Supporting Music Students with Anxiety

By: Erin MacAfee, PhD

Anxiety.  We’ve all felt it – maybe it shows up as butterflies in your stomach, sweaty palms, a rapid heartbeat, or racing thoughts that just won’t slow down.  While most of us are familiar with our own feelings of anxiety, it can be challenging to identify how and when anxiety is manifesting in our students.  We often talk about anxiety in the context of music performance, but there are so many other places anxiety can show up, including during lessons or even when trying to practice at home.  Online lessons have added another dimension to consider for students who may feel increased anxiety seeing themselves onscreen, navigating technology, or just trying to connect with their teacher through virtually.  As teachers, most of our time with students is spent during the lesson, so this article will focus on ways student anxiety can present during lessons and how we can support struggling students.  

Unfortunately, anxiety is quite prevalent among young musicians, and that prevalence is only growing with increased school expectations, increased busyness in everyday life, and social media.  Teachers can play an important role acting as a buffer to student anxiety, but we can also inadvertently cause students extra stress, as many students worry about things like making mistakes during lessons or not playing perfectly for their teachers.  The good news is that with some mindful teaching approaches, it is easy to implement strategies to support rather than hinder our students.  Keep reading to learn about how anxiety can manifest in students and for strategies to help reduce anxiety during lessons.

Anxiety symptoms

While the first step is to identify when students are feeling anxious, it can be difficult to recognize students struggling with anxiety.  Not all symptoms are readily apparent to the eye and not all students may be able to identify or verbalize their feelings in an obvious way, especially when working with special needs populations.  However, that doesn’t mean they’re not expressing themselves– it just means that teachers need to do some detective work!  Anxiety symptoms can be grouped into three different categories: physical, cognitive, and behavioural.  Physical symptoms are the ones most people are familiar with and stem from our bodies natural physiological stress response.  Physical symptoms include shaking muscles, racing heart, sweaty palms, upset stomach, and shortness of breath, just to name a few.  Cognitive symptoms are mental manifestations of anxiety and can include worried thoughts, difficulty concentrating, negative ruminations, and difficulties with memory.  While some cognitive and physical symptoms are easy to spot, many of these symptoms are invisible to teachers and can be difficult to identify through observation alone.  Behavioural anxiety symptoms however can be easier to spot, and can include things like avoidance, task refusal, nervous habits like nail biting, and obsessive or repetitive behaviours.  Aggressive behaviours like biting, scratching, or throwing things can also be a symptom of behavioural anxiety, as stress can cause your student’s natural fight or flight response to kick in.  If your student shows an increase of behaviours like this during lesson, it could be a sign that they’re feeling anxious and need some help coping.  

Strategies to support students with anxiety

Once you’ve identified that your student is struggling with anxiety, what next?  It can be challenging to know how to support students with anxiety, especially if it was not modelled for you as a student.  Luckily, there are a lot of simple strategies you can introduce into your teaching that can make a big difference in your student’s comfort levels during lessons.

  • Normalize anxiety.  Talk about anxiety with your students.  For a long time, anxiety was considered a taboo subject within the music community, but luckily that’s been changing.  Give your students a chance to talk about their feelings and let them know that it’s normal to feel anxious.  For students who find it challenging to identify or verbalize their feelings, you can still normalize their feelings by letting them know “I see you’re feeling upset today,” or “I see that this feels hard and I’m here to help.”  Sometimes knowing that their feelings are seen and valid can make a big difference in a student’s day.
  • Set realistic goals and expectations.  Fear of failure or making mistakes can generate a lot of student anxiety in lessons.  Help your students by setting realistic and achievable goals.  Research shows a correlation between successful completion of tasks, increased self-confidence, and decreased anxiety, so by giving students realistic goals, it will likely help them feel more confident and less anxiety when they achieve them.  It’s also important to set clear expectations for students so they understand what they’re working towards.    For example, if you want your student to work on dynamics, very clearly let them know that that is what you’re working on right now.  Then refrain from commenting on other aspects of the piece during that time (like rhythm or pitch), so that students don’t get overwhelmed or confused as to what you’re expecting them to focus on.  
  • Give students opportunities to practice performing.  While most of this article focuses on lessons, a lot of students feel increased anxiety when it comes to performing, and lessons can be a great place to introduce students to lower stress performance opportunities.  For example, when a student finishes a piece, invite their parents or siblings in to watch them perform for the last 5 minutes of class.  Recording performances in lessons can also present great lower stress performance opportunity.  Having small, successful performances can help a student build their confidence so that a bigger recital performance doesn’t feel as scary.  However, for high anxiety students, make sure to give them lots of warning before introducing any kind of performance element to lesson, as something new and unexpected can trigger more anxiety.
  • Use movement and relaxation techniques.  Movement and relaxation techniques have been shown to help calm the nervous system and decrease physical and cognitive symptoms of anxiety.  There are many ways to incorporate these into a lesson.  Try starting off with a large body movement song to help students get into their body and feel grounded.  For high energy students, try doing some groundwork activities or songs to help settle their anxious energy.  Breathing or stretching exercises can be done at the beginning of the lesson, or anytime that it seems like your student might need a break.  Pinterest is a great place to find kid-friendly relaxation exercises with fun visualizations.
  • Give frequent encouragement.  This one seems like a no-brainer – we all like to encourage our students!  It can be helpful to give students with anxiety lots of praise and encouragement, and to be specific when doing so.  Chances are, if you have a student whose anxiety is fueled by perfectionism, they’re going to ruminate on that one little mistake they made during the lesson.  Try and help them draw their attention to the things that went well by giving specific praise like, “I loved how beautifully you played your crescendo at the end of your piece,” or “You did such a good job with the half note rhythm we worked on last week.”  It might not cancel out the negative thought patterns in their minds, but you can help balance those thoughts with positive reinforcement.
  • Be flexible.  One of the most difficult things about anxiety is that it can be unpredictable.  One day a student may be fine playing their piece in front of you, and the next day they may be frozen with fear.  As a teacher, while we always want to encourage our students to reach their full potential, it’s important when supporting students with anxiety to meet them where they’re at on any given day.  For example, if you have a student who normally works on 3 pieces per lesson, they may only be able to work on one piece during higher-anxiety days.  On these days, spending less time on repertoire and more time on preferred, lower stress activities can help build connection between you and your student, and establish a trusted relationship that can contribute to lower anxiety overall.

Unfortunately, as student anxiety becomes more and more prevalent, it’s impossible for teachers to completely erase our students’ fears and worries.  However, by learning how to recognize the signs and practicing a few simple strategies, teachers can act as a buffer against anxiety and help keep music learning fun for our students.

Happy Teaching!