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Musicians and Psychotherapy in 2020

Miranda Jackson, Psychotherapist, on the unique challenges faced by musicians at a psychological level during the COVID-19 Crisis.

During the pandemic I am training doctoral students to become Existential psychotherapists. Professor Emmy van Deurzen (2011 rev. 2016,) a founder of the European school of Psychotherapy, describes how important it is for trainee psychotherapists to develop “an existential attitude.” Put simply, we need to set aside our resistance to change, our fear of the unknown and be open to possibility and take a chance on life.

During the Covid 19 pandemic, all my clients, regardless of their backgrounds, have suffered fear, a sense of dread and increased anxiety, particularly during lockdown. In a survey published by the mental health charity, MIND, 60% of adults reported their mental health declined under lockdown. These are unsurprising figures as the loss of routine, the loss of fresh air and exercise and loss of socialisation all lead to increased anxiety, a sense of hopelessness and dread.

44% of those surveyed struggled to relax. The pandemic has caused: Problems with sleeping; overeating or loss of appetite; loss of interest/pleasure in normal activities;

difficulty concentrating. The Office for National Statistics in the summer published new figures on depression. About 10% of the population experienced clinical depression prior to the pandemic. Last month that more than doubled. The analysis of the additional 13% of people reporting depression had the profile of under 40 years of age, female and people who would struggle to pay an unexpected £850 bill.

How does this evidence relate to what musicians in the UK are facing in 2020? Drawing on my twelve years of practice, I assert that musicians are different from the general population and I believe that at the very least an understanding of how the process of performing works, how musicians embody their emotions and how they have an additional channel of expression open to them compared with Joe Public is necessary when you work with musician clients. Again Van Deurzen’s words are relevant: “Often we are out of touch with the gains we can make by being open rather than closed. We may fear being open can only be negative and sometimes we are so open we feel overwhelmed.”

1. Musicians are highly sensitive

Firstly I’d like to describe it as an Existential given that musicians are more sensitive than the general population. Kokotsaki and Davidson (2003) studied the correlation between trait and state anxiety in vocal students at Guildhall, concluding that a higher proportion of the musicians than the control group exhibited anxiety as a personality trait. If you believe in personality types and subscribe to the analysis of anxiety, using Spiegelberger (1972) to compare anxiety states with anxiety traits, you will have an understanding of the correlation between sensitivity and anxiety. When we look at introversion v. extroversion (Briggs Myers 1980) we can see how artificial and superficial such a tool is for defining what a musician is or needs to be. The ideal performer needs to be sufficiently self-reflective to access his/her emotions and commute them into expressive playing, able to lock himself away for hours absorbed in practice (i.e. introverted) and yet paradoxically feels driven to be heard and thrives on the adulation of an audience (extrovert.)

2. An open channel of self-expression

Looking at them therapeutically, musicians have learned to express human emotion, whether archetypal or personal, through playing or singing. This is the ultimate form of self-expression, a channel or conduit which has to remain open despite life’s traumas and difficulties such as abortion, divorce or bereavement. The art of performing is to embody emotions in order to communicate with an audience. As a result, when a musician suffers an emotional crisis, he/she can’t hide it for long. When I started my counselling career at Trinity Laban, many students were referred to me by physiotherapists or Alexander Technique practitioners who identified muscular tension with no discernible physical cause.

3. Less able to suppress emotions

As a result of this process of interpreting and performing music, unlike the general population who can suppress the emotional response to trauma for a long time by creating a protective shield or false self (Winnicott 1960,) musicians have no choice but to keep that channel open. This is another Existential paradox: How can you be sensitive enough to express universal truths through music and at the same time protect your sense of self from adverse criticism, from workplace bullying, from the impact of major trauma? Many attempts to protect the self from the response to trauma render the musician numb, blocked and “inauthentic” in performance, no longer able to live in the moment.

4. My Masters’ thesis comprised an IPA study of stage fright, comparing a professional singer who became a coach because she couldn’t stand the limelight, a concert pianist and two male singers who all overcame fear of abandonment, workplace bullying, dysfunctional parents and homophobia in order to function at the highest level as performers with case studies of music students who struggled with a lack of self-belief as musicians. What I learned from the IPA study and subsequent client work is that, to be a successful performer, you need to have explored questions around identity as well as what it is that motivates you to get up in the morning and practise your instrument. I experienced my own stage fright as a teenager and closed open doors to the Academy and NYO. I finally overcame it years later when I understood that an over-protective mother had prevented me forming my own sense of self or an identity as a musician and performer. I had given responsibility for my life decisions to another person. The result was a sense of nakedness, emptiness and imposter syndrome.

5. I contend the key to being an effective therapist with musicians is a lived experience of the two main challenges a performing musician faces every day. One is the drive to keep playing - which feels like a compulsion. The other is the need to keep the emotional conduit open against all odds, without which you will have little to say and will struggle to move your audience. These are the two aspects of a musician’s way-of-being which set musicians apart from the general population.

It is not surprising many more musicians are seeking mental health support during the pandemic and running wonderful organisations such as BAPAM off their feet. Apart from the wholesale loss of income including in many cases tours and productions abroad, our musicians have had their reason for living removed in an instant. They have lost a creative outlet, lost their primary means of self-expression. Depression which has hit most of the working population has stopped the creative flow; anxiety – a combination of fear and unknowing - has destroyed motivation and creative energy. Financial compensation is imperative, especially as many freelancers are unable to access support from HMRC for the self-employed or other state benefits.

But this crisis is bigger than that. I believe that, if all creative and expressive opportunities are terminated, something will die inside every musician in the UK.

Music has intrinsic and applied value to society as well as major value to the UK economy. The lack of live music has a negative effect on everyone, not just those who perform it. Just as an example, this year in excess of 300,000 people have been denied access to the BBC Proms season, about 10,000 of whom are aged 18 and under. 16 million people per annum watch the televised Proms at home and Radio 3, which broadcasts every concert (including all the new music,) reaches 2 million a week live and many more on iPlayer. For the Promenaders it is a collective, sociable audience; I have seen profoundly disabled people in the auditorium loving the experience, not to mention all those listeners at home who may be housebound, in self-isolation or shielding.

Not only does this great music, which offers an insight into and catharsis from the full range of emotions from despair to ecstasy, it has a documented positive effect on brain function. Classical music played in malls and bus stations does indeed “soothe the savage breast;” children’s focus, concentration and ability to assimilate information improves exponentially if they learn to play an instrument. Singing has the power to ameliorate trauma among the war-torn and bring fractured communities together.

During a pandemic the disabled, the elderly and vulnerable become even more isolated. Enlightened venues such as Wiltshire Music Centre have ensured through lockdown that its Zone Club for learning-disabled young adults, Celebrating Age Wiltshire which takes music participation into dementia and care homes and its youth activities for performers and creators have continued despite incredibly difficult circumstances. Next month WMC offer an innovative combination of live performances to 50 people followed by a live-streamed performance of the same repertoire to an audience throughout the UK. Yes, there is a paywall, but I can guarantee the quality of the performance you hear will be worthy of remuneration.

I have just attended a socially-distanced performance of Stockhausen Dienstag from Licht in the Paris Philharmonie, wearing my mask throughout. In Paris a combination of Festival d’automne and the Cité de la musique enabled this extraordinary, exhilarating performance to go ahead with the hall at 50% capacity – something probably beyond the reach of London venues because of a comparative lack of subsidy. But it was done in a venue with only one bar open and plenty of open foyer space, plus a superbly efficient front-of-house team so that we all felt safe.

Life goes on. Let’s unite to ensure the music goes on.

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