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The origins of performance anxiety

Please consider the following questions before reading further. (1) When does performance anxiety begin? (2) When did you get your first review? (3) Who is your most severe critic? (4) Who is your best supporter?

We all heard our first musical melodies in the voices of our mothers or fathers – when they talked to us, smiled in response to our gurgles, and sweetly sang lullabies.  We cooed back to them or relaxed and slept peacefully. We were held, fed, and had our diapers changed.  We were comforted, and soothed –all in response to our cries – our first songs. Together we composed a duet. This is an ideal scenario, but parents are not always able to satisfy all our needs.  Both gratification and lack of gratification have a profound impact on our lifelong psychological development.

Image credit: Piano “Children Child Music Instrument Musical” by coyot. CC0 via Pixabay.

As infants, we learn – or begin to sense – that we have enormous power to make others respond to us.  Of course, we don’t know that rationally, but the nursery provides the stage for our first performance and our ability to have an effect upon (m)others. We were taken care of by our first adoring critic.  Our earliest hours and days in the nursery began a life long process of learning to trust others and establish the foundations for self-esteem.  It is awesome to reflect upon the enormous power of the newborn to command other people!  Our very first review to our music came in the nursery. Therein begins our sensitivity to the reactions of others to our music – and an important root of our performance anxiety.

Noted psychologist and educator Erik Erikson has written about human development from a biological, psychological, and social perspective encompassing the entire life cycle.  His famous chart, “The Eight Stages of Man,” is in his book Childhood and Society (1950).  I have found his ideas particularly helpful to understanding the importance of development in musicians, particularly so since children begin to study musical instruments at very young ages.  The first four stages of Eriksons’s chart are explained below in the context of stage fright in adolescents. All eight stages are discussed in Managing Stage Fright, where practical strategies for dealing with performance anxiety are suggested based on age.

Erikson discusses adaptive and maladaptive outcomes of each stage (not right or wrong outcomes).  There are tasks to be balanced as we grow.  Each stage is believed to be embedded in subsequent stages as we compose our unique life histories.  We do not outgrown earlier stages, but incorporate how we navigate the previous stage into the next.  Anxiety can lead us to regress to earlier stages. In reading the brief summaries below, keep in mind that ages are approximate for each stage but are illustrative for normal development and that there are potential impediments that risk healthy development at every stage.

Stage 1 (Birth-1 year ): Trust vs Mistrust

Physical and emotional care is received from mother and caregivers.  The baby learns to trust the “other” for basic needs.  This early relationship lays the foundation for trust in self as well as ability to have an impact upon the “other” with cries, gurgles, coos, smiles – all non-verbal sounds.  Non-verbal sounds are our first music performances and communication with others.

Stage 2 Ages 2-3: Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt

The toddler learns to walk, talk, use the potty, and develop pleasure in controlling him/herself and others.  Toddler talk i.e., boo boos, making a mess, accidents”  is  typical language that refers to bodily functions that can be heard in phrases performers use about having  “accidents” on stage.   Developing physical and emotional self-control is a precursor to acquiring self esteem.  “His Majesty The Baby”, a title Freud coined to connote the “power” of the newborn, gradually compels the baby to relinquish instant gratifications of infancy. This does not always happen smoothly or without sensitive help from parents.   The child, now upright in walking and talking, is increasingly independent and yet still dependent on others.

Stage 3 Ages 4-6: Initiative vs. Guilt

The births of siblings, special love for the parent of opposite sex, observing sexual and generational differences are accompanied by envy, greed, and other longings for approval and fears of rejection.  Some children begin piano lessons during this stage.   Winning and losing approval become paramount as the music teacher is mentally experienced as a parental figure. Students later search for approval and being favorites (winners) by juries at competitions.

Stage 4 Ages 7-12: Industry vs. Inferiority

Many children begin music lessons at this age and are very motivated to seek favor by teachers, juries, audiences who can reward with applause and “love”. In fact, the audience becomes the metaphor for the parents who can love – or reject – the child.  The stage of the nursery gradually becomes a stage for a concert.

Psychological development and musical development share common psychological pathways from our earliest years about how we feel about ourselves and others.  This includes our feelings about how we can have an effect on others (or not) or control (or not ) them through our music-making.

Image credit: IMG_3261 by Kian McKellar. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

For musicians (and other types of performers), this often surfaces as a wish for a “perfect performance” in order to receive “perfect” love and nurturance from the parent/audience.  We received our “first review” from our parents in the nursery. The nature of these earliest interactions shapes our psychological development forever after – including stage fright.

When discussing the quest for “perfection”, I emphasize the importance of coming to terms with our own and others’ imperfections.  I was pleased to receive responses from readers, including from one teacher who spoke of a healthy attitude about performing.   With the teacher’s permission, I quote her below:

 “I stress always that we are making music:  this is not a test; making music is not an athletic event to see who the fastest, etc is.  It is about expressing something through sound…I tell the students that the music already exists, that the composer endeavors (imperfectly) to notate it, that we endeavor (imperfectly) to realize this already extant music.  The “imperfect” is a given.  The only questions are, “Did we make music, share something, express something?”

Featured image credit: “Audience Concert Music Entertainment People Crowd” by Free-Photos. CC0 via Pixabay

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