Creative Anxiety in Composition Students


            Fear can be paralyzing. In the creative arts, fear can block the flow of creativity that is so vital for the productivity of an artist. In the musical performing arts, a phenomenon known as stage fright, or more scientifically put, performance anxiety has been widely identified as a inhibiting element to the expression and quality of a performer's output. In the field of creative writing, this creative blockage or inhibition is referred to as writer's block.

            This paralyzing fear that blocks all creative growth has befallen even such accomplished composers as Sergey Rachmaninoff. After a disastrous failure of the premier of a symphony in 1897, it took him three years to return to being a productive composer. Rachmaninoff struggled with a "paralyzing apathy" and had a generally dim outlook on his work as an artist (Martyn, 1990, 117). He was described as hyper-self-critical, and filled by morbid self-doubts. Rachmaninoff even commented on the manuscript for a new symphony he attempted to write: "Sketches for my new symphony, which by the look of them will be of no special interest".[1] So deeply shook was he by the poorly received performance that the experience influenced his professional work for three years.

            Composers are the creative writers within the discipline of music. Composition students are subject to the same anxiety that befalls performers. Fear, the cause of this anxiety, is the same; however, the symptoms that the individual exhibits are different. Studio teachers in the performance area appear to be very sensitive to these issues and have developed various strategies to help their students cope with this anxiety. Furthermore, in the field of literature, creative writing coaches give entire lectures that deal only with the overcoming of creative anxiety, and creative writing professors are quite familiar with the fears that come along with the exposure of personal ideas in writing. [2]

            It appears that few of these strategies are applied by composition faculty, yet they could easily be adapted. If composition teachers sensitize themselves to the problem of anxiety in their students and adapt the strategies that are employed by music performance educators and creative writing professionals, they can effectively equip their students with the tools to combat their anxiety. The purpose of this paper is to identify the problem of anxiety in composers and to offer solutions by drawing upon and adapting strategies that are successfully used.


The Anatomy of Fear in Composers

            The fears that plague composers appear quite abstract in comparison to active performers, who appear to be so much more exposed and thus more prone to anxiety. If one isolates the cause of the fear in the performer and the composer, however, it becomes quite clear that there is basically no difference.

            Performance anxiety is defined as a persistent fear of social performance situations in which embarrassment might occur (APA, 1994). This fear of embarrassment is obviously rather an irrational fear, since fear is the natural response to a threat. Barefield (2012, 60) categorizes it as the reaction to a perceived danger. If composition students perceive something as a threat, it is obviously real to them and will affect them with the respective severity.

            How might embarrassment for a composer occur? If the performance of a piece by a student composers or an informal run-through of a piece is ill-perceived or harvests harsh criticism, the composer might perceive a strong sensation of embarrassment. The example of Rachmaninoff very much illustrates the degree to which this can affect a composer, even at the highest level of competence.

            The composer will naturally experience fear of repeating this perceived failure while actively creating, thus composing can become affected by anxiety. The problem thus becomes that the composition students associate writing successful pieces with popularity within their social milieu, i.e. within the composition studio or a circle of other composers.

            The student composers will furthermore become occupied with extra-musical thoughts, since the consequences of their perceived failure are of an extra-musical nature as well. Once these fear-thoughts enter the creative process and more or less control the workflow and thought process, the creative momentum of a composer may be severely affected. Maisel (1995, 27) defines this creative blockage as the inability to manage the anxiety that attends the creative process. This self-sabotage through irrational fears starts a vicious cycle that often increases in severity unless intervention by the individual or a mentor occurs. A precondition for a successful intervention however, is a successful identification of the problem.


Symptoms in Composition Students:


            Performers and composers in fear-mode exhibit a variety of symptoms. Two very common symptoms of an artist in fear-mode are extreme perfectionism and negative self-talk.

Perfectionism can be a valuable trait in a composer, as any artist should strive for the highest level of accomplishment. If the perfectionism, however, enters the creative process in a way that inhibits the free creation of ideas and thus blocks the creativity, it becomes a problem. According to Bemis and Barrada (1994), the groundwork for anxiety problems is very often grounded in perfectionism.

            Very much in the way that pianists or vocalists expectations can be severely misbalanced by listening to studio recordings of professional performers, a composer's understanding of a good performance can be completely distorted by making the rehearsed performances of top professional orchestras the aesthetic standard to adhere to. The problem with perfectionism in composers is that it will lead to an extreme retardation of the creative process when every pitch that is written is being over-evaluated. This may result in the inability of the composition student to construct longer ideas or to even perceive longer ideas as no creative germ is allowed to flourish unless it conforms directly with the idea of what the student sees as perfect. The often underdeveloped compositional vocabulary and ability to directly work towards an idea in combination with a distorted sense of perfection can then often diminish the output of the student severely.

