Performance Angst in Developing Musicians

Performance anxiety is a common problem for musicians. According to Charlene Ryan, it may cause “physical, behavioral, and psychological distress” and can often impede successful performance.

Long thought to be just an adult problem, it’s now known to be prevalent among younger and less-experienced musicians as well. Here are some research findings enumerated by Ryan, culled from her own studies and other research (see list at bottom of this piece):

  • Performance anxiety is recognized by the American Psychological Association as a form of social anxiety. People who experience this feeling fear being negatively evaluated when performing. It’s one of the most widespread health concerns among people who get up in front of an audience to play, sing, or speak.
  •  Although performing at a high level is necessary for academic and professional success in music and is usually recognized as an adult problem, anxiety may show up before third grade—even in preschool kids.
  • Teachers need to be willing to discuss performance concerns with students of all ages. All educators need to be aware of the effects their expectations may have on their students.
  • Music educators and others can help by arranging practice-performance opportunities in performance venues as students are working up to a big event.
  • Teachers need to applaud meaningful performances and not just focus on technical perfection to help students overcome the “fear of making mistakes that seems deeply entrenched in students from a young age,” according to research Ryan published in 2004.

MENC member Charlene Ryan is an associate professor of music education at Berklee College of Music, Boston, Massachusetts. This article was adapted from “Performance Anxiety in Developing Musicians” by Charlene Ryan, Massachusetts Music NewsSpring 2009, p. 52. Used with permission of the editor, Andrew T. Garcia.

Note:  Researchers whose results were summarized by Ryan in her original article include H. Boucher, 2009, “The Occurrence of Performance Anxiety in Early Childhood,” unpublished doctoral dissertation, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada; L. Fehm and K. Schmidt, 2006, “Performance Anxiety in Gifted Adolescent Musicians,” Anxiety Disorders 20, 98–109; M. Fishbein, et al., 1988, “Medical Problems among ISCOM Musicians: Overview of a National Survey,” Medical Problems of Performing Artists 3, 1–8; J. F. L. M van Kemenade et al., “Performance Anxiety among Professional Musicians in Symphonic Orchestras: A Self-Report Study,” Psychological Reports 77, 555–62; E. K. Orman, 2003, “Effect of Virtual Reality Graded Exposure on Heart Rate and Self-Reported Anxiety Levels of Performing Saxophonists,” Journal of Research in Music Education 51, no. 4, 302–15; C. A. Ryan, 2005, “Experience of Musical Performance Anxiety in Elementary School Children,” International Journal of Stress Management 12, no. 4, 331–42; C. A. Ryan, 2004, “Gender Differences in Children’s Experience of Musical Performance Anxiety,” Psychology of Music 32, no. 1, 89–103; and P. Salmon, 1990, “A Psychological Perspective on Musical Performance Anxiety: A Review of the Literature,” Medical Problems of Performing Artists 5, 2–11.

–Ella Wilcox, February 23, 2010, © National Association for Music Education (