Do Classical Musicians Get More Nervous Than Non-Classical Musicians? (And If so, Why?)

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A few years ago, I reconnected with a childhood Suzuki friend, who spent most of his formative years learning the standard classical repertoire, and eventually, playing in a professional orchestra.

But then, one day, his path diverged, and he became immersed in the world of jazz, improvisation, and a range of other non-classical styles.

And now, with a thriving non-classical music career, he remarked that although he used to get really nervous on stage playing Sibelius or Paganini, the anxiety went away when he began performing in non-classical styles.

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard a story like this. So I’ve always kind of wondered.

Is there something inherently different about classical music that makes classical musicians more anxious on stage? And if so, what could that possibly be?

Who experiences more nerves?

To find out if there is any difference in the anxiety experienced by classical and non-classical musicians, a group of British researchers conducted a survey of 244 musicians, to see if there were any patterns or trends.

The sample consisted primarily of undergraduate music students (70%), but also included a good number of professional musicians (30%). And while most were classical (48%), 27% were pop musicians, 18.4% jazz, and 6.6% Scottish Traditional musicians.

Everyone gets nervous, but…

It’s not like nerves were limited exclusively to the classical folks, as students and professionals in all musical genres experienced anxiety. But, in general, classical musicians did report experiencing more anxiety in performance (especially solo performances) than musicians in other genres.

So why is that? Is it the formality of the performance environment? Or some feature of the music itself?

Anxiety in performance and practice

To get at this question, pianist and music psychology researcher Elsa Perdomo-Guevara conducted a survey of 625 musicians from 36 countries.

46% were professional musicians, while 27% were students, and 27% were amateur musicians.

There were 43 different instruments represented (71% were piano, guitar, voice, flute, violin, percussion, and clarinet), and in terms of genre, 71% were classical musicians, 9% jazz, 9% pop, 7% folk, and 2% rock or metal.

All in all, the questionnaire had 36 questions, intended to get a sense of these musicians’ experience on stage and in the practice room.

Emotional experience during performances

As expected, there were some notable differences between the classical and non-classical musicians.

In performance, non-classical performers experienced more “elation,” “joy,” “positive arousal” (i.e. excitement, or a “good” kind of nerves), and “confidence” than their classical counterparts.

And in addition to experiencing less of these positive emotions, the classical performers also reported more “worry” and “fear.”

Five approaches to performance

To find out why this might be, the researcher asked participants to recall their last “highly enjoyable performance experience” and select from 23 different statements describing their mental or emotional approach to the performance.

Statements like “You felt connected with the audience or co-performers” or “You felt the music came to you from ‘elsewhere’” or “You felt proud of your performance.”

From this data, she found that there were essentially five approaches to performance:

  1. Some had a more “people-oriented” approach, where the musician’s focus was on connecting with the audience or the other musicians on stage.
  2. Others had a “source-oriented” approach, where the focus was more on letting the music speak or flow through them.
  3. Some had a “self-oriented” approach, where the focus was more on being confident, feeling powerful, and performing up to one’s standard.
  4. Then there was a “fitness-focused” approach, which I wasn’t entirely sure I understood, but I think has to do with feeling like they’re in good playing shape.
  5. And finally, a “magical-moment” approach, which was simply about being in the moment and enjoying what was happening.

These approaches weren’t mutually exclusive, so musicians usually had some elements of each. However, the non-classical musicians tended to have a much stronger people-oriented approach.

Meanwhile, the classical musicians had a much stronger self-oriented and fitness-focused approach to performance.

How to have the most positive experience on stage

All in all, the study suggests that we’re likely to have the most positive performance experiences, if we approach performing with a greater emphasis on connecting to the audience, our fellow performers, or the experience of letting go and allowing the music to speak through us rather than trying to perfectly micromanage all the technical details in the moment.

Indeed, the study found that the only performance approach associated with fear, was the fitness-focus. As the author notes in her paper, these folks “did not play for an audience but in front of an audience.”

And a curious detail about practice…

Which speaks to a curious detail the researcher noticed in the data about classical musicians’ experience in the practice room. Interestingly, while performing was not necessarily a positive-feeling activity for many classical musicians, practicing, on the other hand, was.

