Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Understanding Performance Anxiety

Reference: Papageorgi, I., Hallam, S., & Welch, G. F. (2007). A conceptual framework for understanding musical performance anxiety. Research Studies in Music Education (28)1, 83-107. doi: 10.1177/1321103X070280010207

The authors’ purpose was to establish a theoretical framework that may help researchers and educators study and understand performance anxiety in musicians. Their perspective takes into account the individual within a social, temporal context. By their account, performance anxiety is not an isolated phenomenon, experienced only when a performance draws near; nor is it a state that affects people uniformly. Various personal traits that are inborn or that develop over time lead to different responses throughout the performance process.

Their proposed framework consists of three phases that affect one another. With each new performance opportunity, the musician may start Phase 1 in a different state, depending on the outcome of previous performances.

Phase 1 – Pre-performance conditions

Prior to a performance, the musician is found in a personal, psychological state consisting of:

a) Initial conditions
i) vulnerability to feeling anxious – personal traits make one more or less prone to anxiety, e.g. gender, introversion/extroversion, self-esteem

ii) task efficacy – how prepared the performer feels

iii) characteristics of the anticipated performance situation – e.g. who will be in the audience, where the concert will be held

b) Cognitive evaluation of performance situation
The above conditions affect how a performer evaluates the upcoming event, e.g. as a challenge, threat, etc., and makes judgments about their ability to cope.

c) Psychological state immediately before performance
The outcome of the cognitive evaluation will determine the extent to which a musician is motivated to meet the challenge of performance. If there is little chance of coping and doing well, anxiety will likely be high.

Phase 2 – Performance conditions

a) Autonomic Nervous System activation
This refers to the physiological changes that result from a performer’s psychological state during the performance. Medium arousal (not low or high) is the ideal, leading to adaptive (positive) effects. Unfortunately, when a person notices that their state of arousal is not ideal, they may become even more anxious.

b) Effect of arousal on performance
Low arousal, likely caused by lack of motivation to perform well, generally does not produce the best result. High arousal leads to an excess of physical and mental activity, which can become difficult to control. Medium arousal is thought to inject the appropriate level of control and activity, leading to a satisfying performance.

Phase 3 – Post-performance conditions

a) Feedback
The internal and external responses to the performance affect future Phases, and can be positive or negative. Where no feedback is given, the musician will come to their own conclusions.

b) Longer term effects
Positive feedback will likely raise a person’s self-esteem and affirm their ability to perform; the converse is true for negative feedback.

c) Possibility of future success or failure
Feedback and its effects on the musician will influence how future performance opportunities are seen. If failure seems more of a possibility, one will either withdraw from the performance or develop better coping skills. The latter may lead to a more positive outlook and a better outcome.

These post-performance factors may change the performer’s initial psychological and cognitive state as the next opportunity approaches.

The framework proposed by Papageorgi, Hallam, and Welch seems realistic to me, particularly because it accounts for a dynamic interaction between the individual and the social context in which a performance occurs.

I’m definitely not immune to performance anxiety. It seems my very first experience, at the age of 7, may have had some long-term effects. According to this model, the feedback received, post-performance, becomes very important in positioning yourself mentally and physically for the next event. Looking back to my first recital, however, I am led to wonder what made me susceptible to nervousness prior to stepping on stage, especially because I had no negative precedent on which to draw.

The authors cite previous studies that indicate a predisposition for anxiety in women and introverts. At such a young age, are these traits already functioning to elevate anxiety? It seems more likely that the reason for my nervousness at the time was the realization that about a hundred people (maybe more) were in the audience. The evaluation of the situation, assessed by the 7-year-old me, happened just minutes before the show, leaving very little time for anyone to provide me with appropriate coping strategies. I have no idea what my physiological state was, at least not until my memory lapse, nor do I recall any feedback from anyone after the performance. This perhaps allowed me to exaggerate the negative aspects of my experience, rather than gain a reasonable perspective.

It’s no surprise that I still have to deal with nerves throughout any performance situation. Despite many successful performances since, the possibility of a memory lapse is my greatest fear. I’ve since incorporated techniques to help with this. You can ask me to start at any section of a piece I’ve memorized and I’ll be able to start wherever indicated. I’ve ensured that no matter what happens, I can recover. I find my greatest obstacle now is feeling underprepared---i.e. not knowing pieces inside and out. It’s no wonder I get anxious.

The factors and phases involved in anxiety outlined above are useful in preparing students for performances. It is interesting to observe that some very young students already compare themselves to their peers. I have always been careful not to instill a sense of competition with others, but rather the aim for self-improvement, and yet one of my students declared after performing, “I was the only one who didn’t make a mistake!” I have since discovered that a previous teacher made quite a big deal of wrong notes. I wonder what would happen if this student should mess up. It may go without saying that guiding students through performance preparation is important. It could be easy, however, to neglect the chance for post-performance feedback. Time set aside for this would allow students to describe how it felt to play before an audience, how they think they did, and what they could improve on. Teachers could then catch any exaggeration of errors that would colour students’ recollection of their playing. It would also be a chance to honestly state areas of improvement, together with how this might be achieved.

Despite the difficulty in trying to overcome performance anxiety, it is at least heartening to know that each performance brings with it the possibility of an improved sense of one’s ability to overcome and do better next time.

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