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Music and Mental Health

To me, it seems ridiculous that in this equally ridiculous world, there is even a debate about whether art is work or not. In short, music is art, and right now the world is crying out for music – more so than ever before. In these times of panic and toilet roll hoarding, it is easy to fret that the days of music; of pub gigs and first recitals; are coming to a close. We are very, very far from it! When people return home from a difficult day or feel that twist in their chest from missing isolating friends and family, we all turn to music. It could be the soundtrack from a favourite film; that rush of contentment when we pick up a guitar or sit by a piano; or that bass line in an outdated track that we always pretend we don’t like. As musicians and artists, our time has come! We need to provide the future of music because if a pandemic can’t stop us then what can? But you should also find the time to let music help yourself. Music is far beyond the dots and lines: it is a language, a feeling, and a medicine.

‘Mental health.’ Ugh, why is it people feel the need to lower their voices when they utter those words? Far too many times, somebody has ‘confessed’ to me that they are struggling with their mental health. I strongly believe the word ‘confess’ shouldn’t even cross one’s mind when describing what is often a very disabling difficulty that just happens to not be fixable by a bandage or a plaster. It’s rare to open the newspaper to find a positive article about mental health, although I must admit that the past ten years have seen some notable progress. But, despite the awareness campaigns and improved understanding, words like ‘schizophrenic’ and ‘psychotic’ are still for some reason seen to be synonymous with ‘dangerous,’ ‘serial killers’ and ‘crazies.’ With such labels, is it any wonder many of us feel the need to conceal our darker, more depressive feelings? In today’s pandemic, more people than ever are suffering from mental health issues. I have decided that, in this month’s blog, I am going to delve a little more into my own personal experiences; I would like to talk to you all about the main thing that got me through several years of severe mental illness: music.

And it is such a simple solution! I’ve been there with the bombardment of pills and therapy and I wouldn’t sway you away from them in a million years; there are some fantastic treatments out there, but they can be tiring. Music has a fantastic way of winding its way into your body and setting up camp in your brain. It can give you a new purpose; a distraction; and I believe that there are some lovely crunchy chords up there doing equally as much good as a tablet. I’m all for the magic of sus chords, personally.

My own mental health started to go downhill when I was about twelve or thirteen, and I believe it would have spiralled significantly faster had I not been able to turn to music. I lived for it: my fingers would fidget for hours as I drummed piano scales on desks until the entire class begged me to stop. I didn’t feel comfortable unless I had a keyboard in front of me, or a pencil in my hand scratching admittedly horrendous compositions into a Geography exercise book. (This I wouldn’t recommend; they were always discovered and rarely appreciated.) I probably could have invested in a tent since I spent so much of my life in my school music block; I started to consider myself part of the furniture. I had found a passion and, although it would take many years of work, it was a passion that would eventually lead me to a music degree, and a fantastic time teaching at Vocademy.

Between the ages of fourteen and sixteen, I lived in a hospital. It’s very difficult to describe what it feels like to have your entire life wrenched away from you and sent toppling down a cliff face, but at the time I felt like I had lost everything. I remember thinking multiple times that I was never going to leave the hospital; that this was my life now, and that was that. Gradually, thoughts of universities and creative careers started to fade. Ten years ago, the stigma around mental health was utterly horrific. I remember receiving a sincere apology from a doctor when they diagnosed me, and I only had to whisper the condition to receive awkward grimaces and uncomfortable coughs. And then, quite by chance, I found a small, cheap keyboard in the back of one of the rarely used hospital side rooms.

It was like a switch. I don’t think there could be many better sights two months into my new life than that musical instrument. It’s a horrendous cliché and as a writer I am sickened to use it, but I suddenly felt like I was home. After some pretty intense negotiating, I was able to dedicate about two hours a day to that keyboard, and some weekends I would happily sit for eight or nine. I’ve never been a singer and that door was far from soundproof, but I warbled my way through countless songs as the months went on. I developed a love for songwriting and to this day have kept a cheap notebook crammed absolutely full of dozens of (admittedly depressing) pieces. I sang how I felt; I sang about what was happening around me. And, slowly, my future became less blurred. I felt like I had one again. I played to the old people in the dementia home next door. I even started a choir with the admittedly reluctant teens around me and remember holding a hospital concert. Most of them thought I was mad, and I guess technically they could back that up with written evidence.

Following my sixteen-month stay, the hospital helped me get into music college and gradually my life was pieced back together over the next five years or so. But I truly believe I would be a very long way away from where I am today had I not found that dusty keyboard in the back of the ward. The nurses were fantastic and changed my life. But I will never forget the role music played.

So now what? Well, as musicians, it is our job to keep this fantastic therapy going. Look after your mental health and look after yourself. And, when you have done that, use your music to help somebody else. Pick up that recorder that’s been gathering cobwebs since primary school. Write that song. Perform at a virtual gig or get in touch with Vocademy for the singing/piano lessons you have always wanted. Entertain the world and heal the minds inside it. You never know, you could change somebody’s life.

Tura Paice (Vocademy)

Conclusion – so now we need to use our music to help others with mental health issues.

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