the text and download links for an essay completed as part of the Educational Psychology unit of a M.Ed. at the University of Birmingham in April 1982:
Musical Performance and ‘Stage Fright’
H Trevor Shakeshaft
written as part of the requirement for the M.Ed. at the University of Birmingham 1981/2
The public performance of music is an extremely complex process. Factors involved include physiological, psychological and social elements, and these are modified by factors such as musical ability, musicality, intelligence, personality, and stress. This last is probably the most important influence upon a musician’s actual performance on stage, though the others are extremely important during the period leading up to the public appearance. The term ‘stage fright’, borrowed from the theatre, is used here to indicate the anxiety and resultant stress felt by the performer immediately before and during a performance, and its effect on the quality of that performance.
Seashore (1938) wrote “The character of the performance and the limits of achievement often are set by the physique of the performer, his physiological condition, such as the state of health, fatigue, adaptation, and other chronic or temporary physiological factors which affect sensitivity, mental alertness, muscular tonus, and general attitudes and impulses of the performer.” Pre-existing physiological condition is outside the scope of this study, but temporary factors exerting an influence will be discussed below, as will modifying personality factors.
Kemp (1981a) produced a study of the personality structure of musical performers, in which he examined the development of such a structure through three stages of the musician’s career. The research design was cross-sectional in nature (a longitudinal design would obviously have been more valid, but was not practically feasible), investigating three groups – secondary school children, music students, and professional musicians. The last group is most important from the present writer’s viewpoint, but reference will be made to other groups where these differ significantly.
Musicians in all three groups were found to be more intelligent than non-musicians, more ‘aloof’(as opposed to outgoing — perhaps an unexpected trait), more sensitive (as opposed to ‘tough-minded), more imaginative (as opposed to practical), more forthright than shrewd (only applicable to the professional musicians), more self-sufficient, and finally, and most importantly for this topic, a difference was found in personality between male and female professional musicians: Kemp (1981a) showed that while male musicians tended to be undisciplined rather than controlled (relative to non-musicians), female musicians tended to be tense, rather than relaxed. Female musicians showed no significant trend on the controlled-undisciplined continuum, while male musicians showed no significant trend on the tense-relaxed continuum (though music students — not split by sex — showed a similar ‘tense’ trend to the female musicians). Kemp concludes that the main second-order factors (see Cattell, 1971) present in professional musicians were introversion, anxiety, pathemia (emotionality), independence, naturalness, subjectivity, and intelligence.
The presence of the introversion trait in the personality of musicians (a factor which Kemp found to be common to all his groups) directly opposes the traditional view of musical performers as extraverts (see Shuter, 1968 p221). (It is also notable that Kemp in a later study, 1981b, found that while female professional composers were introverts, male composers showed no significant trend on the introversion-extraversion scale). It could be hypothesised that musicians choose to perform because they are introverts; the performance provides a channel for self-expression which would otherwise be denied them by virtue of their personality, Them has been so far as can be ascertained, no investigation as to the cause of the phenomenon.
The fact that high anxiety and pathemia scores were found in musical performers suggests a greater susceptibility to stress, Carr (1979 p220) points out “We must all deal with stress in our lives. If we try to avoid stress entirely, we may end up repressing feelings and trapping stress in our bodies rather than working it out.” Kemp (1981a), commenting on his findings, quotes Storr (1972) as suggesting that “[i]nvolvement in creative activity may be a defence against anxiety”. Storr (p50ff) in discussing ‘schizoid’ people, points out that they are “essentially introverted”, and tend not “to interact genuinely with their peers”. These two traits reflect what Kemp found to be traits of the musical performer. Storr (p58) adds that “... creative activity enables the schizoid person to retain at least part of his phantasy of omnipotence […] Since the ordinary person cannot emulate him, he can enjoy the satisfaction of being ‘different’ and a cut above the average.”
The main cause of situational anxiety or stress is fear in some form. Carr (op.cit. p249) quoted a ‘Sunday Times’ survey (no date was given) of the main sources of fear in American adults. 41% (the highest percentage) of respondents expressed fear of “speaking before a group”, while other fears were heights (32%), insects, financial problems, deep water (22% each), sickness, flying (19% each), death (18%) and several others with smaller scores. The interesting point is that the highest-scoring fear was of public speaking, while other fears, which would appear rational, like heights, driving a car, darkness, were relegated to lower positions in the survey. As Carr points out (p249), “[w]e need to recognise our fear of communicating”. If this is a valid fear (as it would appear) and if, .as seems obvious, musical performance is a form of communication, then to be a practical musician would appear to be a fear-inducing occupation. Carr also (p251) reported that a survey of high school pupils had produced results showing that pupils’ five most prevalent fears (in order) were: 1. Unpopularity; 2. Inadequacy; 3. loss of protection; 4. Personal changes (involved in growing up); 5. New experiences. It is interesting to note that the first two fears are those directly relatable to fear of performing in public.
Where fear or anxiety are present, stress is caused. In the circumstances under discussion, the difficulty seems to be in channelling this stress into the production of a better performance. If the physiological effects of stress are examined, we find that stress stimulates the adrenal glands to secrete adrenalin; this hormone, when present in the bloodstream, causes physical symptoms including the following (Levitt, 1968 p124): “The raising of systolic […] blood pressure but increasing heart action, decreasing blood volume at the skin level but increasing it in the muscles and brain, increasing blood sugar level and so forth. The primary subjective effects noted by the individual are tremor of the muscles, heart palpitation, rapid breathing, and sometimes a feeling of flushing in the face”. Levitt goes on to point out (p128) that “adrenaline (sic) causes a state of arousal whose direction is then determined by an external stimulus that is perceived independently by the subject”. He was referring basically to the choice “fight or flight” but the process seems apposite to this discussion. There is a need, then, for the arousal resulting from stress to be directed towards attaining drive to produce a better performance. Seashore (1938, p29) writes that “[t]he medium of musical art lies primarily in artistic deviation from the fixed and regular: From rigid pitch uniform intensity, fixed rhythm, pure tone, and perfect harmony”. Music may thus, in itself, produce emotional stress by its actual organisation, melody, form and harmony, etc., and by its interpretation by the performer, who must, like his audience, be experiencing similar arousal, as discussed below in the paragraph on emotion in music.
