Welcome to Music for Wellbeing

A warm welcome to my new blog linking music making with music psychology, health and wellbeing.

This blog is intended to be helpful to anyone who is interested in the processes and practicalities of teaching, learning and performing music. It is partly inspired by my own experience of enjoying musical performance, developing practical musicianship, and adopting a broad spectrum of teaching strategies. It is also partly led by my interest in the real-world applications of the psychology of music, and using music-making to enhance physical, psychological and social wellbeing.

Music psychology is a relatively new discipline, which began to gain prominence towards the middle of the last century. The first well-known writer on this subject was Carl Seashore, who published his book (simply entitled Psychology of Music) in 1938. Since then, there has been a rapidly growing number of researchers in this field, and an ever-increasing potential for applying our findings in real-life music-making.

Whenever I mention music psychology, someone usually expresses surprise that such a thing exists, and they immediately want to know what on earth it could be.  The most straightforward answer is that music psychology helps us to study musical behaviour and experiences. It helps us to explore the connections between what is going on inside our heads and what is happening in the music when we are participating in musical activities, whether as a listener, audience member, learner or performer.

The areas covered by music psychology include musical development, which explores the origins of human musicality and how we acquire musical skills; music in everyday life, which examines how we use music to influence our mood and environment; and performance psychology, which investigates phenomena such as music performance anxiety or ‘stage fright’.

There is also a burgeoning interest in the related field of music and wellbeing. Virtually every month there is new research-based evidence demonstrating the effects of musical participation upon physical, psychological and social wellbeing.  In this blog, I will highlight some of the research into music psychology, and music and wellbeing; to record some of my own relevant experiences; and to suggest some practical applications of the emerging body of literature in this area.

I hope that anyone who happens to read this blog will find some useful information, some thought-provoking anecdotes, and some helpful ideas about teaching, learning and making music. Enjoy!

A Musician’s Lot…

When I was a pre-teen, I was obsessed with Gilbert and Sullivan, and one of my favourite songs was the well-known lament, A Policeman’s Lot is Not a Happy One. When you listen to the lyrics, it becomes quite clear why policemen might get fed up from time to time:

In contrast, being a musician might seem like a very happy way of life. There is the fame, the fortune, the adulation, the travel, the celebrity lifestyle, the glamour, the wealthy friends, the occasional accolade or award – oh, and, of course, the music! That might be true for some high profile musicians but, for others, it can be quite a different story. Although I have met many very contented and fulfilled musicians, I have also encountered some who have experienced various problems associated with their professional life. Sorry to put a damper on things, but I do feel the need to issue an obvious but important health warning. Please bear with me, though, as there will be some positive thoughts and suggestions at the end of this.

Whilst there is an abundance of research-based evidence for the spectacular effects that amateur musical participation can have on holistic wellbeing, some researchers have been raising crucial questions about the wellbeing of career musicians. It has long been common knowledge that many professional musicians suffer from performance anxiety or stage fright, which can be detrimental to their wellbeing as well as to performance quality, and research on this subject has been taking great strides for several decades.

In 2001 the Federation Internationale des Musiciens carried out a survey of 1,639 and discovered that 70% experienced anxiety that was severe enough to impair their playing. This has affected many well-known and successful musicians, including Maria Callas, Caruso, Chopin, Padarewski, Pavarotti and Rachmaninoff. More recently, Adele has been so nervous that she has thrown up before a live performance, and Barbara Streisand gave up singing in public for 27 years due to severe stage fright. This condition can blight a musician’s career and have an impact on their everyday life, as it can be difficult to switch off between performances.

At Leeds College of Music’s Sounds Human Conference, George Musgrave presented his findings about some of the other factors which may mean that a musician’s lot is not always full of sweetness and light. Periods of unemployment, financial instability, unpredictable income, unsocial working hours and constantly travelling are some of the practical challenges that can face a full-time musician.

For free-lance musicians, there are also stresses related to dealing with all the necessary administration, organisation and accounting. There are also other more subtle stressors, including unfulfilled musical ambitions, lack of professional recognition, family or peer pressure to follow a more stable career path and, once successful, the pressure to maintain performance standards. Ill health and injury can be serious threats to a musical career, and successful musicians are usually well aware of the precariousness of their position.

