Whether it’s studio class, juries, a recital, or a big audition, the unpleasant thing about nerves is that they don’t just kick in when we start playing the first note. Often, they creep in hours, or even days in advance. Which makes the waiting game its own special kind of torture. 😰
Of course, sometimes, things turn 180 degrees once we start playing and we have one of those good days where we’re in the zone and everything feels great. But I think we’re all familiar with the other days too, when we wish we could teleport ourselves to pretty much anywhere else…
A few years ago, we looked at a simple backstage pre-performance technique – specifically, “expressive writing” – that seemed like it could not only reduce our anxiety, but improve performance as well. Because in the study we looked at, the math-anxious students who did a brain dump of their worries right before taking a test performed better than when they didn’t do the brain dump (improving from a B- to a B+).
But as intriguing as this was, playing an instrument in front of an audience or panel of judges is a rather different challenge than taking a math test. And since there weren’t any studies that looked at this with musicians at the time, it wasn’t clear how well expressive writing might (or might not) work with musical performances.
But that has changed in the years since – and now there is some data on what the effect of this might be for musicians!
Ready to take a look?
A piano study
A pair of researchers at the University of Arizona (Tang & Ryan, 2020) recruited 35 music majors. Half were piano performance majors and half were taking group or secondary piano lessons.
The performance majors were asked to pick a solo work that they could perform from memory, while the group/secondary piano students were asked to sight-read a short 8-measure selection of music (selected to be appropriate for their level).
To establish a baseline level of performance, everyone started out by performing their chosen solo piece or assigned sight-reading excerpt either in studio class in front of their peers and teacher (for the performance majors), or in their regular classroom (for the group/secondary piano students).
2-3 days later…
A few days later, they performed again. Either in another studio class, division recital, or jury in the case of the performance majors, or in their graded midterm piano test for the group/secondary piano students.
However, right before their second performance, all of the students were given 10 minutes to complete a writing assignment.
Half of the students were asked to write about an event that happened recently (control group), while the other half were asked to write about “their current feelings and thoughts about the upcoming performance” (expressive writing group).
And did this lead to any differences between the two groups?
Well, three judges reviewed the videos, and evaluated the performances based on a standard set of criteria. Things like note accuracy, memory issues, or any pauses or hesitations that weren’t called for in the score.
And sure enough, the expressive writing exercise did seem to contribute to more error-free performances. The expressive writing group committed 9.11 errors in their baseline performance, and only 4.22 errors in their performance following the exercise. And if you’re thinking, wait a minute, this was their second performance in a span of a few days, of course they’d play better the second time, that’s a great point!
However, the control group’s errors stayed about the same, with 8.85 errors in their baseline performance and 8.42 errors after the placebo writing exercise.
And it was the same thing with the group/secondary students doing sight-reading. The expressive writing group went from 20.79 errors in their baseline test to 11.64 errors after the writing exercise. Which was a much greater change than the control group whose performance was essentially unchanged, with 10.2 errors in their baseline test and 11.6 errors in their midterm test.
In other words, regardless of how experienced or inexperienced the students were with the piano, a little bit of expressive writing right before performing seemed to lead to a 50% decrease in errors, whether playing from memory, or sight-reading under pressure.
Which is pretty cool – but the researchers didn’t stop there and dug a little deeper to identify some other pretty intriguing details.
Your inner critic
We all have this voice inside our head, right? Often, it’s just random commentary about what’s going on around us, but when we get on stage, it can turn into our worst critic and be a real nuisance, sometimes even sabotaging our performance.
The researchers wondered if expressive writing could help to reduce self-talk, and maybe even change our experience of nerves. So before the study began, everyone was asked to complete a questionnaire that asked a few questions about their experience of nerves and performing (like when they get most nervous, or to what degree they engage in self-talk in performance).
They then used this to identify eight students who were “high self-talkers” and eight who were “low self-talkers.”
High self-talkers not only had inner voices that were chattier, but tended to engage in more emotional chitchat too – like “how could I have made the same mistake in the same place again?”
Whereas low self-talkers were either oblivious to their internal dialogue, or engaged in more instructional self-talk. Like, “before chord changes, I talked to myself about where I needed to move my hands.”
And was there any difference in the effect of expressive writing on these two groups?
Differences between high/low self-talkers
In terms of errors, the high self-talkers had 12.5 fewer errors after the expressive writing, as compared with their baseline performance without the exercise. The low self-talkers didn’t benefit as much, with a decrease of only 3.75 errors, which wasn’t statistically significant.
Interestingly, there was also a change in the high self-talkers’ experience of nerves, before and after the expressive writing exercise.
The researchers measured the pianists’ pulse right before playing. And the high self-talkers’ heart rate was 9.88 lower after the expressive writing exercise than it was before the baseline performance. Whereas the low self-talkers’ heart rates didn’t change at all, whether they did the writing exercise or not.
The researchers also asked participants how anxious they felt right after playing, and the high self-talkers reported experiencing less anxiety when performing after the expressive writing exercise than in their baseline performance. Once again there was no change in anxiety amongst the low self-talkers between performances.
And in terms of self-talk itself, after doing the expressive writing exercise, only 3 out of the 8 high self-talkers reported experiencing any self-talk during their performance, with 5 out of the 8 reporting no self-talk at all. And amongst the three who did report self-talk, the self-talk itself morphed from more negative critical self-talk to more emotionally neutral instructional self-talk. Here too, the low self-talkers’ self-talk was pretty much the same with or without the expressive writing exercise.
So what are we to take away from all of this?
Well, as counterintuitive as it sounds, there does appear to be growing evidence that writing out our worries before performing could really improve performance and potentially reduce nerves as well. Especially for those who have a chatty inner voice.
Of course, I don’t think this means that we should dwell on our worries and anxieties and worst-case scenarios before a performance for too long, especially if we keep it all in our head. Because it seems like the idea is to dump these worries out on paper, so as to free ourselves up to focus on more helpful and useful thoughts.
Oh, and one last quick detail. It does seem like the length and detail of what you write might matter. As in, you probably have to really commit to the exercise and not just go through the motions. Because there were two students in the expressive writing group who only wrote out 2 sentences. And unlike those who did a more thorough worry dump, these two participants’ errors, pulse, anxiety, and self-talk didn’t change at all from the first performance to the second…
Tang, Y., & Ryan, L. (2020b). Music Performance Anxiety: Can Expressive Writing Intervention Help? Frontiers in Psychology, 11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01334