The Yerkes-Dodson law, propounded in 1908, states, as quoted by Eysenck (1970) that “performance is optimal when drive is neither too high nor too low, and optimal drive is low for complex and high for simple tasks”. Musical performance is manifestly a complex task, and by this token would appear to require only low drive or arousal to achieve the optimum effect. If, however, as pointed out above (Kemp, 1981a), anxiety is already at a high level in musicians, then possibly a somewhat greater degree of situational stress is needed to achieve optimal drive. It is possible to hypothesise that this high degree of stress could result from introverted performers having to perform in public (a stressful situation which could result in feelings of inadequacy), but with the moderating influence of their possibly somewhat schizoid nature giving a feeling of omnipotence.
To return to the topic of emotionality and its effects on arousal, however: Berlyne (1960) wrote that “Much of the admiration due to a creative artist is […] earned by the mastery with which he pieces together elements of widely differing arousal value, disposing them with regard not only to their general consistency but also to the ways in which they offset, reinforce, or undo the effects of one another” (p246). This is followed by an indirect quotation from Meyer (1956) that “musical patterns can have a meaning which has nothing to do with anything extramusical that they may suggest. To have meaning, a stimulus must refer to some stimulus other than itself, in the sense that it evokes some fraction of a response corresponding to that other stimulus, e.g. an expectation of it. And patterns of sound fulfil this condition in so far as they lead to expectations about other sounds following or accompanying them”. If music, then, is intrinsically an emotive medium, then emotional stress can be produced by it, and conveyed to both an audience and a performer. In view of the theoretical points made above, it may be that good musical performers have a drive or arousal level that is at an optimum at the outset, due to the factors mentioned earlier, and that this arousal level is maintained by the emotional content of the music being performed.
One of the effects of arousal caused by stress or anxiety is an increase in the blood supply to the muscles. In all forms of musical performance, muscles are obviously involved either directly or indirectly. Shuter (1968, p207) refers to the importance of feedback from muscular movements to the brain when performing. If increased sensitivity results from increased arousal, it seems logical to assume that such feedback will be quicker and more efficient if an optimal drive level is achieved by the performer. Shuter quotes the use of delayed feedback of speech (via electronic means) in an experiment which resulted in temporary speech impairment in the subjects. She further relates this to the act of singing, though of course all forms of musical activity require a degree of feedback. The present writer has experienced similar disorientation when playing an organ whose console was detached at a considerable distance from its pipework. The acoustic delay so caused resulted in considerable difficulty in playing any fast-moving passages of music, since the muscular movement of pressing a key did not immediately result in aural feedback.
‘Stage fright’ for the musical performer results from anxiety caused by fear – of public performance, of appearing inadequate, of not attaining the standards he has set himself. One or all of these fears can cause anxiety and stress before the performance begins. However, once the music has begun, the arousal resulting from this anxiety is replaced by that generated in the music being performed, and a balance is struck between the two. The practical difficulty lies in directing all of the drive thus acquired into performance. Kato Havas (1961, p69) writing of her approach to violin playing and teaching, wrote of stage fright as follows: “Stage fright […] is nothing but the result of a lack of mental and physical co-ordination”. It is, to say the least, difficult to reconcile this simplistic view with the way in which most performers overcome the problem — by simply beginning to play or sing. It appears also to be erroneous, as without either of these two abilities, no musical performance at all could result.
Carr (op.cit. p254) wrote “[d]estructive anxiety can produce strain, fatigue, exhaustion, weakness, and physical sensations such as trembling, perspiration, rapid heartbeat, headaches, backaches, breathing difficulties and digestive disturbances”. She further, however, pointed out (pp255ff) that “[f]ear can be converted into excitement […] Fear, anxiety and worry can be perceived and used in constructive ways […] Many famous and successful people turn anxiety into constructive energy; the actress who performs in spite of her stage fright and receives a standing ovation […] Anxiety can be converted into energy; how we use it depends on us”.
Finally, it must be stated that ‘stage fright’ as applied to musical performance is the result of two main factors: the personality structure of musicians, which, including as it does elements of introversion, pathemia, and anxiety, can exacerbate the response to fear of public performance; and this very fear, which produces in the musician a state of arousal, and which may well be a necessary condition for effective performance, if consciously directed. The degree of emotion expressed (directly, as shown above) through the music itself can play a part in aiding the musician in overcoming his stage fright, but again requires the conscious direction of the performer.
Further research is needed on the effects of the phenomenon known as stage fright on musicians and other performers; the variables which would need to be taken into account by any investigator would seem to be the personality of the musician (possibly broken down into various instrumental and vocal performers, and conductors, or players in ensembles and orchestras), the degree of stage fright or nervousness experienced (evaluation would be a problem here – perhaps a remote monitoring of physiological symptoms linked with questionnaires would prove useful); the improvement or otherwise in public performance as compared to private performance (again this would produce methodological problems – moral considerations arise if recording and reporting upon private practice, while if the performer’s permission is sought, the ‘Hawthorne Effect; may distort findings); the physiological manifestations of stress exhibited (see above); and the strategies adopted to channel the resulting drive into the performance, The choice of music for such research would also prove an extremely difficult decision, but falls outside the scope of this discussion