As a private piano teacher, I’ve observed over the years that my female students seem to complain more of (or be affected more by) performance anxiety than my male students do. These observations lingered and built up over the years, and then I read a fantastic book titled Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need To Know About The Emerging Science of Sex Differences by Dr. Leonard Sax. Chapter 3 explains how women tend to avoid risk while men tend to seek it out (e.g. boys are jumping their bikes off cliffs while girls are hesitant to get on their bikes). Immediately I wondered if perhaps boys are more hard-wired for performance since all performance involves risk. “Boys go for it,” I thought.
The next step in my investigation was to see what studies I could find that might corroborate my little theory. What I found is that this is only half of the picture, and the other half of the picture was not what I expected at all. Here are excerpts from abstracts from some of the studies I found (at first some of these may seem contradictory, but just bear with me):
- “It was found that girls’ heart rates rose through each recital stage (before playing and during playing). Boys’ heart rates rose minimally prior to performing but exceeded the girls’ while performing. Significantly more anxious behaviours were displayed by boys both prior to and while performing.” (Ryan, 2004)
- In a non-musical study that measured accuracy vs. speed for males vs. females, “Analysis of errors showed women were more accurate than men. Men traded accuracy for speed and may have been under equal performance stress in both situations. When performance was not stressed, women were slower and more accurate than men. When performance was stressed, women increased their speed to match that of men while maintaining their greater accuracy.” (von Kluge, 1992)
- “Females reported more emotional distress [when recalling the worst performance experience of their lives] than males and had significantly higher total scores. These findings confirm patterns found in adult performers and across other forms of performance anxiety in children (e.g., test anxiety).” (Osborne & Kenny, 2008)
- “Women more frequently reported distress and impairment due to performance anxiety than men. Age was not found to affect problems with performance anxiety. Poor concentration, rapid heart rate, tremor, sweating, and dry mouth were the most commonly reported anxious symptoms.” (Wesner & Noyes, 1989)
Then I remembered something else from the third chapter of Why Gender Matters: boys tend to overestimate their abilities, while girls tend to underestimate them. This is certainly at least a partial reason why there are slightly more females than males in the world: less females die of sheer stupidity each year. Risk-taking is only a good thing if it’s supported by an appropriate level of skill.
And now I think I really do have an answer that seems to make sense. Girls stress out before the performance, still thinking their 30 perfect performances at home are not enough to justify the risk of the performance. Boys convince themselves that if they can do it well once or twice at home, they can certainly do it on stage. Boys think they’ve practiced enough when they really haven’t, and girls think they haven’t practiced enough when they really have. Consequently, girls will tend to prepare more carefully and thoroughly for a performance than boys. This is consistent with a 2002 study (Pomerantz, et al, 2002) that points to the same conclusion in the context of academics.
What about the first, third and fourth studies listed above? The first study indicates faster heart rates for boys during performance, while the third and fourth studies suggest the opposite. Do these results contradict each other? I don’t think so. The data obtained in the first study was collected with third-party observations, while the data obtained in the third and fourth studies was collected through self-reporting. The first study is a measurement of what happens in reality, while the other studies measure what women think of themselves.
This brings us to yet another gem of understanding mentioned in Why Gender Matters, originating from a study (Morongiello, 1996) in which both boys and girls were interviewed after an injury or “close call” experience. From the abstract: “In comparison to girls, boys reported more injuries and close calls, were more likely to be with peers when injured, were more likely to repeat behaviors that had resulted in prior injuries, were more likely to erroneously attribute injuries to bad luck, were more likely to rate injuries as low in severity, and were less likely to tell their parents about these events.”
In other words, not only to boys overestimate their abilities, they have a hard time owning up to the results of their miscalculations. They continue to make the same mistakes, insisting that each failure is not only miniscule but also anomalous, preferring not to discuss their mistakes with those who might tell them the truth about overestimation of their abilities. This seems to all point to one of my favorite anonymous quotes: “If at first you don’t succeed, destroy all evidence that you tried.”
