I’m 68 years old and have been taking piano lessons now for a little more than three years. When I began lessons, I told my teacher that I wasn’t interested in performing in public. But I soon changed my mind. I came to realize it could be a lot of fun performing with and for others and, despite all anxiety indications to the contrary, so far it has been fun.
My First Concert
Fast forward to my first student concert (aka recital). I tried to play a piano solo of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” for an audience of about 30 family and friends of fellow music students. I had a complete meltdown, didn’t get beyond the first few bars, and had to quit my performance. I experienced a full-blown case of music performance anxiety (MPA) with increased pulse, hands and fingers trembling, sweaty hands, hyperventilation, a feeling of panic, my mind raced and I was (justifiably it turns out) afraid I would forget what to play, worried (again, justifiably as it turned out) about losing my place in the song, doubting my own ability, and lost my focus and concentration. Any of that sound familiar?
Afterward, I asked my wife what, if anything, she noticed about my behavior before the performance and she described me as detached, unaware of my surroundings and unable to engage with others in a conversation or to really listen to other students’ performances, not smiling, tense, not relaxed, and really distracted. Wow – I knew I was feeling it, but I didn’t realize I was showing it so obviously!
I experienced the full range of physiological, cognitive, and emotional symptoms associated with MPA. Despite how miserable I felt after that first attempt, however, I was convinced by a wise, supportive teacher and well-meaning classmates that I should get back in the saddle and keep trying. More about immersion / exposure therapy below, but for now I’ll admit that while my three subsequent public performances to date were not as devastating as that first one, the most recent was still a long way from where I want to be.
Learning About MPA
My experience with MPA motivated me to learn more about managing my anxiety. I should mention that I also have ADHD, so I come by my distractibility honestly and I do not take medication for my ADHD. That is a situation with which most readers of this note will not have to deal so I’ll leave it at that except to say that in my search for treatment for my anxiety, I’m particularly interested in finding ways to increase my focus and concentration while performing.
I recently joined two different piano forums and, notwithstanding the commonsense skepticism that does, and should, accompany participation in any such online community, I was surprised at how naïve some practicing musicians (at least the ones posting about this topic on those forums – and there are a lot of them!) are about MPA. I’m not by any means an expert, but my own experience motivated me to read as much as possible so that I could better understand it and how it can be treated or managed.
A lot has been written about MPA. Some of the psychological literature on this topic is pretty technical, but I’ve tried to keep this note as simple as possible. If you read something here and want to follow up or have any questions, I’m more than happy to try and share more information.
What Is MPA?
Music performance anxiety is the technical term for what is more commonly called stage fright, although psychologists do make subtle distinctions between the two terms. MPA is very, very common among musicians. Estimates of the proportion of professional musicians that experience significant performance anxiety (severe enough to interfere with their performance) range up to as much as 70%.
Many Well-Known, Performing Artists Experience MPA
The rock band, The Band, actually recorded a song titled “Stage Fright”, the lyrics of which capture the essence of MPA remarkably well. George Harrison (yes, of the Beatles) suffered intense MPA that lasted throughout his career. Barbra Streisand gave a live performance at Central Park in 1967 and after forgetting the words to a song during that concert, gave up doing live performances for the next 27 years! So, those of us who experience this dreaded condition are not alone. We’re in good company.
What Causes MPA?
A lot of different things can cause MPA. Among music students and professional musicians alike, the most commonly self-reported causes are inadequate preparation, pressure from oneself, a general lack of confidence, attempting a repertoire that is too difficult, a bad previous performance experience, concerns about audience reaction, lack of confidence, negative thoughts about performing, and not knowing how to manage those negative thoughts.
MPA can include combinations of emotional symptoms (anxiety, fear, panic, apprehension, self-doubt, embarrassment), cognitive (negative thinking and reasoning, heightened focus on failure, inattention, distractibility, lack of concentration, memory loss, excessive self-criticism, unrealistic expectations, reduced self-confidence), physical / physiological (bodily sensations such as increased heart rate, trembling, perspiration, rapid breathing, muscle tension, and gastrointestinal issues), and behavioral symptoms such as technical errors, memory loss, performance breaks [choking], avoidance of performance opportunities, behaving distant and uncooperative. At the risk of oversimplifying things, let’s just say that music performance anxiety is when you feel really anxious faced with having to give a public performance of your musical abilities to the point where the anxiety interferes with your performance.
