Prioritizing Our Health in the Performing Arts
Since October has come and gone so quickly, I wanted to take this last week of Dysautonomia Awareness Month to really talk about performers' health, and why it is so important that we take care of ourselves. Oftentimes, we as performers push ourselves to our limits. We don’t stop performing or practicing when we experience a little pain. We push through because we’ve been told that success doesn’t come easy; success is achieved through sacrifice and hard work. If you want to succeed and win a job, you have to be willing to put all you have into your craft.
But at what point is the pain bad enough to stop?
When I say pain, I’m referring to mental, physical, and/ or emotional distress; the whole 9 yards. Have you ever felt physical pain in your lips, fingers, vocal chords, or hands but felt like you absolutely needed to keep practicing for the fear of not getting better? Have you ever had a day where everything was going wrong and you were on the verge of a melt down, but you still went into the practice room knowing you were not in the best mental state to get things done?
I think we’ve all experienced some type of pain. I have had days where I felt that mentally I was not in a productive state of mind, or I was upset or bothered by something else that was physically taking energy from me. I’ve had days when my hands ache, or my face hurt from practicing too much. I’ve experienced plenty of pain as a musician.
So why is it that we feel forced to just fight through all the time? Where do we draw the line?
In general, there is a stigma around mental health. Let’s start there. People are afraid to seem crazy, or to wear what they feel. When someone is depressed or having a hard time coping with a traumatic event, it's not uncommon to be told that, “it’s all in your head or “maybe you should try yoga”. With a lack of support, we feel the pressure to just keep pushing our thoughts and feelings down. We feel the pressure to put a smile on our faces, keep practicing, and go through life, even when we are deeply struggling. The performing arts is a pressured society. We are expected to be perfect. Our craft is expected to be perfect and people are highly critical of what we do and how we perform. Don’t mess up. Don’t fall on stage. Don’t get sick. Don’t crack a note. We are expected to be perfect. This expectation is outrageous and 100% causes musicians to have a lack of self confidence, become self-deprecating, and maybe even start to hate what they do, or hate themselves for not living up to the expectations; for being a disappointment.
So what should we do about this? The thing is, in general we need to all be more aware of each other's thoughts and feelings. Your feelings are never right or wrong, they just are. You never know what’s really going on in a person's life so it is important to be kind and compassionate. We need to become more accepting, and willing to help others. We need to be able to offer resources to our friends if they need them. We need to look out for each other in the music community. Extend a helping hand to those who need it and don’t judge someone for how and why they feel a certain way. If someone is obviously struggling with beating themselves up over their craft, please go out of your way to lend a helping hand and listen to their frustrations.
We as a community need to seek every opportunity to bring about these changes; to get rid of these ridiculous expectations of perfection and success. Everyone's journey is different, and there is no start or end date on success. Yes, there is competition amongst members of our community. Some people play better than others. However, we need to take a second and decide what’s more important. How important is it to spend time worrying about being better than each other? Would our time be better spent supporting each other and our endeavours?
Just remember that we are all in the midst of the learning process. We never stop growing and learning and it’s important to realize that perfection simply does not exist. I changed my perspective, and I firmly believe that as long as I see continuous growth, then I’m on the right path. It’s not about perfection, but about growth. It’s about seeing progress, no matter how small. It’s about doing what you love. When we have too many expectations, it’s hard to find the same joy and satisfaction because you spend too much time making constant comparisons and worrying about success. Success comes with hard work. Success doesn’t come with self-deprecation or comparison. It doesn’t come with the pressure to perform a certain way. It comes just from a want and a drive, and the belief that you will get to where you want to go. When I see videos of people playing online with tremendous technique, there are times that I get frustrated and wonder why I can’t play like that. Sometimes it comes down to the sheer fact that they are 10+ years older than me, and have 17 more years of playing experience than I do. I absolutely cannot compare myself to them. Obviously there’s a reason why they can do things that I can’t yet, and that’s because my 9 years of experience is not comparable to their 26 years! They have had more time to learn and grow than I, and I still have plenty of time to get to where I need to be.
So mental health? We need to be more aware of the way we treat ourselves. Let’s be more aware of the expectations we have, and force upon ourselves. People have asked me about goals. Goals? Am I better than I was a month ago? Yes I am, goal achieved! Do I feel good about my practice sessions? Am I kind to myself? Am I patient with my growth? Yes, yes, and sometimes! There are things I need to work on in terms of being fair to myself and maintaining my best frame of mind. But let me tell you, there have been times where I’ve laid into myself in the practice room and used unkind words towards myself. I’ve cried. I’ve been upset about both music, and non music related things. Let’s talk about this. Is it the best idea to practice when you’re extremely frustrated, when you begin to take these frustrations out on yourself? Is it the best idea to practice when you’re having a bad day, failed a test, found out a family member died, etc.? No! THIS IS CALLED A MENTAL HEALTH DAY. We all have bad days, or days when we feel stressed, something bad has happened, or where we just can’t find the want or drive to get in the practice room. Take the day off. Days off ARE NOT bad for you. They are good for tomorrow’s productivity. They are good for your body, mind and soul! Take a mental health day. Do things that might make you feel better; take a walk, eat your favorite food, watch your favorite show, or call a good friend. Do what you can and need to do that day, so that tomorrow can be a better one. Take. The. Day. Off.
What about our physical health? This can include chronic illnesses, playing injuries, sick days and anything in between. Whether the way you feel fluctuates from day to day, or you suddenly start to get a sharp pain in your lip, or a scratchy throat, it’s important to assess if you are in good physical condition to practice. Especially with COVID-19 back on the rise, it's important to air on the side of caution. If you feel unwell, you need to take a day off. If you are congested, and it hurts to play, don’t play. Also, spitting germs into your instrument is just gross. Regardless of whether it’s chronic, or a passing sinus infection, please do yourself a favor and just take a few days to rest and feel better. Don’t waste your time trying to get work done in a practice room because I guarantee that it’ll be unproductive.
In terms of playing injuries, these are highly preventable if you practice smart! See all my blog posts regarding practice structure. These will really help you avoid injury. However, things do happen. Whether it be a lip injury or another type of physical injury, you need to make sure you seek help from both your studio teacher and a medical physician. Your studio teacher can help you make adjustments so you don’t continue to injure yourself, or they can advise you on other methods of non-physical practice. You may also need a diagnosis and possibly some type of physical therapy depending on the injury. This needs to be advised, and a treatment plan needs to be implemented by a physician. Do NOT self diagnose. Do NOT try to treat yourself. You might not like what they have to say, especially if they tell you to take time off, BUT you need to do it. If you don’t properly treat the injury now, not only is it more likely that it will reoccur, but it can also possibly have long term effects that can alter your performance. Again, time off does not always hurt you, it can help you.
We need to get out of the mindset of, “I need to practice for 6+ hours every day or I’m a failure. I’ll never be successful. I just need to push through. I need to be perfect.” It’s time to change the tune. It’s time for us to redirect thinking and structure and importance of health in the performance world. It all starts with awareness, kindness, and compassion. Never feel like you can’t speak up about a psychological or physical struggle you may be experiencing. Your teachers care. Your friends care. I care. Make sure you get the help you need when you need it. Don’t wait. Take care of yourself!
Questions, comments, or need advice? Contact me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on instagram @mindoverpractice. Take time for yourself and have a positive week of productive practicing!