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Music Performance Anxiety.

When we read about the negative impact of playing music it is normally framed within the area of Music Performance Anxiety (MPA). It is claimed that up to 25% of all performers experience various levels of overwhelm related to MPA.

The causes are varied, but they are thought to involve a complex interaction of psychological factors, self-perceptions, environmental and musical components. For an overview of MPA check out the book 'Psychology Music Performance Anxiety' by Diana Kenny, she’s done loads of research in this area.

In another study of mixed genres of musicians, performance anxiety was viewed as  being a significant concern but surprisingly, MPA was also perceived as both negative and beneficial in certain situations. Additionally, (and not surprisingly), solo musical performance was also found to generate the greatest amount of anxiety. As we would expect, going it alone or solo is far more difficult than musicking with a group of musicians!  (I’ll return to this later). Interestingly, these levels of anxiety also directly correlated with playing experience and psychological susceptibility.

The study also found that a classical performer may potentially feel under more professional scrutiny than a popular musician, although the reasons for this remain subjective and varied.  Another interesting finding concerned the higher levels of distress experienced by the popular musician demographic during the period of time before the performance, rather than during the show itself. Despite this, the classical group were found to experience more anxiety overall.  

In regard to my own experience, I have the luxury of comparing my performances as a drummer, singer songwriter and DJ. Without a doubt the singer songwriter guise is the most difficult. In line with the research findings mentioned previously, I do feel a great deal of pressure when performing solo.

There is something quite vulnerable about a lone performer facing a crowd. Let’s not forget, this crowd can also be both hostile and friendly with a dynamic journey taking place as alcohol hits the system! As a drummer, there’s a different kind of pressure, it’s my job to hold the tempo and stabilise the band but I’m at the back, the vertebrae of the situation, not the face. DJing again falls into two distinct categories for me. One is where I am paid to essentially soundtrack the evening without mixing. This is by far the least anxiety inducing. In fact, it’s plain sailing in a way.

Next up is the more electronic based DJ sets I get booked to play which involves the fine matching of the beats and rhythms. In this situation there is more pressure to select the right track to keep the dancefloor moving and to also seamlessly blend these tracks together live. In the old days we had to do this manually on vinyl but modern technology does make this a touch easier now as there’s all sorts of tips and tricks involved with both modern players (CDJs) or laptops. I don’t use laptops but it would undoubtedly make my life easier! These individual positive and negative areas of music performance will be further explored in the next article.

In all, like many other areas, these are all nuanced and unique areas that impact our mental health as musicians and we all come at them from our own emotional centre. This is why the Tonic Rider Peer Support Groups are of vital importance when trying to understand ourselves and others in this unique space. Tonic Rider also have a separate Music Performance Anxiety Workshop.


Adam Ficek hosts a monthly show 'Tonic Music' on Totally Wired Radio, where he talks to various guests about music and mental health. You can listen again to any of the previous show on the Tonic Music Mixcloud page.


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