The range of treatments and coping strategies for MPA is impressive and includes breathing exercises, practicing muscle relaxation, mindfulness, various beta-blocker medications, performance-based strategies such as proper preparation and practice FOR the performance, appropriate goal-setting, immersion or exposure therapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy. There are actually many other therapies and coping strategies, but those listed above are the most common and most effective according to MPA research. However, the more I’ve read about MPA, the more clearly I realize that if your experience with MPA is ongoing, fairly pronounced, and you are serious about managing it, careful assessment of your anxiety profile may be needed for a targeted treatment by a counsellor or specialist.
Back to My First Concert
In retrospect, for my first public performance I chose a piece that was, at the time, beyond my technical capability. My teacher warned me it might be too much, but I ignored her. Lesson learned. At Crescendo Music Loft where I take lessons and participate in student concerts, the public concert performances offer all students the option to perform with a full backup band. At my second concert, I “comped” along with a full band including singer. Not only was my anxiety lower than the first time (solo), but I made errors playing that likely went completely unnoticed by anyone in the audience because the band was covering up for me!
Simple, Helpful Exercises
Breathing exercises including mindfulness breathing are simple, logical first steps to managing MPA and I have been practicing some of those now for a couple of months. My favorite is the 4 – 7 – 8 breathing exercise which is thought to act as a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system. It takes time to develop those breathing techniques and the benefits accrue over time. I don’t know if they will work for me, but I’m willing to devote the few minutes each day that it requires. It is estimated that 20 – 30% of professional musicians and 30% of orchestral musicians use beta-blocking medications. I tried propranolol before my last public performance (which did not go well!) and it had little effect for me except to give me a terrible headache – which was distracting as hell! I may try it again, but I now know that if it is effective at all, it will only deal with the surface, physiological symptoms and not the underlying emotional and cognitive ones.
More Helpful Strategies
At Crescendo, students are required to perform at a ‘dress rehearsal’ in the venue where the concert takes place and students playing piano rehearse on the piano that will be used for the concert. That really helps. In fact, at my last performance, the piano at the dress rehearsal was different from the one I usually use for lessons, so I asked, and was able, to use the lesson piano for my performance. At that performance, I lost my way while playing the piece, but my teacher had given me a “get back in” strategy which I used successfully. In fact, my teacher and audience members complemented me afterward on my recovery! I have only tried to play publicly four times. I know I need more exposure, more experience playing in front of an audience, so I have “invited” family members to be my audience on a regular basis. And I have started to record myself (which does cause some anxiety) playing at home and then sending those recordings to others including my teacher. Next up for me is to find a professional counsellor to work on some cognitive behavior therapy. As mentioned above, CBT is the most researched treatment and most effective of all approaches to managing MPA.
Perfectionism Gets in the Way
I admit that I am, by nature, something of a perfectionist. If I miss a note or mess up in even the most minor way, I get very flustered and disappointed with myself. I know I need to change my goals for performing. This was put into perspective for me by my first piano teacher who told me the following story.
“It was a life-changing experience for me about three decades ago to be on stage with a full band performing in front of a live audience and see how much goes on RIGHT IN FRONT OF THE AUDIENCE! Until I stood on stage in the middle of the band, I had no idea that anything was wrong. The lead guitar player would be swearing at different points in his solos because he didn’t play what he wanted to, other band members would be missing cues, they wouldn’t always land the beginning of a section, but because they had all been performing in various scenarios FOREVER – they all had the skill of stage presence and, from the perspective of the audience, were pulling off fun, entertaining, and musically excellent renditions of all their songs. They were having FUN PLAYING together – which is a more powerful force.” –Sandy Connolly
As I mentioned at the beginning of this note, I never originally intended or wanted to perform for an audience. I was passionate about learning to play piano – period. But the more competent I become, the more I want to play piano for others and share the music I love. For me, that will require some serious work to manage my MPA. I’m only beginning to learn and make use of some of the treatments mentioned above. I’m going to get over my anxiety – and expect that I will have even more fun playing piano when I do.
Kenny, Diana T. (2011), The Psychology of Music Performance Anxiety, Oxford University Press.
Brugues, Ariadna Ortiz, (2019), Music Performance Anxiety: A Comprehensive Update of the Literature, Cambridge Publishing.
Green, Barry and Gallwey, T. (1986), The Inner Game of Music, Double Day Publishing.
Zylowska, Lidia (2012), The Mindfulness Prescription for Adult ADHD, Trumpeter Publishing.
There are lots of websites that offer advice and information about managing MPA.
One that I like and read regularly is The Bulletproof Musician.