Lavalée after J. Gamelin, 1778,Four skeletons with musical instruments. Wellcome Collection

“An Ode to Fear”

How to understand stage fright?

Matylda Adamus

Royal Conservatoire The Hague

Format: exposition

Baroque cello

Student number: 3311562

Research Exposition Presentation : 21.03.2022 17:00, Studio 4

Research supervisor: Caroline Kang

Circle Leader: Bart van Oort

Main subject teacher: Lucia Swarts

Table of contents



3.Emerging into a role

3b. Examples in my own performing


5.Coping Strategies




Stage fright was always accompanying me during my musical education and first professional experiences. Playing the cello was always the most important thing to me, but for some reason playing on the stage since age 7 brought me lots of confusion, misunderstandings, and disappointments. Sometimes this constant presence of stage fright was disturbing me more rather than less and it brought me disastrous effects on performances and some poorly done auditions. In better days the anxiety was in the background as a worry, but it never really left if the audience was still there. I was asking teachers, musicians, and colleagues for the advice but the subject was always very complicated to explain and I have never received any solution that would answer my questions of why do I suffer so much? Why does it feel so horrible most of the time even though I really like playing concerts? If any advice was given, it mostly consisted of the investigation of the symptoms and my stress and how to get rid of them. The usual question would be: What is happening? But never Why is it happening? It was not very helpful. I remember how much I was trembling on my first concerts during my primary school concerts and hearing that stage fright is a sting of remorse because of notn having practised enough. I also remember hearing very often that it will pass with time. Obviously it didn’t pass with time and I arrived to the point that I don’t have any time left. Some reflection brought to me more questions: Why it is sometimes less stressful to play on a big stage than in a small room and for a smaller public? Do I fear being judged or is there something more? What do I actually feel when I am on the stage? Why has my stage fright never changed? What are possible solutions that will finally work?

My research question : How to understand stage fright? How to cope with it? How to perform well under pressure?

Thou, to whom the world unknown

With all its shadowy shapes is shewn;

Who seest appall’d th’ unreal scene,

While Fancy lifts the veil between:

Ah Fear! ah frantic Fear!

I see, I see thee near.

I know thy hurried step, thy haggard eye!

Like thee I start, like thee disorder’d fly,(…)

William Collins (1721-1759), “An Ode to Fear”


In the literature and social perception, the character and definition of stage fright is often ambiguous. Next to the numerous concepts of negative influence on the performer, there are also theories defining stage fright as something positive and helpful. According to Curyło-Sikora [^1], the preparation for the performance and retrospective reflection afterwards can bring positive emotions and joyful opportunity to present one's own artistic and technical achievements, a great chance to present the results of our arduous work. Therein lies a positive experience which enriches one's well-being and good health.

Illustration: Hickford’s Room, 1744, Ticket of Monday 2nd of Jan, 1744, announcing a ball, London

After years of receiving misleading information and harmful advice which led only to more and more confusion, I would like to understand what is really happening and proove that the complex nature of music performance anxiety is neglected and not well explained in my educational circles. I would like to write a definition which is understandable and relatable. For understanding and discussing stage fright it is necessary to investigate its definitions. However, the concept itself is difficult to define. Is it fear, panic attack, or anxiety? Or is it something else?

The somatic symptoms of panic attack are : • shortness of breath • fast or irregular heartbeat • trembling • sweating • choking • nausea • numbness or tingling • vertigo, dizzines • depersonalisation • hot or cold flushes • worrying of loosing control over yourself • pain or discomfort in the chest [1]

