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Managing stress and trauma as a professional musician

Managing stress and trauma as a professional musician

I have been working with a principal player in one of the big national British orchestras recently. This is a person who has been at the top of his profession for around thirty years and yet admits that his life as a musician is about surviving and coping, virtually nothing about loving the music or loving performing.

As we talked, he told me that he had made a connection for himself between the stress he experienced daily as an orchestral musician and both shell shock and combat fatigue that soldiers experience in war. It was shocking to hear.

From working with professional orchestral players and from being a professional player myself, I can see this only too clearly. I’m sensing that there is a low-level chronic fight-flight-freeze response for huge numbers of professional musicians. It goes on all the time, hidden in plain sight and it is rare to see the trauma in the players. They look free, they play well, they manage, they cope, and most are unaware of the level of stress - and distress - they are carrying.

Peter Levine has written some seminal books on this topic and is well worth exploring. This is a clip of some simple exercises to help self-soothe, adding to the principle of shaking which I wrote about last time.

Rediscovering a love for music

One way to manage the low-lying trauma that can accompany a professional musical life, is to re-establish the love of music and the instrument that most musicians have when they start learning. When you put the focus on what you love about music and the instrument, and practice in a way that’s more fun than duty, the distress and stress starts to shift. After just one hour of ‘recreational’ practice, the player I mentioned told me that he had loved it and time flew. After all what musicians long for is to thrive, to love the music, the instrument and the whole performing experience, and that’s all possible with a little bit of care, attention and awareness.


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