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Musicians and Mental Health - a few thoughts

It is Mental Health Awareness Week this week, and it seems a good time to talk a little bit about how difficult it can be in terms of mental health to be a musician in the 21st century. There are well-documented studies demonstrating that musicians suffer disproportionately from mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, and eating disorders.

First, I should say that we are incredibly lucky as Early musicians or 'Historical Performers'. The Early Music world is, in my opinion, at least, far more supportive and friendly than other sectors of classical music. After all, despite the fact that our once-niche area is now almost part of 'mainstream' classical, there aren't so many of us, and we need to stick together! I cannot imagine, though, how challenging life must be for a solo pianist, for example - each required to play the same repertoire, flawlessly, always in the persona of the virtuoso. Personality is everything; nowhere to hide.

Still, we (like any other musicians) face several common misconceptions, which can hurt (most usually unintentionally) and contribute to depression and anxiety:

'What do you actually DO'?

Many musicians find it very difficult to represent to others what exactly their career involves. Sometimes, others assume that we have swathes of free time - after all, it's just music, so easy to learn if you're talented! Or, at the other extreme, they might assume that our schedule consists entirely of practising. The former assumption is incredibly frustrating; the latter highly inaccurate. In particular, the stereotype of a classical musician practising 5 hours a day, giving a concert in the evening, sleeping and starting again, is very unlikely to be true. The truth is rather less idyllic. We are never 'off duty'. We work 7 days a week, often travelling away from home more than we would like, working several different jobs in order to pay the ever-increasing bills. We spend at least half our time applying for competitions and funding, preparing programmes, approaching promoters for concerts, organising rehearsals, doing the accounts (on top of more ordinary tasks like the laundry!) For any musician, these tasks take several hours per day. Often, practice, and the music itself, takes a back seat. The lifestyle is so much less glamorous than is assumed, and it is this that we find so difficult to express, leading to feelings of isolation and depression.

'Your passion is your career - you must be so happy!'

Well, yes. Sort of. Occasionally. The fact that you are (somewhere deep down) passionate about music does not somehow ensure that every note, every effort, every disappointment is 'worth it' because you have an 'amazing feeling' inside 24/7. That feeling that the outsider thinks we feel all the time ('I am sublimely happy in each musical moment, I am so lucky to be a musician') is something we may feel one a month, perhaps. At other times, more common feelings are: disappointment, frustration, loneliness, worthlessness, and that indescribable feeling that even good things might easily fall apart - not to mention frequent exhaustion from lack of rest. Then, someone might say, 'Well, if you're unhappy, just do something else', and you just don't know how to explain why you can't do anything else, that this is your vocation, no matter how hard it might be. Often, it is not so much the hardships of our lives that get us down (we knew about them when we signed up for this!); it's the gap between those and what we are expected to feel by others.

'What, you charge THAT much?'

Money. The never-ending challenge for the freelance musician. The guilt you feel at charging a reasonable amount for a performance. When our charges are broken down, of course one realises quite quickly that, if anything, musicians are under-paid. The amount of preparation time, training, equipment, involved in every performance is vast. And yet, every musician is regularly asked to perform for nothing, and it takes immense strength to explain why this isn't possible. The temptation to get angry, to shout from the roof tops that this is how I pay for my rent, my heating, my food - is overwhelming sometimes. To be constantly undervalued (generally through ignorance rather than deliberate offence, of course) does not do wonders for our self-esteem, and can leave us feeling that our careers and talent are somehow invalid, that we as people (because we are so close to our art) are worth less.

'Sorry, we can't accept your documents...'

For musicians (and indeed, for other self-employed professionals in the UK), it is very difficult to prove eligibility, particularly proof of income. We often have no employer to give references, no documents to prove that we do, in fact, earn money! Our own records, no matter how well-kept, are not enough. In extremis, we may have to appeal to our union to intercede on our behalf - just to rent a room in a shared flat! Other benefits which more standard workers take for granted are not available to us: we can access the state pension, of course, but, unless we are directly employed by an orchestra, for example, we have to pay into our own private pension - and few of us have enough money spare at the end of the month to do so. We cannot take holidays without losing income: so we need to save twice as much: enough to cover both the holiday itself and the amount we would have earned while at work. All this, perhaps, more than the rest, contributes to stress for musicians, and intensifies any pre-existing feelings into a more serious mental health illness.

'Can you please play THAT piece?'

This is perhaps more of an artistic frustration, but still one which is difficult to deal with. A classical musician is often asked to play the most famous pieces for their instrument, even if you really don't like them.. Think 'The Lark Ascending' for violinists, or Beethoven's 'Moonlight Sonata' for pianists. Maybe you've actually spent the last year collaborating with a living (!) composer, fusing styles, making videos to show off your new ideas; or perhaps you've been mastering some tremendously challenging piece with extended techniques for the last three months. Yet promoters and sometimes audiences aren't interested: they want to hear what they know and love. Worse still, your performance will always be compared to the most famous recording of that piece; you cannot possibly be greater than 'the greats' (even if they are no longer alive!). Again, you are asked to achieve the impossible, and to minimise your own creativity in the process.

Artists of all kinds face these kinds of difficulties, and so many others - these are certainly only just a few. The unpredictability of an artistic career means that we have to be incredibly tough, all the time. Even when success comes our way, there is no sense of stability, no continuity. Sometimes, you may not even notice that you are starting to suffer: we are so used to 'carrying on' that we don't notice that the happiness we communicate to others through our music has stopped extending to ourselves. We love music, and we are eternally grateful for the opportunities we receive, but sometimes it can be, just, well, very hard. But if you are suffering in any way, there are so many places to seek help, including the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine: We should never feel we have to suffer alone.

For more on this topic:

Still available on BBC I-player is this fascinating programme from February this year:

'State of Mind: Music and Mental Health'

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