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Higher Music Education students’ experiences and management of performance anxiety

Performing music at a professional level is a demanding endeavour. Achieving such mastery requires many hours of deliberate practice and training in both psychological and physical aspects of performance. Existing research identified music performance anxiety (MPA) as one of the most common challenges associated with performing music.

Damla Tahirbegi sheds light on this important topic in her master thesis by exploring higher music education students’ experiences and management of MPA.

Why study performance anxiety?

Existing research on the prevalence of MPA among professional and student populations suggests that the phenomenon is widespread and sometimes problematic for a number of musicians. The students Damla interviewed for her Master’s study unanimously highlighted the influence of their instrumental teacher on their musical learning, particularly in developing technical skills and musical interpretation. Some of the students, however, expressed that their teacher’s willingness to assist them was only limited to developing those skills, but rarely about the emotional aspects of performing music. Therefore, many of them mentioned that they could benefit from more continuous and well-rounded institutional support on the management of their MPA. The findings of Damla’s Master’s thesis provided implications for the broader community of students and educators, as it identified some of the ways to address students’ needs to regulate performance anxiety. Her thesis suggests that those who are involved in educating musicians should consider ways to facilitate emotion-regulation and self-regulated learning strategies through instructional practices. Additionally, she identified a need to implement a variety of community initiatives increase MPA awareness within the institution.

Damla, herself studied violin performance at the Royal Conservatoire of Music in Toronto and later on completed a Bachelor's of Music at McGill University, Montreal. Her performance background benefitted her during the interview process as it provided greater insight and awareness into conversations surrounding MPA.

How do music students experience performance anxiety?

The student musicians Damla interviewed mentioned experiencing various manifestations of MPA while performing in public, such as sweaty hands, dry mouth and shaking of the bow hand. However, only a few students interviewed mentioned experiencing MPA solely on stage. For many of them, these heightened emotional states were apparent for days prior to the performance; some students mentioned experiencing sleep deprivation or stomach problems in days approaching the performance.

– Often, when we talk about performance anxiety we talk about the “end product,” like shaking off a bow hand when playing an extremely difficult passage on stage. However, some students experience prolonged anxiety before and after a performance as well, and those experiences have a huge impact on their health and wellbeing, says Damla Tahirbegi.

Students also mentioned that they often felt left alone with their feelings following a negative performance experience. Damla’s study highlighted that instrumental teachers and peers can facilitate adaptive coping strategies if students are given a chance to properly reflect back on the performance outcomes. If the self-reflection phase is under-utilized students might feel trapped between the performances without really developing proper emotion-regulation strategies for upcoming academic tasks or performances.

Some of the students I talked to mentioned that the frequently “prescribed” solution by their instrumental teacher was to practise more. Some felt that this kind of advice was not always helpful as they did not get to reflect back on the emotional aspects of their last performance. This brought up the need for more varying coping strategies aimed at helping students managing the emotionally challenging aspects of the post-performance phase before moving into preparing the next performance task they had at hand.

Damla Tahirbegi Research fellow

The instrumental teacher as key

The relationship between instrumental teacher and student is often seen as the backbone of music performance education. Damla found this relationship to be an important factor in students’ management of MPA.

If students were able to talk to their teacher about their performance anxiety, and if the teacher held space for such discussions - in other words, if the student felt seen and understood by their teacher, they were more likely to ask for external help and use the offerings that are readily available to them at their school.

Damla Tahirbegi Research fellow

A supportive and kind teacher also contributed to creating a supportive environment in-studio classes where students could talk openly about performance issues. However, students who did not receive this kind of support from their instrumental teacher tended to see the institutional offerings as not being helpful or sufficient. They were also less likely to seek out external help.

Coping strategies

Damla looked into which coping strategies music students use to manage their MPA. Many of them for example had memorization strategies to cope with the fear of performing from memory. One of the students she interviewed mentioned using a strategy which he would use to “self-induce” a calm and connected emotional space:

– He said that he goes on stage, takes his instrument and takes a moment to think about his summer house or his cat, something that helped him create a safe mental space which in return disarmed his anxiety response.

This student, and many others she interviewed, practised very specific strategies to calm down. It is not something you can only think about doing, you need to practice them, and as such, they need to be included in your preparation, Damla argues.

Many used techniques to “ground” themselves, like noticing their breath, the physical space they are in and their position in the room. Some of them used visualisation strategies, including mental maps, where they had concrete plans for what they wanted to highlight in a piece, “and for example, if something went wrong during a performance, they would try to focus on the next highlight in their mental map of the piece”. Another very helpful strategy students mentioned, was to put their musical career in a larger perspective, seeing it as just one aspect of their life, and if a performance did not go the way they wanted, they still had friends, caring relationships, and other things that were important to them. As one student interviewed stated:

"I try to build a nice life and have good relationships with family, friends, always make time for that. So when I play an audition and if it doesn’t go well, not much is at stake, it is just one aspect of my life" (student quoted in Tahirbegi, 2019, p. 58).

Possible solutions

Damla outlined several implications in her thesis on institutional support in the management of MPA. One general advice was simply to talk more openly about the mental aspects of performing in the course of one-to-one tuition, at Forums, or in the audition training classes. However, Damla says, it is one thing to say we need to talk more about it, but we also need to have concrete suggestions and offerings in place. She furthermore argues that these offerings need to be available to all:

– (…) when we're offering programmes to help students perform better, it shouldn't be arranged in a way that students who struggle are the ones who have to go and ask for help. It should be offered for everyone, through a well-rounded curriculum, after all, any musician, I think, would be up to enhance their performance skills.

Additionally, on the students’ part, it is important to find balance in life, Damla suggests:

– (…) we always talk about the musical and technical preparations, but it is also about finding balance in one’s life, sleeping well, eating well and taking care of yourself physically and emotionally.

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