All of this sounds very bleak, but fortunately there is a growing awareness of the need to examine these issues, and to develop strategies and support systems for musicians at all stages of their careers. A research project by George Musgrave and Sally Grove (2016) was commissioned by Help the Musicians UK,* a charity supporting professionals whose income is largely derived from musical work. The impetus for this research was a pilot survey which found that professional musicians are up to three times more likely to experience anxiety and depression than the rest of the population. To compound matters over half of those musicians find it difficult to obtain help.

These initial findings prompted further Grove and Musgrave to investigate further, and they have now made a number of policy recommendations, include implementing continued research and education on the subject of musicians’ wellbeing, an industry code of practice to support mental health, and establishing a set of peer support networks. Other recommendations include increasing awareness of the challenges that professional musicians face, and how these may jeopardise their wellbeing; improving the working environment for musicians;  encouraging more openness about about problems; and finding ways to improve access to suitable, professional and affordable help. It is noted that it is often particularly difficult for professional musicians to feel secure enough to admit their vulnerabilities, mainly due to the competitive nature of the business.

As a career musician myself, as well as an educator and trainer of musicians, I strongly agree with Grove and Musgrave’s recommendations for embedding wellbeing in musical education. Course curricula should include making students aware of the potential challenges of a musical career, and provide guidance on preparing themselves to deal with these challenges. Some of our Conservatoires and University Music Departments are now introducing modules such as employability, entrepreneurship, and wellbeing, and no doubt this will escalate in time. There is also more open discussion in some of these environments about problems such as performance anxiety,  the impact of ill health or injury, and developing coping mechanisms. However, there is still a lot of work to be done if we are to ensure that musicians are well-equipped for the practical, physical and emotional rigours of their chosen career. The good news is that the dialogue has now been well and truly opened, and constructive steps are beginning to be taken.

*More information about Help Musicians UK, can be found  here

Further Reading

Gross, S., & Musgrave, G. (2016). Can Music Make You Sick Part 1? A Study Into The Incidence of Musicians’ Mental Health.

Gross, S., & Musgrave, G. (2017). Can Music Make You Sick (Part 2)? Qualitative Study and Recommendations.

Copies of these papers are available here and here

‘I Don’t Sing Because I’m Happy, I’m Happy Because I Sing’

Today’s title is a quote by the psychologist William James (1842-1910), in which he foreshadows the current interest in singing for psychological wellbeing. Singing to improve our mood has a long history, and seems to be an instinctive response which can help us to deal with emotionally difficult situations. On May 17th 2018 The Telegraph published a reader’s memories of wartime nights spent in an air-raid shelter:

‘At first we just sat on the benches, wearing our gas masks, for what seemed like hours at a time. Then the headmaster decided that singing would help morale – “White Cliffs of Dover”, “There’ll Always Be an England” (!!) and “Roll Out the Barrel”. I can still remember the words. I suppose in retrospect there was not very much else the headmaster could do. He knew we were afraid in case we found our homes and families had been destroyed in our absence – sadly, in some cases, that was a fact’.

Even if singing is the last thing we feel like doing, it can help to lift our spirits, as the English clergyman, Charles Spurgeon, discovered: ‘Sometimes, if you begin to sing in a halfhearted mood, you can sing yourself up the ladder. Singing will often make the heart rise’

When I was very young, I got up early one morning and found my grandmother in the kitchen, singing as if her life depended on it. ‘You must be happy today’, I innocently stated. ‘I’m not happy at all,’ she snapped, ‘That’s why I’m singing – to make myself feel better!’ I never found out why this was necessary on that particular day, but grandma’s pragmatic response to her bad mood was a useful lesson for me.

