A musician’s mental health in lockdown Jump to main content

A musician’s mental health in lockdown

Photo: Cordula Treml

Opera tenor and ISM Council member, Nicky Spence offers his perspective on lockdown and opening the dialogue on how it has affected his, and other musicians, mental health.

The effect of the coronavirus pandemic on our mental health is personal to each of us. With an eye on my own anxieties, I’m keen to open the dialogue, as I’m sure what feels to some as solo fears are resonating throughout our industry in themes and variations. To do this, in my first blog entry I’ve begun by setting out my thoughts from when we were forced offstage by the virus.

A born hustler

Many musicians are born hustlers. I’ve hustled for the last 20 years with the view to make music for a living so I can one day buy a big house and collaborate with other musicians. We practice, curate, hone technique and work hard to maintain our position in the industry. It’s our version of that narrative that keeps us going day-to-day.

Enter stage left, COVID-19, and the performance landscape suddenly felt arid in terms of opportunity. We were bruised from lost engagements. Hours devoted to learning works and planning seasons disappeared into a general malaise of feeling unsupported and undervalued on both a governmental and societal level. The horizon looked barren, which is hard if you’re a hustler.

From a mental health perspective, I think it’s essential not to associate a lack of current activity with a lack of your usual place in the profession itself. We have all been displaced by this crisis, but we must believe that our personal place within the music industry still exists.

What’s lurking behind the work persona?

As musicians, we’re so used to being in control that any change of plan can feel like a failure: a failure for not choosing a profession which is more hardy against global pandemics; a failure for not having a back-up skill, which can feed a family of four; or projected failure, as a hopeless artisan whose value is overlooked by society. For some, this sense of failure might be used proactively, as the impetus to pivot towards a twelve-week series of online home concerts, or delivering essential supplies to the elderly. For others, failure leads to Wallowsville, which is absolutely ok too.

Personally, I found it helpful to not rush recovery, and actually said hello to the negative impact caused by the pandemic and allowed myself to feel vulnerable. The negative thoughts you face might include despair at having to homeschool a pack of occasionally troublesome youngsters or having to ‘diversify’ to alternative employment. Some people make lemonade from lemons, whereas some people just sit on the lemons for a bit and that’s ok. Many of us have gone from 100mph to stationary, and we’re reaching for the warning lights.

You’ve worked hard, earned your musician’s loyalty card around the world, and paid many dues; so why not give yourself a break during the pandemic and allow a bit of personal growth? This takes guts, as many of us prefer to work against a deadline, or we’re slightly addicted to being seen in the public eye, always being busy or a bit pushed for time. However, I was honestly relieved to discover that I had more sides to myself, beyond that of my work persona and what I devote so much of my time to. Many of us may be too scared to explore ourselves further and with good reason, but you might not get such a helpful time to peek at what lurks behind the music stand again. If the potential husk of a human which greets you during this self-awareness process is terrifying, there are some great helplines and talking services offered by the ISM and Help Musicians UK, so you are not alone in unpacking some of this.

As the lockdown wore on, time became a weird concept: Monday, Tuesday, Blursday, Blursday, Blursday. To escape this, I gradually found more structure and set myself some daily tasks (some musical), which made me feel good. I’ve discovered that I’m an artist, a gardener, a reader and a Czech-learning-Beyoncé-dancing machine. Of course, I did lots of this before, but I never had time to sell these skills to such a degree. Where once time was a precious commodity, now, it has felt like a gift to my mental health, when I use it positively and generously. What are you doing with your time? Maybe nothing, which must feel great if you’ve been working from contract to contract for years. Or have you conquered that Mozart recitative or cadenza, which has always alluded you and finally sent that lobbying letter to your local MP that you’ve been brewing for weeks? Some people have spent unexpected time with children and have been able to reconnect with family. We won’t ever get this time again, so why not embrace it as a memory maker?

I know that I’m hugely blessed to live with my partner during lockdown, and I’m very aware that many of my colleagues have felt a deep profound feeling of loss and loneliness during this time. But there are things we can learn from lockdown as artists. As our busy schedules abruptly came to an end, this time has allowed us to experience or revisit some of these feelings we’ve avoided or lost as artists: loss, guilt, hopelessness, lack of control, anger, jealousy, lust, boredom. I’m sure we’ve all felt these feelings over the past twelve weeks – sometimes all in one day. This can be a cathartic process but also plays an important role in being able to feel these emotions and tap into them to further our art.

To play or not to play?

We do need to keep our instruments ticking over though, don’t we?! ‘We’re athletes after all’, he said, lunging into the biscuit tin. Who knows when the call may come to take to the stage in HD realness in one of our favourite concert halls? Those feelings do flicker anxiously through the cerebral networks, and for me, most often when I’ve got off the phone to Domino’s pizza. Many musicians haven’t wanted to play at all, which is ok. Be kind and generous to yourself, and sensitive to others – everybody’s relationship with their own instrument is different.

Hilariously enough, musicians don’t often get the chance to choose what they play, so you could use this time positively: play something fun, which fills you up and makes you feel good. As a singer (and I’m sure this will vary larynx to pharynx), but Chaka Khan’s back catalogue and the Wesendonck lieder sound like a good start to me. Personally, I’ve found it too painful to practice for engagements which are still hovering on the precipice of being cancelled, but I’ve managed to stay ‘match-fit’ thanks to mentoring young singers, as I can find myself ill-advisedly demonstrating Un aura amorosa umpteen times a day.

Being a fulltime performer doesn’t always translate into being a good teacher, but many of us do have interesting ideas to offer and this is something I’ve always enjoyed. I know teachers might feel slightly anxious when a barrage of professionals wade onto their turf, but I hope the delineation is clearly seen. During this time, I’ve tried to offer something different, as a sidebar to their regular vocal input. Whether overhauling CVs; repertoire choices; troubleshooting particular technical issues in works we’ve played; or strategising a career path into the business, I’ve tried to offer a honesty clinic that is in addition to what they seek from their regular teacher. Moreover, I can happily disclose that I learn just as much from them in the process. As an artist not invested in a pupil’s day-to-day learning, I see this role as a huge privilege, and it is very much a sacred space for us to share ideas as we explore together.

If you feel your mental health is suffering during lockdown, for further support, you can look at what’s available to you via the ISM and Help Musicians UK.

Nicky Spence
Opera tenor

Stay tuned for a second blog from Nicky in which he explores self-esteem, young artists during COVID-19, mental health resilience against online content and the power of collaboration.