Balde Jacob, 1643, Sylvarum Librii VII, Magna Frango, Parua Calco

The somatic symptoms are exactly the same in the case of stage fright. It is quite easy to tell from my own experience and by asking my colleagues and teachers. But according to Bourne, the diagnosis of having panic attack happens in certain, specific conditions. Panic attack happens spontaneously, unexpectedly and without any particular reason or without any preceding thought process. This therefore disqualifies stage fright from being a panic attack even though the symptomps are similar [2] The problem with the definition continues. Throughout the literature the term Musical Performance Anxiety (MPA) is used, but what is the difference in the definition of anxiety and fear? In 1844 Søren Kierkegaard wrote that anxiety refers to something which is nothing which resembles quite well the modern definition of anxiety [3] – Anxiety doesn’t have a specific reason or object of worry. Uneasiness comes from the inside and not from the outside. It seems to be a reaction to a vague, distant, or even unrecognized threat (worry of “losing control” of yourself or a situation, or vague worry that "something bad will happen”), in contrast to fear which has a specific reason [4]. But is stage fright completely reasonless? Following Bourne, the example of fear is the fear of failure, but is the worry in stage fright related to the fear of failure? Remembering my own experience and advice heard in the past, I remember referring to stage fright as a form of social phobia. In the works of Edmund Bourne, social phobia is one of the most common anxiety disorders [5]. In his definition it refers to the fear of embarrassment or humiliation when one is exposed for the judgment of the society or public. The levels of fear in this case exceed vastly the levels of worry in comparison with people in social situations (or public speaking/performances) without social phobia. [5:1] Most often the fear is very strong and causes the avoidance of social situations and most of the diagnosed patients are aware of their exaggerated levels of worry that are not relevant to reality.[5:2]. Bourne later continues with the explanation that the most common case of social phobia is fear of public speaking. Other types of social phobia refer to the fear of being observed during work, crowds, exams, using public bathrooms, choking on food when eating in public space or failing exams [5:3]. At times, the social phobia is diagnosed as general fear of every social situation where a person can be observed and judged. Despite the fact that fears of social situations are very common, the formal diagnose of social phobia can be done only when the avoiding social situations are disturbing the possibilities of working, social activities, and would cause serious mental health problems.[5:4] Following my comparison list of the definitions, social anxiety disorder can be accompanied by panic attacks related to embarrassment and humiliation. Panic attacks, on the contrary, appear only in correlation with a particular kind of social situation [5:5] (could it be the case of performance on the stage?) Social phobias are developed usually during late childhood and adolescence. In later stages of life the severity decreases[5:6] (this perhaps also relates to the results of the investigations of stage fright and age - this will be discussed also int he following chapters)

Illustration: Hickford’s Room, 1744, Ticket of Monday 2nd of Jan, 1744, announcing a ball, London.

All the information above brings me to the conlusion that stage fright is not only a social phobia. In some way stage fright appears to be about being judged but personally, even though I usually suffer a lot because of MPA, I still love performing and I am not avoiding it. On the contrary! In my own investigation to find a perfect definition I decided to look into a different way of categorizing the experience. The Polish psychologist – philosopher Antoni Kępiński, puts fear in following categories:

Biological fear comes from the feeling of danger of losing ones life. As a defense – fly or fight response. Then the fear diminishes because certain action is taken. [6].

Social Fear appears in a certain moment or situation, when with or without awareness, one is afraid of the other’s judgment. It may cause the imbalance of the entire being, one can start to worry which is often unfounded. Fear begins to displace our normal thought processes. Vegetative symptoms such as sweating hands, increased heart rate, dizziness, and nausea often appear. The anxiety-generating factors in the form of social anxiety also begin to influence our behavior: we either avoid stressful situations that cause fear or try to minimize them. Therefore, for example, if we are afraid of public appearances, we shorten the speech, do not take part in the discussion, and try to avoid similar meetings in the future. Anxiety is also accompanied by other negative emotions such as nervousness, tension, anger, depression and, hopelessness [7].

Moral fear is to some extent also a kind of social anxiety. The social mirror is internalized here. The judges who evaluate our behavior and follow our every step go inside and become an integral part of one’s personality. The transition from the outside to the inside is associated with some reflection distortion. The internalized social mirror usually has a strong magnification compared to the external mirror, which is expressed in popular statements that a person is the strictest judge for himself, and sometimes also an executioner. Two general conclusions can be drawn from the fact that the social mirror is internalized. The first concerns the importance of the social environment, for the development of the human structure, and the second for the splitting of this structure. More precisely, moral fear is fear of one’s conscience: guilt and shame. [8]

Fear of disintegration Between a human and the external world, a specific structure is created, in the psychological literature called "information metabolism”. As a result of various kinds of situational changes, the order created between an individual and their environment is disturbed. These changes can be small or very significant; however, any change in the structure of the interaction with the environment so far is associated with a feeling of fear. Fear of disintegration can become very difficult to observe: the strength of such anxiety depends, among other things, on whether the change is probable or not. Life is characterized by changeability and each system must take into account that various changes will still take place in it and in its relationship with the environment. These changes largely depend on the human being. Disintegrative anxiety protects a person against constant changes that life brings, but on the other hand, against the lack of it, because the lack of any change after some time leads to the growing anxiety, which is explained by the fact that in people living a lifestyle based on routines have the disintegration fear greater than in those who live a life full of changes and surprises [9].

The last three definitions bring me closer to finding a relatable, understandable explanation. The social fear brings the part of being judged by the audience, the moral fear recalls the part of being disappointed with our own performance. The interpretation of the relevance between MPA and fear of disintegration will be developed in further chapters. The connection led me to the phenomenological concept of transition to different “self” on the stage and I find the term very helpful in continuing my research.