I’m not sure why this wouldn’t apply on some levels (or all levels) to musical performance. While I do think most of my students (male or female) tend to be too hard on themselves after a performance with only a couple of very forgivable mistakes, I’d say that my pep talks with girls tend to be longer than with boys. Girls aren’t as easily convinced that their mistakes were hardly noticed by the audience. But far more importantly, if this study is at all applicable to the practice room, it would suggest that boys would demonstrate far less efficiency in practicing, repeating the same mistakes over and over again, seeing each mistake as a forgivable anomaly rather than the natural result of their tendency to play too fast, or their tendency to try to memorize the music before it is thoroughly learned (resulting in tons of wrong notes, lack of counting, etc.).
As the studies above suggest, females still experience more than their fair share of anxiety before and during performance. In fact, I believe females have greater tendency to feel anxiety during musical performance even when they are completely, fully prepared for their performances, which certainly wouldn’t help their performances. This is supported by general findings from a couple of respected psychiatry textbooks:
Ideally, we’d like our students’ actions to reflect that of overly-stressed-out females (i.e. prepare really well before a performance), while we’d like our students’ feelings to reflect that of overconfident males (i.e. don’t worry before and during the performance, don’t let mistakes worry oneself while performing). Instead, females worry when they shouldn’t and boys don’t worry when they should. Maybe this is why I have never been able to discern which of males and females are generally best suited for performance. They both have their strengths and weaknesses.
The Four Studies Revisited
With this in mind, I’d like to return to the four studies above. Their results, to me anyway, become much clearer:
- Ryan, 2004 - Before the performance, boys’ heart rates were lower because of their overconfidence and love of risk-taking (their heart rates should have been higher!), while girls’ heart rates were elevated because of their lack of confidence and aversion to risk-taking. While performing, boys had an “Oh @#%!, where are all these mistakes coming from?” experience on stage, causing their heart rates to exceed heart rates of girls. But girls’ heart rates were still more elevated than they needed to be since girls are continuing to underestimate their ability on stage, not giving themselves the credit they deserve for their abundant preparation before the performance.
- von Kluge, 1992 - Females were less likely to trade accuracy for speed (in a study that was not specific to music, but I believe can be soundly applied to music). During all the years of their training, girls tend to spend their time at the piano underestimating their ability (only taking speeds that were well-justified by a higher accuracy threshold). Girls would therefore be less likely to become musical snowplows at the piano.
- Osborne & Kenny, 2008 – If females tend to underestimate their ability at the piano, they would be more prone to emotional distress during performance.
- Wesner & Noyes, 1989 - More emotional distress during performance is going to naturally lead to more severe anxiety symptoms, again stemming from the tendency to underestimate their ability at the piano.
Obviously, some females are overconfident. Some males lack in confidence. Males tend to be more competitive in their pursuits (more eager to “beat” others), which could actually lead to more practicing. Not only that, but one study shows that a person pays more attention to the correction of an error he makes when he committed the error under high confidence, and this added attention leads to better memory of the correction (Butterfield, Metcalfe, 2006). These are a few possibilities that help to explain why there is such a healthy balance of male and female pianists who have achieved the highest levels of pianism, and it is why I never know what to expect from any individual student based only on their gender. We have to evaluate every one of our students on an individual basis. However, after working through all of this, many past and present students come to mind and compel me to believe that these generalizations serve as powerful background knowledge for me to use as a teacher, and I will certainly approach students with more understanding when I detect that they fit into these generalizations.
To seal the issue for good, I think the next logical step would be a study that measures preparation before a performance and anxiety during a performance (both observed anxiety and self-reported anxiety). Mapping the two on an X-Y axis and creating a best-fit line or curve for both males and females might confirm that females prepare more than males but do not have the lower anxiety levels that would be expected for the extra preparation. I do believe that such an experiment would confirm that, given equal amounts of practicing, female students will feel greater anxiety than male students.
So far I’ve been referring mostly to K-12 music students, but what about adult students? All of the above resonates with me powerfully for students high school age and below, but not necessarily for adults. Among other possibilities, this could be because I haven’t taught as many adult students (a smaller statistical sample size) or because adults of each sex have had more years to correct natural tendencies of their gender.
