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6 minutes reading time (1165 words)

Why do you play the piano?

For years, I have written about and counseled many people regarding their performance anxiety. I have lectured on the topics of symptoms and symptom reduction, as well as deeper psychological issues that fuel stage fright. I have heard numerous comments about "wanting to play perfectly," "wanting the audience to like me," and "not letting down my parents, teachers, and friends." In thinking about composing this column, it became clear to me that it was important to examine another very important (perhaps the most important) aspect of performing—a topic that often is under the radar or is underexplored.

Why do you play the piano?

While I cannot speak for you, nor can I give definitive answers (the answers to this question are by nature complex), I am going to address how music affects many people, how it leads to taking piano lessons, playing in recitals, and, for some, becoming professional musicians. In thinking about this, some important insight is gained into understanding stage fright.

In reality, many people "perform" in public. These include academics, actors, writers, speakers, athletes, test-takers, and anybody else who appears before an audience. From my personal and clinical experience with people in various professions as well as with students of all ages, no one is immune from stage fright. Are musicians any different from the general population? Yes and no. There are many similarities, but I have identified two areas of difference that are relevant and address the musician as a "whole person," not just as a performer: age and employment.

Age

Musicians begin instrument lessons in childhood, typically at very young ages. One study shows that the average age for beginning music lessons is ten years old (Fishbein, et al, 1988). Nagel (1987) found that ninety percent of students began instrument lessons before the age of twelve years, and forty-six percent before age the age of seven. Suzuki students often begin at age four or even younger. Young egos and musical talent share parallel pathways in human development. One cannot decide to become a highly trained musician at an older age when many others typically choose an occupation. Juries, competitions, and recitals are part of music training for all students, even for those who do not progress into the professional realm.

Employment

Musicians have a high rate of unemployment and/or underemployment, even after many years of highly specialized training equal to our most well-respected and highly paid professionals (e.g., doctors, lawyers, business executives). Data from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Bureau of Labor Statistics illustrate that 65% of all artists are better educated than overall labor force. Artists are identified as musicians, visual artists, architects, actors, dancers, writers, and photographers. This population's education is comparable to occupations with college training. 21% of this surveyed population were music teachers. It is worth emphasizing that there has been an 8-9% steady unemployment rate for musicians since 2009 (greater than the 4.8% unemployment in 2006). The job market is unpredictable and pays lower for music performers (with the exception of a few classical super stars and pop icons) than for other professionals with comparable education and experience. 

So what draws young people to music, to play the piano, to perform, and, for some, to pursue one's life work in music? Job security or wealth clearly is not implicated.

The power of music

The power of music is present at birth, and perhaps before. The parent-infant dyad engages in non-verbal coos, gurgles, and other sounds that enable communication in the earliest minutes and days of life. The relationship that develops between parents and child is formed through early rhythms and the responsive melodies from one to the other. Nursery rhymes, lullabies, songs, and wordless music have power to elicit emotions. Music evokes emotion, but it also expresses it. The stage is set in infancy to allow music to move us and speak for us when words fall short or are unavailable. Music gains additional meaning to us as we develop psychologically and physically and express strong personal feelings. This becomes true for the listener as well as the performer.

First contact

Do you remember your first contact with a piano? The instrument is like a magnet for many children who discover they have the ability to make sounds with their fingers on a black and white keyboard. Over time, should the child begin lessons, the formal qualities of music are experienced emotionally even before they are understood intellectually. These formal elements include melody, rhythm, pitch, tonality, form, dynamics, and so forth. Music makes sense intuitively; it allows both young children and adults to develop self-esteem around mastery of motor control and self-expression. Playing music feels good.

Playing music permits performers to "say something"—to share their deepest emotions with an audience, who metaphorically becomes a parental substitute. This helps explain why the audience supposedly holds influence over the musician's stage fright. When playing music for a parent-in-displacement (the audience), the performer does not want to disappoint. A fear of not being "good enough" can raise anxiety and self-doubt. Self-doubts can escalate into fear of loss of audience/parent love. Playing an instrument taps into these powerful, ubiquitous feelings. Stage fright can set in when one plays music to "impress" others. Often forgotten is the pleasure and satisfaction one feels from making music.

To return to the question "why do you play the piano?" I invite you to reflect and consider your first acquaintance with music and playing the piano. Then let yourself think about how and why you connect emotionally with music now. Does being involved in music teaching help you understand yourself and your students in special ways? I believe music offers that possibility.

Thinking about your attraction to music includes why you love it and why you perform it. This topic is of equal importance to discussing performance anxiety, and may help explain it. Why you love music and want to play it can be explored and discussed with students of any age and level of experience. When the focus becomes sharing music that you love with others, the emphasis on "perfection" and inhibiting performance anxiety are frequently diminished. Thinking about why you love music and play the piano may reset the performance anxiety meter to a lower decibel. Isn't it time to have this conversation in your own mind, in your studio, and in your homes?

What is the power of music for you? Why do you play the piano? Please email and share your experiences and thoughts.

References

Fishbein, M., Middlestadt, S.E., Ottati, V., et al. (1988). The ICSOM medical questionnaire. Senza Sordino; 25(6):1-8. [reprinted in Medical Problems Performing Artists. 3(1):1-8.]

Nagel, J.J. (1987) "An Examination of Commitment to Careers in Music: Implication for Alienation from Occupational Choice." (Dissertation Abstracts International, 42-5A, 1154-1155).

National Endowment for the Arts (2014). The National Endowment for the Arts Announces New Research on Arts Employment. http://arts.gov/news/2014/national-endowment-arts-announces-new-research-arts-employment#sthash.nMTHmgL1.dpuf.

National Endowment for the Arts (2010). Artist unemployment rates for 2008 and 2009: An addendum to NEA Research Note #97. https://www.arts.gov/sites/default/files/97-update.pdf

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