The Culture Surrounding Health and Wellness in Music

Nico Muhly is a young composer who has spoken publicly about his mental health. He writes a blog where he discusses his struggles with depression. In doing so, Muhly has also been vocal about removing the stigma surrounding composers and their mental illnesses. In an interview with Noted Endeavors, Muhly discusses the perception surrounding Brahms’ and Beethoven’s music. Muhly states that the focus of these composers has not been their compositional techniques, but rather the focus is on the mental and emotional experiences that each composer has been through. By bringing the mental health of musicians to the foreground, it is important to look at the culture that has developed around professional musicians and music teachers alike. 

In a study by Deborah Pierce, she looked at the psychological tendencies of musicians along with the causes and effects of different aspects of being a musician. Researchers from several different disciplines including medicine, music education, gifted education, and more found patterns with music students and teachers. Some common findings were self-esteem issues, narcissism, and constant pressure to push themselves harder. Shedding light on the commonalities shows several characteristics many musicians develop including perfectionism, narcissism, and a primary emphasis on competition. These characteristics that are often taught throughout music programs can cause a lot of stress, affect self-esteem, and ultimately “burn a student out”. Roland S. Persson labeled this phenomenon as “maestro syndrome.” Persson says that maestro syndrome is the results of musicians being in an environment that is based primarily on “survival of the fittest”. Knowing that being a professional musician is competitive, and the field as a whole is very demanding physically and mentally, it begs the questions – what change, if any, can be done to change this culture?

To start, there are several different aspects of a music education that can be changed to allow students to work in a healthier way. The primary way to address this would be a shift away from an emphasis put on challenge and competition, and the focus be shifted to the process of being a musician. The results of focusing on the process can produce more positive results for students, rather than a focus on working for a competition. This is highlighted in Constructing Musical Healing: The Wounds That Sing by Boyce Tillman. Tillman says that having a balance between competition and creativity work together to give a well-rounded, balanced education experience. Along with mental changes, the understanding of physical health would allow musicians to be more successful. 

Music educators play a very important role in the development of healthy practicing habits in students. If a music teacher pushes their students very hard, and creates a very competitive environment, the student may practice a lot. However, that does not mean the student should practice several hours a day or has the knowledge of how to do so safely. According to Judy Palac, there are four main areas of concern for musician’s physical health. These areas are: the voice, muscle health, hearing conservation, and dealing with the stress of music. Palac says that having an understanding of the mechanics and methods of care for these four areas is critical for educators and musicians to have long, healthy career.

Trice Mayhall


Palac, Judy. “Collaborating For Musical Health And Wellness: It Takes A Village.” American Music Teacher 64, no. 6 (2015): 28-30.

Palac, Judy. “Promoting Musical Health, Enhancing, Musical Performance: Wellness for Music Students.” Music Educators Journal 94, no. 3 (2008): 18-22.

Pierce, Deborah L. “Rising to a New Paradigm: Infusing Health and Wellness into the Music Curriculum.” Philosophy of Music Education Review 20, no. 2 (2012): 154-76. doi:10.2979/philmusieducrevi.20.2.154.

“The Medical Problems of Musicians.” American Music Teacher 50, no. 6 (2001): 21-25.

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