cognitively anxious musicians portray consistent thinking styles about their playing and performing. They might have negative biases in their self-perceptions before and after a performance; “It’s going to be rubbish,” “I’m a terrible musician,” “Why do I bother doing this, it never gets any better?” They can show heightened concerns about the consequences of performances; “Everyone heard that note,” “You’re only as good as your last performance, and that was terrible,” “No one will ever book me again.” They may also derive limited or no satisfaction from what is a skillful performance.

Somatic anxiety refers to ideas in the title — the physical symptoms that are experienced during an anxiety provoking event — tremors, dry mouth, dizziness…..all caused, as any A-level biology student will tell you, through over arousal of the SNS (sympathetic nervous system) through the release of epinephrine and norepinephrine.

Having defined and differentiated the differences, the next installment will be at the end of this week, exploring some of the work into children and MPA.

Kate Gee, Ph.D., is a social psychologist specializing in music psychology and elite performance research. more...

Subscribe to Music and You

Current Issue

Dreams of Glory

Daydreaming: How the best ideas emerge from the ether.