Much Ado About Performance Anxiety

There were a lot of inspiring talks given at the Mississippi College Piano Performance and Pedagogy Conference this weekend, but I was particularly struck by Jonathan Henriques’ “Addressing Performance Anxiety in Piano Class” perhaps for no other reason than that this is a not-all-too-often-discussed topic that affects nearly every musician. His take posed the problem as reactive coping in place of what should be proactive pedagogy. He had a lot of great comments on this that got me thinking, but I also became interested in the question of why we put ourselves through such anxiety-producing activities in the first place. Is it all necessary?

I figure that there are probably two things that contribute most to anxiety over performance:

  1. the expectation of memorization; and
  2. the expectation of perfection.

The ironic result is that anxiety over memorization tends to cloud the memory even further and anxiety over perfection tends to hamper performance even more. I want to go out on a limb and question these demands on performance, but will provide a big caveat in the end.

First, it might be noted that the expectation of memorization is a relatively new phenomenon. The practice of memorizing music came about as a “parlor trick” of sorts, akin to the extraordinary feats required to play a Paganini Caprice. It was another virtuoso performer, Listz, who first made it a regular practice. Anthony Tommasini wrote in the New York Times about “Memorization’s Loosening Hold on Concert Tradition”, which might suggest the fad is coming to an end. It mentions that pianist Gilbert Kalish “spearheaded a change in the degree requirements [at Stony Brook University] in the 1980s, so that student pianists could play any work in their official recitals, from memory or not, whichever resulted in the best, most confident performance.” Are we missing out on hearing great performances of music because not all musicians are also great at memorizing?

Second, I find it fascinating to listen to early recordings of music because I inevitably find unpolished, yet passionate, performances. Something changed with the advent of recording technology when a musical performance can be measured against a gold standard of perfection by simply replaying it over again. In the meantime, as musicians sought to achieve that standard, much of the spontaneity of music-making was sometimes lost. Part of the dread of walking on stage to perform is the knowledge that your performance will likewise be measured against the gold standard, even though you are performing live, not with edits. Have we lost some of the fun and excitement of music-making in the process?

I think it’s time to reevaluate some of the goals we set for music-making, just to be sure we’re on the path we think we’re on. It may be that at times we work against one of the most important things of all: the music. If memorization or the expectation of perfection gets in the way of truly inspirational musical experiences, I think something must be—at the very least—called into question. On the other hand, why is it that we do expect memorization from music students? Why do we evaluate every last note? Like Leo Burnett said, “When you reach for the stars you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either.”

1 Reader Comment

  1. Emily Alane Stromberg Baker

    MSO principal cellist Ben Randman has a good way to deal with the “expectation of perfection” problem. He advises other performers to strive not for perfection but for excellence. In the grand scheme of things, no one’s going to care if you play a wrong note or fumble a rhythm. However, if you play something to the best of your ability and focus on trying to convey the idea of the music, you’ll perform better than if you spend your time stressing over the details.

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