Free Improvisation and Performance Anxiety
Among Piano Students
Most musicians have experienced the sensations of a dry mouth, knot in one’s stomach, lump in one’s throat, that tingling feeling referred to as the “butterflies,” or perspiration in the palms of their hands. These feelings are generally referred to as symptoms of “performance anxiety.” These sensations distract the performer and can negatively affect the outcome of a musical performance: 1) a dry mouth may cause a singer to begin a phrase with a raspy tone, 2) a knot in one’s stomach may cause a trombone player to produce a weak tone, or 3) perspiration in the palms of one’s hands may cause a drummer to lose his grip on his sticks while playing (Allen, 1996). These examples are the outward manifestations of inner feelings generally referred to as “performance anxiety,” which is a condition that can be so severe as to cause students to discontinue musical studies. When musicians perform in public, psychological factors come into play (Ross, 2007). During performances of a preconceived musical product whose interpretation is pre-determined, levels of anxiety seem to increase (Sawyer, 2000). The performer’s perception of what the listener expects may be at the center of performance anxiety. In a previous study, Roland (1993) found that performers experienced significant distress and marked impairment when performing in front of an audience. Rack (1995) identified specific symptoms of anxiety as debilitative: self-doubt, all-or-nothing thinking, and obsessive worrying. These particular symptoms weakened subjects’ ability to perform. In addition, Kim (2003) described stress and tension as two main characteristics of anxiety.
Lehrer (1987, p. 143) stated that “stage fright” seems to comprise “fear of fear, fear of social disapproval, problems with distraction, and a judgmental attitude.” Furthermore, there seemed to be considerable evidence that stage fright is multifaceted; “in addition to partially independent somatic, cognitive, and behavioral manifestations, stage fright seems to comprise fear of fear, fear of social disapproval, problems with distraction, and a judgmental attitude” (p. 144). For this study, performance anxiety was defined as a performer’s state of being uneasy, apprehensive, or worried about what may happen in a musical performance and the physical or physiological consequences of that anxiety. It is believed that an improved understanding of performance anxiety, if coupled with empirical research on music learning processes (i.e., Gordon, 1997; Campbell, 2009), might aid in the development of an effective approach for overcoming anxiety associated with playing music in the context of public performance.
Researchers have examined specific aspects of intervention, such as
psychological, pharmacological, and physiological treatments, as means for
reducing levels of anxiety that musicians experience in relation to musical
performance. The published literature related to anxiety offered evidence of the
aforementioned treatments as means for reducing levels of anxiety during a
musical performance. Quantitative studies of performance anxiety indicate a
continued trend away from psychotherapy that began in the 1970s. Other
studies showed that the use of beta-blockers reduced performance anxiety,
particularly among string and keyboard players (Steptoe, 1982). Meichenbaum
(1977) compared systematic desensitization with musical analysis and
performance rehearsal and a no-training control group. Following the
treatment, the systematic desensitization group performed at lower subjective
anxiety levels, exhibited lower pulse rate, and made fewer performance errors
than the other groups.
Lehrer (1987) concluded that the various forms of performance anxiety
are treatable by a specific intervention. For example, relaxation therapies and
drug therapy affect somatic symptoms. It is unclear to what extent, if any, that
drug therapies may have the potential for side effects, including some that are
deleterious to performance. Although studies of such interventions do exist,
there is little to prove or disprove the long-term effects of medication.
Furthermore, Lehrer found that there is little knowledge of “interactions between
medication and various psychological approaches to managing somatic
manifestations of stage fright” (p. 145). Although behavioral interventions in
conjunction with an increase in the frequency of performance experience may
have a beneficial effect on stage fright, little empirical evidence exists to support
Previous research in the areas of anxiety reduction regarding musical
performance concludes that anxiety should be reduced in order for a musician
to perform at his or her optimum level (Hamann, 1985). LeBlanc, Jin, Obert, and
Siivola (1997) tested 27 male and female high school band members
performing solos under three levels of audience presence: 1) alone in a
practice room, 2) in a practice room with one researcher present, and 3) tape
recorded performances in the rehearsal room with all researchers and a peer
group. The study concluded that with each succeeding performance selfreported
anxiety rose, and that each reported increase was significant. Gender
emerged as a significant predictor of heart rate during performance. Female
performers attained higher heart rates.
Ryan (2000) studied the differential responses of twenty-six sixth grade
piano male and female piano students to musical performance anxiety,
measuring the heart rates, behavior, performance quality, and anxiety levels
before and during a piano recital. These variables were examined for possible
gender differences. Results found that several relationships that emerged in
analysis were driven by a strong relationship in a single gender, but were
nearly absent, or in fact opposite, in the other.
