Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Playing the Mental Game of Music

It's been almost a year since I last posted.  My bad...

The past year has really had me thinking.  And, since I'm in school again, it naturally led me to write a paper for a class.  That paper is 8 or 9 pages long, so I won't copy and paste it here, but I will include a bibliography at the end in case you'd like to read more on this subject.  I'm prefacing this post with this because I want everyone reading to know that what I am about to say is actually backed up by research.  However, using the medium of blog post, I don't feel as bound to certain rules (for example, avoidance of using first person, anecdotes, and colloquialisms).

We musicians know all too well our perils - long hours, sacrificing time with friends or family, high market saturation with a low amount of available positions, low pay, etc.  We even cope by making jokes about these things.  In fact, I saw a list of one-line summaries of different college majors, and for music performance, the summary was something to the effect of, "If you don't hate yourself at least a little bit, you're doing it wrong."  I saw many of my friends post this list on Facebook, several stating things like, "Well, I guess I'm doing something right!"

Seriously folks, when are we going to stop pretending that this attitude is OK?

The research I surveyed for this project had many common threads, one of which was that musicians are generally secretive about ailments (physical or mental), which means they generally do not seek help if they are having issues (and if they do seek help, they're not likely to go further than their applied teacher).  And while we have more resources than ever on subjects like performance anxiety, we generally don't talk about it at school.  So the cycle continues.

Some statistics from various case studies:
  • Musicians in one survey reported acute anxiety (13%), depression (17%), sleep disturbances (17%), and performance anxiety (24%) (van Fenema, 9).
  • 82% of musician outpatients in one study met the criteria for an Axis I psychiatric disorder; despite this, these musicians scored better on functional scales than the control group (9).
  • 90% of musicians in one study had functional issues in performing due to psychological symptoms (12).
  • Of a group of surveyed musicians, 40% reported experiences and/or behavior patterns that could lead to poor health. Between 21% and 27% displayed patterns of over-commitment and over-exertion, and 14% to 19% had symptoms of early or manifested burnout (Voltmer, 12).
  • A review of twenty-four similar studies concluded that 25% of adult musicians experienced debilitating performance anxiety (Pierce, 155).
  • When compared to a group of healthy musicians, a group of musicians with focal dystonia exhibited higher levels of perfectionism and anxiety (Wristen).
  • A 1990 study showed that the students in the sample reported more performance anxiety than the professional and semi-professional musicians in the same study (Pierce, 155).
  • A case study of music students showed that they experienced performance anxiety more often than serious day-to-day stress (Thompson, 416).
  • Almost one-quarter of music students in one study reported being negatively affected by their mental health (Wristen).
Wellness is something we need to be talking about in our schools and workplaces, plain and simple.  While the focus of my paper was mental wellness, the importance of physical wellness cannot be underestimated.  Many careers have been ended too soon because of physical injuries. Several studies show that musicians have difficulty separating musical ability from personal identity, and that musicians often equate self-sacrifice, sometimes to the point of self-punishment, as essential to success. Attitudes of “no pain, no gain” and “survival of the fittest” can lead to overuse and fatigue, which can then lead to more mental distress (Pierce, 155-156). Unfortunately, these behaviors are often seen as normal or even exemplary. Considering this, the prevalence of narcissism throughout the studies surveyed in this paper is troubling. Esther van Fenema, M.D., points out that “a narcissistic personality structure in combination with an identity that is strongly interwoven with the profession might negatively impact well-being when a person is failing as a musician (van Fenema, 16).”  In other words, musicians are prone to viewing musical deficiencies as personal failings or flaws.

Here's the good news: we can handle this!  A lot of the research I read suggests that the important steps are 1) breaking the silence, and, 2) shifting from a product-based approach to a process-based one.  So, let's talk about this stuff in our studios and masterclasses.  Let's get guest speakers on these topics just like we would other topics.  Let's talk about different strategies for combating performance anxiety, such as mindfulness (which has helped me immensely).  Let's talk about how to practice, and let's keep each other accountable by practicing with each other, instead of spending all of our time in solitude.  Let's create more diverse performing opportunities.  Let's get students to play in ensembles in which their instrument wouldn't normally "fit" (you might be surprised) and play world and popular music (and can we trained musicians reclaim pop music some time soon, please?).  Let's place as much emphasis on listening and collaboration as we do on the final product (recital, audition, etc.)  This will make us more well-rounded, not to mention more marketable.  I also personally think being on stage in many different contexts will help us be more comfortable on stage in general.

