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Musings about mental health issues and its relationship to performance anxiety

Depressed man slumped in corridor

I have been thinking a lot since I last wrote about how the topic of mental health is becoming more and more prominent in the press, in the media and in our general consciousness. Just last week there were two programmes on BBC Radio 4 about mental health, one of which explored the prevalence of mental health issues among students. I talked to a friend of mine recently who is a professor in art, and she said that mental health among students had reached an alarming level. She said that when she could, she would invite a student into her office, just so they could talk to her, and she would see that student visibly relax in front of her.

Changing modes of communication Why is this seemingly so much worse right now? I think it has an enormous amount to do with our changing modes of communication. This is how I see it: the ideal way of communicating with another human being is to be in front of that person, so we can see them, sense them and gauge their body language. This is a three-dimensional way of communicating. Talking on the phone would be a two-dimensional way of communicating, hearing that person’s tone of voice, sensing how they are and how you are both relating – the next best thing to meeting in person. (Skype, on this scale, is perhaps two and a half!) And then there’s one-dimensional communicating, which is everything else: emails, texts, messaging, social media. Handwritten letters don’t happen much anymore, but I would put them higher up than emails and texts, because they generally take longer to write, and the actual handwriting can give you a real sense of the person who’s writing.

Young woman looking at her mobile phone

It appears that the one-dimensional communicating is prized above all else. My 21-year old nephew told me that it is considered ‘abrupt’ among his generation to phone someone out of the blue (texting to see if it is a good time to call is now much more normal) and a number of my friends have said that they haven’t spoken socially on the phone for a couple of years. I am certainly aware of the etiquette that has come in over the last few years: texting is a good way of sending information to busy people so they can answer when they have time. That’s fine until you spend thirty minutes texting someone to communicate what you could sort out in five minutes if you talked to them! And then there are the texts, messages, emails that never get answered mostly because people are overwhelmed with the volume they have to deal with on a daily basis and are simply too busy. So, at a time when we have more modes of communication than any other time in history, we are in danger of becoming increasingly isolated and having less and less real connection with people. A book that I read recently, that I found illuminating on this whole topic and would highly recommend, is Lost Connections by Johann Hari.

Presenting ourselves as ‘perfect’ Something that has come about from the phenomena of social media in particular is the way that we present ourselves on the internet. How many times have we seen bright, happy photos on Facebook and Instagram in particular giving the impression that person is on the top of the world when the reality may be very different. I’ve done it too. I’ve even done it in these newsletters. I am genuinely excited by all the wonderful work that is coming my way, but that doesn’t take away from all the challenges I face, as do most of us. Over the last six months, my own personal challenges have been big and difficult at times to navigate. I know that I will move through this particular phase and that everything I’ve discovered and learnt will be put into the melting pot for all the musicians I work with, so it is all of value – for them and for me!

And performance anxiety among musicians? So where does that leave us generally with the issues of performance anxiety and everything that gets in the way of performing at our best as musicians? I think both issues are incredibly relevant. Performance anxiety often comes about through self-consciousness: Am I good enough? What will they think of me? When musicians realise that they don’t need to be perfect, that being perfect is impossible, they can relax more in their pursuit of high standards and in their expression. The feedback I get most often from students and musicians in general is that they feel understood. This goes back to the issue of connection and our essential human need for it. If in this brave, new world of communicating, we can as teachers, coaches and/or performers, enable our students, our fellow musicians and ourselves, to feel seen, heard and valued, we will have contributed something very important to the world of music and the musicians who perform it: real and meaningful connection.


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