01 Oct Taking Care of Your Inner Musician

Professional musicians face many challenges throughout the course of our careers. From the time we first begin learning the rudiments of music, we grapple with the technical difficulties of our craft by training our ears, eyes, brain and body to perform the highly specialized movements required by our particular instrument (including the voice). If and when we become proficient enough to become professionals, we have to contend with the myriad vagaries of the music business, including auditions, employment uncertainty, income variability, disparate working conditions, burnout, etc.

I don’t know any musicians who haven’t suffered serious setbacks at different points in their lives. The problems can be physical – an injury from overwork or too much practicing, or from something unrelated to music. The problems can be economic – losing a steady gig, the closing of a long-running show, or a precipitous drop-off in the amount of work due to any number of factors beyond our control.

While these and other issues can be difficult to resolve externally, what often gets overlooked is the impact they have on us internally. It’s not out of the ordinary for musicians to see their primary care doctor, dentist, massage therapist, music teacher (or coach) regularly, or to go to the gym, take a yoga class or study Feldenkreis or Alexander Technique. But unless someone becomes psychotic, is hit with a bout of major depression or is paralyzed by performance anxiety, it is far less likely for people in our profession to seek the aid of a mental health professional. We somehow think that if we ignore intrusive thoughts or deny that we’re feeling anxious much of the time that these debilitating issues are just going to ‘go away’ of their own accord. It’s as though if we aren’t bleeding or running a high fever, we must be all right.

The truth is that your emotional health is crucial to your well-being. You don’t have to take my word for it, as there is substantial research that supports the idea that being a performing artist significantly raises your risk of suffering from mental health issues. A number of studies have found that performers confront various mental health issues at much higher rates than the population at large. Performers are ten times more likely to suffer from anxiety and five times more prone to depression. Similarly, we are three times more likely to experience sleep disorders. Artists have higher rates of suicidal ideation, planning and attempts; our abuse of alcohol and other substances is also significantly greater.

One of the saddest pieces of data is that substantially more than half of folks suffering from mood disorders like depression and anxiety don’t seek or receive treatment. Why is this so? Have you ever said or thought any of these things:

• Only people who are ‘crazy’ or severely mentally ill go to see shrinks
• My problems aren’t so bad, I can handle this on my own
• I don’t want to talk to some stranger about my personal issues
• There’s no way anyone can help me with this – I’ll just have to tough it out alone
• I’d have no idea where to go to seek help for my mental health; plus I’m sure I can’t afford it

Stigma, shame, fear, lack of knowledge, hopelessness, distrust – all of these feelings are real and pose significant barriers for many people. But here’s the thing: as musicians, we’ve already had to face many seemingly insurmountable obstacles, as I mentioned earlier. Performing artists are well acquainted with having to challenge our problems and inadequacies with honesty and insight. We couldn’t have gotten where we are as accomplished professionals without relying on many inner strengths. In fact, we’ve probably done so without even realizing it!

So if you’re feeling overly stressed out, depressed or anxious, or if you are engaging in compulsive, addictive or other self-harming behaviors, I strongly encourage you to seek help. It sounds like a cliché, but it is true that asking for help is not a sign of weakness. It’s an indication of wisdom, maturity and strength.


[reprinted from The Intermezzo May/June 2017 – The official magazine for the Chicago Federation of Musicians]