Immersing ourselves in singing works as a mood enhancer partly because it creates a state of ‘flow’* or ‘being in the zone’. A ‘flow’ activity has its own intrinsic rewards and is enjoyable for its own sake.  It is totally absorbing and makes us concentrate on the present moment. Achieving a state of ‘flow’ can help us to shake off our usual self-consciousness, and to fully experience the high points in our life, sometimes referred to as ‘peak’ or ‘optimal’ experiences’. ‘Flow’ can distract us from our everyday concerns to the extent that we lose track of time (and everything else!) as the jazz singer, Sarah Vaughan found: ‘When I sing, trouble can sit right on my shoulder and I don’t even notice’.

Yesterday, the mother of one of my singing students told me that her daughter ‘always enjoys your lessons. Sometimes I send in a moody teenager and she comes out smiling and happy’. And hearing that made me feel happy too!

Further Reading:

*More information about Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of ‘flow’ can be found here








If You Can Talk You Can Sing

Many people have heard of the Zimbabwean proverb: “If you can walk, you can dance; if you can talk, you can sing”. But is it true? Well, I’m no expert on the first half of that proverb, but there is some evidence that the second half is true.

At the recent Sounds Human Conference at Leeds College of Music, we were treated to a very moving demonstration of the close relationship between speech and song. John McHugh presented his composition, Hidden Voice, a multimedia piece based on interviews with people with dementia, their families and carers.

In his programme notes, John notes that the project ‘gives voice to people living with dementia though the beautiful melodies of their speech’.  By recording and repeating phrases from the interviews, the inherent melodic features of the conversations were revealed. Some of the most striking phrases were transformed into hypnotic musical passages, which were the inspiration for the sensitively composed instrumental accompaniment. The innate musicality of everyday speech was clearly exposed and the interviewees were an integral part of the composition process, providing the lyrics and tonal patterns for the main themes.

Audio-visual extracts from the interviews are a key feature of the performance, so this process has enabled all the participants to leave a lasting and impactful musical legacy, regardless of whether or not they would have regarded themselves as ‘musical’ in any way. An example of some of the music is in the link below. This is emotionally very powerful, so make sure you have some tissues handy!

One of the main reasons that this composition was possible is due to the existence of prosody. This is the melodic and rhythmic content of spoken language, which includes variations in pitch, length of syllables and the spaces between them, and the amount of emphasis placed on particular syllables. The ‘speech to song illusion’, as exemplified in John McHugh’s composition, was first illustrated by the Music Psychologist, Diana Deutsch. When polishing her own recorded commentary for a CD on Musical Illusions and Paradoxes, she noticed that, after a number of repetitions, the spoken phrases started to sound like singing. This is demonstrated in the following video, in which the audience response is a joy:

This strikingly demonstrates the strong relationships between speech and music, and I hope that it will be encouraging for anyone who thinks that they are not musical. We all have musical capabilities, and we demonstrate this every day in the rhythms and tonal variations in our speech. The difference between a ‘singer’ and a ‘non-singer’ is not as great as might be imagined, and most of us have the capacity to develop our natural vocal skills – even if some of us might need a little more help than others! In over 35 years of teaching singing, I have never encountered anyone who cannot improve their singing once they have had some training.

Admittedly, there is a very small minority of individuals who may genuinely struggle to develop these skills. These people may have a very rare condition, known as ‘congenital amusia’. This is so rare that it can be challenging to find sufficient participants for research projects on the subject, so if you really have ‘amusia’ you are very special indeed! Estimates of the prevalence of ‘amusia’ vary from 1.5% to 5% of the population, depending on the diagnostic methods and definition of the condition. This is somewhat similar to the varying estimates of the proportion of people who are transgendered, again depending on the definition of the term. I have definitely worked with the voices of far more transgendered people than individuals who are undoubtedly ‘tone deaf’.

As a little inspiration for reluctant or less confident singers, here are two musical arrangements of the words of the Zimbabwean proverb. The unaccompanied arrangement is by Linda Hirschhorn, and the composition with a piano accompaniment is by Elizabeth Alexander. Both versions are great fun, so I hope they get you singing loud and proud!

