Music Performance Anxiety in Choral Singers

By Stothert, Wendy Nixon | The Canadian Music Educator, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Music Performance Anxiety in Choral Singers


Stothert, Wendy Nixon, The Canadian Music Educator


In my 15 years of choral teaching and personal performance experience, I have become keenly aware that Music Performance Anxiety (MPA) can inhibit a singer from performing to the best of her ability. My frustration with MPA's interference in me and singers under my leadership achieving musically satisfying performances led me to conduct a research study investigating MPA in adult community choir singers as part of my Master's degree program. There were 85 singers ages 14-75 with a wide variety of experience levels that participated in a survey. I was curious about singers' physical and psychological symptoms of MPA, the factors that influence MPA, and I sought singers' opinions of how conductors could best help them cope with MPA.

Ninety-five percent (n=85) indicated some experience with anxiety symptoms before performing and 64% of the participants stated that MPA prevented them from singing more often as a soloist. These results suggest that there is a need for choral conductors to learn about and address the issue of MPA with their singers. Both quantitative and qualitative data collected in this study indicate that there are three topics for conductors to consider in the prevention of MPA: addressing physical manifestations, preparing singers for performance, and developing trusting relationships with the singers.

The Physical Aspects of MPA and Recommendations

Physical symptomatic experiences of MPA have direct consequences on the quality of the vocal and visual performance of a singer. Hyperventilation, tension, and dry mouth were among the most prevalent physical symptoms study participants cited. Hyperventilation has a variety of consequences for singers. It can lead to singers feeling light-headed and faint, which can result in physically dangerous situations when singers are on staging and risers. The reduced amount of air affects tone quality in that the singer's breath support is compromised. Singers must also place more frequent breaths in their phrases, thereby making in-the-moment changes to the way they have rehearsed, causing more anxiety. Tension prevents the vocal mechanism from functioning properly and can cause the singer to have a physical appearance that induces discomfort in audience members. In severe cases, there may be pain and permanent vocal damage. Dry mouth can inhibit the execution of clear diction because the articulators' movement (lips, teeth, and tongue) is restricted by lack of lubrication. Participants reported that nausea, indigestion, upset stomach, and frequent urination were also symptoms they experienced. These conditions are very uncomfortable, distracting, and sometimes painful as they can inhibit a singer's confidence possibly causing them to enter into a positive feedback loop where the severity of the symptoms can then increase as a result of experiencing them.

Reducing these physical symptoms of MPA is obviously highly advantageous to a singer in terms of vocal production and physical presence on stage. There are a wide variety of strategies conductors can teach their singers to help them cope, including breathing exercises, physical activity, and routines.

Firstly, leading breathing exercises and instructing singers in how to deepen their breath can help with calming the mind, lowering the heart rate, and preventing hyperventilation. Deep breathing was the strategy that participants indicated was the most effective for them. A simple deep breathing exercise involves expanding the belly with an inhalation that lasts for 4 slow beats, then singing a mid-range pitch on an "ah" for 4 beats then repeating the exercise a semi-tone lower for 5 consecutive pitches. The number of beats can then be increased to 5, then 6 slow beats for those same 5 pitches. This exercise can take about 10 minutes, but it can be adjusted as necessary and it is very effective.

Secondly, physical activities such as stretching, walking, napping, doing yoga or progressive muscle relaxation were shown to be effective. …

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