Academic journal article Australian Journal of Music Education

Performance Anxiety and the Inner Critic: A Case Study

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Music Education

Performance Anxiety and the Inner Critic: A Case Study

Article excerpt


Since the mid 1980s, research has demonstrated that musicians at all levels of training and expertise may suffer from physical, psychological and occupational stress problems (Lederman, 1989). Performance anxiety (PA) significantly effects at least 10% of professional performers and 30% of students and amateurs (Farnbach, 1996). PA can begin during adolescence (Clark, 1991). In some cases PA, also known more popularly as 'stage fright,' can become so severe that musicians cease performing and discontinue musical studies. PA is an exaggerated and often incapacitating fear of public performance (Wilson & Roland, 2006). It is a persistent, distressful apprehension or actual impairment of performance skills that is unwarranted given the individual's musical aptitude, education and preparation (Liston, Alexandra & Mohr, 2003). Most musicians confirm that performance stimulates anxiety but responses to this may vary (Hamann, 1982). Some degree of stress and tension may be necessary to reach peak performance but excessive amounts can be debilitating (Robson, 2004). PA is complex and can seriously influence a musician's competence and self-esteem, both in specific performance situations and in general. PA has physiological, cognitive and behavioural components. Physiological manifestations might include increased heart rate, breathlessness, hyperventilation, sweating, shaking, numb fingers, headache, dizziness, clammy hands, dry mouth, upset stomach (from 'butterflies' to diarrhoea). Psychological problems include both affective aspects, such as apprehensiveness, anxiety and dread, and cognitive issues such as a lack of concentration due to mental distractions, memory lapses, loss of confidence, and an inability to imbue a performance with expression. Behavioural changes may manifest as avoidance and overly determined adherence to routine (Nagel, 2004).

The symptoms of PA can begin well before a performance. As soon as a musician is aware that an audience will listen to his or her performance fantasies may begin about what is to come. There may, for example, be obsessive ruminations about what reactions may occur, what potentially humiliating mistakes may be made, what would be the consequences of the audience walking out, and what a critic might say. These can build to the generally recognised final stage of PA that occurs just before the musician appears on stage. The most common symptoms are blocking (complete loss of all rehearsed function) and depersonalisation (dissociation of one's performing self and one's observing self). This may cause performers to feel divorced from their own playing (Gabbard, 1980). PA can be a serious issue for musicians at any stage, from neophyte to expert. This research explores the relationships between performer and audience, and the potential for the transition to tertiary music study to trigger PA.

This research is part of a series of in-depth case studies into the affects of PA that have yielded rich data that highlight particular issues. One issue from a particular interview will form the focus of this discussion performer perception of audience and its relationship to PA. This single case study offered rich data and thus warranted extended treatment (Smith, 2004). Delving into this particular case can offer insight into the universal experience of PA.



The name of the participant has been changed to safeguard confidentiality. Joanna is in her mid thirties. She is a cellist and teacher, of both instrumental and classroom music, and a performer in a range of ensembles from chamber to orchestral. Joanna performs in a range of styles both western art music and popular, both fully notated and improvised.

Data collection

Joanna was one of a number of musicians who volunteered to be interviewed concerning her experience of performance tension. …

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