We need to talk about artists’ mental health

Sewanee Summer Music Festival, 1998, around the time I first starting taking oboe lessons.

Sewanee Summer Music Festival, 1998, around the time I first starting taking oboe lessons.

“Let the godly strike me! It will be a kindness! If they correct me, it is soothing medicine.” Psalm 141:5

This week as I prepare for a new semester, I was looking over the questionnaires my oboe students filled out back in the fall. At the start of the each new school year, I ask each student what they feel their strengths and weaknesses are and what they want to work on in oboe lessons. The responses are usually eerily similar. First of all, their list of weaknesses is usually double the length of strengths. They also use so many qualifiers before each strength: “Sometimes, I am pretty good at playing fast,” or “When I have a good reed, I have a nice tone.” Lastly, over and over, students mention they want to work on having more confidence or feeling less anxious about oboe.

My philosophy around teaching music, especially at the college level, means working with the whole person. As private teachers, we work one-on-one with young people who are at the precipice of the working world, and so I’ve found my role ends up being part music teacher, part career-counselor, part mentor. I’m constantly saddened at the way mental health issues from mild anxiety to deep depression plague students, and as I work with more non-student, working artists through “The Artist’s Way Creative Clusters” at Grace, I’d say there is something going on with mental health and artists. 

This is no surprise to me, being a sufferer myself. My own journey to becoming a professional musician and a more joyful mother have been riddled with a struggle with anxiety and self-acceptance. 

Of all the hats I wear as an oboe professor and artist group leader, therapist is not a hat I am qualified or interested in wearing. Knowing the power of talking with a licensed professional, I am constantly referring students to counseling centers, following up with them at the next meeting to make sure they got an appointment, etc. And it greatly saddens me that so many artists, myself included, are held captive by their anxiety and stress to the point of physical illness, panic attacks, or worse. It leaves me asking—how did we get here?

The age-old picture of the “suffering artist” comes to mind: this lie that somehow it’s impossible to be a successful, productive artist and to also have joy and practice good self-care. A lie I believed myself for years.  I worry that because becoming an artist of any kind involves so much critique—we say it’s about the process but focus on the product—that we may destroy our own creative impulse and the impulse in others we mentor, beyond repair.

Anyone who has had classical music lessons knows that they center around critique. When you just start learning how to play an instrument, it seems anti-creative. You go to a master teacher who can fix all of your issues one-by-one, over and over, until you can hold the bow correctly or use your air in just the right way or lift your fingers just so. We work for years to perfect tiny muscles and movements to make something very complicated look easy, effortless. There are numerous artistic choices to be made when playing oboe, but it takes years to have enough control and facility to even be able to make these choices.  Isn’t that incredible? Who would want to subject themself to that?

Someone who has a song to sing, that’s who.

I got to thinking, after reading my students’ questionnaires, about all the feedback we get during life. I thought about all my teachers and all they had corrected in me over the years and how painful that process was sometimes, how that led me down a path of self-hatred, too. I thought about how much trust it requires to allow someone to criticize your sound, for example, something that feels as personal as a fingerprint. How can I help students learn to play more in tune, to have facility across all registers, to make their own beautiful sound so as to lead to a more satisfying and meaningful relationship with their instrument? How can I encourage them not to equate their work with their worth?

There’s this verse in Psalm 141 that says: “Let the godly strike me! It will be a kindness! If they correct me, it is soothing medicine.” (New Living Translation) 

I don’t know about you, but even the gentlest of critiques has never felt like soothing medicine to me. And no “strike” has ever felt like a kindness. I want so badly to take criticism like that: to lay out my shortcomings with great vulnerability and have someone’s feedback be healing rather than shame-inducing. And as a teacher, I want my critique to build students up, to set them free, to help them find their way, not send them down the road to self-doubt and depression.

I believe the key to this attitude towards criticism described here is in the word “godly.” In some other translations it is translated “righteous,” which can be a trigger-word for me, bringing up thoughts of judgementalism and self-righteousness. In this instance it makes me think of the only person I’ve ever known who was righteous. 

Over and over in the Gospels we see Jesus healing and then calling people into a new way of life in the same interaction. His gentleness permeates these encounters. He kneels down to the woman caught in adultery and mysteriously writes something in the sand  (John 8:6), he gentle rubs mud on a man’s eyes (John 9:6), he reaches out and touches the man with leprosy who everyone would have considered unclean (Matthew 8:3) and even when they don’t ask for it, he says: “Your sins are forgiven. Go and sin no more.” And that’s it. He doesn’t confirm that they understand their issues and can outline a plan to be different. He offers them healing and forgiveness, and they walk away forever changed. 

So that is what it is like to have the Godly “strike you: not with violence, but like a good shepherd rescuing his beloved sheep from getting trapped, injured, or lost, bringing them joyfully back into the fold. In Jesus’s example, we are set right again with compassion and that is a soothing medicine. 

When we look at Jesus’ gentleness and power as a healer, we get an example for how to give and receive feedback. We do so to lead to someone’s being mended (not to their feeling shame) and we do so oh so gently. And when we see others do this without gentleness (or even with malice) we know that our worth and value are not in question, because the only Righteous One loved us enough to get in the mud with us and our problems and, if we only look for them, offers the most creative of solutions to make us new.

If you’re an artist and you’re reading this, I hope you know that this story that the world tells us—that good art requires from us pain, depression, martyrdom, that the only way to be successful is to sacrifice yourself at the artist altar, giving up your happiness, sleep, health, and sense of joy—I am here to tell you that that is a lie.

You were made by The Great Creator to sing your life song, a song that only you can sing or paint or write. Find mentors you trust to guide and offer you that soothing medicine, to help you change for the sole purpose of your being led towards deeper self-expression. Find a good therapist. Make no mistake: making art is hard work, but the kind of hard work that can leave you blissfully tired and fulfilled even when you’re so far from being “done.” Be patient and gentle with yourself as Jesus would be, as Jesus is.