Spotlight on Research: Helping Musicians Overcome Performance Anxiety

Posted: January 12, 2005 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Emily Yaghmour and Colleen Kearney Rich

If the average person fears public speaking more than he fears death, as a study once showed, it’s not surprising that the life of a musician, dancer, or actor is uncommonly stressful. And excessive psychological stress is only part of the problem. Performing artists, like athletes, are particularly prone to injury. While it is common knowledge that athletes frequently perform in spite of great pain, few people realize that musicians do the same. Practicing their instruments for many hours every day, they often develop painful overuse and repetitive-motion injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome.

David Sternbach
David Sternbach

David Sternbach, a research professor in the College of Visual and Performing Arts (CVPA), wants to help change all that. With a three-year pilot grant, he founded the Center for Arts and Wellness at Mason in 2002. Housed within the Department of Music in CVPA, the center’s two main goals are to integrate knowledge about injury prevention and performance psychology into the performing arts curriculum at George Mason and to develop teaching materials, including a textbook and manual, to train future teachers in arts and wellness.

Sternbach was himself a professional musician for 25 years, having played the French horn in orchestras and chamber music groups in the United States and Europe. He became interested in the field of arts and wellness when, after retiring as a full-time performer and becoming a music teacher, he discovered that some of his students were so plagued by stage fright that they simply could not perform. They could play well during a private lesson, but as soon as they stepped before an audience, their hearts raced, their hands shook, and they lost control of their fine motor skills.

Sternbach wanted to help these students, but found no resources tailored to fit musicians, so he turned to the field of psychology and completed a clinical social work degree. He eventually developed a treatment approach that synthesizes ideas from Buddhist meditation, sports psychology, and hypnosis. He has been treating people successfully since 1983. According to Sternbach, he can usually treat a simple case of stage fright in one session.

Stage fright is as prevalent as it is because of unrealistic demands our culture places on people, Sternbach says. The world is particularly unforgiving for musicians. “Recordings have conditioned audiences to expect note-perfect performances,” he says. “As a result, critical standards for live performances have become unreasonable and excessive.”

David Sternbach outside Performing Arts Building
“Recordings have conditioned audiences to expect note-perfect performances,” Sternbach says. “As a result, critical standards for live performances have become unreasonable and excessive.”

Photos by Evan Cantwell

The overemphasis our culture places on perfection has conditioned artists to value their performances more than their personal lives, Sternbach says. He conducted a modest study many years ago among orchestra players in which he found that the majority of the respondents valued the esteem of their colleagues over their friendship. “If you’re only as good as your performance, then everything is at stake when you perform,” he says. No wonder stage fright is widespread.

Anxious to meet external expectations of perfection, many performers become their own worst critics. While this drive for perfection can be helpful in the practice room, it can wreak havoc in the performance hall, Sternbach says. Looking back over his 20 years of private practice, he says that excessive self-criticism is the most common problem he has seen among performing artists.

And excessive self-criticism hurts more than performances—it affects relationships as well, Sternbach points out. When people aren’t tolerant of imperfection in themselves, they don’t extend the courtesy to others.

His goal, both as a psychotherapist in private practice and as research director of the Center for Arts and Wellness, is to help artists build a skill set to help them meet the special psychological and physical challenges they face in their professions.

Sternbach has been sharing these messages on the road. In November, he presented a workshop on techniques for reducing and controlling performance anxiety at the School of Music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Also in the fall, he presented a workshop on “Occupational Health Training for Musicians” at a European Academy of Occupational Health Psychology conference in Portugal. His talk also introduced the center’s programs and their effectiveness in raising awareness among faculty and students.

“I thought it was important to bring to the academy members’ attention that musicians as a group are worthy of research attention,” he says.

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