Colored silhouettes of 3 individuals broken up by instrument silhouettes

A Musician’s Guide to Coping with
Covid-19

The process of choosing a career in music can occur over a lifetime – often beginning, unknowingly, in childhood. I remember getting my first piano when I was four years old, my first lessons when I was six. I remember picking out familiar tunes by ear and composing short songs. I still remember my first piano teacher. 

As I grew older, I discovered that playing the piano and listening to recordings evoked deep feelings I could neither name nor understand. Throughout childhood and into early adulthood, my sense of self as a person and as a musician were intertwined. Now, as a psychologist who was first trained as a serious musician, I realize that my musical skills and emotional sensitivities evolved alongside my physical and psychological development. In psychological terms, this is called parallel development. Its importance in understanding how musicians think about the world and themselves cannot be overstated. 

While having a career in music can be intrinsically rewarding, it is also possible that such a career – one so intimately tied up with one’s sense of self – can pose psychic threats, along with financial ones, when that career encounters obstacles. Now, as COVID-19 has led to canceled performances and indefinite confinement, many musicians are facing an unprecedented psychological dilemma as they manage the need to nourish their self-esteem when the opportunity to create meaningful work has been essentially eliminated. 

I’ve compiled some ideas for your consideration. As a psychologist, I believe that trauma can be reframed into opportunity. There are sources of comfort, both internal and external, that musicians can derive in this time. There are strategies that we can use both to survive it and to renew the energy we have for our careers. 

MANAGING FEELINGS

In my clinical work, I encounter people who are often concerned with expressing themselves in the “right way.” They may feel guilty or apologetic for their feelings, labeling them as irrational or overreactive. This always reminds me of a musician’s concern for playing the “right notes,” or feeling ashamed about a less-than-perfect performance.

Talk with trusted friends and family members. Form or join online support groups. Reach out to a therapist should you feel overwhelmed.

There is no “right” or “wrong” feeling. There is no irrational or overreactive thought. Feelings are feelings – period. And expressing them through words is therapeutic.

Musicians’ thoughts and feelings around the circumstances of COVID-19 might be intensified if they evoke trauma that originated during earlier developmental life experiences. The loss of income and work in particular can ignite long-buried pain. With live performances canceled, for instance, there is no “audience-mother” to appreciate and nurture musicians. Old fears around loss, abandonment and an inability to understand what’s going on might reflect experiences and fantasies one may have developed in one’s mind during childhood, when rational thinking was not possible. To have feelings that emerge from childhood, including anger, fear, grief, anxiety or depression, is not childish, irrational or wrong. It is normal! Your feelings are connected to your self-esteem and sense of self-worth, and they’re triggered by both internal and external events. 

Remind yourself that COVID-19 and the resulting loss of job opportunities are not anything you caused, expected or could have prevented. You may feel out of control – a feeling that is intensely worrisome to musicians, who often meticulously manage their finances, performances and self-images. 

Avoid being judgmental – do not become your most severe critic. Talk with trusted friends and family members. Form or join online support groups. Reach out to a therapist should you feel overwhelmed – talking is therapeutic and courageous. It helps to reframe difficult and painful experiences with a more comforting and insightful perspective, which can ultimately restore self-esteem. 

VALUING YOURSELF AS A PERSON – NOT JUST AS A MUSICIAN

The more you identify and work through old issues that may be exacerbating your current feelings, the more creative energy you’ll have to deal with the uncharted future. 

This example may be helpful: Years before COVID-19, a musician patient of mine explained her emotional devastation to me when confronted with an injury that required surgery and threatened her ability to play her instrument, possibly ending her career. She worried if she would still be “anybody” if she could no longer play. She eventually realized that she was the same person whether or not she performed, but the emotional challenge and cost to her sense of self were significant. We worked for a long time on understanding what this loss meant to her: Identifying her concerns was helpful to a point, but she experienced the threat to her professional identity as a psychic assault, as a life-or-death issue. 

It was clear to me how profoundly a musician’s professional identity is aligned with their sense of self-worth. Over time, we were able to connect her fears to some early life events that brought a better resolution to the worry of “not being anybody” if she could not perform. Remind yourself that you are somebody even if you’re not actively performing now.

REALIGNING MOTIVATION FOR CREATIVITY

When I headed off to Juilliard to study piano, my high school choir teacher advised me to “keep my options open.” I experienced this suggestion as his disbelief that I could “make it” in music, despite his encouragement and support. As a therapist, I find that even when I offer supportive comments or ask questions to obtain clarification, it is not unusual for people to experience my comments as criticisms. Typically, when one feels criticized, it reflects one’s sense of self as lacking or not good enough. 

Self-reflection can often help you rethink outdated (mis)conceptions about your resilience in the face of trauma.

Years later, I realized my teacher’s wisdom. He was advising me to believe in myself and, from that belief, to stay open to possibilities. At the time, his comment evoked my own insecurities and anxieties about leaving my childhood home for New York City and pursuing my professional dreams. Rather prophet­i­cal­ly, my post-Juilliard career change to psychology and psychoanalysis occurred because I wanted to understand my own stage fright and to help others who suffered in embarrassed silence, as I did. I now believe my teacher confirmed that I could handle the complexities of unforeseen challenges. Self-reflection can often help you rethink outdated (mis)conceptions about your resilience in the face of trauma.

FINDING MEANING IN A 21ST-CENTURY MUSIC CAREER

A New York Times article by Emily Esfahani Smith highlights the idea of “tragic optimism,” a term coined by Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl. The concept of tragic optimism is one way to maintain hope and find meaning in life despite trauma, anxiety and feelings of helplessness. One cannot deny harsh realities or rationally try to think away strong feelings. One might, however, tune into a rich emotional life that has developed over many years to enable musical growth. The meaning inherent in a musician’s career choice and in a musician’s personal identity can be threatened by COVID-19 and other traumas, but not extinguished. 

I conclude with a quote by The Juilliard School’s president emeritus Joseph Polisi, from his book “The Artist as Citizen.” I found his words prophetic years ago and relevant today:

“…Artists of the twenty-first century, especially in America, must re-dedicate themselves to a broader professional agenda that reaches beyond what has been expected of them in an earlier time. … These artists must be not only communicative through their art, but also knowledgeable about the intricacies of our society – politically, economically, socially – so that they can effectively work toward showing the power of the arts to a nation and its people.”

Now, more than ever, we must hold fast to our ingenuity, boldness and resourcefulness to promote our values as artists. In doing so, we will strengthen ourselves and our identity as musicians. 

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Julie Jaffee Nagel

Julie Jaffee Nagel, Ph.D., holds degrees in piano from Juilliard, in psychology and social work from the University of Michigan, and certification in psychoanalysis by the American Psychoanalytic Association. …more 

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