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Music for Anxiety Regulation: A New Role for Music Education in the Modern Classroom

Holly Carson • CommentaryMarch 2022 • March 18, 2022

Scrolling through social media, many have likely seen news organizations such as the Washington Post Journal (Nut, 2018) and the New York Times (Denizet-lewis, 2017) reporting on an increase of anxiety diagnoses in children and adolescents. Many of these news sources are trying to discover if this is a result of current society, or simply an improvement in diagnostic technique. Although there is still no definitive answer, the numbers are undeniably higher. Anxiety is a tremendous issue in children right now, and music education has a role to play in giving children tools to both deal with and overcome stress and anxiety disorders. Teachers can combine current research on coping with performance anxiety with cognitive behavioral therapy, which is being used by many psychologists to treat anxiety disorders.

Tracy L. Morris (2001) stated that anxiety disorders are the most prevalent psychiatric problems in children and that diagnoses increased in a linear fashion over time between 1956 and 1988 (p.267). This, in part, is due to a sudden increase in diagnostic categories for anxiety, and reliable tests (Saavedra et al., 2002). However, according to Creswell et al. (2014), although 9 to 32 percent of children and adolescents have some type of anxiety disorder, “the great majority of young people with anxiety disorders do not access clinical services” (p.675). This study also notes that young people with anxiety disorders are unlikely to independently ask for help (p.674). Children who experience above average anxiety are more likely to develop eating disorders and substance abuse problems (Halmi, 2009), and are also more likely to experience school avoidance (Evans, 2000).

Many studies in both music education and music therapy have shown that music can help alleviate anxiety symptoms and give coping tools to those who struggle with anxiety disorders (Wesseldijk et al., 2019). For example, music therapy can aid in easing the anxiety of cancer patients going in for surgery (Jasemi et al., 2016). Music can also be used to slow the heart rate of a person who is experiencing anxiety through rhythmic repetitions or soothing and familiar melodies. (Gutierrez & Camarena, 2015).

If music is proven to help with anxiety, why do so many students and adults still experience performance anxiety and extreme stress when playing a musical instrument? Wesseldijk et al. conducted research on whether or not musicians are more susceptible to mental health problems than those who do not perform. “Individuals playing an instrument report more depressive, burnout and schizotypal symptoms” (p.6). It is no secret that great art frequently comes from people who experience mental health problems. Vincent VanGogh, Kurt Cobain, Edvard Munch, and Judy Garland are just a few names of artists and musicians who struggled incredibly due to mental illness. It should be argued, however, that it was not the art that caused the mental illness, but perhaps that they were more drawn to their art because of their illnesses. Munch once said “I cannot get rid of my illnesses, for there is a lot in my art that exists only because of them,” (Ferreira, 2018).

 Given that music educators are more likely to come into contact with students who experience these problems (because individuals who play instruments are more likely to experience mental health problems), and we typically work with a student for multiple years, is it not the role of the music educator to help the student develop techniques for dealing with these mental issues? “Fear is first and foremost an educational problem, not a psychological one” (Susić, 2018). In order for music education to be truly available to every student, it must be free of fear and anxiety during musical performance. 23 to 34 percent of adolescents experience “clinically relevant” levels of music performance anxiety (p.148). These numbers do not include students who experience performance anxiety levels that are not clinically relevant. 

In recent years, there has been an increase in articles written for music educators about how to help their students cope with music performance anxiety. However, in my research I found that the majority of these articles focus on preparedness (practicing in front of others) and deep breathing relaxation exercises. While these methods give temporary relief of anxiety by slowing the heart rate, they do not offer a long-term solution for the problem. In addition, deep breathing can actually induce panic in some people (Pappas, 2010). A survey of college students showed that students use a variety of coping mechanisms from breathing exercises to illicit drugs to ease anxiety before a performance (Studer et al., 2011). This study also showed that the more advanced a musician becomes, the more likely they are to use self-medication as a coping strategy (p.768). Without teaching students how to properly address the underlying cause of their feelings of anxiety, we could be setting them up to use substances as they progress in their musical careers. When the performance becomes more stressful (for example, performing with professional musicians for the first time) the breathing exercise may not be enough to calm the student down, and they are likely to instead resort to other, less healthy, measures to slow their heart rate.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a method that music educators could use to address performance anxiety and help students in their lives outside of the music classroom as well. Cognitive behavioral therapy encourages patients “to objectively assess the distorted views that underlie their distress and gives them techniques they can use to manage problems” (Kuehn, 2007). The American Psychological Association says the following about CBT.