            Especially in a discipline that relies so heavily on development of small ideas into larger thoughts as composition, it is vital that the initial creative output can grow unhindered. Unlike a performer, who during performance faces the relentless elements of time and chance, composers have by nature of their craft the opportunity to edit their work and shape it into perfection. If pathological perfectionism accompanies the creative process, the editing will take place during creation, which is a paradox. Composition students are often unaware that creating and editing are and should be two completely different activities.




Negative Self-talk


            Another symptom that may accompany anxiety in composers who work in fear-mode is negative self-talk: Students often autosuggest negative thoughts and belittle their own progress. Much like extreme perfectionism, negative self-talk is extremely inhibiting to the creative process. One of the problems with negative self-talk is that it keeps the composer from being in the moment - immersion into the activity becomes impossible. Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (1975) uses the term flow, which in part describes a state of mind that comes about by total immersion into an activity, where anxiety is absent and the individual is harmoniously working in the moment (Csikszentmihalyi, 1992).

            A study by MacDonald, Byrne, and Carlton (2006) examined the connection between creativity and flow in musical composition and found that a state of flow in composition students creates positive results. According to the definition of flow, fear or anxiety has a greatly retarding effect on the presence of flow in a composition student. A direct correlation between performance anxiety and flow in music students has been shown in Kirchner, Bloom, and Skitnick-Henley (2008). Absolute immersion into the activity is impossible, when the students persistently self-sabotage themselves with negative autosuggestions.

            Being critical of one's work to a healthy degree is an important aspect of being an artist; negative self-talk though, is also considered an evolution and distortion of self-analysis that turns into self-critique and in the final stage into negative self-talk (Barefield, 2012). Negative self-talk is so harmful because it is on one hand a symptom exhibited by a composer who suffers from anxiety, but on the other hand feeds back into the anxiety since it worsens the very self doubt and lack of confidence that brings about the anxiety in the first place.

In summary, negative self-talk leads to the following consequence: The student-composers cannot immerse themselves into their work and will likely produce sub-par results. Composers will furthermore systematically destroy their self-confidence and find their doubts confirmed in the little output they are able to create. This will in turn only add to their creative blockage because the anxiety and fear that is the cause, cannot be diminished since the composers do not allow themselves to have a positive experience or to enjoy their work.

            The inability to enjoy the creative process does little to allow for motivational thought, and the energy that is necessary to fuel the creative faculties is wasted in negative autosuggestion, anger, and frustration. The activity that they enjoyed so much now leaves them drained, "distracted and flustered" (Kirchner, 2005, 32).


The Creative Environment


            Considering the definition of performance anxiety given earlier, the social component of the problem needs to be considered as well. Social situations for a composer during which embarrassment might occur are numerous. Concerts, informal presentations, and even composition lessons are such social events.

            Taking the social component into account, the social milieu in which a composer works can have great influence as a factor in creative anxiety problems. The basic social environments in which the student composer works are the teacher/student relationship and the composition studio or group of composers within a school year, or classmates.

            Faculty members have great influence on the climate within the student composer's creative environment. A professor who lacks the maturity or sensitivity to see problems in the creative environment can be part of the problem and contribute to the anxiety that is at the source of the creative blockage. Any kind of artistic expression means exposure and vulnerability. Composition students need an environment in which they feel that they can freely express their musical ideas without fear. This is emphasized by Robinson, Bell, and Pogonowski (2011), who write that students need a safe and nurturing environment in which they feel safe to take musical risks.

            Much like the self-imposed pressure of ultra-perfectionism, competition within a studio can lead to anxiety. Once competition becomes obsessive, it can feed directly into the self-talk and keep the student from immersion into the activity. Teachers who are not in tune enough with their students might fail to identify harshly competitive interactions between students (Barefield 2012). A more problematic scenario, as described by Nagel (2009), is when teachers actively encourage hierarchies and favorites within and between studios and students. It is natural for a healthy competition to establish itself, as each student strives to create his or her best work, but an educator must be sensitive to the problem and take control when this competition threatens to change the climate of the creative environment for the worse.

            Furthermore, a teacher can do a lot of harm by offering inappropriate criticism and misbalancing the student-teacher relationship. A cause for poor or less than optimal behavior by a composition instructor may be insecurity. Research by Byrne and Sheridan (2006) suggests that music educators have concerns about teaching composition effectively. With the composition professor often assuming the role of a mentor, exhibiting signs of lack of confidence by the instructors themselves may inspire doubts within the student.





