It’s not a virus! Reconceptualizing and de-pathologizing music performance anxiety

Music Performance Anxiety (MPA) is one of the most widespread and debilitating challenges facing musicians, affecting significant numbers of performers in terms of both their personal and professional functioning. Although numerous interventions exist to target MPA, its prevalence remains unchanged since the first large-scale studies of the 1980s, indicating that available interventions are having limited impact. This review synthesizes and critiques existing literature in order to investigate possible reasons for the limited efficacy of current approaches to managing MPA. Key concepts discussed include conceptual and methodological challenges surrounding defining MPA, theoretical perspectives on MPA’s etiology and manifestation, and the coping strategies and interventions used to manage MPA. MPA has predominantly been investigated pathologically and defined as a negative construct manifesting in unwanted symptoms. Based on this conceptualization, interventions largely seek to manage MPA through ameliorating symptoms. This review discusses possible reasons why this approach has broadly not proved successful, including the issue of relaxation being both unrealistic and counterproductive for peak performance, issues associated with intentionally changing one’s state creating resistance thus exacerbating anxiety, and focusing on the presence of, rather than response to, symptoms. Despite 50 years of research, MPA remains an unsolved enigma and continues to adversely impact musicians both on and off the stage. Reconceptualizing MPA as a normal and adaptive response to the pressures of performance may offer a new perspective on it, in terms of its definition, assessment and management, with practical as well as theoretical implications.

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