Further Resources:

Deutsch, D. Musical Illusions and Paradoxes, 1995, La Jolla: Philomel Records

Deutsch, D., Lapidis, R., and Henthorn, T. The speech-to-song illusion. Invited Lay language paper presented at the 156th meeting of the Acoustical Society of America. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 2008, November, Miami.[Laylanguage version]

Peretz, I. (2013). The biological foundations of music: insights from congenital amusia. In The Psychology of Music (Third Edition) (pp. 551-564).

Community Music Article

Yesterday I collected a heap of ‘snail mail’ from my pigeon hole in the Music Department at Sheffield University. Amongst the usual brown envelopes was my copy of a journal for which I wrote an article a while ago. This was a lovely surprise, as it always feels very special to receive a printed version of my own work, even when it has already been published online.

This article explores some of the social and musical interactions in amateur choirs; the impact that singers can have upon each others’ learning and performance; and the ways in which, through taking account of these interactions, choir leaders can help to optimise the singers’ confidence, enjoyment and performance quality.

Here is the reference for the article:

Bonshor, M. (2016). Sharing knowledge and power in adult amateur choral communities: The impact of communal learning on the experience of musical participation. International Journal of Community Music9(3), 291-305.

The full online version of the article is available here.

Singing Together for Wellbeing

Last night I conducted a concert with the Radcliffe on Trent Male Voice Choir at Bingham in Nottinghamshire. Our current theme song is ‘Stout Hearted Men’ from ‘New Moon’, which was one of the first musicals that my mother took me to see at the theatre. One of my favourite lines in the song is ‘Hearts can inspire other hearts with their fire’, and the gentlemen of the choir are among my main sources of inspiration at the moment.

As I rapidly approach a significant birthday, I have been constantly looking for good examples of healthy aging, and I am now fortunate enough to be surrounded by positive role models in the male voice choir. The youngest members are in their mid-sixties, and the rest are mainly in their seventies and eighties. Two of our singers have recently celebrated their ninetieth birthdays, which makes my approaching landmark seem comparatively modest.

After telling last night’s audience about the singers’ longevity, I realised that I had possibly delivered a slight insult to our younger members when I added ‘…And I defy you to work out which of the men are the ninety-year olds!’ Of course, I meant that it is quite difficult to identify the most senior singers, as they look so well and continue to make such a strong contribution to the choir.

Radcliffe on Trent Male Voice Choir
A Great Advertisement for Singing and Wellbeing!

The longest-standing members of this group have over 250 songs in their repertoire (not including their Christmas songs), and pride themselves on performing everything from memory. Post-performance celebrations in the pub are often enlivened by spontaneous renditions of old favourites, such as ‘The Rhythm of Life’ and ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’, as many of the singers can (and do!) perform these items with very little persuasion. Newer members quickly learn to catch up by memorising the songs for each concert.

The choir operates as a learning community, with more experienced members of the choir mentoring new recruits, making sure they have everything they need (sheet music, choir uniform, performance directions etc.) and helping them to get up to speed with the music. Often I look around and see one of the basses discreetly gesturing to his neighbour to indicate where the pitch goes up and down. On other occasions, I might see one of the tenors helping his colleague to work out which verse we are singing, or a baritone quietly explaining the ‘map reading’ for those who hadn’t noticed a repeat mark or coda.

The singers’ collaborative approach to learning and performing extends into their social life, as they have a healthy relationship with the local pub, and many of them keep in touch outside rehearsals. Some of the gentlemen sail together, meet to play golf or bowls, belong to other networking organizations, or simply visit and support each other in times of need. There is a strong sense of community within the choir, and the singers also play an active role in the wider community. They arrange collaborative performances with local schools and colleges, provide opportunities for young soloists to perform in their concerts, and are constantly fundraising for local and national charities.

All of this means that this group of singers, like many other choirs, are a very powerful advertisement for the wellbeing effects of singing. Their physical wellbeing benefits from the good posture, deep breathing and general relaxation necessary for healthy vocal production, while their cognitive skills remain sharp due to the constant need to learn, revise and memorise their words and music. Their social wellbeing is enhanced by their own supportive community and their valuable contributions to the wider community.