The author explains that

“…when considering their negative performance-related emotions in the context of the positive experiences reported during practice, the absence of valuable goals in their approaches to performance, and the higher incidence of this profile among classical performers, it can be concluded that the concerns highlighted by the classical music milieu may be so focused on the means to achieve musical excellence, namely practice, that the joys of sharing and reaching out to others that performance may afford are overshadowed and become irrelevant.”

Hmmm…could there be something in the classical music culture or tradition that somehow leads some (but certainly not all) musicians to end up at a place where they find satisfaction in the practice room, but have little desire to experience performing?

Reconnecting with the point of it all

This reminded me of an exercise Itzhak Perlman conducted at a master class some years back (whom I always loved watching, because he always seems to be having a good time on stage). Anyhow, one of his students was playing Kreisler’s Liebesleid , and he asked her to play parts of it again several times, each time approaching it differently using emotions or characters suggested by the audience. Like “sarcastic” or “furious.”

Words that do not at all describe Kreisler’s intention for the piece (the title translates to Love’s Sorrow) – but help get us away from a “fitness-focus,” and perhaps prepare us better for our actual purpose on stage.

Which was nicely captured by a sign that Juilliard’s Director of Chamber Music (and Naumburg-winning flutist) Bärli Nugent once spotted on the door of a dance studio at school, which read: “The only reason for mastering technique is to make sure the body does not prevent the soul from expressing itself.

The stress-to-fun continuum

In reflecting on all of this, I was reminded of how much I enjoyed playing with piano as a kid. And with a string quartet. Or full orchestra. I even remember Suzuki “play-ins”1 as a fun event that I’d look forward to.

All of this ensemble playing could lead to profoundly transcendent, and thrilling experiences – probably even more for me than the listener (which might not be ideal, but that’s a topic for another day…).

That’s not to say that they were not stressful too, but on the stress-to-fun continuum, they certainly felt much more balanced, if not tilted to the fun side of things.

Take action?

So are there things that could be tweaked on the “classical music culture” level, that might help more of us experience the kind of elation or joy on stage that non-classical performers seem to enjoy?

Like, as a small example, might performing feel more positive if our very first performances occurred as part of a larger group or ensemble, rather than by ourselves or with a pianist? I’m not sure, but now I’m definitely curious about what Dr. Suzuki’s thought process and rationale might have been for the play-in (BTW, does anybody know? Please share in the comments if you know the back-story.).

Footnotes

  1. If you’ve never heard of a “play-in,” that’s a group concert, where a bunch of students will get on stage, and perform a bunch of pieces with piano, altogether as a large group.

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Comments

20 Responses

  1. Just a thought, but maybe the atmosphere and audience reaction have a role to play. There is a formal protocol that an audience follows at classical concerts or recitals. At a jazz gig for example, if you play a great solo, or a really swinging number, the audience respond With cheers and whoops. Not to mention dancing. It makes for a great experience as a performer. That doesn’t seem to happen so much in the classical world.

  2. I think there is another factor operating here that bears mentioning, and this is related to fundamental differences between classical and improvisational styles of music, where jazz would be the quintessential example of the latter. Consider a both a jazz and classical musician in the process of “getting nervous”. In both cases there is the potential for entering into a perilous state of focus on what the imminent consequences of that state of nervousness might be-I.e. a metanervousness of sorts. But for the classical musician this experience is different. Nominally , classical music is about executing the written music – with little option to do anything less. And so like a race car driver unable to avoid entering a difficult turn at high speed, the classical musician who is a few measures away from a difficult passage is all to aware that they have no real alternative route around that passage, no easier option. As such the prospect of impending disaster is rendered in rather stark contrast to that of successful execution. Now to be sure there is some grey area here, but the boundary between getting over and screwing up is fairly well drawn. Consider instead a jazzz musician a few measures away from some difficult chord changes at a fast tempo. While this musician is faced with no easier task (for those versed in Bebop, think the bridge of Cherokee at 300 Bpm), they do have options, as there is no rigidly predetermined sequence of note choices. The jazz musician “tightening up” in such a situation knows they can opt for a less ambitious improvised line. But with no such option open to the classical musician, the “quality” of being nervous will be different – and likely entailing a higher probability of descending into a disastrous spiral, where even meta, meta levels obtain. Now for good measure add in the fomenting – add surely more explicit – culture of competition in classical music, and something very specific about the challenges of classical performance has surely been called out.