According to W. Napora, in psychology, stage fright is a particular type of anxiety accompanying public performances. He defines stage fright as a compound phenomenon consisting of worry and emotion. Worry is related to the doubt about the quality of the performance and the fear of the judgment of the public. Emotion is the perception of our own somatic state, which could be exaggerated and can lead to increasing concerns about ourselves. In his work he underlines that stage fright relates to the anxiety which can be understood in two categories - as a state and as a feature. Anxiety understood as a feature is a result of previous experiences, learned usually in childhood and it is not a proportional reaction to the situation (which is not dangerous to one’s life). Anxiety as seen as one’s state of mind is characterized by the possibility of the change. The levels of fear can fluctuate because of the influence of the stressors. [10] In the work of Endo (2017), in his research about the stage fright and posture of cellists, we can find a distinction among 3 compounds : changes in cognitive/somatic state, physiological arousal and behavior. "The cognitive/somatic state is associated with the subjective experience of negative thoughts such as worry and fear about public performance .”(Wells, 1997) In the introduction the reference to the anxiety and its ambiguous impact can be also found “Anxiety, in particular, has been defined as an emotion which may manifest itself as a subjective experience, as physiological arousal and as behavioral expression (e.g., Lazarus, 1991).: [11]

According to Kępińska-Welbel stage fright is a dynamic psychological process which is connected to public performances when the performer expects to be judged by the public. During the process the interaction between emotional and cognitive components occurs, which is caused by the uncertainty of the reception and evaluation of the performance and/or expectation for negative reception and evaluation. The process is usually related to the negative emotions such as fear, anxiety, shame, disappointment, sadness, anger etc… with all characteristic responses of the autonomic nervous system. [12] M.L. Wolfe introduces 3 categories of MPA (musical performacne anxiety).

1.Pre-performance MPA can occur even one week before the performance.

2.MPA during the performance is accompanied by negative thoughts and nervousness.

3.Post-performance MPA occurs when one can experience again the emotions of the performance because of the reflection about the quality of the performance (for example shame or disappointment) [13]

Curyło- Sikora states that stage fright occurs in musicians in all ages and genders but according to the psychological investigations, the anxiety levels are higher in female musicians. The anxiety levels in musicians are higher in comparison with the rest of the society. She also states that the positive and negative experiences related to the MPA should be distinguished from one another and quotes Moller (1999) who writes that the optimal state which helps with musical performance should be called stage fright and the term performance anxiety should be related only to the levels of the fear of the musician that have a negative impact on the musical performance. [14]

M. Lawrence (2019) mentions that “The beneficial aspect of performance anxiety is well documented, and is illustrated in the Yerkes-Dodson curve [15]:

(Diamond, Campbell, Park, Halonen, & Zoladz, 2007)

Lawrence goes on to say: "This is often referred to in MPA research and is said to show that a certain amount of arousal benefits performance, but too little or too much impairs it.”[15:1]

Raducanu (2010) states that performance anxiety is mostly connected to the personal interpretation of the particular situation. In her opinion, the stressing factor is not the performance itself but how the musician perceives the performance.[14:1]

After the research of the literature discussed above I would like to create my own definition.

My definition: Stage fright is a complex process accompanying musical performances. Mostly, the negative impact of the anxiety associated with the performance can be perceptible, however, the levels of anxiety are related to the past experiences and personal features of the musician (it is documented that stage fright can have optimizing qualities for the performance as well). The physiological symptoms of negative impact are very similar to the panic attack but stage fright is not a form of panic attack. Musical performance anxiety can cause changes in cognitive/somatic state, physiological arousal, and behavior. The fear is mostly related to the worry of being judged (or of being judged in the future) by the audience (as a form of social fear – with or without being aware of it), judged by their musician himself/herself (as a form of moral fear and ambitions of the performer) and also by the fear of disintegration which is related to the process of entering the “role of a performer” on the stage. The effects of stage fright are mostly noticeable during the performance but they might occur before and after…

Emerging into a role

Monogramist CG, 1534, Bear playing bagpipes, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Upon reflecting on the uneasiness surrounding the performance on the small stage a question came to me. Why is it sometimes so difficult to perform when the stage is smaller (or there is no stage at all)? My answer would be: it is because of the difficulty to transition into the role on the stage and separate our ‘daily life selves’ (who judge, react and listen) from the performance. This element of overcoming stage fright requires embracing a concept that even a classical musician has to transition into a character on the stage. The performer gets nervous when the transition is not fully completed : here enters the concept of "Me Performer” from the realm of "Me Listener” or "Me Practicing” – because the concert is something different, I can’t be the person who is practicing because I am not practicing anymore during the performance.

