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How to Look After Your Health and Wellbeing

Professional musicians often ignore health, safety and wellbeing issues until it’s too late. Here are some ideas for taking care of your physical and mental health from music industry organisations who are here to help.

Last updated: 14 October 2020

A career in music, viewed from the outside, can appear blessed. Yet for many on the inside its spiritual and occasional material rewards can easily be hijacked by workplace-induced anxiety and depression, the pain of performing while injured, addiction, concerns about money, or worries about finding the next gig. Musicians were once expected to suffer in silence, an odd condition given the very audible nature of their profession.

The days of telling someone trapped in the headlights of stage fright or mired in depression to ‘stick it on your face and blow’ may not be completely over. But campaigns to address mental health problems and raise awareness of wellbeing at work are beginning to eclipse old prejudices against anyone unwilling to ignore red-flag warnings from body or mind.

Health and wellbeing: where to find help

The MU is aware of the many threats to the health and wellbeing of musicians, from the strains of working harder well beyond the time when past generations would retire, to the pitfalls of the touring lifestyle. The MU has forged partnerships with four organisations able to help individuals address problems long before they spiral out of control, and provide expert advice or financial support at times of crisis. The quartet comprises the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine (BAPAM), Help Musicians UK, Music Support and the Royal Society of Musicians (RSM).

“We want as many people as possible to know what they offer,” says Diane Widdison, the MU’s National Organiser – Education & Training. The MU, she continues, works to help musicians find the most appropriate support. BAPAM, for instance, offers free clinics to professionals in the performing arts, while the RSM can provide financial help in tough times. “Getting a combination of funding and support from these organisations can make a massive difference,” she notes.

Health benefits for MU members

The MU is a founding partner of the Musicians’ Hearing Health Scheme, which offers practical assistance to anyone concerned about hearing loss in the workplace. The scheme’s package of audiological assessment and ear check-up, and set of custom-made, specialist musicians’ ear plugs, together worth over £250, is available to MU members for only £30. Those experiencing symptoms of focal dystonia or a repetitive strain injury, meanwhile, should find relief through BAPAM, whose clinical pathways exist to treat the health of performing artists.

BAPAM also has a number of help resources on its website to advise musicians on how to keep in peak condition even when the demands of the job make this difficult. For example, the charity suggests ways of looking after yourself on tour and how to maintain a work-life balance. BAPAM has also started producing guidance for organisations and practitioners on a number of issues that affect musicians, such as hearing conservation, vocal rehabilitation, and mental health and wellbeing services, which are very helpful in ensuring members are signposted to the correct services for treatment.

“We’re not experts in mental health at the MU,” says Diane, “but are often the first port of call for people who are in a bad place. That’s why it’s so important that we can refer our members to our partners.”

Self-help techniques that empower musicians

Growing awareness of the burdens affecting musicians has inevitably increased demand for clinical and other interventions. From 2018 to 2019, BAPAM saw a 40% increase in patients, part of a long-term upward trend. “We will need to do more in future,” observes its director, Claire Cordeaux. “Part of that will be about teaching people techniques to help themselves. Many live with and manage chronic conditions once they’ve learned how to recognise the warning signs and know what to do about them. We want to help people prevent problems before they escalate into career-threatening conditions.

“We’re working with Music Support to provide bespoke mental health first-aid training for musicians,” reports Diane Widdison. The first sessions were held at the end of January and are set to expand as part of Music Support’s extensive national programme of workshops and training. “People are more open to recognising they need help and sharing their concerns. Music Support’s approach means there’s always someone ready to listen.”

Musicians and mental health

Help Musicians has listened to and helped thousands of musicians since its foundation almost a century ago. Its promotion of health and welfare has been strengthened in recent years by the launch of the Musicians Hearing Health Scheme and the pioneering Music Minds Matter programme.

