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Interview Part 1: Symptoms of performance anxiety in musicians

A year ago, I was interviewed by Serena Paese, a Music Psychology PhD candidate at University of York, who will be using some of the material from the interview as research for her PhD, presentation in academic journals and conferences and also as a podcast. She sent me the transcript of the interview so with her permission, I will share this with you. It’s quite long, so I will put just the first part of it here, with the next section in a following blog.

Serena Paese: How do you define performance anxiety in musicians?

Charlotte Tomlinson: That is a difficult question to answer succinctly. It concerns people who get very anxious about performing, who suffer emotionally, physically, psychologically. Fundamentally it is fear about what could happen on stage: will I be laughed at, will people judge me? Musicians ask those sorts of questions of themselves, consciously or unconsciously, just before a performance, during a performance, after a performance or even just thinking about the performance.

SP: What are the main symptoms of performance anxiety you have dealt with as a coach?

Fight-flight-freeze response in musicians

CT: I see a wide range of symptoms which can show themselves in different levels of intensity. A little bit of adrenaline that just heightens everything can be very positive and I wouldn't really call that nerves, in fact, that’s what musicians are aiming at in performance. But when the fight-flight-freeze response kicks off in a big way, it can cause huge problems for a musician. At a deep level they feel they are in danger. The performance is not dangerous in itself, but the musician might feel it’s dangerous. A recurring thought is often ‘what if?’ What if I am judged, what if I am going wrong, what if I lose my career? These scary questions make the performance feel very threatening.

Many musicians have physical symptoms of nerves that relate to the instrument they play. A pianist could have cold and sweaty hands, a clarinettist might have a dry mouth, or a singer might struggle to breathe deeply. This shows that there is often an anxiety about the instrument itself.

Sometimes musicians have extreme versions of nerves. Pianist, Martha Argerich, for example, really suffers. She has to be gently encouraged to go onto the stage but when she gets there she is in her own musical world and appears to manage her nerves much better.

I remember asking one student after he’d played, “What do you feel?” and he answered, “I feel nothing.” That to me is another form of anxiety because it’s too difficult to feel the feelings. It’s a form of numbing out but the feelings are still there underneath. It’s important to be in touch with these emotions because without feeling the feelings, it’s very difficult to be fully expressive.

Professional orchestral players can’t allow any nervousness to show. Their outer persona is very professional and the way they manage their anxiety is so sophisticated, that no one would notice. And in fact, when I’ve asked orchestral players I’ve worked with how they feel after they’ve played, they often say they feel terrible. But it’s invisible and the audience certainly wouldn’t see it. They just suffer on the inside. If I look closely, I might see tiny subtle hidden layers of physical tension, the kind of tension that wouldn’t stop them playing, but can inhibit a freedom of expression. When I get them to free up, their sound and expression changes and frees up, and most importantly, they feel better in themselves. They enjoy playing. These kinds of symptoms are much more obvious in a student who is less experienced in performing, but the professionals have had years and years of managing and suffering without people knowing. To be continued...


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