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A Gap in College Music Education - Health and Wellness

Over the past two weeks I surveyed various instrumental Facebook groups asking this prompt;

In your experience, what do you feel (if anything) is lacking in the current college music education system in terms of musician health and wellness?

For clarity, music education system includes both performance and education degress.

I received a WIDE variety of responses including thoughts about updating curricula, adding business courses, toxic culture, injury prevention courses, and mental and physical well-being, all of which, are valid! For the purposes of this blog, I am going to focus on breaking down the different responses simulate a macro view of the concepts our community feel is lacking.

To start, I wrote down every response (211) and organized them into different categories: mental health, physical health, and other health-related topics.

Mental Health

Mental health is a topic that’s gained more awareness since the rise of COVID. For clarity, the definition I am using for mental health in this article is a person’s emotional, psychological, and social well-being.

A few mental health topics that were mentioned include

  • Burnout

  • Performance anxiety

  • Impostor syndrome

  • Comparing yourself to others

  • How to come to terms with long-term growth

  • Mindfulness

  • Creating boundaries between your professional and social life

Other topics include

  • The importance of developing a hobby outside of music

  • How to manage living in a toxic environment

  • The importance of daily creativity for music

  • Having a social and emotional support structure

  • How to manage daily and chronic stress

There were a few topics that stood out to me based on my experience, specifically around the topic of burnout. I was pleasantly surprised to see people sharing personal and intimate stories about their experiences and encouraging others who might be going through a similar experience. Some described their burnout happened from living through a toxic musical culture of fear and judgement, while others talked about the extreme and unrealistic demands of pursuing a music education or performance degree. The long hours, excessive credit load (sometimes 20+ credits per semester), daily practice expectations, rehearsals, performances, masterclasses, and lessons all contribute to a schedule that can seem impossible to balance. This type of transition for many high schools can be overwhelming and quickly lead to mental and physical chronic fatigue and exhaustion. Some students brought their concerns to their teachers and were faced with criticism and “tough-it-out” like conversations, while others were provided a safe space for listening and discussion.

There were also conversations around other mental challenges including impostor syndrome, comparing yourself to others, general fulfillment, and performance anxiety. Some people mentioned they were proactive and had proper support structures in these areas (such as a resident counselor, therapy, coaching, or mentoring), while others had to get creative and seek help outside their music institution due to lack of resources.

Physical Health

For this article I will define physical health as the state of being free from illness or injury.

This was the biggest topic of conversation when I asked each of the groups the original question. Over the course of 2 weeks, six different topics were consistently brought up.

  • Overuse Injuries

  • Anatomy for musicians

  • Posture and alignment

  • Breathing mechanics

  • Benefits and importance of various movement modalities

  • How to take care of the body

Given that these topics can encompass an encyclopedia of concepts, I will provide clarity on each area..

Overuse Injuries

  • Throughout each of the groups, there was a clear indication of a lack of education surrounding musician overuse injuries. Specifically, risk factors that contribute to an injury, signs and symptoms, when to seek a medical professional, preventative strategies, and most common injuries musicians will experience. Some schools have medical professionals available to the students, while others have as little as a web page encouraging students to see a doctor (valid - but not necessarily specific enough to help guide a student through what could be an emotional and physically challenging moment).

Anatomy for musicians

  • There was a common thread that musicians NEED to have a basic level of anatomy. Perspectives were made around the importance of anatomy for injury prevention, instrumental technique, and pedagogical implications.

Posture and alignment

  • According to the community, posture and alignment is important for musicians and was missing during their education. Many members expressed their concern that they lack the knowledge to properly set-up and balance their instrument in a chair as well as teach basic posture/alignment concepts to their students.

Breathing mechanics

  • This topic wasn’t discussed as nearly as I thought it would be, but when it was brought up many members expressed their concern about the lack of conflicting information from different pedagogical circles. For example, there were a few arguments for belly breathing, chest breathing, not thinking about breathing (at all), and diaphragmatic breathing. In my opinion, all are different breathing strategies and yet when you dive into anatomy, biomechanics, and body functions, one will quickly discover a disconnect from movement science to music pedagogy.

