When I ask the question, “do you think classical music is open to talking about mental health issues?” the answer is an emphatic, unanimous: “No.”
But in conversations with students, colleagues, educators, and administrators in the classical music industry, I’ve learned that there’s wide-ranging interest and an urgent need for support that goes beyond how well we perform on stage. From the few folks I’ve found who are trying to increase mental health awareness in conservatories and music schools, I’ve learned that there are underlying factors in classical music that may create a higher risk for students and professionals to develop mental illness.
And, in an ever changing world with growing professional and personal uncertainty, there’s a strong need to help music students reframe success and failure, cultivate their own values so they may develop their own content and platforms, and flexibly reimagine their careers so that they may adapt and thrive.
The rise of excellence above all else
Over a century ago, the classical music industry decided that excellence was its priority. One of the mental health consequences of this attitude has been the belief that the individual person doesn’t matter, only excellent music-making does. As a result, many classical musicians struggle with a perfectionism that makes us more susceptible to harsh self blame and judgement, an overdeveloped fear of failure, and difficulties with being compassionate towards ourselves and others. And while these traits may help us strive for high levels of achievement that are important to success, they may also make us more rigid and prone to conditions like anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges.
In a culture that prioritizes achievement and views vulnerability as a weakness, admitting that you’re struggling is a very big risk and can lead to loss of income, opportunity, and even life. This is why it seems that many students and professionals suffer in silence. In one conversation with a professional musician and educator, they talked about losing colleagues to suicide in the past few years and the shocking lack of response from institutions.
So many people I’ve talked to have shared how they are motivated by fear: the fear of failure and the consequences of performing less than perfectly. We’re taught to prioritize perfection–an impossible goal–over our health and wellness.
Ideally, good teaching should go beyond learning to just play an instrument. It should encompass much more than instrumental technique, and that includes emotional and psychological well-being. The best teachers, after all, tend to become life mentors.
A shift to seeing students as whole people?
This does not mean that studio teachers should be expected to have expertise in mental health care or degrees in psychology. I do believe, however, that it does mean that teachers and institutions have a responsibility to support students by directing students towards care when they need it and also to provide a curriculum that allows the student to be seen as a whole person, not only as a performer or scholar.
For instance, I’m especially interested in helping students who identify as Asian who are dealing with both the trauma around the pandemic but also the rise of anti-Asian sentiment in the U.S., are fearful about the future, and are culturally underprepared to process their thoughts and feelings and tell their own stories. As a Korean American classical musician, I’m particularly sensitive to the issues around identity, microaggression, and bias that many Asian and Asian Americans face in classical music and in the larger culture.
I think there’s a great opportunity here for leaders and prominent leaders in the industry to demonstrate openness and empower educators (at all levels) as well as conservatories to play an essential role in helping their students develop greater self awareness and the skills for talking about their emotions and inner struggles.
When asked, people I talked to admitted that they couldn’t think of many examples in classical music of people or groups that are modeling this openness, but that there are slow shifts in other areas of education, like in the general school system, where the focus is beginning to include emotional literacy, health, and restorative practices that help everyone in the community to feel send, heard, and as though they belong.
And right now, music students and professionals are facing an unprecedented amount of uncertainty and need support.
Which makes me wonder if maybe we don’t need to wait for someone else to lead. Maybe each of us can do a tiny thing that is unique and meaningful to us, that helps our community move 1% forward.
Because big, huge, seismic shifts are tough. But as the British cycling team learned, the aggregation of tiny 1% improvements can be transformative.
Even though I’ve been fortunate in my career, I’ve always struggled with intense perfectionism and the feeling that I was only as good as my last performance. Early on, I learned that it didn’t matter what I felt or thought or wanted; the only thing that mattered was how perfectly I could play my instrument.
For a long time, I thought I was alone in my struggle with mental health issues.
But recently, I’ve talked with students and professionals in classical music and they have all had the same response: Classical music does not accept injury or poor health, mental or physical.
If we want things to change, I think it’s important to keep talking and create opportunities for dialogue and conversation.
Because ultimately, music is about giving. It provides inspiration, comfort, beauty, and spiritual food. It’s not about how flawlessly music is executed, especially if this perfection comes at the cost of health, productivity, and life. I believe that unless we shift our mindset to allow for more awareness and conversation around mental health issues, not only will we lose audiences, but we will be wasting valuable human potential.
For me, what helped me start to shift my mindset was writing.
Through developing my own writing practice and the experiences I had in an MFA program that was right for me, I strongly believe in writing as a skill that can help with mental health, connecting to self, but also connecting to others/audiences. I believe that writing can help us reduce stress, have more hope, be more successful, and improve the quality of our lives. I only wish that I’d found my writing practice earlier in my life; I know it would have helped me face challenges with more confidence and a core sense of myself.
Maybe like a lot of us, I did a bit of creative writing in high school, for a grade, but I didn’t really do it seriously until a few years ago. And the reason I started writing then was because I was struggling with the consequences of lifelong toxic perfectionism: depression, anxiety, and chronic loneliness.
