Suppression of Expression

You can’t “play it with feeling” when all you feel is dread.

Posted Dec 10, 2018

 Eric Bridiers/Flickr Creative Commons
Source: Eric Bridiers/Flickr Creative Commons

Many an actor, when struggling with a new role, is said to have questioned searchingly, “What’s my motivation?”

Also, it’s easy to imagine an orchestra conductor who, after hearing a less than stirring performance from the ensemble before him, implores “Let’s do it again, but this time with feeling!”

These vignettes point to critically important principles in the performing arts. First, a performer’s reasons or motives for giving a performance will largely determine how successful it will be. Second, the success of the performance is ultimately judged by how expressive or feelingful it is. 

Musicians would love to go into every performance with the singular goal of giving their maximum heartfelt expression so that the audience will be emotionally affected by the music. This, however, is much more easily said than done. In contrast to the plans they have when they’re away from the performance hall, sometimes the only emotion musicians bring into a performance is dread, as stage fright takes hold. Because of the relationship between motivation and emotion in performance, musicians can accomplish much by examining the performance prep procedures and what drives them to put in the work ahead of a public showing. Truth be told, there are probably a number of very common practices among musicians that actually that hinder expressive communication and even promote performance anxiety.

Many musicians only begin to think about stage fright when a performance is imminent. Even if they’ve spent months preparing for a big recital or concert performance, managing anxiety may only become a pre-performance consideration when the performance is close enough for symptoms to start being felt. In many cases, by this point, it is already too late for musicians to do anything to stave off the anxiety that will harm performance quality.

If you spend days, weeks, or months preparing for a performance with a certain mindset, obviously that mindset will likely be the one you have as you step on stage. It is a well-accepted principle in athletics that also applies to the performing arts: You play like you practice. In fact, when it comes to matters of motivation and performance anxiety, performers in sports are very much the same as those in music. 

It can become especially problematic for musicians if they too heavily rely on a looming performance to motivate them to practice. For some, what drives them to put in the necessary practice time is reminding themselves that they will soon stand onstage with many eyes and ears focused on them. Perhaps they think, “I need to practice so I won’t embarrass myself in front of all those people.” These musicians operate as though fear of a bad performance is the best motivator to get themselves to do the work and preparation needed to avoid a poor showing. But research is clear that motivation to avoid a poor performance is NOT the same as motivation to give a good performance.

Of musicians who are primarily motivated by avoidance of public embarrassment, psychologists might say they have an ego-involved goal orientation (Maehr, Pintrich, & Linnenbrink, 2002). Performers with this orientation are especially concerned with how their musicianship will be judged by others. Aspiring musicians can learn to consider performances mainly as opportunities to earn recognition for themselves, in part by establishing themselves as better than others (Schmidt, 2005). For musicians with this kind of orientation, an imminent concert or recital can indeed be a powerful motivator to practice and improve their skills in order to give an audience an impressive performance.

There is, however, a serious downside. Performers with an ego-involved goal orientation are much more susceptible to performance anxiety, professional burnout, and a general lack of well-being in their lives (Grossbard et al., 2007). Performers put themselves in the best position to succeed on stage when they set their goals around what they want to accomplish, not what they want to avoid. And it is better to define your goals according to your musical performance task (which you can control) rather than how it is received by audience members (which you cannot control). For example, it is better for your goal to be giving an expressive performance (by your own judgment) than to be impressing the audience. In fact, a  task-involved goal orientation is usually considered the alternative to an ego-involved one.

Additionally, when it comes to goal setting in performance, the main issue is often the nature of your goals rather than the intensity with which you pursue them. In other words, all passion is not created equal. Musicians with an obsessive passion are driven in their performance pursuits by uncontrollable pressures. They feel an unmanageable compulsion to engage in their music activities, even at the expense of other important life domains (e.g., family, personal relationships) and their physical and mental health. Not surprisingly, obsessive passionate musicians can struggle with strong negative emotions, including anxiety, and low levels of well-being (Bonneville-Roussy & Vallerand 2018). Having an obsessive passion tends to go with being motivated to avoid a poor performance.