Wilson and Roland (2002) suggested that hypnotherapy and the
Alexander Technique may be effective in reducing performance anxiety.
Results showed that more than half of performers experience significant
distress and marked impairment when performing in front of an audience.
Studies comparing degrees of performance anxiety between sexes found that
there is equal incidence among males and females (Hamann, 1982; Ryan,
2000). Wilson (2002) proposed three independent sources of stress: 1) Trait
Anxiety – any personality characteristics, constitutional or learned, that mediate
susceptibility to stress, 2) Situational Stress – environmental pressures such as
public performance, audition, or competition, and 3) Task Mastery – ranging
from performances of simple, well-rehearsed works to those of complex,
underprepared material (Wilson, 2002).
Recent studies have attempted to evaluate the use of treatments based
on free improvisation in order to reduce the extent to which an audience affects
levels of performance anxiety. Kim (2003) examined the effects of two music
therapy approaches on ameliorating the symptoms of performance anxiety: 1)
improvisation-assisted desensitization, and 2) music-assisted progressive
muscle relaxation and imagery. Thirty female college students were randomly
assigned to one of two groups (N1=15, N2=15). The improvisation-assisted
desensitization treatment was applied to Group 1 and the music-assisted
progressive muscle relaxation and imagery treatment was used for Group 2.
Four types of visual analogue scales were used: Music Performance Anxiety
(MPA), stress, tension, and comfort. When the result of each condition was
compared from pretest to posttest, Kim found that there were six statistically
significant results out of seven measures. Although all of the subjects from
Group 1 were able to successfully complete the study, several had difficulty
improvising. Both treatments provided significant reductions in performance
anxiety among participants, but neither treatment was significantly more
effective than the other. Although the aforementioned treatments have had
encouraging results, little has been documented in regard to free improvisation
as a treatment.
During the 1990s, a trend toward the use of music itself to reduce anxiety
began to develop based on free improvisation methods (Darling, 2008). Free
improvisation emphasizes the creative process, putting the decisions
concerning musical content at the discretion of the performer, reducing or
eliminating predetermined expectations, thus lowering levels of performance
anxiety (Furth, 1969). For this study, free improvisation was defined as “a
spontaneous musical creation produced in an unthinking state, one in which we
are relaxed yet aware, incorporating and negotiating disparate personal
perspectives and worldviews not limited by genre or methodology, applied to a
wide range of highly personal, individual styles” (Allen, 2010, p. 41).
The purpose of this study was to compare the levels of anxiety that
students experience according to whether their public performance consisted of
a free improvisation or a repertory piece. This was based on the assumption
that a free improvisation instructional strategy might aid in reducing levels of
performance anxiety among school aged piano students, and should therefore
be systematically evaluated for its potential to offer improvements to music
education. The researcher examined the extent to which specific criteria based
on free improvisation affected levels of anxiety when students performed
without an audience. Rather than gathering physiological data that might be
correlated to performance anxiety, self-report tests such as Spielberger’s State-
Trait Anxiety Inventory for Children and the Musical Anxiety Report Scale were
used to provide purely subjective data based on perceptual experiences.
The primary benefit of this study is that it may contribute to a better
understanding of performance anxiety among musicians. Although some
musicians have developed strategies for applying free improvisation to
performance anxiety (Darling, 2008), this study appears to be the first study to
test and measure the applicability of free improvisation as an individual
treatment to problems of performance anxiety. This study had the following
objectives: 1) examine the relationship of students’ levels of anxiety to free
improvisation and repertory pieces during a public performance and 2)
determine the extent to which instruction in free improvisation is an effective
treatment in reducing performance anxiety.
In this study in which elementary, middle, and high school piano students
were taught a set of specific musical skills, there were two independent
variables. The first independent variable was the treatment in which subjects
developed a free improvisation using a specific skill set of musical elements.
The second independent variable was the control condition in which a control
group did not receive the treatment. The aforementioned piano students were
randomly assigned to perform a free improvisation, free improvisation and/or
repertory piece, or a repertory piece, only, in public. The purpose of the
experiment was to determine the effect that free improvisation had on a single
dependent variable: state anxiety. In addition, this study employed two types of
dependent measures: 1) the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory for Children (STAIC)
— used to measure participants’ state and trait anxiety related to music
performance situations and 2) the Musical Anxiety Report Scale (MARS) —
designed by the researcher as a way to measure each performer’s personal
views regarding the effects of free improvisation on their levels of anxiety with or
without an audience. In addition, student interviews, conducted by the
researcher, supported the findings from the STAIC and the MARS.