In the works of Scott (2017) and Lawrence (2019) we can find a connection with stage fright and phenomenological theory. Phenomenology is the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view [16]. A phenomenological approach takes as a starting point the reality of our experience of things, thus the meanings things have in our experience.

Scott adopts a phenomenological approach in her analysis of stage fright. She investigates the paradox of shy performativity, asking “how those who experience everyday shyness manage to give contradictory displays on stage, and what motivates them to do so.” [17] She explains that live performance can be understood as voluntary risk-taking action that involves ‘edgework’ and ‘flow’ and suggests these processes involve a transcendent consciousness where “the social self splits into its constituent parts of ‘I’ and ‘Me’… the latter disappearing and the former taking over”. [17:1]

However, in her article she also shows how moments of self-consciousness may disrupt this transcendent potential, “jolting the actor into a sudden reflexive awareness of their ‘real’ self as a symbolic object.” [17:2] Indeed, musical performance, just like theatrical performance, demands “a process of splitting, fragmentation and merciless self-reflection, which leaves this inner subject vulnerably exposed” [17:3].

The phenomenology of the ‘divided self’ may help us understand why musical performance can give rise to feelings of existential (in)security. Fear, in this perspective, “arises from the apprehension of the metaphorical ‘edge’ or boundary between the offstage and onstage realm” [17:4].

As a musician, and not philosopher or literature specialist, I can try to use the phenomenological theory in my practice by having awareness of transition into the character on the stage. The only way that I found successful is to try this “way of thinking” on the biggest number of public performances as possible.

“Entering a role entails the shedding of the ‘Me’ and embracement of the ‘I’, which is channelled through the role performance. Although these are deliberate transitions, they are not consciously controlled, but rather unfold intangibly and imperceptibly within the self.” [17:5]

Musician Nick Cave (2014) describes a ‘transformative’ process of shifting into his onstage persona : “Getting into character, then, requires a leap of faith over the metaphorical edge into the unknown. The performer must assume this other identity, incorporating alter into ego, without being entirely sure whether or how this will work.”

This transition seems to happen passively to him and is beyond his control. Acute performance anxiety occurs before live shows when he doubts the transformation will happen successfully:

It’s horrendous backstage, before we go on. You don’t know how you’re going to be able to do this show. But then something just comes and takes you away from all that… It’s transformative.’ (Cave, 2014)" [17:6]

Examples in my own performing

Here is an example of myself playing in the class concert on October 2021 where I am not transcending into my performing self. I remember being quite stressed and I was unhappy with my performance. After listening to my colleagues for one hour it was difficult to focus on my own playing. I remember being unfocused and I was not able to “enter the music” and “flow”. I was not particularly worried about being judged but it felt strange to perform a piece when the audience was so close (even if it was only 15 people). I didn’t really understand why I was unsatisfied and why my playing was not energetic as it used to be. Two weeks before the class concert in Studio 3 I was playing the same sonata in a concert in Schoenberg Hall and for some reason I felt much better then. I can now tell that I didn’t transition into my “performer self” when I was playing in Studio 3. You can observe my tensed face and sluggish body language - I didn’t really enter the “on stage persona” after comofrtably sitting and listening. This is not a person performing but trying and failing.The intonation of that performance was really bad, I was not focused enough (hence only the fragment of the recording, where my uncofmortable facial expressions are noticible).

Here, on the second recording, I successfully transformed into the role of a performer; there is no audience but the recording was made for an audition. More elegant, presentable posture is noticeable, there is more energy and I am not suffering. It was recorded one week after the previous class concert where I noticed my mistake of “playing without actually performing”.

My favourite example is the recording from an audition in December. I was very stressed weeks before, I was expecting a lot from myself and there was no place anymore for “acceptable” mistakes and lack of involment (which translates into not being able to emerge into a role). The social situation was rather given a very small audience and lack of stage. For handling such strong emotions I asked my doctor for support. I will describe the details in the following chapters. There are some technical mistakes because of the tension in the arms but I was very happy with the result and I was completely emotionaly involved in my playing.

Another example is the audition tape from February, the repertoire was challenging beacause many pieces were required to be recorded in the same take. No audience or other students were present in the room. Here the result is the most presentable due to the fact that it was the easiest situation to focus. No social situation was created and the recording happened in the evening whend the space was free for plenty of time. Nevertheless the amount of “takes” are the proof of my tendency towards ill perfectionism: 15 full takes were taken, and at least during the first five I was distracting myself with my own critical thoughts and it made my playing worse. In addition, listening back I found that I stopped playing in the bars at the begining of the excerpt even though they were completely fine. I emerged into a role after some time and it was quite easy, I got plenty of time to transform from a person practicing and trying into the focused performer (and no other person was listening to my attempt).

