Musical Performance Anxiety: Simple and effective strategies all music teachers should know

In the first of the Incorporated Society of Musicians’ (ISM) regular column for MI Focus, Dr Alison Daubney and Greg Daubney look at a number of strategies music teachers can use to help students suffering with performance anxiety…

You may have experienced, or know someone, whose love for performing has dwindled due to music performance anxiety (MPA) or ‘stage fright’. You may have felt, or seen in others, some common symptoms of MPA when performing – sweaty hands, faster heartbeat and questioning your ability, combining to produce a poorer performance. You may know, or have seen, how debilitating a condition MPA can be. Certainly, the prevalence of MPA in classical musicians is relatively high, with studies suggesting the incidence rate varying from 24% of American musicians (Fishbein et al., 1988) to 59% of orchestral musicians in the Netherlands (Van Kemenade et al., 1995).

If these figures sound scary, bear in mind it’s likely that these are only the tip of the iceberg. John Beder’s recent documentary ‘Composed’ shines a light on the taboo of reporting MPA experienced by professional orchestral players in both America and the UK. The film highlights that, while the research figures above may appear high, it is likely that the actual incidence of MPA is yet higher still because many musicians find it difficult to overcome the social stigma of reporting experiencing MPA, and choose to tackle the condition in private and, often, alone. MPA is therefore a common occurrence and one that can have a significant impact on performance and mental health. As a teacher, MPA is something you are more likely than not to come across in your students. But what do you do when someone you are teaching starts to experience MPA which has a detrimental impact on their performance and mental health? How can you help them handle this most pernicious of phenomenon?

“As a performance psychologist and music educator, we know all too well how helpless musicians and music teachers can feel when faced with psychological issues in their students.”

There are numerous suggestions and advice out there to help your students cope with MPA. Some of these suggestions may help. However, the extent of psychological research backing the effectiveness of these suggestions is rarely clear. As a performance psychologist and music educator, we know all too well how helpless musicians and music teachers can feel when faced with psychological issues in their students. MPA is a form of social phobia involving fear of evaluation of one’s performance which can impact on musicians’ self-esteem. When this is combined with the helplessness musicians commonly experience at being afraid to talk about experiencing MPA for fear of the accompanying social stigma, MPA can have a very debilitating effect on a musician’s performance and wellbeing. However, the good news is that this need not be the case.

The ISM identified the lack of clear, evidence informed support for music teachers in handling the presence of MPA in their students and commissioned us to produce a comprehensive guide for music teachers. With over 50 pages of easy to use practical strategies, you can quickly develop confidence to provide your students with methods to help them develop their ability to channel their music performance anxiety into even greater performances. Our book – Music performance anxiety: A practical guide for music teachers – is free to download and provides teachers with a range of strategies to treat the cognitive, physical and behavioural symptoms of MPA in a research informed, effective way. The book also encourages you, as a musician, to reflect on your own long-term teaching practices and values, providing useful techniques to help you reduce the probability of MPA occurring in your students. The book also allows you room to reflect on many of the wider impacts on musicians, such as perfectionism, fear of failure and the motivational climate surrounding the student.

“Music is there to be enjoyed, no matter how we choose to engage and finding strategies to help minimise music performance anxiety is essential.”

We run regular whole-day courses via the ISM and increasingly noticed that music teachers coming along are also interested in developing their own strategies to minimise MPA through trying these techniques in their own work.  Given the significant interest in our work, we are now turning our attention to developing further resources for musicians at all levels to embed through their own work.

Mental health and wellbeing has never been so prominent within music and music education, and indeed within education and life more generally.  Music is there to be enjoyed, no matter how we choose to engage and finding strategies to help minimise music performance anxiety is essential.

Fishbein, M., Middlestadt, S.E., Ottari, V., Straus, S., & Ellis, A. (1988) Medical problems among ICSOM musicians: Overview of a national survey. Medical problems of Performing Artists, 13(1), 29-34.

van Kemenade, J. F. L. M., van Son, M. J. M., & van Heesch, N. C. A. (1995) Performance anxiety among professional musicians in symphonic orchestras: A self-report study. Psychological Report, 77, 555-562.

You can download your copy of the Guide to Performance Anxiety from the ISM Trust’s website. Printed copies are £10.00 – call the ISM on 020 7221 3499 to purchase.



About Laura Barnes 350 Articles
Founder/Publisher of UK musical instrument industry publication MI Focus.