assorted paintings on white painted wall

Stand up for mental wellbeing

Our musicians, artists, actors, dancers and other performers put themselves in the frontline every single day, endlessly practising, rehearsing, fine-tuning and showcasing their talents to audiences who praise – but also critique. The stresses and strains of choosing a creative career, or of being a student or a young learner within the arts and culture community, can and does lead to anxiety, addictions, anger management problems and other mental wellbeing issues. With your help I want to launch a global wellness campaign, to coincide with World Mental Health Day on 10 October, to raise awareness of these problems, to protect our performers and to help those who are already experiencing difficulties. Please take just a few minutes to look through my thoughts and to share your ideas to help shape this initiative going forwards.

What’s the issue?

Earlier this year, the Incorporated Society of Musicians asked ‘What do musicians want from the new Parliament?’ Referencing research by Help Musicians UK, the ISM called for the Government to support institutions ‘working to tackle the stigma around discussing mental health’ with more than six in ten professionals suffering emotional problems at some stage in their working lives and 75% experiencing performance-related stress.

The Guardian followed up on these findings in an article – ‘Insomnia, anxiety, break-ups…musicians on the dark side of touring’ – which focused on players supporting mainstream boy bands and punk groups. But the problem is far more widespread than this. It impacts on musicians, and indeed artists, of all levels, lifestyles and ages. From the young children, teenagers and students under stress to continually practice, perform and “create” to professional players, artists, writers, dancers and actors who, more often than not, eke out precarious livelihoods in pressurised working environments.

Why am I determined to raise awareness of this issue?

I am not a doctor, a psychologist, or a therapist. I am a musician who has, over the years, experienced my own fair share of emotional wellbeing issues. As a music student at King’s College London, via many circuitous paths including solo violinist, leader, teacher, university lecturer and artistic director for many and varied youth ensembles and professional orchestras, I have increasingly seen players and performers, colleagues and students alike experiencing stress, anxiety, anger issues, addictions and depression.

Why are performers so affected by mental health issues?

Music, art and literature are healing and therapeutic tools for many vulnerable and marginalised people – and a proven benefit for those with various conditions ranging from autism to dementia. Listening, viewing, watching or directly engaging with diverse art forms allows many of us to express emotions and rekindle old memories – good and bad. A great piece of music, an evocative sculpture, an inspirational poem or a dramatic stage-play can create tears of sadness or joy, it can make us feel angry or excited or passionate. It can be a fantastic and helpful cathartic experience.

But musicians and artists, creators and performers, live inside this emotionally immersive experience day in, day out. We have to consistently reach inside ourselves, drawing not only on our talents and skills, but on our most primeval emotions. Time and again. Often just a single step away from burn-out under the constant spotlight of acclamation or criticism. Add to this the pressures of thousands of hours of practice, hot-house training methods from a young age, the high degrees of sensitivity required by any artistic calling, the poor levels of financial compensation and job security for most, and the public perception that artists love what they do so why on earth would they, of all people, experience emotional problems?

Music, specifically, touches the emotions where words alone cannot. Nothing connects someone to the moment like music. This is good if it is channelled and used in a focused and therapeutic way but potentially dangerous within an industry which involves constant exposure to emotions and feelings and increasingly raw nerves. Music can change lives, it can change our moods instantly or heal our battered souls slowly. But if you are a professional, always having to be at your peak, always having to perform to an audience or a judge or a teacher, or simply to your peers, it can be too intensively damaging. We cannot always escape. And no-one teaches us how to turn the switch to ‘off’.

Why now?

I have seen friends and colleagues, players and pupils increasingly experiencing a wide range of mental health and emotional issues. I welcome the research by organisations like Help Musicians UK and calls to action by the ISM. I am delighted to support initiatives like today’s World Mental Health Day, an annual awareness-raising event focused on overcoming the stigmas and stereotypes which are particularly relevant to those of us in the arts community. And I am encouraged by actors, musicians and artists who are becoming more open about their own wellbeing issues which are often a result of the constant pressure of performing under the bright lights, the constant pressure of producing perfection. Every day. Without fail.

But (and, as so often, it’s a really big and important “but”) the Hollywood actors, the global pop stars, the British classical musicians, and so many others who speak out about their own mental health problems, polarise opinions. While many applaud their courage and support these issues being openly aired, others are dismissive and disparaging. And then there are the fence-sitters who encourage openness but criticise these high-profile speakers as representatives of the privileged few who can afford to access treatment and ongoing support.

Mainstream media coverage is not universally non-judgemental, by any means, but it is social media reaction in particular which is so often extraordinarily insensitive and highly damaging. This fuels the flames of those who choose to stigmatise, further isolates those who are suffering, and stops others from raising awareness of vital problems.