    1. @Joseph & @Gustave,

      Indeed, there are a number of factors that contribute to this, making it an intriguingly complex phenomenon to explore. Thank you for highlighting some of the additional elements involved!

  3. Perhaps classical anxiety would have something to do with the many times we are judged, right from the start and on into our professional lives: band “chair tests” for even beginning students, honor band/orchestra auditions, solo contests, college juries and degree recitals, serious competitions and auditions. And then as a professional, your job is always on the line.

    1. I suspect you are right Amy, even grade 1 is very formal and austere. It sets the tone for the rest of your musical life in the classical field.

    2. I think this is one of the best reasons as to why we get nervous. If we weren’t trained since childhood to believe that every note we play slightly imperfectly pushes us farther and farther back into the section of youth orchestra, we would never become nervous. Add on years of different seating auditions, summer festival auditions, school auditions, and that ungodly final frontier, PROFESSIONAL auditions, and I can’t believe that all musicians don’t simply end up becoming certifiably insane.

      Oh, and let us not forget that one can spend $1000 or more on travel and lodging, and take unpaid leave from work for a whole week, just to play a 7 minute audition.

  4. I’ve found that taking it out of the snooty concert hall and performing more informally in public places will, after time, release much anxiety. I consider it my testing playground and I’m not so concerned if a passage gets botched up. Bonus: It feels like you are retraining your nervous system to become less reactive on a subconscious level. Try it!

  5. From my own experience, I think non-classical musicians might be more relaxed because they know they can improvise around any mistakes they may make, whereas classical musicians would consider a radically wrong note to be a showstopper. I personally feel much more relaxed when I’m performing improvisation, as opposed to a written piece that I know I need to follow exactly.

    1. I agree with Mr. Lee. Complicated psychological studies aside, I think there is a fairly simple reason for the difference. My lifetime background is classical music (pipe organ & classical guitar). However in the world of guitar, many have started with jazz or rock – some style that incorporates improv. One individual told me he managed classical guitar well because if he bobbled something, he could improvise something until he got on track again in the classical piece. – Maybe not the kind of thing that would win competitions in the classical world, but wins audiences. In other words, the mind is more flexible. A well-trained, accomplished jazz performer knows theory inside out & upside down and therefore has built in tools for flexibility. To conclude, I took private lessons in club piano (generally oriented toward arranging) and jazz guitar. Both were real eye-openers – especially in feeling baroque music much, much differently than just chasing notes on the page around. – A small but significant new experience of Bach et al as innately improvisers. The takeaway: Improvisation opens the mental door to CHOOSING what to play, as contrasted with HAVING to play someone else’s choices.

  6. I agree with the comments already well-stated. Having the improvisational option would be a stress-reducer for sure, and it’s unavailable in modern-day classical settings. Curiously, improvisation was historically very much an expected part of the musical programs of the 19th century. Improvisational contests between rivals were very much a part of entertainment culture; recall the great Liszt vs. Thalberg duel, or Beethoven vs. Steibelt confrontation, etc. And audiences were much more participative, interrupting with claps, calls for repeats etc.

    But still, the overall evolutionary development of “classical” music in its earliest forms was an indulgence for the aristocracy, nobility and privileged, most often presented in private homes and formal salons of the wealthy. (An exception is liturgical and sacred music.) So it acquired an air of privilege, formality and “class” that wasn’t present among the lower classes and their “folk music.” Keeping in mind those historical roots, and then consider how unbelievably difficult and competitive is the path for an aspiring classical musician to reach true world-class elite levels, it is easy to understand the feeling of carrying the weight of the world on one’s shoulders. Competition is so fierce, even perfection itself it not enough to assure success in that world. This is a pity. The pressure to win competitions and comparisons to highly edited, produced error-free recordings sets a tremendous standard of perfection almost guaranteed to rob the classical artist of his or her soul and spontaneity.

