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The Benefits of Bonding with a Musical Instrument

• December 10, 2012 • 7:00 AM

B.B. King's relationship with his beloved guitar, "Lucille," may be his longest. (PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK)

Scandinavian researchers report musicians who feel united with their instrument feel less performance anxiety.

Forging a deep, intense relationship, in which two meld into one, can be a difficult, emotionally draining process. But the end result is so worth it.

Especially when that bond is between musician and instrument.

That’s the conclusion of new research from Finland, which found musicians who consider their instrument an extension of themselves are more confident, and feel less performance anxiety.

“Feeling united with the instrument indeed seems to be an advantageous relationship,” writes a research team led by Veerle Simoens of the University of Finland’s Cognitive Brain Research Unit. Its study is published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts.

Simoens and co-author Mari Tervaniemi distributed a series of questionnaires to a large group of musicians in Finland, a small nation renowned for producing important classical composers and performers.

They received responses from 116 students and 204 professionals. Eighty-three percent were classical musicians; the remainder were divided among such genres as pop-rock, folk-ethnic, and jazz.

The players were asked a wide range of questions designed to measure their level of self-confidence, the pressure and/or support they feel from teachers and peers, and the extent to which they suffer from performance anxiety.

Finally, their identification with their instrument was measured by their answer to this question:

When I perform, I feel

(1) that it’s really me as a person in front of the audience, rather than my instrument;

(2) protected, or hiding behind, my instrument or voice;

(3) that my instrument or voice is an obstacle to overcome between me and the audience; or

(4) so united with my instrument/voice that there is no difference between us.

Just over 51 percent of the musicians chose the final answer, declaring they feel at one with their instrument. Nearly 28 percent picked the first answer, which implies that they view their instrument as simply a vehicle for their own expression. Eleven percent said they were hiding behind the instrument, while 2 percent said they thought of the instrument as something to overcome.

“Musicians who felt one with their instruments had lower scores of social phobia, debilitating music performance anxiety, and general music performance anxiety” than those in the other groups, the researchers report.

They also “showed more confidence in their own performance than most other musicians,” and were more likely to think of themselves as performing for the audience, as opposed to for themselves or their peers.

Simoens and Tervaniemi link these results with the well-known “flow state,” in which someone performing a challenging but satisfying task enters a state of “intense and focused concentration,” which often causes them to lose track of time.

This “state of effortless attention,” experienced on numerous occasions, could “eventually lead to the long-term subjective experience of being merged with the instrument,” they write.

Given this positive loop, the researchers suggest the musician-instrument relationship should “not be ignored in music education, or the treatment of afflictions related to music performance.”

“If the development of the united relationship is truly a manifestation of frequent flow experiences, this type of relationship might directly promote enjoyment, engagement and motivation in the performance,” they write.

So the next time you see a musician pampering their instrument, understand that the act involves something more than simple maintenance. If your goal is to become one with the music, it helps to first become one with the instrument.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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