Developing the question of the transformation and identity

Usually when my MPA is on high levels, expected symptoms and thoughts occur, and they are mostly related to the themes of control and identity. Very often I can feel something like: I am not in control of the situation, I feel that this is not me who is playing on the stage, or I can’t hide my trembling. It almost has the effect that my “central identity” wishes one thing, while my stage fright is doing something opposite.

M. Lawrence (2019) mentions Kirchner in his work:

Kirchner (2003) uses a qualitative approach to examine the experience of MPA from the perspective of musicians. The structure that emerges is that MPA is a combination of distracting thoughts, physiological symptoms and negative feelings that threaten the identity of the musician.[15:2]

Lawrence also mentions Kierkegaard who understood anxiety as the feeling of not having a fixed sense of self. As completely free beings we have the constant freedom of choice but the fact that these choices may be really important, gives us anxiety. “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom” (Kierkegaard 1844). According to Heidegger, one would be ‘inauthentic’ if he could exist by only one, fixed sense of self. Spinelli in his Introduction to Phenomenological Psychology (1989) explains that there is an unlimited number of possible future selves and if we are open to them, “this is ‘authentic’, but anxiety-provoking”.

“In the impossible case, when one attempts to live avoiding the anxiety by living an ‘inauthethic ’life, the dread will appear eventually. This ‘inauthentic’ life also restricts the person’s potential because it is an avoidance of becoming a different person in the future” (Lawrence 2019 after Spinelli, 1989). Anxiety for Heidegger is both inevitable and productive: inevitable because there are an infinite number of future ‘selves’ so there is no true fixed self; and productive because this anxiety brings us to change. If we cling to our current self, there will be no development of our potential, and in this case, anxiety will make its presence felt as a feeling that this static self is not quite right (Lawrence 2019 after Spinelli, 1989).[15:3]

Lawrence quotes also A Relational Perspective (2001) suggesting that performance anxiety may be an opportunity for a new emergent self and that this could be welcomed instead of feared.

During the actual performance, great tension arises from the conflict that surrounds the performer’s resistance to the emergent ‘concert’ self in favour of the erroneous ‘fixed’ self which no longer exists. By avoiding/resisting the ‘flow’ of this possible metamorphosis, turmoil, fear, panic, and anxiety take over in their most negative manifestations. The positive opportunity for anxiety is diminished, lost, or squandered in this suppression and with that the repression or ‘fear’ of that possible emergent self. Thus the ‘emergent’ self must be ‘welcomed. [15:4]

“If there was no sense of fixed personality, as Heidegger suggests, there would be no anxiety. Acceptance of new selves may be the key. This may be particularly difficult for the performer who has endured parental criticism when young and never develops enough confidence in ‘themselves’ to abandon their ‘selves’ to the possibility of new selves in performance. It is also connected to the issue of perfectionism, where a perfect self, a perfect performance, is thought to be attainable.” (M. Lawrence 2019 p.42) [15:5]

Embracing the phenomenological theory, we can easily assume that Musical Performance Anxiety might be a threat only when the performer tries to hold on to their “current sense of self” instead of allowing the anxiety to reveal an emerging new self in performance.

Laroon Marcellus, 1688, Merry Andrew on the stage, from bound series of the Cries of London Etching, British Museum


A characteristic trait of anxiety is its reference to the future. As Heidegger wrote, anxiety is related to “malum futurum” [3:1] One can anticipate something that will happen in the future and already experience it as a danger to oneself. According to Wolsza, existentialists are describing one’s life as a “project” (German “Entwurf”), a “self-anticipating-being” (Sich-vorweg-sein) and “one-becoming-oneself” ( Zu-sich-selbst-kommen). Time, which one can perceive in their “Entwurf” has the opposite vector of physical time. In the latter, time is pictured as a stream flowing from the past, through the present, to the future. In the interpretation of existence as a “project”. The first category is the future, which is first anticipated and then later, through the realization, becomes the present and then the past. Since future states cannot be known, but only mentally anticipated, the imagination plays a big role. It can distort and exaggerate the source of the threat in the anticipated future, causing fear. Although anticipation concerns the future, it is also related to the past, with emotional memory that stores past experiences, including emotional reactions to situations perceived as being threatening [3:2]. Anticipation can include the unlimited numbers of possibilities which can cause another source of fright. Again, this has been noted by Kierkegaard: “The possibility is the worst of all (…) Even the reality full of meaning is not terrifying as the possibility”[3:3]. The chaotic state of all possible variants of the future increases the potential of the threat. The ambivalent significance of anxiety brings helplessness and it is hard to bear if the responsibility of our action (or performance) is important to us – like winning the audition or playing a demanding solo part. The structure of anxiety is somehow antagonistic to the structure of hope. Both are anchored in the future but in the case of anxiety we anticipate mostly danger and negativity, while in the case of hope the positivity is anticipated. Malum futurum is the opposite of bonum futurum

Diderot & d’Alembert Encyclopédie, 1751-1777 Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers, Eye surgery

But in in the case of musical performance, where this Malum futurum, is coming from?