    And yet. I admit that I savor the thrill of the snooty concert hall because it’s such an overwhelming awe-inspiring experience to be in the presence of that level of musician. When he or she is “on fire” the experience in the hall is unique and transcendental. I would be disappointed if they delivered a heartfelt performance from a concert stage that was at the technical level of my amateur salon group. But what a burden the artist must bear in the effort to deliver that. I guess that’s why there are so few at the very top.

    1. I’m reminded of the scene in the Robert Redford movie “Sneakers” where he is blindfolded and mistakes a colony of chattering geese on a river bank for a cocktail party.

      Well, if you put two thousand human beings in a room, that’s what we would normally sound like — a colony of noisy geese. If instead, the room is absolutely silent, that silence must be electrifying for the performer all of us geese are shutting up to listen to.

  7. I’m not surprised that classical musicians report more anxiety. There just isn’t any reason to tense up when I’m improvising because I know I can stay within my technical comfort zone, wherever that might be at different points in my growth.

    But I am surprised that classical musicians report less ‘positive arousal.’ My experience, as a fairly serious amateur, is that, once the fear abates, nothing beats the the ‘adrenaline high’ of performing a classical piece with some confidence for listeners. You can’t experience the high of liberation from fear unless you have experienced fear in the first place.

    I find performing a classical piece for listeners is qualitatively different and more intoxicating than playing other styles to an audience. I pursue chances to perform classical more than other styles because I’m hooked on the high. And I daresay, I’m much closer to a professional level in non-classical styles. As a classical amateur, I barely qualify as sentient, if even that.

    As for the whooping and hollering and jumping up and down in non-classical concerts, yes that’s great.

    But pianist Vikingur Olafsson once told me he can feel the audience listening to him. The atmospheric charge of focused listening is palpable. Like in your wonderful exercise with the nine guitarists. Take all those different responses and multiply them times a hundred.

    I’ll be the first person to jump out of the balcony at the Beacon Theater, but I’d never say I’m more into a great rock show than a great classical recital. I had to stop myself from jumping out of the balcony at Avery Fisher Hall after an Andre Watts recital.

  8. As a singer and teacher of both classical and music theatre styles I can strongly relate to this and to the comments. I have to admit that I am both saddened and relieved the hear that other instruments experience the perfectionism nerves. As an opera singer I have heard producers and casting directors literally say that if you don’t (believe you) have the best _______ (inset role/aria here) in the ENTIRE WORLD you should not bother to sing or audition. Imagine being told this as a grad student, or even as an undergrad! OF COURSE at that level you aren’t the best in the world. As a recovering perfectionist this was unbelievably damaging. This essential belief is echoed again and again. This “don’t even bother trying” attitude can then leak from the audition and performance halls into the practice room to poison that sacred space that is supposed to be the haven of helpful mistakes and learning to create deep-rooted anxiety. In addition, the breadth of interpretations of any role is incredibly narrow; only certain portrayals of a character are allowed.

    Contrast this with the worlds of theatre and music theatre. Creativity, spontaneity, and even failure are applauded. Artists are encouraged and expected to bring something new to the rehearsal and performances. Performance to communicate is the primary goal at all times, along with a feeling of ensemble and a real connection among a cast. I would dare to say that this experience of performance is far more authentic than the classical (operatic) world where singers hide in their hotel rooms to practice, and are afraid to be themselves lest they say the wrong thing to the wrong person and lose their job. Or get a wrong note, a wrong pronunciation, portray the character/sing the aria with the wrong interpretation, and aren’t good enough anymore.

    I love classical singing, the demands of technique, the achievements, the communication with the audience. But I have absolutely no doubt that the culture of perfectionism is deeply damaging to the artistic soul.

  9. I relate to the fitness approach very deeply. So, HOW do I change from that to an approach that is more focused on audience connection? I’m pretty hard-wired with this by now, so it’s not so easy to just “change my thinking.”

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