            Very much like the problems created by creative anxiety can be related to the issues experienced by students in the performance and creative writing field, the approaches to offering the students relief from these issues can be adapted from strategies developed by instructors in these fields as well.  The approaches that seem useful are both of a cognitive and behavioral nature. As will be shown in detail, the behavioral approach more or less forces the student to write and spend more time writing and less time thinking. The beauty of a behavioral approach is that it will on one hand be therapeutic and on the other hand hone important parts of the craft of composition. A cognitive approach will obviously demand a great amount of sensitivity on the instructor's side and the willingness to reach out to the student. As will be described in the following sections, it is vital that the instructor at all times shows genuine interest in the student's thoughts and is familiar enough with the problem to be able to generate custom solutions. It is at all times important to remind the students that their fears are irrational and do nothing but harm their progress as composers.

A good way to combat the creative anxiety that causes writers block in students is to actively expose the students to their fears and in doing so show them the irrationality of their thoughts. In order to help students overcome their fears it can be quite helpful to use a cognitive approach and let students understand what they are in control of and what they are not. In praxis this can mean to prepare a student for a first reading of a piece by explaining the potential pitfalls in the piece and what to expect. The students should at all times be aware of what is their fault and what elements are beyond their control.

            The instructor should stress meticulous score preparation and highest standards in notation, so that the students can develop a set of preparatory skills that they can fall back on, and help making them feel in charge of the situation. Recent research by MacDonald, Byrne, and Carlton (295, 2006), that relates this in particular to composition students stresses the importance of an individual's sense of control within an activity. The more prepared students are, the more objective they will be in judging their own effort and differentiating between rational and irrational thoughts. The instructor should therefore stress that the skill of the performers, the attitude or determination of a conductor, or poor rehearsals if conducted by others than the composers are beyond their control. It is therefore vital for the faculty member to establish an active dialogue that objectively points out issues that arose as the result of the student's work as well as problems that occurred through no fault of the composer. All critique asserted by composition teachers should be respectful, constructive, and offer a positive approach to remedy the issue. It is therefore important for students to actively experience that the irrational fears such as social embarrassment do not occur and that the event can be seen as a positive learning experience. Research by Kirchner, Bloom, and Skutnick-Henley (2008) suggests that it is important that the student perceives the consequences of a failure as less important and finds his or her fears unconfirmed.


A Clearly Structured Approach


            The paralyzing perfectionism that composers with creative anxiety experience can be countered by offering the student a clearly structured approach. As discussed earlier, extreme perfectionism drives the students to edit as they create, which will make it nearly impossible to create a longer idea. The instructor must therefore help the student to clearly differentiate between the creation phase and the editing phase.

            During the creation phase all ideas should be allowed to grow freely, even ones that do not appear perfect at first. In his book on creative writing, If You Can Talk You Can Write, Joel Saltzman (1993) stresses that during the process of gathering ideas and putting them to paper, one should not initially worry about grammar. The same can be applied to composition: The instructor should assign exercises that generate output and force the student to write quickly. The student must get into the habit of not painstakingly evaluating every single pitch written, but to rather focus on output. This strategy was also endorsed by Arnold Schoenberg, who writes in his Fundamentals of Composition that it is "possible to stimulate the inventive faculties by making a great many sketches of phrases" (1967, 2). The word of interest that should be considered in this quote is "sketches": A sketch clearly belongs into the creation phase, and it is up to the instructor to clarify to the student that a draft is an absolute necessity in order to achieve perfection in the first place.

            Setting clear goals must be another component of structuring the creative process for a student and working against pathological perfectionism. MacDonald's research stresses that it is an important feature of flow for a student to experience a balance between the perceived challenge of an activity and the individual's sense of control within that activity (2006, 295). This means that the instructor must be able to sense whether the student has unrealistic goals or if the project envisioned is far beyond the composer's skill level. The establishment of a hierarchy in the creative process is also stressed by Schoenberg, who writes that: "No beginner is capable of envisaging a composition in its entirety; hence he must proceed gradually, from the simpler to the more complex" (1967,2).

