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Classical musicians’ wellbeing and mental health.

Moving away from the recent exploration of musicians and identity I’m now going to pull

out some more of my own favourite pieces of research surrounding musicians, mental

health and their musicking journeys.

This first study was conducted with six classical musicians and investigated the things that contributed towards their wellbeing and other areas surrounding positive psychology. You can read the study here. Positive psychology focuses more on the aspects of growth rather than the bad stuff of life and uses something called the PERMA model. The PERMA model involves an evaluative framework based on positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishments or achievements. 

The classical based study found that contrary to cultural assumptions, these musicians actually experienced greater levels of wellbeing than the general population, with a ‘clear sense of self’ being a huge part of their wellbeing. This was a surprising and refreshing find amongst the other popular academic hype of the time (still is). Of course, musicians struggle but their musicking can also act as a buffer, especially if viewed outside of the commercial world. The ground-breaking research highlighted four key themes: self- concept, musical moments, relationships and transition to being a professional musician. The first theme of self-concept indicated that the musicians derived some of their wellbeing from a ‘clear sense of self’ alongside their group identity, embedded in other factors such as learning to accept limits, filtering negative inputs and managing simultaneous self-defining roles. 

Within these self-defining roles, they also emphasised the importance of separating their sense of self from their performance, and how they managed to draw boundaries between validation from musical accomplishments and their fundamental self-worth. This was further described as a conflict between being a musician and doing music. Something we all know very well!  The researchers hypothesised that the intrinsic need to make music is a powerful definer of the self that provided a strong sense of meaning for the participants. 

These elements resonated deeply with me as I have always seen my own musicking as more than a commodity, something to get me through at a foundational level and over time I have also learnt to separate my occupational and personal identity (or parts) when in my musical world. Another conflict for the musicians was identified around ‘being true to oneself’ rather than being concerned with commercial gain highlighted through the musicians’ need to create a belief in their self-worth that was independent and separate from achievement. This separation seemed to enable a healthy distancing from themselves as musicians and the objective projection of others alongside the importance of balancing the routine and monotony of performing with creativity and self-expression. 

The second sub-theme of musician as giver facilitated a sense of meaning and self- definition from the perspective of providing musical experiences to ‘other musicians or to the audience’. This meaning was also found within the musicians’ flexibility to embrace different music-based roles such as teaching, conducting, and researcher amongst many other aspects of musicking. Within this theme, the musicians were also critical of the assumptions often made about struggling musicians, where contrary to public opinion, many of these participants themselves felt a sense of general wellbeing derived from their profession. 

Bringing this first half of the study into my own experience, I do agree with the participants in their frustrations surrounding how there can be a focus on the negative music industry without addressing the balancing of the positives of wellbeing that musicking can bring.

Yes, it’s tough on the road and trying to navigate the commercial world but when we do in a more healthy or perhaps personal way, musicking can bring us so much more!


Adam Ficek hosts a monthly show 'Tonic Music' on Totally Wired Radio, where he talks to various guests about music and mental health. You can listen again to any of the previous show on the Tonic Music Mixcloud page.


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