Various movement modalities

  • In every group I posted in there was an unanimous response to different movement modalities being required during music education degrees. This includes yoga, Alexander Technique, and body mapping, to name a few. But the question I kept asking is why? Why have mandatory AT lessons? Mandatory yoga sessions? Etc. In my opinion, every movement modality is ultimately trying to achieve the same thing - efficiency of your movement and breath. This involves helping the musician develop a deeper level of body awareness, or being able to:

Organize and align your body in a way that is optimal to manage gravity

Recognize when organization/alignment is compromised

Being able to release tension in the moment.

  • Each modally will have its strengths and weaknesses and although one is better than none, I do not advocate for ONE modality to be included in a music program curricula. I believe movement is only one part of the physical health and if we put ALL movement under the umbrella of Body Mapping or Alexander Technique as a society, we will miss the bigger picture. With that said, I believe giving students a holistic health and wellness education and setting up an environment where they have access to a wide range of modalities, courses, and resources will reap the most benefits. We need to encourage students and give them the opportunity to experiment with different concepts to help them find a movement modality that resonates with them. After all, if a student isn't motivated to do a particular movement modality everyday, I don't necessarily believe it is because they are lazy or don't understand the benefits - it just might not be the right practice for them, and that is okay.

How to take care of the body

  • Many conversations mentioned the lack of information on how to take care of the body as a musician including topics ranging from weekly exercise, daily movement, sleep, hydration, ear care, and a basic knowledge of diet/nutrition. As someone who has been in tertiary education since 2009 (that is 12 years - YIKES!), I have had only one opportunity to take a course that falls under this category - and I had to get it approved by the administration because it was outside of the curriculum.

Final thoughts on physical health and wellness.

  • It can be easy to look through the lens as an observer at the different categories and create different solutions. However, if you take a step back and look at the macro view all of these concepts you may realize - they tie together! That is the danger, yet responsibility that comes with talking about these concepts. You cannot talk about the breath without talking about alignment/posture. You cannot talk about daily energy without talking about sleep, hydration, and nutrition. You cannot talk about overuse injuries without talking about anatomy and applying it to daily movement patterns. Long story short - in my opinion, everything is connected!

Other health-related topics

All topics that don't fall under the umbrella of mental and physical health fall under this category. I did not include a topic that was only mentioned once. There could be an argument for some of these to fall into the above categories, but remember, we are all human!

  • How to choose a practice space (mold, sound quality, etc.)

  • How to take deliberate practice breaks

  • How to set boundaries

    • Saying no to a gig or performance opportunity

    • Creating boundaries between professional and social life

    • Creating boundaries with your colleagues

    • How to communicate in a section/chamber group

  • The science behind how humans learn and develop

  • How to practice mindfully (highly recommend checking out The Bulletproof Musician)

  • Time management

  • Basic instrument maintenance and care

A few thoughts: if you are unfamiliar with The Bulletproof Musician, I highly recommend checking out his blog. It is an excellent resource that goes over many of these concepts.

Final thoughts

I hope this article was able to shine a light on different holes that current and past musicians have experienced through their education.

Keep in mind, music education and performance is rooted in 100+ years of tradition, but that doesn’t mean society can’t evolve to fit the needs of those pursuing this field of study. There are a few schools that are taking ownership of their health education offerings and providing students with resources and education to help them through their musical journey, however as a universal music community, we have a long way to go.

I usually like to provide a solution in every blog article I write, but this one hits me hard. If I'm being honest, I almost didn't post - the impostor syndrome hit me. How can I, a single person, make small, but lasting change when there seems to be huge barriers affect the health of our music community? How can I begin to shift the mindset of a society that has been rooted in overworking, grinding, and sacrificing their health to reach "success?" I'm not sure I have an answer, but I will continue to search within and find ways to give back to this community. After all, we are all in this together.

Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional or mental health professional. All of the information on this website and blog is for educational purposes only.


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