Our plans for this year include an open day to enable newcomers to gain first-hand experience of the wellbeing benefits of singing together. This will take place on Saturday 17th March at Lutterell Hall  in West Bridgford, starting at 10 am and finishing at around 4 pm.  Participation is not dependent upon vocal skill or musical training, and male singers of all ages and abilities will be welcome.

The open day will start with a short presentation on some of the ways of accessing the benefits of singing and making the most of our voices. Practical workshops will then help new singers to learn how to use their breath efficiently for relaxation and optimum performance, to explore their voices, to take part in musical team building activities, and to have fun singing in harmony with other people. The event will finish with a brief ‘show and tell’ session at which we will perform our songs to a select audience of friends and family – by invitation only! There will also be opportunities to socialise and to hear the gentlemen of the choir demonstrate some of their current repertoire.

For further information about the choir and this event, see the Radcliffe on Trent Male Voice Choir website here.

‘The Confident Choir’ – A New Book for Choir Leaders and Singers

There’s been some excitement in my house this week, as I’ve just received several copies of my new book, ‘The Confident Choir: A Handbook for Leaders of Group Singing’. I was delighted to see how beautifully the publishers have presented this, and I particularly love the cover design. I think the image of the conductor emerging from the roots of the ‘musical tree’ conveys some of the main messages of the book, which emphasize collaboration, cohesion, communication and community development in the context of confidence building for singers and their choir leaders.

Conductors, choir leaders, facilitators or teachers who run group singing activities are obviously vital components in amateur group singing, but the contribution of the choir members is also key to the success of every ensemble. This book explores the effects of group dynamics, interpersonal communication, body language, giving and receiving verbal feedback, teamwork and team-building, acoustics and choir positioning, and leadership and teaching styles, all  from point of view of the singers, and extrapolates a set of confidence-boosting strategies for leaders of choirs of all shapes and sizes.

Along with a range of psychological, philosophical and pedagogical approaches to confidence building for choir leaders and singers, ‘The Confident Choir’ contains a selection of suggestions and tips, activities and exercises, real-life case studies, and transcribed conversations with singers about the things that affect their confidence, both positively and negatively.

The book was principally designed with choir leaders in mind, and contains practical applications of many psychological frameworks for use in rehearsal and performance. However, because it is packed with insightful and enlightening perspectives from amateur singers, any choir members who read the book are likely to appreciate hearing about other performers’ experiences, and will probably have a few ‘me too’ moments!

‘The Confident Choir’ is now available from a wide range of outlets, including Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, Blackwells, WaterstonesThe Telegraph Bookshop, Barnes & Noble, and many more retailers worldwide.

More details about the content can be found here.

Here are a few reviews:

Michael Bonshor has created the new number one companion for every Choral Conductor. His assiduously tailored chapters provide insights, tips and strategies to create confidence, clear direction, sound communication, and a positive contagion from both sides of the podium.  Robert T. Elliott, festival director, Cornwall International Male Choral Festival Ltd

This realistic, well researched and practical guide provides conductors and scholars with transformative advice for building confidence in choirs. Bonshor’s comprehensive approach and coherent writing provide pragmatic solutions for all readers. An influential book which will stimulate motivation and inspire confidence!  Mary Black, post-doctoral research fellow, Music Department, Leeds University

This immensely thoughtful yet extremely practical book is based on a satisfying mixture of established psychological and pedagogical research, and Michael Bonshor’s own qualitative research and experience of directing groups of singers in a wide variety of settings. I will almost certainly revisit this book at the beginning of each new choral society season to remind myself how to get the best out of my choir!  Matthew Redfearn, conductor and music director, Glossop Choral Society

This fascinating new book is a great resource for both beginners and experienced practitioners working with amateur singers who seek to develop their professional skills and knowledge within this field. This scholarly yet richly practical guide is supported by checklists and thought provoking statements from singers and conductors relating to collective singing performances. The book is underpinned by the extensive expert professional experience of the author and will be of significant interest and value to all who lead amateur singing ensembles.  Joy Hill, choral conductor, Royal College of Music Junior Department

And here’s the gorgeous front cover!

Michael's book cover