            As mentioned before, few other disciplines in the field of music allow for as much editing as composition does. The composer has the opportunity to go back and re-edit every draft that is created. Professionals in the discipline of creative writing stress how important this opportunity is. In order to be successful in editing a work, the authors must, however, be completely aware of whether they are creating or editing. The process of editing must also be approached with a positive and constructive attitude. Editing a work should be understood as removing all the things that do not conform to the aesthetic idea of the composer, which in turn requires an abundance of material. It should therefore be made clear to the student composer that material that appears sub-par to them is a necessary step towards perfection and that the imperfections are a necessity in order to understand and explore what the work they are writing should truly be made of. Saltzman (1993) captures the attitude towards editing and perfection very well, by applying the phrase "progress, not perfection" to the activity: Every draft with its remaining imperfections must be understood as one step towards the goal and a constructive process. Once the students adapt this mindset, they will begin to write without paralyzing perfectionism, but rather with the reassuring thought that they will deal with all imperfections once the time to edit has come.

Much like the paralyzing perfectionism that student composers may encounter, negative self-talk is mainly a cognitive problem. To help the student with this issue it is therefore relevant to change the student's thought process. One of the solutions to the problem becomes evident when simply considering the term autosuggestion. The process works both ways - positively and negatively. Recent research suggests that instructors begin by countering a student's negative statements with ones that are more positive and supportive (Kirchner, Bloom, and Skutnick-Henley, 2012, 64). Ideally, instructors should demonstrate to students that they can empathize with them by recounting either a personal experience of similar nature, which they've overcome or the documented example of a master-composer. It is important that the statements are in no way generic or haphazard in nature. Barefield expands on this thought, when he writes that it is important to help an individual realize and honor what is singular about his or her work (2012, 63). In praxis this may mean to custom design a set of counter-thoughts that the student can apply to rationalize negative thoughts. This requires on one hand open dialogue with the student, and on the other hand a genuine interest in the student's progress. Countering the negative inner dialogue may seem like one of the more challenging tasks for a composition instructor as it reaches into the discipline of psychology, but it is and should be part of being an effective educator. The same way a composition instructors needs to be able to give practical help with applied composition issues they should be able to inspire and jump start the student's creative resources.

In If You Can Talk You Can Write, Joel Saltzman describes the act of liberating ones self of negative autosuggestion as "getting the cops off one's back" (1993, 24). This rather colloquial way of expressing the issue, however, very clearly describes the problem of nagging self-doubts and constant negative thoughts. The individual has to realize that the thoughts that accompany the creative process must be constructive and positive or must not be contemplated in the first place.


Shaping the Creative Environment


            Composition faculty members play a key role in establishing a creative environment in which students feel free to be expressive and new ideas are fostered. An important element of this is a good student-teacher relationship. Teachers must be sensitive towards anxiety problems in composition students and offer help if they feel that anxiety causes a creative blockage in the student. The first step to help the students must therefore be to actually address the problem verbally and begin to understand how the student feels about the issue, which is stressed by Barefield 2012, and more explicitly by Nagel, who writes that "it is important for teachers to tune in and become sensitive to some of the dynamics of emotional development" (2009, 16).

Especially in a creative situation, the composition teacher must demonstrate interest in the student's ideas. Research by Golub (1970) indicates that the stimulus for written or oral expression must be relevant to both student and teacher. In practical application, this means that the composition student will often reflect the same amount of passion about an idea that is exhibited by the instructor. This is also expressed in the findings of Barrett and Gromko (2007, 223), who emphasize the importance of "asking productive questions, finding problems that the student-composer could solve, and consistently asking the student to articulate his intentions in words and reflect on the degree to which he had accomplished them musically." Actively engaging in this dialogue therefore demonstrates interest by the professor and furthermore causes students to both evaluate and value their ideas.

With the instructor acting as a role-model, it is vital that teachers demonstrate a positive attitude towards the writing act, as Golub's research (1970) indicates. This positive attitude must be presented in both private- and group-teaching situations. Especially the group situation offers unique challenges but also great opportunities for the skilled faculty to foster a good creative environment. Group composition lessons are a great way to demonstrate appropriate, constructive, and objective criticism and stress collegiality within the studio. A situation quite suitable for this arises during presentations of exercises or pieces during a class session. All remarks made by the faculty teacher should be objective, respectful and constructive. In order to be objective, it is important for teachers to focus less on what they themselves find aesthetically pleasing or tasteful, but rather as to how well the students have managed to express their ideas within the spectrum of the assignment, as indicated by Robinson (2011).

The constructive dialogue directed by teachers towards the student should then be encouraged between the peers, by having students critique and discuss each other's work. It is therefore absolutely vital that the attitude that the instructors displayed towards the students work was objective and constructive, as this will be the attitude that will be mimicked by the class and will set the climate in the creative environment. Research by Kirchner, Bloom, and Skutnick-Henley indicates that creating a positive environment can weaken the intensity of a student's performance anxiety (2008).

