Stage fright, existential angst, pre-exam nervousness, or simply general pressure to perform well—music and anxiety are related in all kinds of ways. Just how the one can be alleviated but also exacerbated by the other, as well as how musicians can successfully go through life with a minimum of anxiety, is addressed by experts from the mdw and the University of Vienna.
Despite terror and ongoing crises both migration-related and economic, Europeans live safer lives today than they did 40 years ago. Numerous statistics show this to be the case. But even so, politicians—working hand-in-hand with tabloid media—evoke and exploit all sorts of anxiety and fear for profit and for votes. And in combination with the challenges inherent in the performance-driven everyday lives of students and professionals, it’s easier than ever to fall for the idea that we live in fearful times with everything taking a turn for the worse. Which is why it’s all the more important for us today to keep a cool head, to constantly subject fears and worries to reality checks, and—when necessary—to call on professionals for advice. Anxiety’s German equivalent Angst and its English near-equivalent “angst” both come from the Middle High German word angest—which denotes a feeling of confinement and trepidation. Something with which music, considered by most people to be the epitome of relief, isn’t necessarily associated. But there are, in fact, numerous points where fear and music meet.
Angelika Silberbauer, a university assistant at the mdw, is familiar with the anxieties and fears commonly faced by musicians—from her own experiences as a composer and pianist and as head of the Working Group on Equal Opportunities: “If you’ve been doing your utmost since childhood to realise your dream of making music your profession, then you’ll have experienced a constant fear of failure throughout that process.” Many such individuals, she says, are plagued by a particularly high degree of existential anxiety at the beginning of their careers, “since this business is a very tough one where you first have to figure out your own path forward and find the networks you need. What’s more, simply being an excellent player is not enough; your playing also has to hit a nerve.”
Quotas, says Silberbauer, help to combat the persistent structural disadvantages to which women are subject in the music industry. But even just plain old consciousness-raising has already caused quite a bit to change for the better: “Lots of concert organisers are now looking specifically for woman musicians and conductors. And at this year’s New Year’s concert, we did see several women in the orchestra. Just a few years ago, that would’ve been unthinkable.” And by now, she continues, there are even special networks in which woman musicians exchange job offers.
Alongside material worries, stage fright is one of the absolute classics that most of all plagues musicians both young and established—be it prior to exams, auditions, or performances. Silberbauer knows that stage fright can, over time, be counteracted—above all by lots of experience. “But a certain tension will always remain,” she says.
Stephan Mantsch is among those who agrees. Mantsch is a psychotherapist and musical autodidact who teaches music psychology at the mdw. He distinguishes between stage fright and performance anxiety, because while the former is often characterised by “performance-enhancing activation” prior to taking the stage (a phenomenon reported by numerous experienced artists and stars), the latter is dominated by a type of activation that has a “performance-diminishing” effect. In both cases, “there’s a lot of energy in play,” says Mantsch. So those seeking to successfully overcome their performance anxiety should not “fight it, but rather move along with it. … It’s about making a shift away from self-control and towards freedom, from isolation to communication, from constriction (angest) towards expansion.” This way of actively dealing with one’s performance anxiety can be “a wonderful starting point for further development in both a musical and a personal sense,” says the psychotherapist.
Nearly all professional and amateur musicians have grappled with performance anxiety at some point in their lives. And even so, continues Mantsch, society frequently treats this type of anxiety as a taboo—“which is a problem, because it leaves affected individuals feeling alone.” Studies indicate that 34% of musicians consume alcohol or sedatives while 23% make use of beta blockers. Here, as well, Mantsch advocates doing away with taboos: in serious cases and under medical supervision, he says, medical treatment actually can make sense—but it’s first and foremost psychotherapy that can help, here. Treating problems as taboo frequently leads to self-medication, “and that’s never advisable.”
Only when a multitude of factors such as overall life conditions, the stress to which one is subject, and/or poor practising habits are identified and remedied can one expect to obtain pronounced relief from one’s performance anxiety by way of relaxation exercises—of which breathing technique is an essential aspect, says Bernhard Riebl, a music psychologist at the mdw. “The way you breathe has extremely strong effects on the unconscious, autonomic nervous system, and in stressful situations, breathing often changes for the worse.” This is why breath-related work is extremely important. And the mdw, says Riebl, has a decades-long tradition of teaching these skills in a professional manner. “It’s with some justification”, one might say, “that since antiquity, successful artistic performance has been understood to encompass balanced interplay between the body, the mind, and the soul.”
The positive effect of classical music on the mind and the body, as well as on their positive development, is also familiar to the violist Dietmar Flosdorf, an mdw instructor who’s been active in the field of alternative music education methods for many years. His workshop programme “Musik zum Anfassen” [Music to Touch], for example, is aimed at school students and the socially disadvantaged, whose inhibitions about classical music he aims to overcome. Music, says Flosdorf, is “not an elite field—the exact opposite is true! Art and music are part of what it means to be human, and it’s human nature to express oneself artistically—in all of our world’s cultures.” Viewed this way, it’s actually not about eliminating inhibitions but rather about addressing the existing needs of every single individual, independent of their social background.
Flosdorf goes on to note that, happily, the major concert venues and orchestras have taken action in this regard—and today, all of them offer some programming that’s designed to be low-threshold. But he asserts that this potential is nowhere near exhausted: in the future, one could go beyond using synergies between educational and cultural institutions to also try and connect with the healthcare field. And he takes encouragement from the fact that public space music projects are now even being initiated by Vienna’s public transportation operator Wiener Linien—not least because projects like “U-Stars”, which make it possible for musicians to perform legally in underground stations, also immensely enhance public transportation itself.
It’s scientifically proven that music can have subliminal effects on the emotions and on general human behaviour. So it’s only logical that in many places, classical music is now used to evoke calm and minimise aggressions after dark. At the University of Vienna’s Department of Musicology, Jörg Mühlhans researches music’s emotional effects. He deals especially with “scary music” in film, ranging from the silent movie era to present-day American horror flicks. He’s found that while silent movies employed long, low notes to signify or elicit anxiety and fear, more recent horror movies tend to use short, high-pitched, and shrill tones. Dissonant contemporary music is often perceived to be scary, while popular music, synth-pop, rock, heavy metal, classical, and romantic music have little potential to frighten. (For more on this topic, see the article by Rumen Dimitrov)
Mühlhans is convinced that music is also capable of banishing fears and anxieties—and even the good old trick of singing oneself a little song or whistling in eerie situations seems plausible to him: “Anxious states arise in the brain and are the result of numerous cognitive processes that require quite some mental muscle. But when one sings, one also needs a certain amount of brainpower to recall a melody plus the lyrics—which is distracting.” And last but not least, he says, even just listening to music can be calming: “What works best here is listening to songs that we associate with positive memories.”