Perfectionism and Music Performance Anxiety

Prior to performance do you think about the mistakes you made in your last performance or do you worry about the mistakes you might make today? Do you want to perform well so badly that you practice right up to performance day and sometimes continue to “fix” and self-coach even during the performance? After the performance, is it difficult to let go of mistakes because you keep beating yourself up for not playing or singing better? When people compliment your performance, do you often deflect their comments with, “I didn’t do as well as I would have liked.” or “Well, but what about that note in measure 13?”

Many musicians who have a perfectionist approach to performing can struggle under the pressure of public performance. Perfectionism can keep you from reaching your full potential because you become anxious, tense, and you try to over-control your performance–all signs of music performance anxiety.

Performers who strive for excellence and musical artistry and who work so diligently to achieve their dreams are highly susceptible to perfectionist thinking. It’s not surprising that a strong work ethic can quickly go beyond excellence and turn into trying too hard. Striving for perfection can cause performers to set unrealistic goals and to focus on outcomes and results. Perfectionism shows itself in many ways including fear of failure, fear of embarrassment or of making mistakes, worrying about results, and sometimes the loss of motivation or even the loss of your love of playing or singing.

What makes this a tricky challenge for musicians is that there are clear advantages to perfectionism especially when it comes to practice. They include having a strong work ethic, an intense commitment to your goals, and a willingness to continue learning and improving. These advantages are what can mask this extremely difficult mental barrier to performing freely without performance anxiety and fear.

We find it difficult to convince performers who strive to be perfect that it really does hold them back. They resist having to change the beliefs that have seemingly helped them achieve some of their goals. As a perfectionist, you unknowingly adopt very high expectations about your performance. Not achieving these expectations can result in frustration, anxious feelings of failure, and low confidence. High expectations about winning, being cast in the part, winning the position, or performing perfectly leave musicians feeling frustrated or helpless.

Perfectionists think that maintaining strict expectations is a good thing—what every musician should do, and that the only other option is accepting mediocrity. If failing to meet your expectations causes you to become frustrated and become overly fearful, this will block you from achieving your full performing potential.

We teach our students to identify and discard strict expectations and to let go of frustration so they can stay composed after mistakes and perform in the present moment without dwelling on the past.

Maintaining high expectations is just one of challenges we teach our students how to overcome.  Are there advantages to having perfectionist tendencies?  Check out the upcoming post entitled:  Perfectionism Isn’t All Bad–What?!

How can we help you become a confident, less anxious performer?  What are your personal perils of trying to be perfect? Please post your comment below.

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  1. “Trying too hard” is something I’ve been told many times as a performer. Often, all I need to do is relax and then my best performances ooze out. However, when you’re stressed and trying hard, it’s very difficult to suddenly “relax”. After reading this article, I realize that what I’m really doing is focusing on the results. In order to perform better, what I really need to do is let go of my idea of what the end result SHOULD be and instead, allow things to be different and surprise me. I know that when I’m in the moment, things will flow naturally and often turn out better than what I had planned in my head.

    ~Thanks for the great article! I’ve shared it with many friends!

    • Dr. Diana Allan says:

      Thanks Natalie! You’re right–focusing on results and “shoulds” plagues perfectionists as well as other performers. This is a major cause of music performance anxiety. Learning where and what to focus on is an important component of peak performance coaching. It is interesting that you mention wanting to “allow things to be different and surprise” you when you perform. Performing mindfully–in the moment–allows performers to notice new things and respond freely and spontaneously. These are the types of performances we all love–performers and audience alike! Thanks for commenting! Stay tuned for other articles on perfectionism and other issues facing performers…

  2. Karrye Bradley says:

    I recently got cast in a musical revue for community theatre. I auditioned on a whim believing I wouldn’t get a part, but thought it would be good for me to “get out there” and at least expose myself. Well, I got a couple of solo’s, two duets and 9 ensemble songs. We’ve been in rehearsals for a couple of weeks and I am struggling with the ensemble pieces because I don’t read music very well and when the director says I’m singing a B, I’m not sure what that is suppose to sound like. Up until last night it seemed manageable. But after last nights rehearsal, I came home very deflated.

    We’re still learning our musical parts while choreography is yet to follow and tech week starts in 2 weeks. The timeline and the realization that I will be expected to wing some of my own movement on stage while singing is overwhelming to me. This will be my first time singing in front of people, never mind at a huge theatre…well, I think you get the picture.

    Today, I took a step back. It is clear to me that this unrealistic timeline is triggering performance anxiety and my perfectionism. I’ve invited friends and family to come to my debut. More pressure. I know there’s no turning back, but time is working against me and my stress level is very high. Any suggestions that would help me get through this with my sanity intact would be greatly appreciated!


    • James Gordon says:

      I often remind myself that it would horrible to be 70 and look back and wish I had done something at this time in my life…so feel the fear and do it anyway, Karrye.

      • Dr. Diana Allan says:

        James, such a good point. Embracing the fear is a skill performers need to cultivate. Performers can also benefit from becoming more comfortable with chaos or the fact that they—we—will feel discomfort from time to time. If one is trying to make technical changes, or when learning new or difficult music, or when being thrown into a tight rehearsal schedule like Karrye, it may induce pressure, stress, or anxiety. It’s times like these, that it is important to remind yourself of WHY you are performing in the first place and of all the reasons you have to strongly believe in yourself and your abilities.

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