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


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