Musicians' Mental Health

The UK study titled Can Music Make You Sick? Music and Depression reported that 7 out of 10 musicians have experienced mental health issues. And that “musicians could be up to three times more likely to suffer from depression compared to the general public.”

The independent music charity Help Musicians UK commissioned the study which was conducted by the University of Westchester’s MusicTank, a non-profit information hub for the UK music business.

In this, the largest study of its kind to date (2016), 2221 musicians responded to the online survey. About the respondents:
male / female split was 55.2% /  43.9%,
66.2% were between the ages of 18-35,
classical musicians made up 31.2% of the respondents.

The study found that as many as

7 out of 10 musicians have struggled with anxiety and/or depression

So if you have had bouts of mental illness, you are certainly not alone!

• 71.1% of all respondents admitted to having suffered from panic attacks and/or high levels of anxiety, and;
• 68.5% suggested they had suffered from depression.

When should you seek professional help?

Know the symptoms so you can help yourself and others. There comes a point when we need to realize that our lack of energy and motivation, chronic tiredness, that the big changes in our appetite or sleep habits, or our sense of emptiness may be signs that we need help. If you’ve got the symptoms, reach out and get the help you need.

Composer Nico Muhly wrote about his own battles with the emotional roller coaster of a life in music back in 2015, in a post titled Thoughts on Being Well. It’s an amazing piece of self-analysis—he looks unflinchingly at his own behavior, his motivations and failings. The post is well worth the read, especially as he ends with finding solace in a suspended F Major chord. Hope that tease will get you to read it and listen to the link to the work!

What I really appreciate about Muhly’s writing is that he reminds us that we are all in motion along a sliding scale between relative mental health and illness. We are all working towards doing better but we are all works in progress. And yes, there are times when we need professional help.

The emotional roller coaster of your life in music

Any artistic work demands a heightened sensitivity to emotional content. And although we as musicians have this sensitivity that we apply to our art, this unfortunately doesn’t mean that we are adept at managing our own emotions—or being sensitive to how we affect others.

Compounding this, we are living in a time of drastic uncertainty and change. It’s no wonder so many musicians feel anxious. I hear it in conversations and read it online. It’s easy to fall into negative thinking and a kind of paralysis, a retreat into inaction. Or else our own perfectionism and frustrations may lead to beating up on ourselves or lashing out at others.

And when we’re out of sorts it’s even more difficult to venture outside of our comfort zones. But that’s where we need to be in order to do our best work.

What’s at the root of all the struggle?

Stephen Hough was asked about experiencing difficult or discouraging times in his life as a pianist. In response, he wrote a terrific blog post titled Problems Playing the Piano for the Telegraph. Beyond the circumstantial and physical issues that may arise for musicians and make for stressful periods, Hough also wrote this:

“Psychological problems probably account for the vast majority of difficulties or discouragements for a musician at every stage of their careers, and most of these should be avoidable. So often it boils down to inflated or distorted egos: the excessive desire to be admired, successful, or praised. There’s a sense in which these desires contain perfectly natural reflexes for us as human beings, both sheer survival techniques and also a matter of common sense and mental stability. But there’s also the potential here for enormous strain and self-destruction.

If we walk on to the stage, or into a lesson, with an excessive hunger for approval or adulation we stifle something inside us. Aside from any moral or cultural distaste one might have for boastful, egotistical people, such self-absorption rarely makes sense from a purely practical standpoint. It’s like driving on the highway and looking too closely at the car in the next lane – the lack of perspective is dizzying and dangerous.

Or like seeing reality in a mirror – observing ourselves only through the eyes of others and their approval or lack of it. The great pianist, Egon Petri, once said that we would never be nervous if we were humble. It’s not a matter of not caring, or of being a shrinking violet, but of practical mental health.”

So how do we find the balance needed for our egos—to stop the “compare and despair” and to have the courage to put our work out there?

What to do about your state of mind

The truth is we all live with well-worn ego issues. We each have a set of unexamined assumptions and behavioral patterns that we are oblivious to. It’s why it’s so easy to get in our own way. And to not know that in seeking an audience’s approval and adulation, that we may be hoping to fill an insatiable emotional emptiness—an un-fillable void.

Stephen Hough goes on about getting past our ego issues:

“This is a battle with the self which is never completely won, and each defeat can be a further source of discouragement! I’m certainly far from victory and constantly have to remind myself again and again of these issues. But that bad masterclass, that failed audition, that vicious review, that memory lapse can pass us by unscathed if we can try to transcend the debris of our wounded egos.

Whatever musical talent we have, whether great or modest, will flourish better in the larger garden of ultimate reality than in the cramped plant-pots of our own small worlds. To reach beyond ourselves in achievement is an ambition which can best be achieved by looking beyond our ‘selves’. That is after all what ‘ecstasy’ means, to stand outside: not as an ‘outsider’ but as one passionately involved, with a perspective that’s as large as the reality it aims to contemplate.”

I love the metaphor here of the world as a garden. What we experience is determined by how we view the world and how we choose to respond to challenges. And this demands that we reach beyond our own egos, connect with others, and be of service. That is where we find both meaning and a better emotional balance.

The world is your garden—what will you cultivate?

Hough’s writing reminds me of a comment the violinist Vijay Gupta made at a conference I attended where he was explaining how and why he started Street Symphony, the music program that serves the homeless in LA.

In his talk Gupta used a surprising phrase to describe the sense that he found among his musician colleagues and friends when he arrived in LA. It was that of having “devastated inner landscapes,” a sense that they were living a life disconnected from what really mattered.

Gupta’s Street Symphony performances are all about bringing music as an act of human service to people in need. And communicating a message of hope, healing, and redemption to an audience that has been forgotten by the world.

And, surprisingly, the musicians who participate in the Street Symphony programs found that the healing works both ways—it is a balm both for the homeless and for the musicians’ own devastated inner landscapes. Many report that the work they do with the homeless is the most fulfilling and gratifying work they’ve ever done.

What does good mental health mean for you?

Think about how you are balancing the stresses of the profession with your artistic and personal goals. Check in on your own mental well being and on that of your loved ones. And by all means, reach out to get any help that’s needed.

Take stock of your inner landscape. What do you do to renew your sense of mission, of purpose, of wonder? What three things can you do this week to help you become more inspired and inspiring in the garden of reality around you?

As always, I love getting your feedback and comments—maybe you have some mental health solutions to share? Reach me at

And if you’d like help designing a practical plan to move ahead in your career—a plan that builds up your confidence and your creativity, along with your opportunities, let’s talk!

Here’s to your state of mind,

Dream Big, Plan Smart, Live Well

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