Insights into music performance anxiety and managment with
Prof. Aaron Williamon, Centre for Performance Science
by Darragh Lynch & Georgina Ng
“His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy,
There’s vomit on his sweater already, mom’s spaghetti”
– Eminem (“Lose Yourself”)
It doesn’t take a psychologist to understand how Eminem felt in his lead single to the film “8 Mile” – we’ve all been there (hopefully without the vomit!). Performance anxiety is a state many have experienced in some form, whether for a school presentation, a sports competition, or a concert. It is rife amongst musicians (Langendörfer et al., 2006), having disrupted the careers of seasoned musicians in both popular music, such as Barbra Streisand (Stossel, 2014), and classical music, such as pianist Vladimir Horowitz and soprano Renee Fleming (Wesner, Noyes & Davis, 1990; Hewett, 2014). Given performance anxiety’s debilitating effects, it is unsurprising that researchers such as Prof. Aaron Williamon of the Centre for Performance Science – a partnership between the Royal College of Music and Imperial College London – have endeavoured to discover more about it. Here, we will discuss how Prof. Williamon’s research into performance stress, as presented at Goldsmiths College, University of London, can be drawn upon to help performers – particularly musicians – with this common difficulty.
What, exactly, is performance anxiety?
Salmon (1990) defines performance anxiety as:
“The experience of persisting, 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.”
This unwarranted apprehension manifests in three ways: somatic, behavioural, and cognitive. Somatic symptoms are the physical attributes of anxiety triggered by the “fight or flight” response via the sympathetic nervous system, such as an increase in heart rate, sweating, and shortness of breath, while behavioural symptoms include nervous tics such as fidgeting and pacing. Perhaps most obviously, performance anxiety affects cognitive processes and emotions, creating negative feelings and catastrophic thoughts (“What if my guitar string breaks?!”).
Although performance anxiety may certainly give rise to some rather unpleasant feelings, most people mainly dread it because of its effect on performance. Yerkes and Dodson (1908) first posited the inverted U hypothesis where performance quality increases with somatic anxiety (or arousal) up to an individuals’ threshold, after which performance quality decreases with further increase in somatic anxiety.
Catastrophe theory (Hardy & Parfitt, 1991), as depicted in the rather confusing 3D graph below, further specifies the role of cognitive anxiety by adding it along the z-axis. High levels of cognitive anxiety can further hamper the effects of somatic anxiety on performance — if your heart is already racing and your palms are sweaty, worrying about that tricky violin solo is bound to further affect your performance. On the flip side, a “sweet spot” of optimum performance can be attained with the correct levels of cognitive anxiety and physiological arousal.
Measurement and findings
Theories are useful, but let’s see some evidence! Prof. Williamon presented several recent studies he was involved with, all of which focused on performance stress in musicians.
In one study, Prof. Williamon and colleagues (2013) measured the heart rate of professional pianist Melvyn Tan during high-stress and low-stress performance situations. In a low-stress situation (a practice room with the research team), the pianist’s heart rate steadily increased — from baseline measures, through pre-performance time, to during the performance. Nothing surprising there. However, in a high-stress situation (the Cheltenham Music Festival), heart rate was found to be much higher at pre-performance time than during the actual high stress performance. Although heart rate is an imperfect measure of physiological reactivity to stress due to individual differences and the variability of music over time (some sections of pieces may be more physically demanding) this research can be commended for its pioneering use of complexity science algorithms in analysing heart rate to account for such artefacts.
Another study by Prof. Williamon (currently unpublished) demonstrated similar results with musicians in both London, England, and Lugano, Switzerland. The complexity science approach mentioned before was used to assess physiological reactivity backstage and during performance in both a high- and low-stress performance situation. In both situations, arousal was higher backstage than during the actual performance. A further study with professional choir singers (Fancourt et al., 2015) found that patterns of change in stress hormones largely mirror those of the earlier cardiovascular research, confirming that the physical states in which musicians are in during performance are quantitatively different than when they are in practise.
How can these findings help musicians with performance anxiety?
Prof. Williamon’s work suggests two main points. Firstly, the difference in anxiety responses in low- and high-stress performance situations highlights the importance of being accustomed to high-stress situations in predicting (and hence effectively managing) any patterns of performance anxiety one may feel. One way is to practise performing – i.e. repeated exposure to high stress situations. In light of this, Prof. Williamon and colleagues (2014) created a performance simulator to recreate high-stress performance situations, complete with audience and stage, to help bridge the gap between practice and performance.
Secondly, with arousal being highest before performance, a good point at which anxiety management techniques can be implemented is the critical pre-performance period. For instance, to ameliorate the anxiety felt while waiting to go onstage, one could use methods that draw upon the relationship between somatic and cognitive anxiety, such as re-appraising one’s symptoms as excitement (Brooks, 2014) or mindfulness meditation.
Certain practices may also help if integrated into one’s lifestyle, such as the Alexander Technique and yoga, both of which focus on reducing muscular and postural stress. Cross-stressor methods may also help — Childs and de Wit (2014) found that regular exercise may improve emotional resilience to stress and anxiety. For musical performance educators, Prof. Williamon notes that it is equally important to be aware of their students’ particular preferences and anxiety patterns in order to advise on suitable solutions. For instance, students won’t practice mindfulness if they personally think it’s a load of nonsense!
The bottom line? Performance anxiety is a common and crippling problem. However, the work of researchers such as Prof. Williamon offers hope for those of us aiming to overcome it: not only can we understand more about how, when, and why performance anxiety occurs, but we also discover empirical ways of confronting our own personal variation of it. This can only be a good thing — after all, the show must go on!