However, the explanation that resonates the most with me is a phenomenon of male/female attribute swapping. Many males who begin a pursuit of music in their adult years are more like females in their tendency to avoid unjustifiable risks and to worry too much. These males tend to be more careful in everything they do and tend not to overestimate their abilities as much as young boys, and rather than trying to pretend their mistakes didn’t happen or that they were no big deal, they are utterly devastated by even the slightest slip in a performance. One male adult even called the lesson following a recital he was not happy with an “autopsy.” Ironically, I’ve noticed that many females who decide to pursue music still worry too much, but also have certain undesirable “male” attributes: they often fail to correct mistakes at home because of an overestimation of their ability. They tend to practice at too fast a tempo, they put in three repetitions when ten might be necessary, they jump from a slow practice tempo to a fast tempo too abruptly, or maybe they practice the entire piece over and over again when they should be focusing on a few difficult measures. While a minority of K-12 students seem to demonstrate this male-to-female or female-to-male attribute swapping, I believe this swapping is more the norm than the exception for adults.
Thinking about the adult profiles who typically start up with piano lessons, this theory makes even more sense to me. A female adult student who is willing to reveal weaknesses to a teacher and invite criticism during a 30-minute lesson every week (especially as a brand new beginner) is obviously willing to take risks and might be more prone to overestimation of their ability than other females. A male student who is in touch enough with his “feminine” side to sign up for music lessons is more likely to be pretty mild on the male risk-taking scale.
So, what are teachers to do with this information? I think it’s quite simple. I believe that while all students need positive reinforcement, typical females need more than typical males, especially before the performance in order to set up positive expectations: “You are completely on track for a great performance on Saturday.” And when females have a negative performance experience, we need to help them discern if it was caused by inefficient/insufficient practicing, or if it was caused by their mental/emotional state before and during the performance. If the latter, we need to help them focus and “center” better before a performance and encourage them to put themselves through effective simulation and adversity training before a performance so that their excessive nervousness won’t be so alien to them when the time of performance finally arrives. As for typical males, we can expect to have to correct their overconfidence in a way that will not deflate their excitement by showing them that more repetitions and/or slower tempos are needed in their practicing, by helping them to redefine what “done” actually means in music (see Reaching the Preparation Threshold), by having them record their performances and listen to them to see what they actually sound like, etc.
Ultimately, a healthy performer must be willing to tap into their male side by taking risks (perform!) and by not worrying about mistakes before they happen or while they happen. A healthy performer must also be willing to tap into their female side by preparing abundantly and also by taking responsibility for the real cause of their mistakes when they occur. Every student will greatly benefit by evaluating deeply and honestly what things they need to do to develop the “healthy performer” within.
The emerging science of sex differences desperately needs to be more applied to the field music and music teaching. I have several other blog drafts in this area that are just waiting to be written. Stay tuned!
Butterfield, Brady, and Janet Metcalfe. “The correction of errors committed with high confidence.” Metacognition Learning 1 (2006): 69-84.
Morrongiello, Barbara. “Children’s Perspectives on Injury and Close-Call Experiences: Sex Differences in Injury-Outcome Process.” Journal of Pediatric Psychology 22.4 (1997): 499-512.
Osborne, Margaret, and Dianna Kenny. “The role of sensitizing experiences in music performance anxiety in adolescent musicians.” Psychology of Music 36.4 (2008): 447-462.
Pomerantz, Eva, Ellen Altermatt, and Jill Saxon. “Making the grade but feeling distressed: Gender differences in academic performance and internal distress.” Journal of Educational Psychology 94.2 (2002): 396-404.
Ryan, Charlene. “Gender Differences in Children’s Experience of Musical performance Anxiety.” Psychology of Music 32.1 (2004): 89-103.
Sax, Leonard. Why gender matters: what parents and teachers need to know about the emerging science of sex differences. New York: Doubleday, 2005.
von Kluge, Silvia. “Trading accuracy for speed: gender differences on a Stroop task under mild performance anxiety.” Perceptual And Motor Skills 75 (1992): 651-657.
Wesner, Robert, Russell Noyes Jr., and Thomas Davis. “The occurrence of performance anxiety among musicians.” Journal of Affective Disorders 18.3 (1990): 177-185.
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