Helping Students with Tension, Pain and Anxiety

PART 1: Awareness and Movement

by Lea Pearson, DMA

You have a student who seems tense.

You want them to relax, because you know that it will help them play better.

You suggest they let go of tension.

But it doesn’t seem to help….and you’re not quite sure how to help them relax.

Why do so many of our students play with tension, and what can we do about it?

Most of us musicians are highly self-critical. That tends to lead to worry, anxiety, and often pain, because pain and anxiety are inextricably linked. I call it “PainXiety.”  And I see it every day with students from all over the world.

What are we worried about?

  • We think we’ll never be good enough
  • We compare ourselves with others
  • We worry about performing
  • We aren’t sure we can fix what’s wrong

Every musician I meet has experienced some aspect of tension, pain, self-doubt, anxiety, or just plain worry. They enter an unhappy cycle wherein one aspect reinforces the others.

Left unattended, this can become a downward spiral, lasting for decades. I’ve worked with adults in their 70’s who were still affected by tension that began when they were young students. Sadly, their capacity to fully express themselves musically was limited by that tension and its accompanying pain and self-judgment.

Tension is a physical state of contraction. It can be caused by a variety of thoughts, feelings, and experiences. It jeopardizes facility, breathing, and most importantly, our unique and authentic artistry.

Multiple studies document that more than 60% of our high school students experience tension or pain while playing.

An article in Billboard Magazine May 7, 2019, before COVID-19, states that “nearly 3/4 of independent musicians have experienced ‘stress, anxiety and/or depression’ in relation to their work.

“The results were based on a web survey of nearly 1,500 independent musicians by Swedish-based digital distribution platform Record Union. The survey found 73% had faced negative mental health issues, with anxiety and depression topping the list of symptoms. Among those aged 18-25, the numbers are even worse, with 80% of respondents in that age range having experienced negative mental health effects stemming from their music careers.”  

The pandemic has significantly upped the ante. According to the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health at Michigan Medicine, a new poll suggests that 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 5 teen boys have experienced new or worsening anxiety.

Also this past year, one study concluded that almost 70% of students in an Australian university reported being depressed or suicidal.

Yikes! This is at epidemic levels.

In my next article I’ll share how our traditional methods of music instruction contribute to this overwhelm of anxiety. But today I want to give you some specific tools to help your students. 

In the context of a music lesson, how can we help our students cope with these emotions?

I want to share 3 strategies that, while directly addressing our physical state, are also deeply connected to our emotional state and thus to making music.


I called these 3 little exercises études: Body Mapping Etudes.

They are equally effective with online or in-person lessons.

I. Inclusive Awarenes

This is a way to cumulatively engage all your senses and become present in the moment. I’ll describe them as if I were teaching them.


Without the instrument, at first, just listen to all the sounds around you: from within your body, in the room, and outside the room.


While still listening, look around and notice everything you see. Just observe shapes, colors, and textures without judging,


Then, while still listening and seeing, feel everything that your skin is touching, 360° around the body. Air, clothes, hair, jewelry – whatever touches your skin.


Next, notice what you smell, and feel the air coming in through the back of the nose and down into the lungs.


Add to that how your body feels. What does the contact with the floor or the chair feel like? What quality of movement do you notice? Stiff, free, fluid, stuck, locked?


And lastly, along with everything else, notice space. The space around you, between you and the walls/ceiling/floor, among the people in the room, and space within your body as well.

Take a good few minutes to notice how your breathing and body feel.

Anxiety takes us out of the present moment, Inclusive Awareness brings us back.

Most people, when they engage multiple senses in becoming present, feel calmer and more at ease. (Some students will find this difficult, others will do it easily.)

Ask students to describe their experience in as much detail as they can. Ask if they know why this works. It’s always interesting to get their ideas.

You can offer these 2 important facts:

  • Inclusive Awareness stimulates the “automatic postural reflexes,” the reflexes that keep you upright. The reason you feel more relaxed is activating those reflexes provides more support from the ground or chair, so other muscles can release.
  •  If students feel calmer, tell them that thinking of space actually slows their brain waves down from Beta (the normal everyday frequency) to Alpha, the space of calm, creative thinking. What a great place to be for making music!

