Musical Mindset and Performance Anxiety

Musical Mindset and Performance Anxiety

As the lovely month of October moves in, we’ll be focusing on discussions about belonging and how it relates to our humanity. As you’ve all surely experienced, making music is one of the greatest human activities we can participate in to foster a feeling of belonging. Many people have no qualms about standing in front of a group and sharing the music inside them; others, however, can hardly bear the thought of having to face an audience. As I’ve moved through the years in the roles of music educator and choir director, I’ve seen countless interpretations of anxiety as it relates to music performance. If you experience stage fright, you may have been dismissed by others with phrases such as “Oh, you’ll be fine” or “Why do you get so nervous? You’re soooo talented!” Whether you experience just a little bit of nerves or an all-out anxiety attack at the thought of public music-making, the fear of failure and/or embarrassing oneself is a very, very real – and distressing – experience.

Carol Dweck of Stanford University has done some fascinating research on the concept of mindset and its relation to how we experience the fear of failure. There are many preconceived notions regarding musical talent (or any kind of talent, for that matter); these ideas are reinforced by teachers, parents, and other influencers in our lives. Dweck’s concepts of fixed mindset and growth mindset seek to explain how some musicians respond to fears with resiliency, while others are frozen by fear of failure.

According to Dweck’s research, some people become ingrained with the idea of a fixed mindset, which refers to the belief that individuals are born with a set amount of talent and are powerless to grow beyond this boundary. This leads people to embrace performance-focused goals, concentrating only on the outcome of a performance and on proving one’s natural ability. Due to this preoccupation with their perceived level of ‘talent’ (or perceived lack thereof), the musician does not value effort or learning for its own sake. People in the fixed mindset group often avoid challenges because they’re seen as an affront to their talent or that it will showcase their weaknesses. Individuals with a fixed mindset are more susceptible to anxiety because of the focus they place on performance outcomes.

Conversely, individuals holding a growth mindset place their focus on the role that effort plays in developing skills and gaining knowledge. This belief that talent is malleable leads people to welcome challenges and see mistakes as opportunities for growth. People who have adopted a growth mindset generally interpret mistakes as an opportunity for improvement rather than a threat. This outlook results in lower levels of anxiety and greater potential for expanding musical repertoire.

If you have someone in your life who experiences crippling performance anxiety, there are ways to relate to them. One of the most important ways is to praise the process, not the person: evidence shows that people who are praised for their talent or intelligence often adopt a fixed mindset. People who receive ‘process praise’ are more likely to focus on their effort. Another way is to set objective mastery goals: objective goals such as task mastery, progress, and self-improvement go miles toward motivating a musician to continue growing. A third way is to introduce desirable difficulty. Often times, music learners are assigned easy pieces that the learner is almost guaranteed to master; however, when learners are constantly succeeding in tasks that don’t challenge them, they may never expand their horizons by leaving their comfort zone. Pushing slightly past the comfort zone encourages independent learning.

Everyone gets nervous in some fashion or another when faced with performing. Trust me – I have plenty of experience with my own performance nerves. If you feel you have music in you that you’d like to share but the fight-or-flight feeling is strong, I’m happy to listen and talk to you about a process or two that might assist you in your desire to share. Making music should be a rewarding celebration of our humanity – and it should always cultivate a feeling of communal belonging.

– Kaarin Record Leach