The "traditional" elements of classical training, like competition, need not be removed to make this happen.  Competition is always going to be there.  However, placing an unbalanced emphasis on the results of competitions and recitals only further prompts us to fall hard when we fail.  How many times have you felt that all of your preparation for a recital or audition was pointless because the recital or audition didn't go as well as you wanted?  Did you question your abilities as a musician or a person?  How well does this help us prepare for the next thing?  It's important to know that a bad performance or audition does not make us bad musicians, and that one bad performance does not make a repeat occurrence inevitable. 

Let's stop pretending that performance anxiety will simply go away with experience, without a concerted effort.  Let's stop pretending that having a social life and time off aren't necessary.  Let's stop pretending that the outcome of a recital or competition is the only thing that matters.  Of course we want to do our best, but the reality is that only one person can win the job/competition.   Some people will have to drop out of the race, and that's OK.  And let's stop pretending that getting help for mental distress is something weird or pitiable.  
After dealing with mental distress that led me to almost dropping out of school this semester, I finally decided that I needed to stop ignoring the anxiety I was experiencing both in school and on stage.  

After playing the the tuba for almost 17 years, after years of telling myself that I'm only apt to be a good ensemble musician, it was just this semester that I had a solo performance in which I felt in control.  I feel like I'm starting my musical journey all over, and I'm totally OK with that.  I'm actually driven to work harder (but also rest accordingly) because, being less attached to a certain outcome, I am less attached to the fear of failure.  I still have quite a ways to go with this, though.  I hope to continue a path towards greater artistic and personal freedom, wherever that may lead me.

The stereotype of the "broken" or "insane" artist or musician is pervasive in our culture.  Sure, the ideal of the musician that is so passionate that he/she is out of touch with reality can seem romantic or even desirable.  However, this stereotype can become more powerful and dangerous in a world where many think our art is out of touch and outdated, especially if we musicians are supplying fuel for the fire.  We need to rethink how we do things if we wish to remain relevant, healthy, and employed.


Diaz, Frank. Perfection, rumination, and process – using mindfulness to deal with musical                   perfectionism.” Mindfulness and Music. March 2014. Web. April 2014.
ERIC - School-Based Health Centers: On the Front Line for Mental Health, National
Assembly on School-Based Health Care, 2011-Jan . Web. 5 Mar. 2014.
Pierce, Deborah L. "Rising To A New Paradigm: Infusing Health And Wellness
Into The Music Curriculum." Philosophy Of Music Education Review 20.2 (2012):                 154- 176. Education Research Complete. Web. 5 Mar. 2014.
Thompson, Sam, and Aaaron Williamon. “Awareness and Incidence of Health Problems
             among Conservatoire Students.” Psychology of Music 34.4 (2006): 411-430. Web.                 Mar. 2014.
van Fenema, Esther, et al. "Musicians Seeking Psychiatric Help: A Preliminary
Study Of Psychiatric Characteristics." Medical Problems Of Performing Artists 28.1 (2013): 9-18. MEDLINE with Full Text. Web. 5 Mar. 2014.
Voltmer, Edgar, et al. "Physical And Mental Health Of Different Types Of
Orchestra Musicians Compared To Other Professions." Medical Problems Of Performing Artists 27.1 (2012): 9-14. CINAHL. Web. 5 Mar. 2014.
Wristen, Brenda G. "Depression And Anxiety In University Music Students."
                Update: Applications Of Research In Music Education 31.2 (2013): 20-27. ERIC.                   Web. 5 Mar. 2014.  


  1. Love the post! One of the things that I've been looking into suggests that some of these problems stem from (as you have suggested) a fear of failure. What's interesting, though, is that the way the "learning structure" of music has been set up as such as to make failure a thing to be feared. Think about it: how often have we heard band directors scold music students for not having things technically perfect after the first rehearsal? How many "redo's" are allowed at a jury, or for a junior/senior/graduate recital? Especially as I've started to teach I've found myself struggling with students of all ages that have general confidence issues, and I've been terrified to find out that it's because the students want to play all the music perfectly for me with no reiteration!

    Good to see you back at it! :) Looking forward to many more posts!

  2. A great blog and I found it very useful to me and my playing. In essence I want to have joy when I play and practice. If I can not find some sense of delight and a bit of enlightenment, playing tuba or any other musical instrument gets to be a drag. Joy and delight should be the motivators and end result of my time with the horn. Again a great blog post.