No matter how much I achieved or how many awards, degrees, or prizes I won, it was never enough for me to feel worthy enough. And because there’s very little room for vulnerability in the cultural spaces I move in–spaces like classical music where achievement and perfection are priorities–I found myself bottling up my fear and uncertainty about my career and my self-worth. I found that talking about these things not only made people deeply uncomfortable but added a huge element of risk to my professional life. I found that folks in classical music didn’t like hearing questions like:
- Who am I, beyond playing the violin?
- What if I never win enough “stuff”–audition, competitions, prizes, gigs–to feel financially and professionally secure?
- How do I deal with exhaustion and burn out?
- Why am I so unhappy when, on the surface, I appear to have a successful life and career?
- How can I have more agency in my career so I’m not constantly at the mercy of audition panels and gatekeepers?
I felt like I always, always, had to hide my sadness and worry because if I didn’t, people might think I didn’t have what it took to be a classical musician. It meant that people might stop hiring me and therefore, would impact my ability to survive and make a living.
Out of desperation, I started writing because I felt so incredibly alone and isolated. I started writing to keep myself company, because no one around me wanted to hear what I was truly thinking and feeling. I instinctively started to write because I was trying to get out of my head, figure out what I wanted, and most important to me, to see if there was a way to make something useful out of my pain, to help myself as well as others.
And I was surprised to find that writing helped me in a myriad of ways that was important for my mental health and my professional goals.
Having a creative writing practice has helped me:
- Learn to separate from my inner critic.
- Develop more curiosity instead of harsh judgements about myself and others.
- Experience the joy of making something for myself rather than to please a teacher or a manager or an audition panel.
- Clarify my thoughts so that I can better solve problems and become a more effective advocate for myself and others.
- Say what I really think and feel and live a more authentic life.
As I discovered what writing could do for me, it made me want to help other musicians develop their writing skills and make them an essential, empowering, and, most importantly, enjoyable part of their creative skillset.
Supported by decades of research that documents the very real benefits of narrative therapy and storytelling, writing can improve our communication skills, both on and off the stage, help us become stronger and more effective advocates for classical music as an art form, and develop emotional resilience and agency in these anxious times.
Folks tell me that, in addition to its wellness benefits, writing can also help us with practical things like creating more compelling promotional content, from bios to public speaking to online posts, as well as helping us develop our missions and values, invaluable tools for building a platform around the things that make us unique, individual, and marketable. By developing our writing skills, we gain tools with which to build and connect with audiences, differentiate our teaching studios, and set ourselves apart from others in social media.
In short, writing well can help us figure out who we are, what we care about, and who want to serve, while providing therapeutic benefits to improve our day to day experience as well as the practical benefits that empower us to have more unique, profitable, and successful careers.
When Covid started, I heard from a lot of classical musicians who were freaking out because all of a sudden, concerts were cancelled and they didn’t know who they were if they didn’t have a concert to play. They had full on existential crises: they didn’t know how to practice anymore without a concert to practice for. Many became depressed and very frightened.
After the tough couple of years we’ve had, it makes sense that everyone is scared. It makes sense that we’re wondering what being a classical musician in the world even means anymore. And while concerts look like they’re coming back, I think a lot of folks are reevaluating their lives and looking into a future that feels even more competitive and uncertain.
We might be asking ourselves:
- Who am I if I’m not playing my instrument?
- Who am I if I don’t have a concert/audition/competition to prepare for?
- Why practice?
- What am I even practicing for?
I can relate. This is a scary place to be, when your livelihood is yanked out from under you and even more so, your very identity is challenged.
If you’re like me, being trained in classical music can feel like a highly pressurized portal to a very specific kind of career. If you’re lucky, you might have a career that combines some ratio of being a soloist/chamber musician, playing in an orchestra, and/or teaching students. And although a lot’s changed over the past twenty years or so, I think a lot of classical musicians feel stuck because of this narrow focus. You might still believe that the most important thing is to nail your excerpts, practice your scales and repertoire, and be flawless so that you can impress judges and teachers and presenters enough to *want* you. And now, there’s also the issue of gaining followers and showing that you can draw an audience, that you can get butts in seats.
But the thing is, I don’t think playing flawlessly really matters that much anymore. And, in fact, I would argue that it maybe never *really* mattered except, to the handful of gatekeepers that are hoarding the keys. We’re all working so hard to erase ourselves, to polish ourselves to a glossy sheen of ubiquitous anonymity. We’re all trying to be so uniformly perfect that we’re simultaneously pleasing and invisible.
And as much as the internet has changed our ability to connect with our audiences directly and therefore bypass the gatekeepers, in truth, the paths are still really narrow and limited.
And you’ll have very little control over the outcome. Whether you win or lose a job is never up to you; it’s always in someone else’s hands.
Classical musicians are traditionally trained to keep our identities separate from who we are on stage.
We’re all practicing our butts off to get into this school or conservatory, win that audition, get a manager, impress the presenter.
We’re all working ourselves to our wits end, hoping that someone will choose us.