Burin and Osório in their article (2017) give following examples of psychological research that has been already done:

One can highlight the study by Kenny et al, who used a sample of 377 members of the Australian Symphony Orchestra. For those musicians, the three causes most associated with MPA were: self-pressure, excessive physical arousal before and during the presentation, and bad performance experience. According to the authors, these data suggest the presence of psychological vulnerability and ill-adaptive perfectionism traits. [16:1]

But they are not explaining further where the psychological vulnerability and ill-adaptive perfectionism traits are coming from.

The study by Sinico (2013), who studied Brazilian flautists, shows that the most reported causes of MPA involved difficult repertoire, public presentation and evaluation. Further studies on this theme are important to understand the development and maintenance of MPA.

Curyło –Sikora [14:2] lists the research about the causes of the MPA. She mentions Kenny (2006) who underlines the meaning of innate temperament, cognitive capacities, self-reflective abilities, type of parenting, interpersonal experiences, perception, and interpretation of the world around us and specific performance experiences that may have had positive or negative outcomes. Curyło also mentions the model of anxiety by Barlow (2000) who describes the factors that could be related to the increased MPA. These factors are: generalized biological/heritable vulnerability, generalized psychological vulnerability, specific psychological vulnerability. She explains that generalized psychological vulnerability comes from early life. She later follows with the description of Wilson’s (2002) explanation of three factors that are significant in the perception of anxiety: constitutional and learned tendency to experience anxiety in response to social pressure (trait anxiety), the degree of task mastery, the degree of situational stress. There is an underlining tendency for one to experience higher levels of anxiety if the pressure from the social environment is high. Later, she recalls the work of Kępińska-Welbel (2000) who states that public performance is one of the most complicated psychological situations – it is constituted by the pressure of time and social environment, the expectation of the performance without mistakes in the situation of making a mistake when there is no chance of correcting it, the musician’s technical and artistic potential, as well as their personality are being evaluated by the public etc. According to Curyło, the investigations of the personality traits determining the levels of MPA are rare but the existing ones are suggest that there is a correlation between the anxiety levels and self-esteem[14:3].

M.Lawrence in his work (2019) writes that “relational approaches theorise that anxiety comes about through lack of secure attachment to parents. In musical terms this can include a conditional parental approval that depends on good musical performance. Likewise, operant conditioning theory implies that MPA can develop if only excellent performance is met with parental reward.” Then later, he mentions the psychoanalytical view which does not explain the physiological and neurochemical mechanisms by which anxiety develops but rather points to deeper causes (including suppressed intentions and desires that Freud writes about) that may set these mechanisms in motion. “It has something in common with attachment and relational theory in that it emphasizes early life experiences and parental relationship in the development of anxiety. Kenny (2011) draws attention to the similarities of Freud’s and Barlow’s conceptions of anxiety, the difference being that Freud refers to previously-experienced threat and Barlow to ‘future threats, danger, or other potentially negative events” (Barlow, 2000, p.1249). [15:6]

If we accept the concepts of Heidegger and Kierkegaard, who set the cause of the anxiety with the vector inclined to the future, and Freud, who sets the vector of cause directed to the past, we would have a truly complex phenomenon which is relatable to the feeling which a musician might be experiencing on the stage. In my opinion, understanding the nature of the causes will lead to finding successful coping strategies

Coping strategies

Gheyn Jacob II, 1595-1599, Mars,Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Napora underlines different styles of coping mechanisms. According to Endler and Parker, there are three possible ways of dealing with stress: the style concentrated on the problem and searching the solution for it, the style concentrated on emotions, not focusing on the problem but dealing with emotional tension by crying or suppression of the negative emotions by using different stimulants/drugs; and the style focused on the avoidance of the problem, keeping the attention as far as possible from the problematic situation by doing other activities (such as reading books, cleaning, using phone, socializing). According to Tokarz and Kalenska the coping mechanisms are: positive thinking, realistic assessment of the situation, catastrophic thinking, distancing from the situation,and helplessness and downplaying. The results of their investigation on 100 students showed that the most popular of mechanisms are distancing and positive thinking.

