James Madison University

Departments Working Together: Performance Anxiety and Stress

By: Jon Centeno

Departments Working Together: Performance Anxiety and StressAs a senior music education major, Kara Thibodeau is no stranger to stress and performance anxiety (“as a music major, I experience it often!”). She was introduced to the research on performance anxiety in her methods class when Dr. David Stringham asked students to write a research paper on a topic of their choice, and she selected performance anxiety. After researching this topic, she came to the conclusion that there was less research focusing on how performance anxiety impacts cortisol levels in college students: “I ended up finding projects that tested cortisol levels in saliva samples with regard to kids mostly.” Fueled by personal experience and the lack of sources on the topic, Kara went to her methods professor, Dr. Stringham, to see if she could conduct additional research. After asking around campus, Dr. Stringham pointed her to an office just down the quad: the office of Psychology Assistant Professor Dr. Catherine Franssen.

In the current study, School of Music students Kara Thibodeau, Melissa Leider, and Keelan Muscara partnered with the Department of Psychology to test how students’ cortisol levels change when faced with public recitals. The research team recruited junior, senior, masters, and doctoral students who are doing a final recital for a grade as part of their degree requirements. Researchers received saliva samples from participants to measure their cortisol levels. Three samples were taken: a baseline sample on a regular day, a sample at their hearing (a preliminary performance for several faculty members), and a sample just before their final recital.

On the music side of this project, Kara and the research group work closely with Dr. Stringham who not only taught them research methods, but also oversaw their project.  Dr. Stringham commented, “I help with the literature review and study procedures, and Dr. Franssen is the one who handles the data collection/analysis.”

On the psychology side of this project, Dr. Franssen, no stranger to research on stress, worked with students to help collect and analyze their results. Dr. Franssen studies the interplay between behavior, neuroscience, and endocrinology.  In other words, researching how experience and behavior changes brain and hormonal systems, which ties in perfectly with the current project. She has studied how stress impacts the body, and some of her previous work includes how mental stress (taking a test) or physical stress (climbing a rock wall) can impact performance.  Her research also includes strategies for reducing stress.  

After the data is fully analyzed, Drs. Stringham and Franssen plan to present the results at conferences in both neuropsychology and music education. The research team is applying to present at the conference of the Virginia Music Educators Association (VMEA). By presenting at VMEA, the team is bringing in scientific research, something that is usually not seen in VMEA, to deal with a problem that most, if not all, of the attendees have faced. As Kara puts it, “we will be representing JMU, and we want to be able to convey that it is possible to put research and music together.” On the psychology side, the research team plans to present the findings at a neuroscience conference.  Dr. Franssen is looking forward to seeing her team present the results.  “I think that this poster will fit in really well with regard to the major themes of a neuroscience conference.”  This interdisciplinary collaboration is an example of how units can work together to create new student learning and research opportunities.