Nick L. Lund & Peter L. Kranz

Office of Academic Affairs The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, USA



We explored emotional accompaniments to stages of a musician's cycle of creativity through interviews with musicians. Creativity was defined in terms of performance or composition. These musicians described strong emotional vacillations that occur across the creative cycle and discussed ways of dealing with emotional issues involved in moving from one work to the next. Parallels were drawn between emotional aspects of completing a performance or composition to emotional aspects of termination in psychotherapy. Suggestions were offered to musicians for means of dealing with naturally occurring but powerful emotional components of creativity. In addition, some of the musicians suggested that music educators consider teaching students about potential emotional issues that may accompany creative effort. An integration of these issues into music education programs might better prepare students for careers as professional musicians. 

PATIENTS INITIAL REACTIONS to termination of psychotherapy typically include anxiety, frustration, depression, feelings of rejection, a sense of solitude and loss, and a sense of mourning. Many patients, however, subsequently express feelings of joy, inner calm, relief, excitement, anticipation, and self-confidence once there is substantial movement toward resolution (Kupers, 1988; Teyber, 1988). Parallels to the termination process have been examined in other contexts (Kranz & Lund, 1981; Levinson, 1977), including the creative cycle for visual artists, described by Lund and Kranz (1991). They noted that there are varying emotional accompaniments to stages of an artist’s creative cycle and that the artist can manage these emotions more comfortably and channel them into productive output if the emotional components are understood and anticipated as a normal part of creativity.

In this article, we explore similar emotional issues from the perspective of musicians. We conducted individual interviews with one male and nine female musicians whose professional experience ranged from 10 to 65 years and whose primary musical instruments were violin (2), flute (3), cello (l), and piano (4).Eight of these musicians had composed at least one original work. They were asked to describe personal feelings during the processes of composition or during preparation for a performance, during the performance itself, and after the performance. The interviewer provided open- ended questions and minimal structure for their answers, intruded as little as possible, and did not focus on the termination phase. The musicians’ descriptions were then analyzed qualitatively for common themes. Thus, this article reflects what musicians described about themselves and is a qualitative first exploration rather than an experimental investigation.

Preparation for a Performance

For these musicians, the start of a creative cycle was typically described in conjunction with preparation for a performance, although it was also mentioned in association with beginning a new composition. Common emotional components were described for both activities. The range of emotions described in building up to a concert performance included enthusiasm, excitement, determination, frustration, anxiety, and a great “sense of worry.” Every musician commented that it is imperative to study and practice the work. Several commented that they try to learn as much as possible about the piece and its composer, with a focus on respecting the composer’s music, even though they would bring their own individuality to the performance.

Musicians noted that one works toward a congruence with the piece so that during the performance one can add “personal skills, substance and essence.” In this manner, the performance becomes a “whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.” This immersion was recognized as a way of becoming “invested in and one with” the piece. There were also several comments about becoming “psychologically integrated” and emotionally involved with the work. These musicians felt that greater involvement provided increased rapport with the piece and is one basis for a higher level of performance.

The musicians said that a significant increase in emotional intensity and focus occurs as the performance date nears. Other aspects of life are put on hold, and even significant others are often ignored. Full concentration and enormous control of extraneous thoughts are considered essential abilities that require years of practice to develop. Several musicians mentioned a feel- ing of great exhilaration as they “brought the music alive,” but said that a great effort is needed to keep one’s nerves under control as this exhilaration increases.

Close observation of and “tuning in” to other musicians and the con- ductor involved in an ensemble piece were recognized as critical; however, several musicians mentioned that, if one was not highly aware and disciplined, emotional interplay with other musicians could increase personal anxiety and tension. This phase of creative effort was highlighted as a particularly intense period of self-criticism and one in which musicians become emotionally edgy and sometimes volatile. 

The Performance

During the performance of an existing or new work, every musician noted that concentration and focus become even more intense. Use of meditation, selfhypnosis,and “self-talk” were mentioned as techniques that are helpful in controlling emotions and thoughts, especially when other musicians are involved and if there are distractions from the audience. Practicing how to remain “internally quiet and positive” seemed to be an important skill, so that a musician does not get “absorbed into the audience.” A number of the respondents noted that simultaneously balancing emotional detachment, exhilaration, and anxiety is something that takes years of conscious practice and may never be totally achieved.

One musician noted that there seem to be three general types of audience members and that these types can have a definite impact on the musician’s emotional state during a performance. The first type is the relatively naive person, who attends to enjoy the music. A second type is there for the “social exposure,” in other words, to be seen and to see others rather than to become actively involved in a musical performance. The third type is the professional musician and or music critic. To the extent that an audience consists of more of the latter, the performer must become very emotionally controlled and even “thick-skinned.”

