It's Hard Out there for Musicians: What Can You Do to Take Care of Yourself?
This First Take column originally appeared in the January/February 2022 issue of Canadian Musician magazine
By Catherine Harrison, Board Chair, Over the Bridge (www.overthebridge.org)
Imagine there’s no music. It’s pretty hard to do. Music is everywhere, providing background and context to our lives, our entertainment, our celebrations, our miseries. As humans, it connects us. It’s critical that as the people who make the music, we take care of our health, mentally and physically, so we can continue contributing to one of our species’ most valuable life forces.
As far as mental health goes, there are (at least) two things at play:
First, COVID-19 has brought stress to even the steadiest among us. It’s rocking our “normal” status quo and cracking apart our certainty, autonomy, social connectedness, and possibly even our “identity,” which includes the things that make us feel comfortable and safe. The music industry has been one of the hardest hit sectors. There were no venues, no gigs, no income, no side hustles. And often, no understanding from the mainstream population.
Musicians may be experiencing some sense of shame, guilt, responsibility, worry, possibly helplessness, as we wait for “normal” to return. Even as gigs and tours are booked, venues open up, and audiences gleefully gobble up tickets for live music again, dealing with the rollercoaster of on-again-off-again gigs, along with residual “other life stuff,” is tough to manage. And, although there are more examples of influencers sharing their own challenges in the media these days, there is still tremendous stigma associated with mental health and substance use, and this makes reaching out and asking for help feel like an insurmountable task.
Second, musicians might be particularly susceptible to the challenges of maintaining mental wellness. The simple act of expressing oneself through writing and performing comes with inherent risk of acceptance or rejection. Additionally, I’m sure many Canadian Musician readers can relate to the upside-down work environment they inhabit. A musician’s time often vacillates from solo time to party time, and both ends of that spectrum can exacerbate depression and anxiety. Being a performer doesn’t necessarily mean you’re an extrovert. Often, the associated activities required of a performer (interviews, promo activities, touring life, etc.) can be stressful for introverts. It’s also an incredible high to perform for others and share in the communion of musical experience. Coming down off that high, on a regular basis, can make it challenging to find balance and recover quickly enough to do it all over again. Sometimes, when not performing, you chase that elusive high through other less healthy means.
Also, at work venues and after events, many musicians find that substance use is encouraged and even expected. In terms of schedule, the world runs from nine to five, but not you, which makes it tough to get good quality sleep, regular physical activity, and healthy eating. Crucially, paycheques are often/mostly erratic, offering little stability and no benefits. Ever heard the “wanna work for exposure/free pizza and beer?” compensation package? Stressful to be both underappreciated and behind the eight ball financially. And while at home, there is often the feeling of being misunderstood and underappreciated by family, friends, and community.
Is any of this resonating with you? If so, what can you do to take care of yourself?
First, get aware of your own mental fitness. You might consider journaling, talking to others, reading, learning a mindfulness practice. Find actions that support your mental fitness and commit to practicing them on a regular basis. Learn to manage distractions and negative self-talk chatter. Be present. Cultivate empathy. Practice gratitude and compassion – for yourself and others. Learn equanimity (which means, as Paul said, “Let it be”.)
If you don’t know how to do these things, that’s okay. Now is the time to begin to learn. And just because you learn these skills, and practice these skills, doesn’t mean you won’t feel the negative stress and pressures anymore, or you won’t have bad days. It just means you can weather the storm(s) in a more healthful and balanced way, and support others to do the same.
One upside of this “virtual” world is that there are tremendous opportunities to share and receive information, knowledge, and expertise. If you don’t know where to start, reaching out to a peer support organization like Over the Bridge can be a great first step. Founder and program director, Ace Piva, says, “Peer support is important because it gives you a non-judgmental and supportive safe space to talk about what’s going on. You don’t have to change your language for people to understand where you’re coming from. You are welcomed into a group where everyone gets it. Musicians often burn the candle at both ends. We are there for each other.”
Creating music is a valuable and incredibly cathartic release for emotional pain and suffering, and for processing the full human experience, with all its trials and tribulations. Get it out on the page, through your instrument(s), alone or with your band. Transform the energy into something meaningful and transcendent. And connect to others so you can learn to improve your mental fitness now and in the long run.
Over the Bridge is a Canadian non-profit dedicated to mental health and recovery in the music community. To donate, go to www.overthebridge.org/make-a-donation.