News | Musicians’ Mental Health

Panelists discuss the stress of musicianship

On Monday, February 13, McGill students and members of Montreal’s music community gathered at the Wirth Music building for a panel discussion, entitled “Musician’s Health Throughout a Performing Career.”

Claire Motyer, the founder of the Schulich Musician’s Health Committee, which organized the event, started the discussion by saying, “I don’t think you can really separate emotional, physical, and mental health from each other. We’re really just trying to get this conversation started, really just wanting to open up about musician’s health [and] bring some faculty, some alumni, and some current students [together] to share their stories so more people open up and feel comfortable talking about their stories.”

Speaking with The Daily, Motyer said, “I really want students, and faculty as well, just to feel more comfortable talking about these issues, creating a dialogue between all of us as a community, and creating more of a sense of a community around these topics.”

Motyer, a U3 Music student and violinist at McGill, has experienced injury herself. “It’s only now really that I’m realizing this is what I want to do, bring awareness to these issues, and to musicians’ health. At first I found it hard to talk about, but now I feel much better being open about it.”

Panelists included Yolanda Bruno, a violinist, Isabelle Cossette, Director at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music, Media, and Technology, trumpet professor Russell Devuyst, and Renée Yoxon, a jazz vocalist. To start the discussion, each of the panelists introduced themselves.

“I’m originally from Ottawa, and I’m a violinist,” said Bruno. “I’ll focus on the angle of injury: I’ve had an injury twice before. The first time, I was still young so I brushed over it quite quickly. The second time was quite traumatic. The second time I had to take a significant amount of time off, maybe three to four months off, which felt like an eternity.”

“I had to cancel many concerts and I had to tell people that I was injured and then the word got out and people knew and that was really scary because as soon as one person knew, then more people knew,” she continued.

Speaking about her recovery process, Bruno explained that she was uncertain how to move forward because she “received a lot of information from many different people.”

“It took a long time for me to find my route to recovery,” she said, “which ended up being one-on-one sessions with a Hatha yoga instructor, and acupuncture after doing chiropracting, and lots of running and swimming and lots of different things.”

Another panelist, Isabelle Cossette, the director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology (CIRMMT), was trained as a flute player and got her doctorate in music performance, but decided ultimately to turn to a career in research, focusing on the respiratory mechanics of musicians. Throughout the discussion, she spoke about the importance of accepting and embracing change.

“I’m not here to necessarily discuss a specific injury that I had while I was performing,” Cossette said. “I can make a lot of parallels; I had to go through depressions and that is very similar to someone who gets injured and can’t play. You find ways to recover. Changes, in fact, can be seen as exciting.”

Devuyst, who played for the Montreal Symphony for twenty-four years, focused on injury in terms of the effects it can have not only on a musician’s career, but also on their self-confidence.

“In relation to performance injuries, I’ve been injured three times actually,” he explained. “I never thought that I would, you know, you don’t think of being injured when you’re eighteen years, you think you’re infallible […] you just go crazy, and you just play.”

The first injury Devuyst experienced was partial facial paralysis caused by Ramsay Hunt Syndrome.

“I couldn’t play,” he said. “It was like going to the dentist and getting novocaine and then trying to play. That’s the way I felt for a couple of months.”

“Coming back from that was a very arduous thing,” he elaborated, “because I had two kids, three and five years old, so I just figured okay, my life’s over. What am I going to do now?”

Outlining the difficulties of recovery, and his mental health during this time, Devuyst explained how he used new hobbies as a coping mechanism.

“Instead of getting all worried, I just started woodworking,” he said. “I got this book on how to make toys […] I made them for my kids and I said, ‘Hey, this is kind of fun.’ It took my mind of it.”

Devuyst also spoke about his second accident. “The second accident I had, I was riding my bike and […] I was carrying a bag from the supermarket and the bag got caught in the front wheel and I went over the front handlebars. Even though I had a helmet on, it didn’t help because I smashed my teeth.”

“I did everything that a trumpet player’s not supposed to do and broke my front teeth,” he continued. “My teeth were broken, my lips were bleeding like crazy, I was looking at the cement and I saw chips of my teeth, so I took my teeth, put them in my pocket, and I went to the dentist and said, ‘glue them back,’ and they’re still there actually.”

Devuyst stressed the importance of accepting an injury and pacing your recovery. “The difficulty in coming back after an injury is that your brain knows where you used to be, but your body doesn’t respond to that, so you can really hurt yourself if you try to get yourself back into the level [musically] that you were. You have to accept where you are and just start from there and don’t expect anything”

Yoxon was the last panelist to introduce themself. “I’m a jazz vocalist. I’m studying currently in the undergraduate program here at McGill and I have chronic pain. I’ve been dealing with chronic pain for about ten years; I’m almost thirty now and I started experiencing chronic pain symptoms when I was in my late teens and then I started identifying as someone with chronic pain when I was like twenty, twenty-one years old. […] For me, my pain threshold is much, much lower, so I’m just in pain all the time, even when there’s no injury.”

Yoxon continued, “Your pain system is there to prevent injury, so you feel pain before you become injured, which is why you [are] supposed to stop playing [then]. However, in my case, I’m feeling pain all the time and I actually have to play through it a little bit. I would just be stopping all the time if I didn’t. So what I’m […] dealing with is how to adapt singing for me, even though I’m going to be injured forever.”

In an interview with The Daily, Yoxon stressed the importance of making music accessible to those with disabilities, by “[listing] what accessibility features are on their event information.”

They also highlighted the benefits of live broadcasting. “I think live broadcasting can not only bring shows to disabled people, […] live broadcastings brings shows to people who have lower incomes, people who need childcare. Lots of people don’t have the privilege of going out.”

Noémie Chemali, an attendee and music student at McGill, has experienced both the physical and mental stress that the panelists discussed. “When I first came to McGill, I was a violin student and there was definitely a huge leap of expectations from what I was used to. I come from a small town in the U.S. and coming here, it’s a bigger city. I felt like a very small fish in a big pond basically.”

“I’m glad we have more dialogue going on about musician’s health, definitely to help people from struggling, the way I did, especially my first two years when I didn’t have the courage to stand up and say I’m in pain, I’m not going to play today,” Chemali added.

The rest of the discussion focused mainly on methods of coping with the physical and emotional stresses of musicianship. The panelists all stressed focusing on one’s own progress as opposed to competition.

Yoxon said, “I feel like in order to succeed at McGill, you need to be like an athlete, and we are, we’re athletes, but I think that there’s something to be gained by learning music and not approaching it from the point of athleticism.”

Later in the discussion, they stated, “We do have a lot of people who are playing from a place of fear. […] It helps your mental health to not worry about what other people are thinking.”

Devuyst, similarly, expressed the importance of practicing to improve, not to avoid making mistakes. He also stressed the importance of “knowing your body, knowing what you can do with your body, how far you can go.”


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