Art, entertainment, profession, business… Music is a very significant part of our society and, being a traditionally undervalued subject in our schools, we have not hesitated to build a very powerful formal education environment around this discipline.

Schools, academies, conservatories and others are destined to fill the gap that music leaves in the educational system and, depending on the student’s aspirations, he or she may choose from a more casual or recreational education to a more regulated and professionally-oriented one.

However, once we reach a certain level of specialization, we find an increasing demand in the execution, which involves a growing number of hours of classes and rehearsals, and what started as a hobby or the pending subject of school, becomes a high performance sport. As such, can involve all those risks associated on a psychological level that we find in any sport.

The requirements of music education

On the one hand, a student of music usually has to, out of necessity, combine his musical training with his academic training and let’s not fool ourselves: musical training is not a complement, but rather involves as much or more demand than a university degree (or much more, in the case of some degrees), and you still have to hear that “you study music… and what else?

The fact is that devoting so much effort and time to music in a world that urges us not to “mislead” our “real” training , together with the tremendous demand and competitiveness of some centres , implies a very high risk for the intrinsic motivation, that is, to be able to orientate our behaviour towards music simply because we like it, which has the consequence that many students abandon it before their time, leaving behind a lot of talent, and many others continue to be able to develop other types of discomfort.

Managing Stress and Anxiety

Firstly, the demand for performance and dedication above what everyone considers “normal”, can lead to the state of mind we know as stress . Stress is an adaptive response of the organism to a situation of change in the environment or of maximum demand, but without adequate management, it can last longer than the evolution had calculated, and bring with it certain psychological (anxiety disorders, depression) and physiological consequences (indigestion, muscular tension, headaches, backaches, etc.).

One of the psychological consequences of stress is anxiety, characterized by involuntary thoughts such as regrets (“I should have studied more”, “I made too serious a mistake”) or pessimistic expectations (“I’m going to make a mistake here”, “I’m going to fail”, “I want it to end as soon as possible”) that tend to be interrelated with physical reactions (tremors, sweating, tachycardia…).

The most ironic thing is that this state, in high doses, is very detrimental when it comes to achieving a high performance when performing any task, especially if it is playing a piece in public when we are playing a title , but the most disheartening thing is that what we used to be passionate about has given way to such negative feelings.

Progress in the Psychology of Music

It is this situation that has drawn the attention of psychologists to this medium, and although most of the work has consisted, at least in Spain, of investigating those methods that are optimal for teaching and learning music (constructive vs. directive learning), there are more and more centres interested in the mental training of their young musicians , a variable that had traditionally been left to chance and had served as a sort of tautological natural selection in conservatories (“if you can’t stand this, you’re not fit for music”).

Today more and more voices are being raised to say no, that these variables are indeed trainable. Thus, there are certain techniques aimed at maintaining intrinsic motivation , based on work with objectives and the perception of self-efficacy, techniques to combat anxiety, such as breathing and relaxation in the search for that optimal level of activation or techniques to manage that pressure that yes, will always exist, but it is in our hands to regulate it, and we can do so through techniques such as exposure or cognitive restructuring, all with the ultimate goal of optimizing the experience and performance of not only our musicians, but also our dancers, actors and all those involved in the performing arts.

Finally, it should be noted that the importance of the psychologist’s work in the mental training of the musician is becoming increasingly evident . In a world as competitive as music, the mental factor can make the difference in a professional’s musical career.