The latter grew from a 2016 study commissioned by Help Musicians from the University of Westminster and MusicTank. Anyone reading this article concerned about their mental health may be surprised, then reassured to discover that they are not alone: over 71% of the 2,211 self-selected respondents to the Music Minds Matter survey reported an experience of panic attacks or high levels of anxiety. Over two thirds, meanwhile, reported experiencing depression.

Wellbeing on tour

 Help Musicians collaborates across the industry to support musicians and those who work with them. “Our partnership with BAPAM provides a range of health services, including a healthy touring package for wellbeing on tour developed through the Do It Differently fund for independent musicians,” notes Claire Gevaux, director of programme at Help Musicians. “Most recently we supported an initiative that will see mental health first aid training being delivered across the industry by the charity Music Support, which is a very positive step towards building a safer working environment for musicians.”

Help Musicians has seen evidence of a shift in culture, with musicians taking greater responsibility for their wellbeing.

“We understand that the challenges musicians face in their career and personal lives are often interconnected,” Gevaux observes. “We look at what a musician needs as a whole, through an integrated programme of support incorporating health and welfare and creative funding. This person-centred approach means we can provide support that’s tailored to suit individual need, spanning creative, business, health, and welfare issues. We continue to develop preventative support to improve working conditions, sustain careers and create positive change for musicians.”

Performance health: specialist services

BAPAM connects performers with clinicians from a broad range of backgrounds, whether surgeons and general practitioners or physiotherapists, psychologists and psychotherapists. The charity offers free clinics in London, Glasgow, Cardiff, Birmingham and Leeds to those who make a proportion of their living from the performing arts, or are studying to become performing arts professionals. Its clinicians are qualified to diagnose problems and refer individuals for appropriate treatment through the NHS or other specialist individuals or services.

Claire Cordeaux explains that treating physical, psychological, vocal and hearing problems is central to the charity’s work. “We see a group of people that most GPs would never see as a group,” she observes. “We concentrate on providing the pathways they need to reach the right specialists, receive the right diagnostics, and provide their doctors with context for why it’s important they should receive specific treatments. Our clinicians report back on many problems that could have been avoided so we can develop our work around health promotion.”

Financial help for freelance musicians

Founded in 1738, with Handel and Arne among its early members, the Royal Society of Musicians offers financial assistance and advice to British-based musicians. The charity recognises the precarious nature of freelance life and responds to requests from those in need. It makes grants to professional musicians, whether active or retired, others professionally involved in the world of music, or their families and dependents. The Society’s investment capital and income from annual membership fees, bequests and fundraising generates sufficient cash to cover, among other things, healthcare costs, unexpected costs in old age and funeral expenses, and helps ameliorate hardship arising from being unable to work. Its assistance, delivered in confidence, also runs to counselling, financial advice, rehabilitation or making referrals to specialist practitioners.

The RSM’s chief executive Charlotte Penton-Smith notes that small grants disbursed at the right time can prove life-changing. “Paying for a few sessions of hand therapy could prevent an injury from ending someone’s career. It makes good sense to help musicians return to work quickly and efficiently. We will do all we can to get people back to work. If they can’t, we can help them change career or, where appropriate, prepare for retirement.” A new partnership with BAPAM, she continues, is set to examine the Society’s approach to case work and determine how they can enhance each other’s work.

Restoring health and wellbeing

The vocational nature of being a musician, where an individual’s identity is so fundamentally defined by their calling, can be both blessing and curse. “People are absolutely dedicated to their art,” notes Penton-Smith. “It can be devastating to find that they can no longer sing or play. We’re able to provide long-term financial assistance to those whose health conditions mean they will never work again.” The RSM, she adds, often directs applicants to Help Musicians for careers advice, a service informed by compassion for anyone forced to let go of that which has determined their sense of self.

“Although each of the charities and support organisations for musicians has a different focus,” Charlotte Penton-Smith concludes, “by working together and sharing knowledge I believe we can deliver the best help possible and be a great force for the music profession.”