Peter Iltis, second from left, with Jeff Nelson, second from right, and colleagues at the Fearless Performance Advisory Group in July.
Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories exploring what Gordon professors are up to in between semesters.
Most people might not think about the intricate muscles around a musician’s mouth as he or she plays the trumpet or French horn. But when those muscles—known as the embouchure—aren’t working the way they’re supposed to, well, suddenly music takes on a scientific and medical dimension.
Enter Peter W. Iltis, professor of kinesiology and horn, who in February 2012 published an article on music performance anxiety for the journal of the International Horn Society (IHS). Based on research he’s done over the past several years around movement and muscle disorders in musicians, Iltis (who is also the medical and scientific editor for IHS’s The Horn Call) connected his findings to the level of anxiety musicians often face when they perform. The result? Iltis got a call from world renowned horn player and ‘fearless’ performance coach, Jeff Nelsen, who is also a full professor at the prestigious Jacob School of Music at Indiana University and speaker at the TED Talks in July 2011.
Nelson read Iltis‘s article, invited him to Indiana for a week in July, and the two—along with a select group of colleagues—discussed how they might work together, bringing science to the art of musical performance. Now Iltis will serve as a consultant to Nelson for future coaching sessions, a video series and possible workshops. Below is the article he wrote for the February 2012 edition of The Horn Call:
“Music Performance Anxiety: The Science behind the Problem”
By Peter W. Iltis
Many musicians struggle with music performance anxiety (MPA), including horn players. Through the years in The Horn Call, we have heard from many professionals about their own individual approaches to dealing with it. However, a review of the scientific literature on this topic has not been published in our journal to date. In her recent review of psychological approaches for treating MPA, Dr. Julie Nagel observes that organic medical conditions and the symptoms they evoke may be exacerbated by psychological factors, complicating both treatment and recovery. She suggests that therapeutic strategies for treating many disorders require acknowledging this, and developing a more holistic approach that includes psychological approaches. While my focus in this article is on MPA itself, in a recent article on embouchure dystonia, I commented on its apparent association with anxiety. Though the scientific community is reticent to attribute anxiety as a cause for dystonia, the association has been made [2, 3], and an understanding of factors related to and methods for dealing with MPA is warranted. It is beyond the scope of this article to fully explore the anxiety/dystonia connection. However, examining MPA separately has application for all musicians. This article describes the nature of MPA, and examines samplings from the current literature to provide some general principles for understanding and coping with this condition.
The sympathetic nervous system and music performance anxiety
When we are placed in circumstances we perceive as threatening, we have a built-in mechanism for coping. It is a branch of our autonomic (automatic) nervous system known as the sympathetic nervous system. This is that part of our body’s automatic control system that prepares us to “fight or flee”. Our heart beats faster and stronger, the pupils of our eyes dilate, our airways become more open, our muscles tense, and even our salivary glands begin to secrete more viscous saliva that can give us that dreaded dry mouth feeling. While these are changes that prepare us to deal effectively with physical threats, they are counter-productive to the performing artist attempting to play a musical instrument. The fact is, our sympathetic nervous system has responded to something that poses no real physical threat to us with physiologic adaptations that are not helpful. Why? Continue reading