But…What if you choose yourself? What if you tell your *own* story?
What story? You might wonder. I don’t have a story, you might say.
But believe me, you have a story. Everyone has a story. And your story can make a difference.
Writing can help you tell your own story.
I want to help folks, especially classical musicians and anyone who feels trapped or scared, to find their voice.
Why is storytelling important?
Stories are powerful tools that increase our ability to persuade, influence, educate, and inspire. Telling better stories will make you a better:
Stories are effective because they connect our minds and our hearts. Professor Paul Zak, a pioneer in the burgeoning field of neuroeconomics, has found evidence that stories increase empathy, create connection and move us to take action.
And after conducting forty years of research on the connections between writing and our emotions, Professor James Pennebaker has discovered that people who have a regular practice of writing about their emotional experiences report a considerable improvement in their physical and emotional well-being. They’re less depressed and anxious and report feeling happier overall.
In other words, writing about our emotional life can help us feel better, more empowered, and live better lives.
You may think that stories are for writers. But while not everyone is interested in writing the next bestselling novel or award winning news column, everyone can benefit from learning how to tell better stories.
So what makes a story effective?
Good stories relate information. They tell us what we need to know and might even get us to change how we think.
Not bad, you might think.
But great stories? Great stories make us feel. Great stories are authentic, shift our emotions, and inspire us to take action.
Like, it’s one thing to tell an audience that Beethoven composed his Op. 132 quartet in 1825, after a period of long illness, and that he wrote the slow movement of that piece, entitled “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der Lydischen Tonart” or “Holy Song of Thanksgiving by a Convalescent to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode” because his health improved and he was grateful.
It’s quite another to reflect upon this piece, almost like a writing prompt, and share with an audience:
- What elements of the piece do you love and why?
- What does gratitude mean to you?
- What does it mean to be given a second chance when you thought all was lost?
- What does choosing hope over despair mean to you?
An audience will gain much more from knowing why *you* feel connected to this piece by Beethoven than a list of historical facts and opinions.
Great stories are the connective tissue that can bridge the gap between you and your audience, whether they are in a concert hall, boardroom, school, or online.
They are an essential ingredient to understanding yourself, finding your community, and marketing the particular traits and skills that are unique to you. Telling your own great story will help you find your community. Your great story can connect you to the people you can serve, and in turn, you will earn their trust and loyalty by helping them with the particular set of skills that only *you* possess.
This is how storytelling can help you find your place in an increasingly noisy world, not by speaking louder but by telling your own story, effectively and with impact. Behind every successful brand, project, or platform is a well told story. And the reason why stories are important is that they build empathy. In a world overrun by noise, attention isn’t what will inspire people to take interest in you; empathy is.
Like, it’s one thing for me to tell you my teaching philosophy, listing my accomplishments and approach in an abstract way. It’s quite another to tell you the story of the time a teacher said to me, “wow, I’m glad I’m not you because you have so many things you have to fix in your playing,” and how this made me feel hopeless, like a lost cause, and how, because of this experience, in my own teaching, I try to critique the issue and not the person, since just because we have an issue with our violin playing that we haven’t yet solved, doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with who we are as people. Who we are is separate and inherently worthy, regardless of how successful we may or may not be at any given moment.
Empathy is built on openness, the vulnerability that allows us to share our experiences and welcome people into our lives.
So, how do we tell better stories?
The truth is, telling our own stories is hard. Often, the story we know best is the story we are the most scared to tell.
So what are we afraid of?
We’re afraid that:
- No one will care about our story.
- People will hear our story and say, “so what?”
- People will dislike what we have to say.
So, instead of risking this rejection, we hide and protect ourselves by saying and doing the same things that everyone is doing. And while this might keep us safe, it also keeps us invisible.
When I was in my MFA program, I discovered the creative play and permission to experiment that I often found lacking in my classical music training. But I also found that there was very little structure to the “how” of writing: I was left to my own devices to figure out how to get started, how to maintain a regular practice, and how to know when I was finished. But I’ve found that the skills I have as a musician are completely transferable to the skills needed to become an effective writer: critical thinking, problem solving, and a commitment to practice.
Like music, writing has “etudes and technique” – Clearly defined, step by step exercises and prompts to help you develop your storytelling skills and individual voice.
Writing also can have “deliberate practice” – like, timed exercises to keep you writing for a finite amount of time, with intention and urgency.
Writing can even have “studio class” – safe, low-stakes environments in in which to experiment and have fun, including sharing your writing and receiving constructive feedback, if you so choose.
If you’d like to see what it feels like to try a simple writing exercise, here’s a quick and easy way to begin.
Or, send me an email and I can make some suggestions of other things to try.
One more thing…
Whether you’re just getting started with your writing or have been writing for a while now and need some support, if you’d like to experience writing with me, I’m teaching a 6-week class for Cleaver Magazine that begins in a couple days (registration ends this Saturday, Oct 2!). To sign up, check out “The Writing Lab: Playful Experiments to Unstuck Your Writing.”