Starting lessons with an Inclusive Awareness étude is especially important when you’re teaching virtually. I actually do this at the beginning of every lesson, to help the student and myself reset from previous experiences of the day, and re-orient ourselves to the present.

II. Startle Recovery

Another simple strategy is to explore what happens to the body when we get tense or anxious. That whole-body pattern contraction is called the “startle reflex.” Let’s do this together.

What would you do if a bear jumped out in front of you while you’re driving?

When you have a fright, your whole body contracts to protect you – neck shortens, arms and legs pull in, gut tightens, etc. Stay there a few seconds to really feel it. Then breathe, release, and let yourself float out of it to recover.

Do this a few times – with successively smaller reactions – until you get to the point where you feel it but no one can see it. That’s the way many of use spend our days – in a slight startle reflex.

Students will begin to recognize what tension feels like, and how to get out of it. They need to know that the primitive brain, where fear lives, does not distinguish between a bear or a wrong note! So if you’re playing along and worrying about a difficult passage coming up, your body is going to go into startle. Whoops!  Now you’ve just made it harder to play because you’re all tense!

If they practice this multiple times a day, they’ll make better and better distinctions about what different levels of tension feel like in their whole body, and how often they are in a delicate state of contraction.

         (PS. This is also a great one for you to notice while you teach.)

III. Grounding

 If you live in a temperate climate, this étude will be fun.

Show me what it feels like walking on ice. (Or if you live in a warm climate, walking in very slippery mud!) Describe what it feels like in your body.  (It’s very like a startle reflex: your body pulls you up and away from the ground.)

Then, imagine being on the beach on a beautiful sunny day, and walking barefoot in warm sand (or soft grass or whatever feels good). Does that change how your body feels?


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Two things are important to notice here:

  •    whole-body contraction and release
  •    the relationship between feet and the ground

If you can recognize that being in contraction pulls your feet off the ground a little bit, then it will be easier to identify what it feels like when you really give your weight back to the warm sand. You can practice recovering over and over again while playing.

Why is staying grounded important? Two main reasons.

1. Your own health! Allowing stress and fear to stay in our bodies 24/7, even in mild versions, is the worst thing we can do for our immune systems. If you’re not feeling grounded, your body is being flooded with stress hormones, compromising your immune system.

2. If you are feeling a lot of tension and stress, you’re also going to be feeling pain. You will experience the lack of support from the ground as neck aches, headaches, and just general tension. A major effect of stress or tension, as we know, is whole-body contraction: a version of the startle reflex. Most of us don’t even notice it.

It’s why our neck feels sore. And why we “cary all our tension in our shoulders.”


So how do these 3 études relate to playing?

Imagine a performance situation:

  • Inclusive Awareness allows you to notice, without judgment, and be present. It helps you connect to the space, to release anxiety, to calm your body and brain, and to relate to the audience.
  • Startle Recovery. While playing, you might start to worry – and notice that you’re going into a startle reflex. You remember that the brain doesn’t distinguish between a bear and a wrong note. So you let it go and continue with your beautiful music.

  • Grounding. And, you allow your feet to sink into the ground. You let yourself be supported so your arms and breathing can do what they need to, with more ease and freedom!

Now you’ve got 3 basic tools to help your students reduce tension, worry and pain while playing:

  • Inclusive Awareness,
    • Startle Recovery, and
    • Grounding.

I hope you enjoy sharing them with your students. (And exploring them yourself!)

Next issue, we’ll learn about how to prevent injury by teaching students to use their WHOLE body!

Lea Pearson | |

Dr. Lea Pearson has been helping musicians find relief from pain and learn effective ways to move and play since 1998. One of the country’s leading Body Mapping Educators, she works with professional and amateur musicians and trains teachers to fill in the missing piece – how to use our bodies to make beautiful music.

MA, Stanford University
DMA, The Ohio State University
Fulbright Scholar, The Sibelius Academy Helsinki
Teaching Artist, the Kennedy Center
Founder, Music Minus Pain
Founder, The Transformational Teacher Training Program
Author, Body Mapping for Flutists: What Every Flute Teacher Needs to Know About the Body. Chicago: GIA, 2006.