Monday, May 2, 2011

Music Performance Anxiety: New Insights from Young Musicians

“Music Performance Anxiety: New Insights From Young Musicians”


The debilitating condition of music performance anxiety (MPA) is a severe condition that affects musicians at both amateur and professional levels. Many investigations surrounding the anxiety levels of adult and college level musicians, have been conducted, however, few studies have involved children. Kenny and Osborne, in their 2006 publication “Music Performance Anxiety: New Insights from Young Musicians” (2006: 103-112), summarized their recent research involving young performers’ anxiety, and compare this to the experiences of adults. In their report, they address many similarities in that exist between children and adults’ perceptions of MPA, and suggest reasons to address this problem earlier on, to prevent the condition from worsening over the course of the subjects’ career.

The authors reference Barlow’s (2000) three-dimensional model of anxiety to facilitate an understanding of performance anxiety. He proposes that the development of anxiety has three main components:

    1. biological component
    2. psychological component resulting from past experiences and life histories
    3. specific psychological component as a result of various environmental stimuli associated with behavioural conditioning.

Although Barlow emphasizes that genetics and lived experiences could account for general anxious conditions, the third component has shown evidence of specific phobias or anxiety disorders, such as panic disorder. Study results show that social evaluative situations can trigger emotions that are associated with danger or threat. Performers who have experienced environments of high expectations but low support, are more likely to experience MPA. Once the emotion is triggered, a subject will enter into a state of negative self-perception that leads to a disruption of concentration. These behaviours are symptomatic of MPA, and similar to those of social anxiety and social phobia. The severity of anxiety felt by the performer will be directly related to the subjects’ perceived level of threat.

To compensate for the lack of empirical research which addresses MPA in adolescents, Osborne & Kenny developed the Music Performance Anxiety Inventory for Adolescents (MPAI-A) (Osborne & Kenny, 2005: 725-751). Using this scale, data was obtained from 381 young musicians in an evaluation of their perceived MPA. This Likert-style questionnaire contained 15 questions which measured the factor structure, internal reliability, construct and divergent validity of the MPAI-A.

Results showed that girls possessed higher levels of MPA, despite the boys’ increased display of anxious behaviours before and during a performance. A relationship was also seen between the development of formal operational thought (Piaget, 1970) that occurs in the shift from childhood to adolescence and the trends in MPA.

Obsorne & Kenny (2006: 107-108) reported that American adolescents with less advanced musical training perceived lower levels of MPA than adolescents from Sydney, Australia, whose musical skills were more highly developed. Those students who performed less technical works had reduced MPA, compared with students who performed more technically demanding music. This suggests the possibility that as one’s level of experience increases, as does the expectation of one’s success. Additionally, students who answered “No” to the inquiry of becoming a professional musician also displayed heightened MPA. Based on this data, it can be assumed that high anxiety levels could be responsible for a subjects’ rejection of a career in performance. Both hypotheses highlight the need for the development of preventative and anxiety-management strategies for young musicians.

Reflection/ Implications for Music Education:

As a performer who has always felt significant musical performance anxiety (MPA), I found this article to be one of interest and importance. I spend my teaching hours working with young children, between the ages of 6-12, in our private piano lessons, and often see symptoms of anxiety displayed by my students. Through my years, I have made a point to become more conscious and aware of the behaviours of my students within a musical context, as well as in their academic, personal, and social environments. Having a thorough understanding of the responses and the external stimuli that my students are experiencing on a day-to-day basis, helps me to assess their musical responses and learning styles.

As indicated in the article by Kenny 7 Osborne (2006: 103-112), I have often paid little attention to the possibility of MPA in children. In my approach to my young students, I expect to witness eager musicians unafraid of making mistakes and unencumbered by fear of performance or anxiety. I assume that these feelings develop in adolescence, as students become conscious of their peers and social pressures become more dominant and controlling. However, reflecting on my own teaching experiences, citing the behaviours of students who I assumed ‘just didn’t want to play’, I can see the anxiety that exists in a musical environment, and is mirrored in various other contexts. This awareness has proven to be much more successful in developing a relationship with my students, and I have witnessed greater achievements within the lessons.

I have and am continuing to adjusting my teaching style to be more supportive and non-judging, and to encourage and create a safer learning environment for these students. My standards and expectations remain high, but there is less emphasis on mistakes and errors, and more emphasis placed on the proficiencies in students’ playing. Opportunities for performance by supportive others and peers are becoming more frequent, to prepare and acclimatize musicians to these situations, and to make them appear more natural, and thus, less of a threat to the students. Correspondingly, I see my young musicians becoming more comfortable with playing in front of others, they are taking more musical risks during their lessons, and they are in turn, enjoying the music making opportunities, playing for fun more often.

Educating ourselves on MPA in children and adolescents is a necessary step in the development of strategies that will prevent and reduce this condition in young musicians. If this anxiety disorder can be lessened at an earlier age, the severity of MPA in adulthood will be correspondingly reduced. Moreover, by incorporating teaching practices that minimize symptoms of MPA, there is great potential for fewer students’ abandoning music as they shift from childhood to adolescence, and then into adulthood.

Works Cited:

Kenny, D. T., & Osborne, M. S. “Music Performance Anxiety: New Insights From Young Musicians.” Advances in Cognitive Psychology, Vol. 2 (3). 2006. 103-112.

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