Free Improvisation and Performance Anxiety Among Piano Students

Today, Dr. Robert Allen successfully defended his doctoral dissertation at Boston University, a multi-faceted experimental study entitled FREE IMPROVISATION AND PERFORMANCE ANXIETY AMONG PIANO STUDENTS.

Here is the abstract:

The sensations of a dry mouth, perspiration, knot in one’s stomach, lump in one’s throat, or that tingling feeling referred to as the “butterflies,” are phenomena generally referred to as symptoms of “performance anxiety.” The purpose of this study was to compare the levels of anxiety that students experience according to whether their public performance consists of a free improvisation or a repertory piece. This was based on the assumption that a free improvisation instructional strategy might aid in reducing levels of performance anxiety among school aged piano students, and should therefore be systematically evaluated for its potential to offer improvements to music education.

This study had two objectives: 1) examine the relationship of students’ levels of anxiety to free improvisation and repertory pieces during a performance, and 2) examine the effectiveness of free improvisation as a treatment for the reduction of performance anxiety. This research used the following instruments for data collection: 1) Spielberger’s State–Trait Anxiety Inventory for Children, 2) Musical Anxiety Report Scale (designed by the researcher), 3) Subject Interviews, 4) Parent Questionnaire, and 5) Performance Video. Thirty-six elementary, middle school and high school students from a private music teaching studio were selected from a list of potential subjects available to the researcher. Participants were selected based on age (7-18 years) and years of training (1-3), as well as to comprise a gender balance of 50% boys and 50% girls. They were then randomly assigned to three equal-sized groups, with 12 subjects per group. Subjects within the treatment 3 group(s) developed a free improvisation during weekly individual sessions, administered and observed by the researcher over a period of six weeks.

Sample criteria required that all subjects who participated in the study 1) play the piano, 2) claim to have experienced music performance anxiety, and 3) have not received any previous psychological or pharmacological treatment for their music performance anxiety. Each participant was taught applications of scale, harmony, and rhythm elements from which to construct their free improvisations. Results from this study validated free improvisation as a treatment for significantly reducing anxiety during the public performance of a musical work.

Congratulations to Dr. Bob Allen!

It was a pleasure to serve as supervisory professor for this doctoral dissertation. The study also greatly benefited from insightful comments by committee members Andrew Goodrich and Diana Dansereau (of Boston University).

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