Is Music a High-Stress Endeavor?

“Am I reading this right?”


Those were my words after coming across the following passage on Medical News Today while researching an unrelated topic (yoga, if you must know):


“Professional musicians often experience high levels of stress, music performance anxiety (MPA), and performance-related musculoskeletal disorders (PRMDs). Given the fact that most professional musicians begin their musical training before the age of 12, it is important to identify interventions that will address these issues from an early age.”


If you’re like me, a fairly-experienced musician who has been training from a young age and had a blast on stage more times than they can count, you might also have been inclined to call bullshit after reading that. Sure learning to play music or going in front of the lights can be stressful, but “high level” stressful?


Even as a youngling, performing was never anxiety-inducing. The feeling I had was always more akin to “I hope I don’t screw up on the hard part this time” than this particularly agonizing description of MPA I found cruising the web:


“Butterflies in the stomach; sweaty palms; negative self-talk; stomach pain; dry mouth; excessive swallowing; shortness of breath; fuzzy thinking; avoidance; or giving up. These are some of the signs and symptoms of performance anxiety.”


And musculoskeletal disorders caused by playing music? I thought I was being had, but noticed the MNT article I was reading cited some sources. I followed the links, which led me to a pair of abstracts: one about how Yoga Reduces Performance Anxiety in Adolescent Musicians and the other a Review of Playing-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders in Musicians.


Neither was particularly riveting, in my humble opinion, but a third article, Music Performance Anxiety in Classical Musicians, did help me cut through my initial confusion.


“Ah,” I muttered, “the researchers are talking about the classical musicians and those orchestra guys. They always look stressed out.” I jest, obviously, but I figured my reasoning was in the ballpark, and the language used in the article seemed to be backing me up:


“While [classical] musicians report the highest level of job satisfaction, they are also among the five occupational groups most likely to report mental illness”


“Take that, nerds,” or so I thought. Further reading, from Music Performance Anxiety in Young Musicians: Comparison of Playing Classical or Popular Music, suggested that individuals such as myself, who focus on playing popular music, will generally exhibit higher levels of MPA after they reach the age of 16:


“The analyses yielded high levels of MPA for classical musicians between 7 and 16 yrs, which was reduced in older students; for popular musicians, low MPA was seen in the younger (7-11 yrs) and high MPA in the older (16+ yrs) musicians.”


This came as a shock. I had to reread the passage several times to ensure I hadn’t misconstrued its meaning, as I could never recall a time I felt any sort of stress associated with music upon hitting my teenage years. Far from making me anxious, playing music in any setting, even on stage, would always calm me down.


I could say the same for most of the students I’ve taught as well. To be clear, I’ve had those who have expressed some trepidation before heading into a recital or showcase, but that tension would always ease once they started playing. 

No bandmates I’ve performed with have ever seemed nervous. None of the other artists I’ve shared the stage with over my career have ever shown the slightest case of nerves. “What gives?” I wondered. “Have I been living in a bubble all these years?”


I decided to look for more information on the topic, which is when I stumbled across a 2011 article from The Conversation, titled All Right on the Night? Music Performance Anxiety Is More Common Than You Think. “That’s a wee bit of an understatement,” I joked, but what I read was no laughing matter.


Not only does performance anxiety affect musicians across classical and popular genres, more than a fair few performers have anxiety so severe they either self-medicate with alcohol and cannabis, or rely on prescription anxiety medication just to make it through auditions and shows.


Now, I’m not the type to refuse a cold beer before a show, and I’ve had my share of drinks before hitting the stage, but it has always been social thing — just killing time before bringing the house down. To think that some of my peers have to indulge in a few drinks to play floored me, and left me feeling slightly ashamed of myself.


On the one hand, I feel like something of a rube for not recognizing music-related anxiety as a pervasive issue sooner and question why I didn’t come to this realization earlier. On the other, I wonder if I’m the only one who was in the dark? Was this mere ignorance on my part? Blindness? How many musicians have I laughed, joked, and shared a round with, oblivious to the agita that lay just beneath the surface?


Which is where I turn it over to you, fellow musicians. Is performance anxiety something you’ve experienced or noticed? How has it affected your music career? How have you coped? I’m grateful for any responses and curious as to what I might learn from some of your firsthand experiences. 

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