The alternative type of passion is harmonious passion, which is characterized by a flexible persistence in one’s musical pursuits, and self-controlled decision making that reflects a healthy balance between music activities with other aspects of life. Harmonious passionate musicians tend to have a task orientation and in their performing strive to accomplish something, rather than to avoid failing. They can enjoy more productive practicing behaviors, greater satisfaction with their overall performance level, and more positive psychological well-being.

I don’t believe that harmonious passionate versus obsessive passionate is some kind of personality trait that people cannot choose for themselves. Just as musicians’ “goal orientation” is the result of the type of goals they choose to set for themselves, the kind of passion they have results from what they think about music performance and how they structure and carry out their practicing and performing. So if you’re a musician who identifies your goal orientation as ego-involved and your passion as obsessive, what can you do to change? 

Musicians wanting to transition toward task-involved goal orientation and harmonious passion would do well to examine their perspectives about making mistakes. Of course, there are times when musicians need to identify their weaknesses and devise strategies to improve them. We call these times “practice” and “rehearsal.” But outside of these work sessions, focusing on performance mistakes is counterproductive and irrational. It is a common saying “to err is human,” and this readily applies to the human activity of music making. A goal of giving a perfect performance is not at all realistic, and aspiring to give one does not, in fact, propel you toward your best possible showing. On the contrary, research suggests that a perfectionist mindset can be extremely harmful. Perfectionism often results in performers becoming preoccupied with living up to the expectations of others and worrying inordinately about receiving negative feedback. Thus, it can be quite therapeutic for musicians to adopt a non-judgmental approach to their own music making, let go of control, and accept mistakes. Research suggests that a mindset like this can boost confidence and alleviate symptoms of performance anxiety (Hatfield, 2016).

Admittedly, such a shift in perspective would be life-changing for many musicians and, as such, may seem impossible. After years of doing so, it may be second nature to orient their music activities around avoidance goals: avoid mistakes, avoid poor performances, avoid criticism, avoid embarrassment. But by intentionally avoiding these things, performers may be unintentionally robbing themselves of the full rewards of a musical life.

Performing musicians are some of the most dedicated and hard-working people out there. That dedication and hard work propels them to acquire new performance skills and to seek new musical experiences that benefit their musicianship greatly. As seen with obsessive passionate musicians, however, some dedication and hard work can also make performers more susceptible to stage fright and other stressors in a musical life. In such cases, the hard work that is needed to change may be particularly hard. The same musicians who are undaunted by a performance challenge requiring hundreds of hours of practice may be frightened away from doing the difficult internal work of changing their mindset about performance. 

Many times the hard work that’s needed to alleviate stage fright is not done in a practice room or on stage during a dress rehearsal, rather it’s done in the confines of the mind. As important as practice is, extra practice is not a magic elixir for all stage fright. In fact, if it’s done compulsively in order to avoid an embarrassing, poor performance, extra practice could actually hurt performance in the long-run. Yes, practice improves your skills and makes you a truly better musician. But as mentioned above, your thought patterns—seen in your motivation and goal setting—can ultimately sabotage your performance potential. 

Copyright 2018 Robert H. Woody


Bonneville-Roussy, A., & Vallerand, R.J. (2018).  Passion at the heart of musicians’ well-being. (Manuscript online first in  Psychology of Music).

Grossbard, J. R., Cumming, S. P., Standage, M., Smith, R. E., & Smoll, F. L. (2007). Social desirability and relations between goal orientations and competitive trait anxiety in young athletes. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 8(4), 491-505. Hatfield, J. L. (2016). Performing at the top of one’s musical game. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, article 1356. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01356.

Maehr, M. L., Pintrich, P. R., & Linnenbrink, E. A. (2002). Motivation and achievement. In R. Colwell & C. Richardson (Eds.), The new handbook of research on music teaching and learning (pp. 348-372). New York: Oxford University Press.

Schmidt, C. P. (2005). Relations among motivation, performance achievement, and music experience variables in secondary instrumental music students. Journal of Research in Music Education, 53, 134-147.