The Search For Perfection Can Take It’s Toll On A Musician

4 October, 2013 11:55AM AEST

The pressure to be perfect for life as an orchestral musician

A Wollongong music teacher says a study that found life as an orchestral musician can breed anxiety, depression and pain is not surprising. 

Life as an orchestral musician sounds glamorous – international travel, performing in beautiful venues and playing emotional and rousing music for an appreciative audience.

But it’s the discipline, restrictions and prospects for life after music that are wearing our musicians down with mental health issues.

Composer John Spence and Wollongong Conservatorium of Music CEO Andrew Snell say the life of an orchestral musician is challenging. (Justin Huntsdale - ABC)

Composer John Spence and Wollongong Conservatorium of Music CEO Andrew Snell say the life of an orchestral musician is challenging. (Justin Huntsdale – ABC)

“To be a professional musician, it requires so much dedication and years of work, but what do you do if you don’t like it? You have no other skills,” Wollongong Conservatorium of Music CEO Andrew Snell says.

“It’s difficult to get locked into a job and have no way out – your skills diminish as you get older and it’s easy to see why the use of alcohol in orchestral musicians is higher than the general public.

“It becomes a spiral of no alternative and that’s where the depression comes from.”

A University of Sydney study surveyed 377 professional orchestral musicians, and found half suffered moderate to severe performance anxiety, and a third had symptoms of depression.

Andrew Snell says performance anxiety is something that can deliver a necessary hit of adrenaline to allow a better performance, but it becomes problematic when it affects a performer’s life outside of work.

The difference between making it as a solo artist and an orchestra member adds to the pressure of the career.

“If you’re a singer songwriter and you suck, you suck, but if you go on stage as an orchestral musician and you suck, you’ve got the potential to wreck a performance for 110 other people, and that’s a lot more pressure,” Andrew says.

As a composed, Wollongong’s John Spence finds himself on the other side of the orchestra pit these days.

He says part of being a successful musician is learning how to cope with not being perfect.

“There’s an ideal and most of us realise we can’t reach that ideal, but we aim for it, and it becomes about how you deal with the fact that you know your performance could’ve been better,” he says.

“That can play within people’s minds, and some people probably need support with that and nurturing.

“The young students we see here [at the Conservatorium] have a lot of those issues.”

Andrew Snell says there are plenty of techniques for coping with performance anxiety, such as getting to a concert early and doing a structured warm-up, as well as regular practice performing for an audience.

But the deeper issue of depression is something he says manifests when a musician goes from studying music to joining a professional orchestra.

“As you go through your training as a musician, you spend five years being taught to make musical decisions about how you play things and to be a soloist.

“You go into an orchestra and it’s the opposite environment – you’re not allowed to make musical decisions and you have to play the way the conductor wants you to play.

“You have no musical voice at all.”

He says a musical education instils positive discipline and hard work leading to success, but it also breeds perfectionism because music needs to be played correctly to sound right.

If you struggle with mental health issues like anxiety or depression, you can find information and help at Sane Australia.

About brendanball

Professional Trumpeter: Soloist, Orchestra Player, Chamber Music, Contemporary Music & Education.
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