The Peabody Post

Out in the open: putting away the shame we feel about performance anxiety

This is a guest post by violinist and GPD candidate Kaleigh Acord.

Flustered or ComposedOne wave of compassion in the global community these days takes the form of efforts to combat stigma around mental illness. Parts of the ongoing conversation are acknowledging mental health as a valid issue, and helping people not to feel “abnormal,” “weak,” or ostracized because they are struggling.

There’s a parallel in the music community. People like film director and producer John Beder are reinvigorating the conversation about performance anxiety. While this is a problem most musicians experience, they tend to downplay it for fear of appearing incompetent in their chosen field. As part of a series of events focused on occupational health and wellness, Peabody hosted a public screening of Beder’s documentary, Composed, on March 15th. The screening was followed by a Q&A with a panel comprising Johns Hopkins psychologists, teaching and performing musicians, and Beder himself. He shared about his own experiences with anxiety as a percussionist, and how his struggles prompted him to leave music. He hopes to begin playing regularly again soon. In the meantime, he put his new trade to use, shedding new light on performance anxiety through film.

Composed begins not where you might expect. String players, wind players, pianists, and conductors from around the world appear in interview clips, speaking about what first drew them to music. They describe innocent wonderment and love. Gradually, the content turns darker. They recount the anguish of getting up on stage, only to feel debilitated and unable to share the music they had diligently practiced. Several mention feelings of inadequacy and being alone: I am the only one with this problem. I guess I just don’t cut it. They wish someone had assured them their problems were normal, valid, and surmountable. Stage fright is examined from physiological and psychological standpoints, as well as a practical one. The musicians explain their choices to take charge of the problem, engaging in trial-and-error to find solutions.

Peabody’s trumpet faculty member Joe Burgstaller was present at the following discussion. He described how every musician should try many things and develop a personalized, holistic routine to combat nerves–not just on the day of the performance, but as routine maintenance. Among options he mentioned were meditation, positive self-talk, and performing often enough to normalize it. Perhaps his most important suggestion, however, was working to shift one’s concept of performing from “proving” yourself, to simply sharing the music because you love it.

For more information about the film, Composed, please visit

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