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

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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).