We live in a time when we have the technical tools and expertise to raise awareness of key issues in such a great and positive way; to openly debate and discuss and support people and causes on a global scale; and to share not only problems but potential solutions. But it seems that as our social media traffic increases, our social consciences plummet. Let’s all just stop for a moment. Just imagine for this single moment in time what an impact we could make, what a significant difference we could make, if we choose compassion not condemnation.

What can we – and more importantly you – do?

We already use this same technology to benefit from online therapy, we download apps to practice mindfulness and e-books of therapeutic resources. And we make full use of every digital device we own to ensure we have 24/7 access to art galleries across the world, to dance and drama productions, and to all kinds of fabulous music.

So, we can join forces to support the ISM in calling for governmental support, we can volunteer for mental health charities, and we can buy into the invaluable initiatives led by organisations like Help Musicians UK. We should all endorse their work.

But for us, here and now, let’s go big and let’s go global. We all understand the power and the reach and influence of social media. Maybe, just maybe, we can raise awareness of the mental health issues I’ve touched on by trying to turn social media into a force for good! Controversial? Yes. Clichéd? Yep, maybe that too!

Have a look at the proposed campaign manifesto – and then it’s over to you. I want your input – your views and feedback, your ideas and suggestions. Constructive stuff will be especially welcome! And please spread the word, share this, talk about the issues, ensure everyone has their say and their input to help kick-start what I want to be a positive and beneficial global wellbeing campaign.

Campaign manifesto

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  • To help protect musicians, artists, writers, actors, dancers and other associated students, players and performers against work and environment-related mental health issues
  • To support those in the arts and culture community who are already vulnerable or directly suffering
  • To understand that while performing and creating can be stressful and mentally challenging experiences and environments, the arts must be seen and positioned as powerful healing tools for many in society, especially our young people, supporting them in reintegrating with friends, family, and communities and potentially benefitting their emotional wellbeing
  • To create and sustain an ongoing debate, discussion and support network via social media to raise awareness of these issues, to share experiences and to work to identify ways of helping and healing, and of preventing problems in the first place wherever possible
  • To work with established charities, with politicians and other opinion leaders, with advocacy groups and with the media, to raise awareness and to overcome stigmas, stereotypes and unhelpful public preconceptions attached to discussions and debates about mental health in general and the issues related to musicians and other artists in particular

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Robin conducts SÓN during their launch concert in front of a sell-out Turner Sims audience

How to launch an orchestra — a guide to creative entrepreneurship

I thought for ages about this. Pondering, scrawling mile upon mile of notes, pondering some more, scrawling some more. It took me ages. Then I began. And I’m only talking about this, my first Medium post. I haven’t even told you about the orchestra stuff yet.

In late 2015, along with some other established musicians, I decided to create SÓN, a new professional orchestra based in the UK. So far so good. Quite a simple beginning, but the floodgates opened fast and we were up and rolling, the tsunami of reality lapping at our heels. Launch concert booked, musicians to hunt-down, endless favours to call in, photographers and videographers persuaded, all the mate’s-rates begging wearing a little thin real quick…

Fast forward to mid-2017, and we’re approaching the end of our second season, eight incredible gigs later (over half have been a complete sell-out, too). We’re still rolling, still juggling, still robbing Peter to pay Paul (they’re not players, it’s an expression. Not sure it translates stateside). We’ve got some big plans, some huge, life-affirming plans, some that’ll-never-work-and-besides-it’ll-cost-a-bomb plans.

Of course, money is an issue, as are things like staff (and finding them), as well as being bold and exciting, but not wild and whacky. It’s tricky to settle on a niche artistic direction without breaking the bank, not to mention being isolated in the equivalent of that grimy annexe where nobody wants to go.

There’s lots to tell. Loads of it. I’ll unload some of the most pertinent nitty-gritty next time. Nearly all of it, I think, is relevant to musicians and performers, all of us cultural entrepreneurs. Thing is, for freelance musicians (conductors, composers, grime rappers, bagpipers, whatever) we are all entrepreneurs. You may not like such an appellation, nor agree with it — everybody wants to be an entrepreneur right now, after all, and it can certainly put people off embracing the whole thing — but it’s what we are.

We need to start thinking like creative entrepreneurs, whether we’re searching for a breakthrough as a soloist, creating a community opera, getting gigs for our quartet, or launching a new orchestra. It’s all the same.

It’s not what gets taught at conservatoire or university.
It’s what gets taught by life.

And it begins with beginning. Actually doing. No amount of planning, no amount of dreaming, is going to lift any artistic project you may have off the ground. If you want lift-off, it’s simple: Act. Act now. Stop faffing around, waiting for things to be perfect. They never will be. Stop waiting until your proverbial ducks are in a row. They’re all excuses. And none of them matter at all.

Whatever your plans, your project, and your dreams — begin now!


An edited version of this post first appeared on Medium