CBT is based on several core principles, including:

Psychological problems are based, in part, on faulty or unhelpful ways of thinking.

Psychological problems are based, in part, on learned patterns of unhelpful behavior.

People suffering from psychological problems can learn better ways of coping with them, thereby relieving their symptoms and becoming more effective in their lives.

Essentially, CBT is a way in which a person can learn to think differently such that they are more supportive and truthful to themselves. A strategy that is commonly used in CBT is to help someone learn to recognize distortions in their thinking that are creating problems, and then to reevaluate them in a more realistic way. 

Methods from CBT could be easily implemented in music classrooms, especially in schools with pullout lessons where the teacher is more likely to interact with the student one on one. As mentioned before, music educators typically work with students for multiple consecutive years. Through these years, they can build a trusting teacher-student relationship in which the student may be more willing to express the underlying cause of their performance anxieties. With training from a professional in the psychiatric field (perhaps at their home state’s music educator association’s conference) a teacher could be given a few tools and strategies for helping students find the source of what is causing them anxiety. 

Hypothetically, let’s say that an eighth grade student is interested in performing a solo, but is experiencing anxiety about the audition process. The teacher asks the student to tell them what their biggest fears are about what might happen in the audition. Perhaps the student would say, “I am afraid that I will miss the high note and then people will laugh”. The teacher would then ask for other scenarios of what could happen. This could elicit more positive scenarios from the student, such as “play the piece better than ever”, or they “make a mistake and no one notices”. The student should provide evidence for why these possibilities could happen such as, “I’m very well prepared” or “my friends wouldn’t laugh at me”. Then, the teacher reinforces that the positive outcome is much more likely than the negative.

Anxiety can cause cognitive distortions of situations which can exaggerate threats. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy uses various interpretations of a scenario so that a person can see outside of their own distorted thinking and view their situation from more perspectives and logically assess the situation. This is not a cure for anxiety, but a tool to work through anxious thoughts.

In the article, “Music Education in the Twenty-First Century: A Psychological Perspective” by Hargreaves, Marshall, and North (2003), it is acknowledged that music education research has been changing rapidly. Music psychologists are now much more likely to conduct their research in the classroom rather than in the lab. The researcher and the practitioner have started to work more closely together, and in some cases, they are one and the same. Music and musical accessibility have also changed dramatically with the development of digital music and streaming services. With so much about music changing rapidly, music education must also change to maintain its relevance in the modern classroom. Hargreaves et al.’s article also references an independent study in 2000 which suggested that a “good deal of lower secondary school music is unsuccessful, unimaginatively taught, and out of touch with pupil’s interests” (p.156). Traditional music education focuses on “reproducing the education of professional musicians” and follows a rigid plan which does not adapt well to students’ individual needs. Newer educational theories focus on students’ individual abilities, needs, and interests. They seek to “facilitate the holistic development of children” regardless of their future professions or interactions with music (Susić, 2018).

It is clear that music education needs to adapt to meet the needs of their students. Using CBT techniques along with other performance anxiety strategies can help to make this change.  These practices may lead to better music-making as students will have less stress and anxiety interfering with their ability to make beautiful, emotive music in a performance. In Brenda Dillon’s adult piano class, she focuses on making a stress-free learning environment. All solo playing is voluntary, and she works to eliminate the idea that talent is something that you are born with, but instead is something that one develops. In her article, “The Joys of Making Music Recreationally” (2009), she explains that:

There may be an assumption that ‘stress-free’ implies that students do not practice and that they do not learn how to read music or play a variety of repertoire. That absolutely is not true. I have been amazed at how much some of the students do practice. And, although they do want to learn to play chords and lead sheets, they primarily want to learn how to read traditional notation so they can play the music of their dreams.

Making the classroom a less stressful environment will not lead to decreased interest in musical performance, but will instead lead to students taking more accountability for their own progress.

Teaching stress management using CBT in the music classroom is a way that music education can stay relevant in the holistic development of children. Musical experiences can be vehicles to teach numerous life skills, and it is the role of the music educator to facilitate these experiences and to help the student understand them in a broader context. Helping students to work through feelings of anxiety in the music classroom can help them to productively

Holly Carson

handle other anxiety inducing experiences for the rest of their lives, regardless of their future involvement in musical performance.

Holly Carson is a band and music teacher in Dansville, NY where she works primarily with students in the seventh through 12th grade.

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