Performance Anxiety

Competitive scrutiny, common to musical institutions, is situation many musicians face. Performance anxiety, or stage fright, is more common than we think and is particularly prevalent in adult professional musicians. It is best understood as a social phobia and in many cases, is a learned response – fear of humiliation.

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The physical symptoms are produced by the autonomic nervous system, a system used by the body for emergency situations of survival. Although on stage we do not expect to have to fight for survival, our minds are so powerful that we can induce these autonomic responses in anticipation of a performance.

Performance anxiety represents a fear of negative evaluation, and thus is considered a social phobia. It is believed that some personality traits also contribute to performance anxiety such as perfectionism and those disposed to excessive personal control.

Beck and Emery (1985) list the perceptions that create the anxious event:

  • overestimating the probability of a feared event
  • overestimating the severity of the feared event
  • underestimating coping resources (what you can do about it)
  • underestimating rescue factors (what other people can do to help you)

There is a relationship between the number of performers on stage and level of performance anxiety. The higher the number of performers, the lower the levels of performance anxiety. Thus, solo performance is considered to be the event which produces the most anxiety. Proximity of the audience is also a factor in level of performance anxiety.

There is the concept of optimal arousal, where some level of arousal is beneficial to a performance. This arousal is explained by the Yerkes-Dodson Law and will look like an upside-down U. Very low levels of arousal are insufficient for performance and an optimum level is reached at the top of the inverted U. After this, too much arousal, or anxiety will result in a deterioration of performance ability.

Wilson (2002) has suggested three sources of stress related to performance anxiety.

  1. Trait Anxiety: any personality characteristics, constitutional or learned, that mediate susceptibility to stress.
  2. Situational Stress: environmental pressures such as public performance, audition, or competition.
  3. Task Mastery: ranging from performance of simple material to complex and poorly rehearsed repertoire.

For a performer who suffers from performance anxiety, a well-rehearsed and relaxed situation will allow for optimal performance. For performers who have low-anxiety, they will rise to the challenge with more a more demanding performance and context.

There is also a cognitive approach to performance anxiety with the catastrophic model suggested by Hardy and Parfitt (1991). This model requires a differentiation between mental and somatic responses to a performance situation. It is most likely what is occurring in the performers mind which will lead to the decline in performance.

Catastrophising is a term used when self-talk is negative and based around thoughts of impending disaster leading up to a performance. More healthy thoughts need to replace negative thoughts to reduce the level of anxiety. These are called realistic self-appraisal thoughts.

The most common form of management and treatment of performance anxiety is through cognitive behaviour therapy. A sequence of desensitisation tasks and thought restructuring is used to lessen the anxiety responses. Obviously it is a lot more involved than that, and individuals will have differing levels of needs and expectations.

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