Fehm and Schmidt divided the strategies into short- and long-term ones. Short-term strategies are the activities that musicians do just before entering the stage: repeating the most difficult parts of the piece being the most popular strategy revealed in their investigation (95%), positive thinking (81,2%), prayer (54,9%), smoking cigarettes (20,4%), relaxation (18,4%), taking sedative medications (15%). The most frequently mentioned long-term strategy turned out to be conversation and support from friends or teachers, as well as improvement of technique by practicing. Musicians rarely used psychological counseling or professional therapy (4.3%) [10:1] Using his own research and interview Napora showed his results in the following graph:

Strategies of coping with stage fright in the study group (Napora, Wojciech, Stec, Adrianna, 2020, Częstochowa, Trema u artystów występujących publicznie. Wybrane psychologiczne uwarunkowania i sposoby radzenia sobie z tremą. Społeczeństwo – Kultura - Wychowanie. Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Humanistyczno-Przyrodniczego ISBN 978-83-66536-07-4)[10:2]

Curyło – Sikora presetns a list of professional interventions used as coping strategies. Based on the review of empirical analyzes she distinguished the following actions: behavioral interventions, cognitive interventions, cognitive - behavioral interventions, Alexander Technique, biofeedback, music therapy, hypnotherapy, meditation and drug interventions. In addition to the methods listed above, the literature on the subject can also find reports on the use of methods such as yoga, eye movement desensitization therapy (EMDR), the Rolfing technique and the Feldenkrais method (breathing and relaxation techniques).[14:4]

Curyło also mentions the very important context of health and its perception. She claims that there are few empirical reports in the area of stage fright and its effects on one’s health in relation to musical performance. Those that do exist are primarily about the role of sense of self-efficacy and self-esteem in reducing the level of anxiety and its impact on the musician. [14:5] However, there are many publications pointing to the important role of parents and teachers in the process of shaping and developing a young musician. During the development in the earliest stages, a way of perceiving and experiencing different situations is created. Also, the biggest stressors are shaped during the development process. It is therefore related to interactions with the teachers and environment in the educational institution. These impacts should aim at shaping the individual harmoniously and help develop a personality with the awareness of its inseparable potentials. Stage fright should be treated as a specific type of stress, and it is important to pay attention to the role of resources that contribute to the cognitive assessment of stress as a challenge and consequently balance the experienced stress. The literature on the subject shows that musicians often make inadequate assessments which create a cognitive situation that leads to the experience of high levels of stage fright. For example, they distort the image of the audience, as they feel that the opinions of the listeners relate only to themselves and that the audience is focused only on criticizing them, thus perceiving the audience as a threat. [14:6] Kępińska-Welbel, points out the following: “Therapeutic work with a musician requires also discussing the social context of the performance and the musician’s realistic assessment of the audience. She believes that the musician who has a sense of confidence, can accept himself and his playing and in the event of a mistake and can treat the mistake as a motivating factor for further work, not a failure.Instead of experiencing the audience in a fearful way, the performer is perceive the audience as a partner who is experiencing the music together. When this is not the case, erroneous patterns are likely to emerge in the artist’s thinking. Difficulty concentrating might occur as well as negative self-image which consequently increases the risk of the mistakes in the performance” (Kępińska - Welbel, 1991). [12:1]

In a study by Biasutti and Urli (2006), 25% of respondents stated that the presence of the audience has a negative impact on them, 8% a positive impact, while 67% found the impact to be both positive and negative. The positive component was associated with experiencing the audience as companions with whom communication through music was achievable.The negative feedback concerned the fear of being judged which caused discomfort, inability to control the performance, desire to give up or be somewhere else. Artists who participated in the study gave following statements: "I was terrified by the judgment of others, even if I was playing among 100 other players, the audience was the enemy and I was their target” (Biasutti and Urli, 2006, p. 1479). [14:7]

Published reports and studies emphasize the role of cognitive assessment in experiencing stage fright. It is important that musicians should use positive components of stage fright, such as mobilization and intensity, which are conducive, instead of focusing on the negative elements such as fear, distraction and negative self-talk .The results of the invistigations indicate that professional musical activity, starting from the stage of music education, require a special interest in mental health and psychology of the students and professional musicians. Above all, to perceive the performance as a challenge and not as a threat, the musician should acquire the ability to deal with stressful situations using resources at his disposal, which are shaped in the course of his development (such as courage or self-confidence). Thanks to them, despite the stressful factors of stage fright that burden the artist physically, mentally and socially, they are able to perform without health costs and develop their personality creatively. If I can follow the definition of two compounds of stage fright “worry and emotion" the first element is related to the doubt about the quality of the performance and the fear of the judgment of the public in case of a mistake in playing. The second element is the perception of our own somatic state, which could be exaggerated and can lead to increasing concerns about ourselves. Curyło states that our own somatic state translates to self-evaluation which can be examined by five indicators: sense of health, sense of calmness, sense of tiredness/lack of tiredness, sense of personal achievement, sense of quality of life. [14:8]

