Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Music Performance Anxiety

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Music Performance Anxiety

Article excerpt

ALMOST ALL MUSICIANS HAVE EXPERIENCED performance anxiety. From this one, unifying experience, individual variations abound, from the variety and severity of symptoms, to the regularity of occurrence and the conditions which it appears. Various coping mechanisms practiced by performers range widely as well, from the healthful to the destructive.

The topic of performance anxiety was recently explored at a presentation sponsored by the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music's Musician's Wellness Committee.1 This committee is made up of faculty and administrators from the Thornton School of Music and health professionals from the Keck School of Medicine, and is dedicated to addressing musicians' wellness. I was tasked with background research to establish the current knowledge base and treatment options surrounding this disorder, which we then used as a framework to open up a panel discussion among faculty as professional performers and students as aspiring professionals.

Most of this framework was based on the book The Psychology of Music Performance Anxiety by an authority on this subject, Dianna Kenny, Professor of Psychology and Professor of Music at the University of Sydney.2 This installment of "Mindful Voice" follows that structure, and concludes with several stories by Thornton music faculty who generously shared their personal accounts-which is one of the suggested techniques for successfully addressing performance anxiety.


Music performance anxiety (henceforward referred to as MPA) is ubiquitous among instrumentalists and singers alike. Kenny makes this clear in the first chapters of her book, where she recounts tales of debilitating MPA suffered by such musical luminaries as Frederic Chopin, George Harrison, Maria Callas, Donny Osmond, Barbara Streisand, and Tatiana Troyanos, as well as musicians without such international pedigree. As Kenny notes, MPA "is no respecter of musical genre, age, gender, years of experience, or level of technical mastery of one's art."3

In spite of this, the current state of knowledge in both academic and clinical psychology regarding MPA is slim. This dearth of information is due to a a variety of reasons (which will follow). But first, we might reasonably wonder about the prevalence of MPA; just how many musicians suffer from it? The numbers range as widely as other aspects of MPA, from 15% to 20% in one study (which considered only severe performance anxiety), to as high as 59% in a Dutch study of orchestral musicians. In the U.S., several studies documented a similar range of results among orchestral musicians (24% to 70%) while a Canadian study found the number as high as 96%.4

As Kenny makes clear, current studies on MPA are few and far between; thus, surveys conducted ten to twenty years ago are still referenced in the literature.5 One impediment to research is the mash-up of terminology ("performance anxiety," "stage fright," and simple "shyness" are often used interchangeably) that has not allowed MPA to claim its own distinctive set of traits. Indeed, Kenny has noted that performance anxiety can show up "in a range of endeavors, from test-taking, math performance, public speaking, sport, and the performing arts in dance, acting and music," yet she makes a strong case for differentiating music from all other performance arenas.6 This differentiation is crucial to eventually establishing effective treatments and coping mechanisms, a process heretofore hindered by MPA's entanglement in the psychiatric literature with more general social anxiety disorders and social phobias, such as pathological shyness.

This entanglement was encoded in the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Disorders (DSM), the reference work published by the American Psychiatric Association that is considered the norm for nomenclature used by clinicians and researchers for the classification of mental disorders. …

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