Music performance anxiety (also known as stage fright) affects musicians of all ages and abilities. Studies of thousands of musicians have found that most suffer some form of music performance anxiety. And most of these have had performances that they felt were affected by their anxiety. For some people it can be so overwhelming it prevents them from pursuing a career as a professional player.
Signs of music performance anxiety
Have you felt one of these anxiety signs before or during an audition, exam or performance?
- Trembling hands
- Rapid and shallow breathing or hyperventilation
- Increased sweating
- Negative thoughts of fear and failure
- Feelings of panic
- Increased heart rate
- High blood pressure
- Dry mouth.
For flute players, these can be big problems as we need steady hands and control over our breathing to perform well. In particular, our ability to form and maintain the shape of the embouchure is vitally important. Breathing more rapidly or tensing our lips and cheeks from nerves can mean our tone quality and playing endurance can be severely affected.
What causes music performance anxiety?
There's generally no single cause of music performance anxiety. But there are several scientific models that have tried to describe how music performance anxiety works. One suggests that it's a relationship between arousal (stimulation/ stress/ anxiety) and performance. So both low and high stress can produce poorer performance results, but medium levels of anxiety actually benefit performance. Another widely accepted model suggests three factors contribute to music performance anxiety. That distressing thoughts lead to automatic stimulation and behavioural responses. In other words, music performance anxiety can be expressed on emotional and physical levels, as well as on the levels of thinking and behaviour. The person, the task and the situation can all contribute.
Anxiety is a natural response
On a really basic evolutionary level, we're all born with the ‘fight or flight response’. If we see something that looks or feels threatening, our body releases chemicals that help us to either speed away in the opposite direction or fight our way out of the situation. A music performance is rarely a life or death situation. But what matters is the way we allow our brain to perceive it. So, if we can recognise when we start to interpret an event as negative and determine whether these thoughts are actually true, we can retrain ourselves to think differently. We can remove those unhelpful thoughts and change our behaviour.
Can music performance anxiety be prevented?
Whilst it’s difficult to completely prevent music performance anxiety, concepts of dealing positively with it ideally should begin during childhood and adolescent music education. Adolescents are particularly psychologically vulnerable and this can be a time when memories of negative performances can be stored permanently in our brains. It’s also a time in our lives when self-esteem and self-confidence can be low. The most beneficial thing that teachers can do is to ease students into positive performance opportunities to ‘normalise’ performance from an early age, reassure them that MPA is very normal and equip them with a range of techniques to cope.
Managing your music performance anxiety
The scientific literature is full of strategies to manage music performance anxiety. I’ve reviewed many research papers and the following strategies have been shown to significantly reduce it in performers. By harnessing one or more of these, you can give yourself the best chance of overcoming anxiety and performing at your best.
Turn your anxiety into excitement
Naturally, most people try to counteract their feelings of anxiety by trying to ‘calm down.’ The difficulty with this is that you are trying to move from a state of automatic high stress and stimulation to one of deliberate low stimulation. Research suggests that it’s actually easier to instead move from a state of anxiety to a state of excitement because both are states of high stimulation. The difference is that excitement is a positive, pleasant emotion that can be harnessed to improve your performance. Excitement may also make it easier to maintain motivation and concentration than being in a calm, relaxed state. By simply saying something like ‘I’m getting excited’ before a performance, a study found increased personal experiences of excitement and improved performance in singing, public speaking and maths.
Adopt an opportunity mindset
People in a positive, excited state are more likely to interpret performances as ‘opportunities.’ Anxious people interpret them as a ‘threat.’ It's natural to view tasks where you are evaluated as automatically threatening. By slightly reframing your outlook to excitement, you open yourself up to all of the positives that can come out of your performance.
Recognise unhelpful thoughts
Thoughts are constant and rarely noticed, but they're powerful enough to create intense emotions like worry. Your thoughts might include fears of making a mistake, fear of being judged by others or over-estimating the likelihood and consequences of a negative evaluation. Anxiety in a high stress situation is natural, and this produces changes in our thinking. It's all part of our flight-flight response. But unless you can get on top of them quickly they can lead to physical and mental changes that leave you distracted and unable to focus.
Use this technique to help you block unhelpful thoughts. Tell yourself to ‘Stop’ and redirect your thoughts back to a state of excitement and concentration. Reassure yourself with positive and optimistic statements like ‘I have practised and I am well prepared for this performance’
Have some quiet time leading up to a performance and vividly picture yourself performing. Imagine people settling into their chairs, programs rustling, the heat of the lights on stage, the sound of your footsteps walking on stage and the weight of the flute. This can also be helpful to prepare yourself for any distractions during your performance. Do a complete mental run through of the key elements of your performance. Use this to set your desired pre-competition feelings and focus. Don’t focus on the outcome itself but on the actions needed to achieve it.
Taking deep breaths sounds so simple but is so difficult in stressful situations. Use slow, deep breaths to reduce the sensation of breathlessness, which can effect your playing stamina. Relax into a state of excited anticipation.
It’s true that MPA can strike even the most prepared musicians. However, making sure that you are familiar with your piece will only ever improve your chance of a good performance. There are three phases we go through when learning a new piece. The first is the cognitive phase where we learn all the small details (such as how to place each finger). Eventually we move into the associative phase where these smaller details come together and playing begins to feel more natural. We feel like we are finally 'getting it' which encourages more practice. Eventually we reach the final autonomous phase where the playing action is more or less unconscious. Also known as muscle memory, this leaves you able to pour more expression into your performance when your fingers know where to go!
Play in a group or ensemble regularly
A study of Australian flute players found weekly playing in a group was related to lower performance anxiety. The frequent playing in front of peers and conductors (in a supportive environment) helps familarise young musicians with performance assessment.
Adequate preparation on the day
Keep it really simple! Use Google Maps or similar to plan your journey to your performance and make sure you're there early. Look up the venue online and check it out on Google Street View so you'll recognise it. See if parking is close. Will it cost you money and you need a credit card or spare change? Call the venue for the room number, floor or building you'll be in so there's no delay on the day.
It's clear that music performance anxiety is a widespread problem. And it's important to remember you aren't alone in your struggle. Including performance psychology skills like these into lessons from a young age is essential in supporting emerging flute players into their future careers.
For more fresh content about playing flute, subscribe at www.theflutecoach.com to receive my regular blogs and to find other useful resources that help flute players excel.
- Spahn, C., Treatment and prevention of music performance anxiety. Progress in brain research, 2015. 217: p. 129.
- Iusca, D. and I. Dafinoiu, Performance anxiety and musical level of undergraduate students in exam situations: The role of gender and musical instrument. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2012. 33: p. 448-452.
- Hoffman, S.L. and S.J. Hanrahan, Mental skills for musicians: Managing music performance anxiety and enhancing performance. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 2012. 1(1): p. 17-28.
- Zakaria, J.B., H.B. Musib, and S.M. Shariff, Overcoming Performance Anxiety Among Music Undergraduates. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2013. 90: p. 226-234.
- Kenny, D.T., J.M. Fortune, and B. Ackermann, Predictors of music performance anxiety during skilled performance in tertiary flute players. Psychology of Music, 2013. 41(3): p. 306-328.