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Editor’s Note: This article appears as one of a series written especially for Ala Breve by experts in the field of music education. by Charlene Ryan

Adults tend to think of young children as fearless – don’t they love to put on a show? While this is true for many children, most early-childhood teachers (and parents) can recall inexplicably mute, crying, back-turning, and staying-with-mom-for- the-entire-show children – at least one in every concert. Music Performance Anxiety, also known as stage-fright, is a common issue among young musicians. In fact, research has shown that many children and adolescents experience anxiety leading up to and during a performance and that it begins as early as the preschool years.

Later in elementary, middle, and high school, performances become more frequent and participation in multiple ensembles is fairly common. And while the overt expressions of stress that young children exhibit are typically kept under wraps, ‘coming down with something’ on concert day is not unheard of. Feeling anxious and worried about making mistakes, forgetting the music, and not performing your very best is actually very common.

Research, up until about 20 years ago, focused almost exclusively on adult musicians – examining the prevalence of anxiety among professional and college-level performers and their struggles to overcome it. Children and teens were usually left out of the conversation. In recent years, however, developing musicians have been the focus of more and more studies which have shed valuable light on the needs and struggles of our young musicians. Here’s what we have learned so far:

Young musicians want to talk about performance anxiety.

Unlike previous

generations, today’s students recognize that they are not alone in their experience of anxiety. They want to talk about it, especially with their teachers. And they want their teachers to talk with them in a nonjudgmental, non-dismissive way. Studies have shown that children as young as 12 have already developed their own coping strategies for performance situations. These children have also already experienced teachers who, when asked for advice, tell them not to worry, don’t be stressed, or simply that they’ll be fine. Students are not searching for vague reassurance or platitudes when they bring up nerves. They really do want teachers to listen to their concerns and discuss strategies for performance success.

More practice is not the cure. A poorly-prepared performance is unlikely to go well and a student who is not well prepared is likely to feel anxious. However, most people – students and professionals alike – who experience performance anxiety are anxious no matter how well they’ve prepared. In

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fact, the definition of performance anxiety frequently cited in the research specifically describes a situation that precludes preparation:

“…the experience of persistent, distressful apprehension about and/or actual impairment of performance skills in a public context, to a degree unwarranted given the individual’s musical aptitude, training, and level of preparation.” (Salmon, 1990, p.3)

Therefore, advising conscientious students who express concerns about performance anxiety to practice more is not usually an effective way to help them.

On the other hand, practice-performing might indeed be very useful. We often make the mistake of equating learning to play with learning to perform when, in fact, the two are quite distinct, though interrelated, concepts. Practice-performing for a test audience helps to put students in a performance frame-of-mind that allows them to hone their performance chops. They must make a psychological shift from I know how to play my piece to I know how to play my piece under pressure, distraction, and possibility of failure in front of others. The process also helps students to learn whether or not they can get back on track if things go awry. Family and friends are often the most likely candidates for the job of preparatory audience. Music teachers and music peers are also good choices – better, in fact, because they are more threatening to the young musicians’ sense of musical self-esteem. They know music and are more likely to be aware of something amiss, thus making them a worthy adversary for one who is performance-anxious. The fear of being caught-out is much greater when performing for someone in-the-know than for mom or dad or your best non-musician friend.

Practice-performing in the actual performance environment is very valuable - a definite step-up from the practice room or living room in that it familiarizes students with the actual space and set- up of the room. For pianists, it also provides an opportunity to get a feel for the instrument. Acoustical properties will, of course, change from practice-performance in a near-empty hall to performance for a full house, but an initial go in the hall will give students some sense of the sound and feel of the room. Research has shown that students who rehearse in the performance venue experience less anxiety at the actual show than those who do not.

Teachers can have a big impact. We all believe this with regard to our teaching and to the power

Straight Talk for Music Teachers About Performance Anxiety

that music education can have on our students’ lives. However, in the heat of last-minute details in preparing for a performance we sometimes forget that how we behave at that particular time can also impact – sometimes negatively – upon our students’ experience and enjoyment of the moment. Research has shown that conductors, for example, play an important role in musicians’ experience of anxiety in performance, and can have great influence on musicians in the days and weeks leading up to a performance. Conductors who are disorganized, have weak conducting skills, who call out individuals for criticism, and who make last minute changes are particularly notorious. But the number one faux-pas that a conductor can make is to actually show overt signs of anxiety. Remember the old adage you heard before student-teaching – ‘fake it ‘till you feel it’? – well, bring it back and put on your best poker face to reduce stress in your young performers.

If you appear calm and in

control, it can pay great dividends for your students.

Student musicians look up to their teachers. We all know this. I recall sitting in the audience at a high school competition a few years back and being struck by how students in all of the ensembles seemed to simply idolize their music teachers – all different types of music teachers.

was actually quite a remarkable experience to recognize the clear bond that occurs between student musicians and their musician model. Students want to know about their teacher’s experiences including those involving performance anxiety. They want to know that someone they admire has ‘been there’ and they want to know how the teacher managed it. What works? Help us! Don’t be afraid to open up and be honest with your students.

Learning to play is NOT the same as

learning to perform. And knowing about performance anxiety, for many musicians, is part of learning to perform.

They care what we think. Be careful what you say before and after performances – thoughtless words can have a long-lasting impact. Making last minute changes or reminding students about difficult parts in their pieces right before they go onstage are unlikely to help improve performance but very likely to increase anxiety and rumination about those tricky parts, which almost never bodes well. It takes courage and strength of character to get onstage and perform. Sometimes everything goes great and sometimes it doesn’t – for all levels of musicians.

To do anything less than

congratulate students on their performance is to do them a great disservice and undermine their confidence for many performances thereafter.



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