I heard Ms Pike speak last year at a conference and I was totally enthralled. Her presentation was called 'Ancient practices and modern stresses: Insights for today's music profession gleaned from ancient sources' and it detailed the development of music performance practice from ancient Mediterranean to now, and she 'argued that these changes may have catalysed the emergence of performance anxiety and performance-related stress over time.'
What makes Pike's work so interesting is that she is brilliant multi disciplinarian - a practising teacher and performer with a broad background in history, language and ancient world studies.
As I am someone who had always wondered how we ended up where we are, being so anxious about performing, her presentation set out some historical reasons as to how we got here. She gave an explanation of the mechanisms that created this current musical culture where doing this thing that is at once is so captivating and enjoyable, but had now become for me and many others, so terrifying?
Is making music an essential human behaviour that has been now been distorted and malfunctioning somehow for a large number of us in the profession?
I have read a few articles this week that have talked about how musical performance anxiety is such an intractable problems, it got me thinking about how we ended up here, and I was remembered the Ms Pike's presentation and went looking for her doctoral thesis that she had mentioned just handing in.
The thesis is broad and deep look into Australian culture and music education, and in part is a look into why it is has such a poor participation and retention rate:
There is evidence to suggest that aspects of music education may be contributing to this decline. The adults teaching music can be affected by negative feelings about their own musical capacities, perpetuating this lack of confidence in the next generation.
I won't attempt to summarise this massive work for the moment, but I felt compelled to share this quote. I have long thought that we overthink classical music, we make it harder than it actually is, and this rolls us nicely into problems with performance that then leads into anxiety, but it was the following statement about the drop-off in music participation that actually made me laugh out loud with recognition and relief:
One reason for attrition may relate to a dominant attitude aptly expressed by Anthony Mazzocchi (2016) on his website designed to inform parents about music education. Mazzocchi advocates for the importance of music education and its ability to teach children ‘grit’, something he believes every child needs. He defines ‘grit’ as “the result of struggle, risk- taking, determination, embracing failure, working relentlessly toward a goal, and perseverance to accomplish tough tasks” (para 3). There is an assumption here that not only is learning music difficult and unpleasant, but that it should be difficult and unpleasant, and that it is good for children to learn to cope with such difficulty and unpleasantness. In such a paradigm, a student learns to have the necessary ‘grit’ to cope with music, instead of experiencing music as a natural and enjoyable activity that is easy to engage with and learn about. Mazzocchi’s website is an explicit and current example of the ‘Virtuosic Mountain’ discussed above. It is perhaps understandable that students may not wish to continue in a field where they must learn to ‘embrace failure’.
With mentors like these, who's not gonna get performance anxiety?