Several respondents felt that colleagues can be extremely critical and not as supportive as desired. It was also mentioned that, when dealing with colleagues and music critics, the performance often becomes intensely competitive, similar to an athletic event. These musicians felt that their degree of emotional involvement with the piece is intensified when they know that significant professional “others” are in the audience, and their emotionality is related to the extent to which feedback from colleagues is wanted or needed. 

After the Performance

A variety of emotions relating to the period of time after a performance were described by these musicians. Most stated that their emotional state depends heavily on the performance itself. One described a performance as similar to “spiritual food” in that it can be nourishing and a foundation for future efforts. If a performance went well, there was often a great sense of exhilaration and excitement that could last for days or sometimes weeks. However, after this initial “up” period and definitely after a performance that did not

go as well as desired, a period of depletion and melancholy was often de- scribed. The depth of this “down” period was related to the degree of emotional commitment to the piece and to the perceived quality of the performance.

Several respondents mentioned being severely “emotionally drained” and requiring a period of being away from their music; however, it was also mentioned that playing was one method that could sometimes bring them back from feeling “down.” The degree of difficulty these musicians had in this period was noted as much more intense when they had performed a composition of their own compared with the performance of an existing work. Thus, the emotional commitment during preparation for the performance, height of elation, and depth of emotional depletion after the performance seemed to be directly related to the degree to which the musician “owned” or was “invested” in the piece.

Musicians who became more committed to a piece risked greater post- performance emotional fluctuation. The greater this commitment, the more it seemed to parallel the depth of emotions described by visual artists (Lund & Kranz, 1991). The musicians described this risk taking as an important part of becoming a better musician, but they cautioned that one must be conscious of potential outcomes and actively prepare for them in order to deal with them constructively. Several stressed that knowing about these possible emotional accompaniments to their artistic efforts was an often overlooked aspect of becoming a more effective musician, and that training in how to deal with these emotional aspects would be a useful addition to most music education programs.

Some techniques for preparing oneself for emotional detachment from one piece and “moving on” to another included several that were mentioned by visual artists (Lund & Kranz, 1991).Again, it was noted that greater emotional “removal” or termination was required when one was the creator of or was more involved in a piece. Taking a clear break from their professional work after a performance and using this time to get their lives “back in order” seemed to be effective for many of these musicians.

A number of respondents mentioned trying a different instrument or playing pieces from different periods as sometimes useful “diversions.” Being ale to have constructive dialogue with significant others, both personally and professionally, was mentioned as exceptionally helpful. Several musicians noted the need to establish close rapport with others and to explain the potential for personal emotional vacillations to these “others” in advance, so that there are people with whom one can feel comfortable in “working through” emotional turmoil associated with professional effort.

Two major themes emerged in descriptions of these issues. One theme was the importance of realizing that one is “not alone.” A second theme was that working through these periods of emotional highs and lows can be channeled into a constructive basis for future creative efforts. In this context, one musician mentioned that, if one does not know to prepare for and have effective outlets for these emotional vacillations, there may be more difficulty in moving on to the next creative effort or performance. 


Probably because of length of experience, these musicians seemed to have realized the degree of emotional involvement that can accompany artistic creativity and performance.They described this involvement as an important and very personal component in preparing for a performance, stated that it is a highly individual phenomenon, and noted that it can help improve one’s professional focus and level of performance skills. The risks of emotional letdown and potential difficulties in moving on from a piece in which one is strongly emotionally invested were recognized; however, these individuals felt that, with preparation and considerable practice, these risks were worthwhile and could become one basis for increased creative effort.

One musician noted that “seeds of creative growth” were often “planted in the angst of leaving a piece.’’ Several also mentioned that music education programs might be strengthened if teaching students about these potential emotional issues and how to deal with them more effectively was integrated into program curricula. Specific opportunities for practice, role playing in performance contexts, active discussion of strategies for coping, and channel- ing emotionality in constructive directions could become parts of program courses and performance experiences. One additional suggestion was that coordination with music therapy and/or psychology faculty members might facilitate an integration of these issues into music education programs.

In a manner similar to the psychotherapist who has to prepare a client for termination issues and for dealing with cycles of emotions, an educator who teaches students about artistic performance and creative effort needs to help prepare them for the potentially strong emotions that may accompany such work. Effective preparation for this very human aspect of creativity can be of lifelong benefit to the professional musician. 


Kranz, P. L., & Lund, N. L. (1981). Viewing the termination process. Journal of Group Psychotherapy, Psychodrama and Sociometry, 34, 74-84. Kupers. T. A. (1988). Ending therapy. New York: University Press.
Levinson, H. (1977).Termination of psychotherapy: Some salient issues. Social Casework, 58, 480-489.
Lund, N. L., & Kranz, P. L. (1991). The termination process: A time for artistic redirection. The American Journal of Art Therapy, 30, 51-53.
Teyber, E. ( 1988). Interpersonal process in psychotherapy. Chicago: Dorsey Press.

Counseling Center Tennessee Technological University
Published online: 02 Jul 2010