Overcoming Performance Anxiety, Pt. 2: Developing Growth Mindset

Performance anxiety in students isn’t simply restricted to recitals and other performances, but shows itself in lessons, too. If you’re a private teacher, think of how many times you’ve heard students claim they play better in their practice than they do in lessons. Students feel the pressure to “perform” for their teachers. If we can foster a growth mindset in our studios, we can create an environment where students understand their performance at that moment isn’t a judgement on their abilities, but a step in the process of improving their musicianship.

The theory of growth mindset was pioneered by Dr. Carol Dweck. The theory contrasts two states of mind: growth mindset vs. fixed mindset. In a nutshell, growth mindset is the understanding that abilities can grow through hard work, whereas fixed mindset is the belief that ability is innate and challenges are a test of your core intelligence. You can watch a video of Dr. Dweck briefly explaining her theory here or read her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. After reading Dr. Dweck’s book, I began thinking about how my verbiage and interactions might contribute to my students’ mindsets, and tailored my actions as best I could towards creating a growth mindset in my studio.  

Learning an instrument is a complicated, perpetually challenging task. By fostering a growth mindset in students, teachers can help set students up to take on those continual challenges with eagerness. The realization that a lesson or a recital is not a test, but simply one step in an unfolding process can help alleviate the feelings of stress and performance anxiety students typically feel when playing in front of a teacher or audience. This is not to say a growth mindset will cure students’ performance anxiety, but rather give them a perspective that helps to better manage, cope, and understand those pressures they feel.

Here are some ways I’ve tried to encourage growth mindset in my studio:

Praise and critique wisely.

-Praise the effort, not the talent. Avoid phrases like, “You’re so talented. That was impressive.” Instead, say, “You’ve made such great progress. You should be proud of your hard work.”

-Music is not a test to be passed, but a process. Instead of “That wasn’t good,” say, “It’s not where we want to be yet. Let’s keep putting in more effort.”

Convey that student and teacher are a team.

-As student and teacher, we’re working together to accomplish the student’s goal of improving as a musician. If it’s all about impressing the teacher, you’re encouraging a fixed mindset. The lesson process is collaborative, not “show me what you can do.” I use the words “we” and “let’s” often instead of “you.” For example, “Let’s keep working on this piece another week” or “We need to start incorporating dynamics more.” Phrases like these show that teacher and student are in it together.

-In working to establish growth mindset in students, it’s imperative that the teacher exhibits a growth mindset themselves. Just because we’re teachers doesn’t mean we have it all figured out. It’s important that teachers show they’re still learning and seeking to improve. Be able to adapt your teaching approach when a student is struggling. When a student has a question you don’t know the answer to, admit to the student that you’re not sure but that you’ll work to figure it out. Actions like these show that teacher and student are both actively working toward the student’s improvement.

Meet the student where they’re at.

-Wherever the student is that day, whether they’ve practiced or not, it’s the teacher’s job to move them forward during that time together. Find the balance of encouraging and promoting practicing without showing too much disappointment or frustration. A student shouldn’t be punished for not meeting your expectations. The student needs to know that you’re there to help, no matter what.