Boel Coryn, 1635-1668, Series: Monkeys, Etching. British Museum


If I can understand stage fright as a “worry and emotion” kind of stress I can begin to sort out the problems quite easily in two types of categories: one is related to the playing and stage, the other is related to the mental health and well-being of a performer. I find that the first category of problems are easier to solve by practicing the part in detail, being ready and mentally aware of the “emerging into a role” while entering the stage, and being aware of ones fear about the judgment of listeners. The second category of problems is related to self-evaluation and I find much more complicated and related directly with the psychology.

During my music education I tried ALL popular coping strategies but the most convenient methods never really worked.I have never heard any helpful advice during my studies; most of them are focused on rather shallow aspects of stage fright and I have never felt understood. As in the mentioned reports, less than 5% of musicians look for professional help of therapists and psychologists. I can’t change my sense of achievement or sense of quality of life by breathing exercises. Therefore, if my sense of achievement has a direct impact on my assesment of the reality which is a deciding factor for the levels of my MPA, I would have to look for a method on how to change my sense of achievement (or sense of quality of life etc.). In order to have a significant influence on my self-evaluation I would have to look into my own trauma issues and the causes of my perception of my achievments and quality of life, and that deserves help of a specialist.


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  1. Bourne Edmund, 2011,„Lęk i Fobia p.9, Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego,Kraków, p.9 ↩︎

  2. Idem, p.10 ↩︎

  3. Wolsza Kazimierz, 2014 „Fenomenologia Lęku” , Ethos. Kwartalnik Instytutu Jana Pawła II KUL, 4 (108), DOI 10.12887/27-2014-4-108-06 , p.80 ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎

  4. .Bourne Edmund, 2011,„Lęk i Fobia p.9, Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego,Kraków, p.6 ↩︎

  5. Idem, p.18-20 ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎

  6. Kępiński Antoni,2002, Lęk, Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków, p.105 ↩︎

  7. Idem p.117 ↩︎

  8. Idem p.123 ↩︎

  9. Idem p.126- 138 ↩︎

  10. Napora, Wojciech, Stec, Adrianna, 2020, Częstochowa, Trema u artystów występujących publicznie. Wybrane psychologiczne uwarunkowania i sposoby radzenia sobie z tremą. Społeczeństwo – Kultura - Wychowanie. Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Humanistyczno-Przyrodniczego ISBN 978-83-66536-07-4, p. 481- 489 ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎

  11. Endo Satoshi, Juhlberg Kristina, Bradbury Adrian, Wing Alan M., 2014, Interaction between physiological and subjective states predicts the effect of a judging panel on the postures of cellists in performance, Front Psychol. 2014; 5: 773, Published online 2014 Aug 7. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00773 ↩︎

  12. Kępińska-Welbel J. (1991), Warszawa,Trema u muzyków.Psychologia muzyki – problemy, zadania, perspektywy: materiały Międzynarodowego Seminarium Psychologów Muzyki,. Akademia Muzyczna im. Fryderyka Chopina.p.469–474 ↩︎ ↩︎

  13. Wolfe, M. L. (1989). Correlates of adaptive and maladaptive musical performance anxiety. Med. Probl. Perform. Art. 4, 49–56. ↩︎

  14. Curyło-Sikora Patrycja, 2017, Katowice, Radzenie sobie z Tremą a zdrowie młodzieży uzdolnionej muzycznie, DOI:, ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎

  15. Lawrence, M. (2019). Music performance anxiety as hidden desire and emerging self: the development and exploration of a conceptual lens for performers and practitioners. Unpublished Doctoral thesis, Guildhall School of Music and Drama ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎

  16. Burin AB, Osório FL, 2017, Music performance anxiety: a critical review of etiological aspects, perceived causes, coping strategies and treatment Arch Clin Psychiatry. 2017;44(5):127-33 DOI: 10.1590/0101-60830000000136 ↩︎ ↩︎

  17. Scott, Susie (2017) Transitions and transcendence of the self: stage fright and the paradox of shy performativity. Sociology, 51 (4). pp. 715-731. ISSN 0038-0385 ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