Teaching Young Musicians How To Overcome Performance Anxiety

Graham Strahle
| May 8, 2017

As any performer will know, being attacked by nerves when facing an audience can be one of the most alarming experiences. A welter of fears and anxieties can brim up and conspire against one giving of one’s best. A critical thing for the young musician is to learn to deal with the debilitating and demotivating effects this can lead to, yet so often it is left up to the individual to find her or his own solutions.

Clearly a supportive teacher who can teach the student a range of strategies to deal with nerves can be the biggest help, and that’s where a new booklet published by the Incorporated Society of Musicians in the UK comes in. Performance Anxiety: a Practical Guide for Music Teachers, written by Dr Alison Daubney (University of Sussex) and Gregory Daubney (a performance psychologist), is aimed at giving music teachers a range of practical strategies to pass onto their students.

For example, it describes how the student can videorecord themselves performing a piece and then discuss that with their teacher rather than having to always perform it live in their lesson. That way pressure can be alleviated and the student is better able to reflect on their playing objectively.

Another strategy the authors recommend is modelling. In this, the younger student sits in on performances by other students and learns from their experiences in handling performance situations; this can include the teacher too. They also suggest that goal setting using the ‘SMART’ approach – setting Specific, Measurable, Action-based, Realistic and Timed goals – can help in build a young musician’s motivation.

There is also good advice on visualisation techniques to help gain confidence, muscle relaxation exercises, and lots of checklists for practice and exam preparation which look helpful.

The Australian Society for Music Education (ASME) provides a link to the booklet here, where teachers can download it for free.

For a thorough, research-based examination of the subject, one can do no better than refer to The Psychology of Music Performance Anxiety (Oxford University Press, 2011) by Dianna Kenny from the University of Sydney. It examines new avenues such as attachment theory, in which relationships with parent are viewed as pivotal in forming positive attitudes towards performance in young students. Kenny’s advice includes reassuring oneself that some of history’s most famous musicians suffered performance anxiety, including Chopin, Rachmaninov, Pavarotti, and even Barbra Streisand.

Margaret Osborne (University of Melbourne) is another Australian researcher working in the same field. Currently, she is researching performance anxiety from the perspectives of cognitive schemas and mindfulness in a project entitled ‘Performance anxiety, mindfulness, and wellbeing in musicians’. She is inviting musicians to participate by completing a survey that can be accessed here.

There is also a national member-based organisation called the Australian Society for Performing Arts Healthcare, which among other things provides information and advice on performance anxiety for musicians: see here.

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