Emphasizing a respectful behavior and constructive dialogue between peers will also help to create a non-competitive environment for the composition students. It is important to offer the same amount of interest in and insight to each student's work where appropriate and not establish the idea of a favorite. The more objective the faculty members will be in hearing and discussing their student's pieces, the more balanced their interest in the students will appear. As mentioned above, it is important as a composition instructor to diminish personal musical preferences and to rather try to assess the creative effort of a student's idea in terms of general musicality, thoughtfulness, and integrity.



            In summary, successful application of interdisciplinary techniques requires a number of things. First, the faculty member needs to have the necessary intuition to identify the problem in a student and not simply put the student off as lazy or unmotivated. As it has been shown, for the faculty member to be able to sensitize to the problem, an open and constructive dialogue between student and teacher has to be established as well. Willingness to help and interest in the student is therefore a key condition. Second, the instructor must have teaching strategies in place that will provide a structured approach that is flexible enough to be adapted to all skill levels, so that the student composer at all times experiences the important balance between skill level and challenge. Especially during the behavioral approach it is important for the teaching techniques to work in praxis, so that the student can experience instant gratification. The sensation of progress is vital for the student. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the instructor must establish a creative environment, which fosters conditions that directly counter the social component of the creative anxiety affecting composition students.

            In the same way the problems of performance anxiety and writer's block have been examined in the performing arts and the creative writing community, solutions and strategies have been devised to combat these issues. The literature that directly deals with these topics is extensive, and it is up to the intuitive and skilled composition instructor to adapt and apply these skills within the studio.  




American Psychiatric Association. 1994. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV, 4th Ed. Washington D.C.: APA.


Barefield, Robert. 2012. "When Singers Fear: Identifying and Assisting Singers with Chronic Anxiety Issues." Music Educators Journal 98/3: 60-63.


Barrett, Margaret and Joyce Eastlund Gromko. "Provoking the Muse: A Case Study of Teaching and Learning in Music Composition." Psychology of Music 35 (February 2007): 213 - 230.


Bemis, Judith and Amr Barrada. 1994. Embracing The Fear: Learning to Manage Anxiety and Panic Attacks. Center City, MN: Hazeleden.


Bortnikova, E.E. 1980. Avtografi S.V. Rakhmaninova v fondakh gosudartstvennovo tsentral'novo muzeya muzikalnoy kulturi imeni M.I. Glinki: katalog-spravochnik. [Autographs of Rachmaninoff in the Archives of the State Glinka Museum of Musical Culture]. Moscow.


Byrne, C. and Sheridan M. 1998. "Music: A source of deep imaginative satisfaction?" British Journal of Music Education. 18/2: 295-301.


Csikszentmihalyi, Mihalyi. 1975. Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: The Experience of Play in Work and Games. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


————. 1992. Flow: The Psychology of Happiness. London: Random House.


Kirchner, Joann, Arvid J. Bloom, and Paula Skutnick-Henley. 2008. "The Relationship Between Performance Anxiety and Flow." Medical Problems of Performing Artists 23/2: 59-65.


Kirchner, Joann. 2005. "Managing Musical Performance Anxiety." American Music Teacher 54/3: 31 – 34.


MacDonald, Raymond, Charles  Byrne, and Lana Carlton. 2006. "Creativity and Flow in Music Composition: An Empirical Investigation." Psychology of Music 34/3: 292 – 306.


Maisel, Eric. 1995. Fearless Creating. New York: Putnam.


Martin, Barrie. 1990. Rachmaninoff: Composer, Pianist, Conductor. Aldershot: Scolar Press.


Nagel, Julie. 2009. "How to Destroy Creativity in Music Students: The Need for Emotional and Psychological Support Services in Music Schools." Medical Problems of Performing Artists 24/1: 15-17.


Robinson, Natalie, Cindy Bell, and Lenor Pogonowski. 2011. "The Creative Music Strategie: A Seven-Step Instructional Model." Music Educators Journal 97/3: 50-55.


Salzer, Joel. 1993. If You Can Talk You Can Write. New York: Warner Books.


Schoenberg, Arnold. 1967. Fundamentals of Musical Composition. Edited by Gerald Strang. London: Faber.




[1] See also Bortnikova (1980), listed by Martyn (1990) as source for the quote, given here in Martyn's translation.

[2] Joel Salzer (1993) has written a series of books dealing with the issues of creative writing, which are based on workshops he gave at UCLA.