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Getting the butterflies to fly in formation – on the art of managing performance anxiety

Classically trained musicians on stage.
The probability that at some point as a professional musician you feel stage fright is high. Therefore, it is important to learn tools to handle it. Photo: iStockphoto.

Francisca Skoogh, an international concert pianist, psychologist and researcher at the Malmö Academy of Music, wants to support tomorrow's trained musicians to get to know themselves better, thereby enabling them to manage stage fright.

"We must dare to talk about stress in order to get past it", is her advice to music students taking the course 'The Performing Person', which examines psychological reactions to being in the spotlight.

Francisca Skoogh has extensive experience as a concert pianist and has performed on major stages around the world. However, she has struggled with performance anxiety herself. However fantastic it may feel to play in a concert, perform for agents or compete for awards, engaging in music at that level is still a difficult art, she thinks.

"Everything happens in the moment and you are also judged in that moment. There is no retake."

Learning to be prepared

The classical music environment can be tough, cold and hierarchical. Perfection is a must, and there is no space for flaws in a world of strict rules and set ceremonies. At the same time, as a musician, you must not be perceived as a robot.

Regardless of whether you are a soloist or part of an ensemble, when the curtain rises, you feel the pressure to deliver a perfect interpretation of a piece of music in front of an audience full of expectation. An audience with which you have no contact: a situation that neuropsychological research has shown can cause motor difficulties.

"Music is joy. Nevertheless, it is highly likely that you will experience stage fright at some point, but if we know why and learn tools for managing it, then we are better prepared."

Francisca Skoogh completed a doctoral degree at the Malmö Academy of Music on how emotional processes affect classically trained pianists in their interpretation and performance. She is also a trained psychologist and the initiator of the course for music students entitled 'The Performing Person'. The course is a collaboration with the Department of Psychology at Lund University and part of the activities of the Performance Centre at the Academy of Music.

"I have increasingly realised that we can work proactively with music students, so that they can feel as good as possible and understand themselves better from a psychological perspective. That way, we can break vicious circles", she explains.

Fredrik Hagerberg
In the future, Fredrik Hagerberg will take the stage as an opera singer, and therefore welcomes support and techniques on how to deal with stress. Photo: Bodil Malmström.

Different stressors

In the Rosenberg Room at the Academy of Music, visiting lecturer Simon Granér, a researcher with extensive knowledge of sports psychology, is meeting the music students and capturing their attention with his thoughts on how stress and pressure affect the brain, neurons, and even muscles. Fundamentally, our feelings are subjective interpretations of bodily conditions, he says.

"My negative thoughts do not identify me as a person. My reactions have both a biological and cultural explanation", says Simon Granér.

There are various kinds of stressors to which we can be exposed and we may react in different ways by fighting back, fleeing or freezing. As a musician, you need to listen to your body and pay attention to the signals it is sending out.

"Learn to make friends with your feelings and develop strategies that can help you when you have a strong reaction. Take control of the butterflies in your stomach and get them to fly in formation", says Simon.

The best way to learn is to fail, he tells the students, emphasising the importance of playing to release creativity.

"Even if the audience is spellbound, it is easy to identify the only person in the audience who is looking at their phone, coughing or looking grumpy and disturbing you. That can be enough to crush your performance."

Don’t expect too much from yourself – we are not machines

Simon Granér thinks that, under stress, you risk losing your creativity, instead returning to safety and becoming conservative – "this is what I’ve always done so I’ll go back to that home base".

"Try to find solutions, even if it is difficult to be a young person in a hierarchical environment. Don’t expect too much from yourself – we are not machines."

Fredrik Hagerberg, a future opera singer, is one of the students taking part in the course.

"This is very important knowledge that will be useful to me in my future as a professional musician. I am going to establish myself in a tough environment dominated by a gig economy with no fixed employment. I need to learn more about managing stress and bolstering my self-confidence."

Changing the situation – not the individual

A career in music is both exciting and meaningful, but it is also full of challenges that are not always easy to handle. Performance anxiety is not directly linked to age or particular occasions; rather, it can turn up at any time during a career. This is true of many top-performing professions such as elite athletes, police, surgeons or firefighters. If you learn more about yourself, you can more easily deliver, even under pressure.

Francisca Skoogh knows how lonely you can feel, how you fumble for solutions and think you are not good enough.

"But together, we can solve this if we talk about it, in particular if you put students in the conditions to meet like this in a group. Then we are not alone. With deeper knowledge of performance anxiety, we can help ourselves or a colleague. There are many points of contact with others we come across in our lives."


The course 'The Performing Person' at Malmö Academy of Music involves:

Francisca Skoogh, Malmö Academy of Music

Francisca Skoogh's thesis in the Lund University Research Portal

About Francisca Skoogh in the Lund University Research Portal

Simon Granér, Department of Psychology

About Simon Granér in the Lund University Research Portal

Per Johnsson, Department of Psychology

About Per Jonsson in the Lund University Research Portal