Science and the Arts

Music Performance Anxiety (MPA) is the leading cause of negative issues in the arts and to date, there are no treatments and very little help. It is the elephant in the room–it is still very much viewed as a sign of weakness or “ill-preparedness,” or even lack of talent, in the arts. As such, MPA is an enormous socio-economic burden for anyone wanting to participate in the arts. Performance is the final common pathway to all the study one does for the arts. Unfortunately, people can study for years and even decades and still not be able to perform, which includes having even minor difficulties in performance. Is the problem anxiety?  Is it mis-alignment or lack of energy flow? Does the person just need to practice more? Maybe they just don’t have what it takes! In the quest to understand MPA–presumably so more people can perform well–musicians have primarily used methods that they believed would work, or even ones that worked for them, to alleviate the problem. These attempts are all very good ideas, but unfortunately, these routes have not had their intended effects. MPA is still the colossal issue that we prefer to hide rather than discuss.

So how can science help? Science can help teachers understand the profound effect they are having on their students, and can help parents know how to help their artistic children at home. One major problem is that children either do not practice enough or do it effectively. How does one address the problems over-learned during the week between lessons? Does the threat of a poor grade at the end of the year induce relevant practicing? What could be the environmental “things” that must be present for a child to practice successfully?

Then there are teens and young adults who may underestimate the power of a performance situation. Are they being prepared for their own reactions? Are those around them supporting them adequately? The paradigm I ran into for 45 years was the belief that we should allow young people to go out onto stage and blow it. The thinking is (was) that they would learn the error of their ways and correct their behavior next time. This viewpoint is woefully uninformed and wrong, and is extremely detrimental to musical growth.

Science has many mechanisms to deal with the problems briefly discussed in this post, as well as more fundamental aspects of learning, memory, emotion and cognition. Scientists cannot answer every question, but they can go far in aiding the most prominent questions we have today. The result will be more people being able to fully participate in the arts.