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Musicians and Trauma: finding emotional safety

Last night I watched a very inspiring documentary film called The Wisdom of Trauma with the focus on the pioneering work of Gabor Mate. The film showed prisoners, people living on the streets, addicts and showed how they all shared very similar stories, mostly unsafe, traumatised childhoods with nobody to turn to, so they had disconnected from themselves to survive. He also clarified that trauma affects each and every one of us. It can be the trauma of a child left to cry, or the trauma of a child who is given everything on a material front but is neglected emotionally. Gabor Mate highlights how it’s not about ‘fixing behaviours, making diagnoses, suppressing symptoms and judging’ more that it is discovering the source. He asks: can our deepest pain be a doorway to healing?

Critical teaching for musicians

What does this have to do with musicians? Most of the people I work with have had trauma of one sort or another. I regularly hear stories of bullying teachers, conductors and other people in positions of authority who have created havoc in the lives of sensitive, creative musicians. How this trauma shows itself differs according to the person, but there are common themes. Musicians struggle to perform freely and with enjoyment; they can get overly anxious, physically tense and feel emotionally unsafe on stage, even in the practice room.

My take on this is to support musicians in finding a way they can feel emotionally safe and physically free when they play or sing. The first step is usually talking, empathising and understanding but the next stage needs to relate to physical side of playing their instrument. Very often the things that support this integration are so simple: breathing deeply, feeling connected to the ground, letting go of the importance of ‘getting it right’ for a moment in order to allow physical freedom to have a say. And then as if by magic, a musician will invariably free up, not just physically but musically too. Their playing will find its natural expression without having practised any more.

Happy cellist


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