Welfare & Wellbeing Appeal: Performance Pressure

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Two Guildhall students talking

Interview

As performing artists and creators, we know that our students will face physical and mental challenges throughout their training and beyond. Our teaching staff support student wellbeing by addressing arts-specific concerns, particularly performance anxiety. This not only covers workshops to give students the tools they need to manage performance anxiety, but also includes classes in Mindfulness and Alexander Technique (a technique aimed at achieving a balanced, more naturally aligned body). By providing students with the skills to safeguard their wellbeing as a performer, we hope to help them keep creative and well throughout their careers.

We spoke to three members of Guildhall staff about how they embed wellbeing into their teaching and how they hope this could be developed in future.

Jo Hensel is Performance Confidence Associate in the Wind, Brass and Percussion (WBP) Department, where she supports students with the psychological aspects of performance, practice and other aspects of conservatoire study. Jo also holds a BSc (Hons) in Psychology and is studying for a PhD at Guildhall, exploring how conservatoires can equip students with the skills needed to respond positively to the challenges they face whilst studying at conservatoire and beyond.

Louise Hopkins is Head of Strings. In addition to her work at Guildhall, she has an active international career as a cellist, working as a soloist and chamber musician.

Charlie Morgan is Associate Head of Vocal Studies (Movement and Performer Health). She also coordinates extracurricular classes in Mindfulness and Alexander Technique, which are offered to students across the School.

What are the challenges facing Guildhall students and their wellbeing?

Jo Hensel: Research into conservatoire training shows that many students experience a significant dip in their psychological wellbeing, which commonly starts to happen 6-18 months into their training. The problem has been exacerbated by Covid, particularly for students who have had exams at school impacted by lockdown and online learning and may not be adequately equipped to deal with the stressors they encounter. Conservatoire is undoubtedly a challenging environment for students: the stakes can feel very high as they train for a career in the performing arts, and many increase the pressure that they put on themselves to “succeed.”

Charlie Morgan: There have been more wellbeing issues since Covid, which are still ongoing even as we have returned to a normal learning structure. Many of our current students began their training online. They have adapted from only performing in their room at home to performing on large stages in front of others. Many students also faced other personal struggles during the pandemic, such as being forced into living situations which they didn’t choose. This has had real ramifications: while such problems will hopefully ease this year, they haven’t gone.

Why should we include wellbeing as part of our curriculum?

Charlie: Students are here to learn their primary study and we need to facilitate that. If we can work with them through their problems and try to pre-empt issues, this prevents a downwards spiral where severe problems impact their study and could even lead to them leaving the course.

Jo: Although the physical, dramatic/musical and technical aspects of performance are vital elements of conservatoire training, the psychological aspects are equally important. In sport this is taken seriously, with all elite sportspeople having access to psychological as well as physical training. Young performers need the same, but the arts are woefully behind the curve in this area. 

Participants on the Performance Psychology course I offer report that they experience huge relief in realising that they are not alone in experiencing performance anxiety. It is still taboo: professional performers typically avoid talking about their anxiety, because they fear that such a disclosure will make them less employable. Normalising performance anxiety is the first step as I work with students to be able to deal adaptively with the pressures they face. I firmly believe that if we can introduce robust psychological training for performing artists as the norm at conservatoire, this may help to relieve some of the considerable pressure on Guildhall’s counselling services.

Louise Hopkins: On performance courses like ours, students are required to have enormous mental resilience and be able to keep their bodies fit for performance and consequent hours of practice. It’s well-documented that if students can identify and access the activities that support their well-being, it can massively increase their confidence and help them develop an ongoing ability to cope with the demands of the profession at a high level.

What would be your ideal provision in this area?

Louise: As a musician I have been exceptionally fortunate to be supported at critical points of my career by a team of physiotherapists, trainers and nutritionists, who specialise in what they refer to as ‘small muscle athletes’. They usually worked with professional athletes but saw musicians as no different. This experience was transformational in terms of the way I support my body to be working optimally and has also helped my resilience. From my perspective, the ideal would be that each of our students would have the opportunity to explore a range of options throughout their studies that would help them see themselves holistically and understand the subtleties of cause and effect at every level in a performance environment. I personally have no doubt that this is the evolution of performance training, but it shouldn’t have to ‘replace’ other elements.

Charlie: For me, I would like every department to offer fundamental bodywork training. This is useful for everyone, from singers and actors, where their body is absolutely central to their performance, to instrumentalists, who of course still use their bodies when performing. People experience feelings like nerves and anxiety physically, so we should teach students how to manage this and use nerves to their benefit in performance, rather than letting them overshadow their performance. This training would also teach them how to relax and create a calm space for themselves.

Jo: It would be hugely beneficial to introduce resilience training near the start of students’ journeys with us. This would give them the tools to understand their own resilience and its different facets, including mental flexibility, emotional awareness and regulation, physical self-care, self-awareness, self-acceptance, and purpose. If all students received this initial psychological education, they would have a shared language around resilience and a toolkit which would enable them to help themselves, as well as to support each other. Ongoing performance confidence training to teach students how to deal with performance anxiety, perfectionism and procrastination would then be highly valuable. Just as singers have a repertoire coach, ideally, all students would have a performance coach who they could see for individual support with confidence or anxiety issues, so it’s part of the curriculum and accessible to everyone.

What do you hope the impact of this work will be for students?

Jo: I hope that the work that I am doing with students will enable them to be more self-aware, self-accepting and psychologically healthy and to bring that healthy version of themselves both to their performances and to their lives more generally, wherever their conservatoire journey takes them.

Charlie: The main thought I like to leave my students with is that learning is a journey. I’ve been in this industry over 20 years, but I am always learning new things! I hope they will continue the journey of self-care as they leave Guildhall. Things will happen throughout their lives, good or bad, and these all impact the mind and body. I hope they are constantly self-reflecting on where they are, physically and mentally. This doesn’t end at Guildhall: students should bring the skills they learn here, such as self-reflection and self-care, with them into the professional world, like a baton as they go running into their careers!

Pressures on our students are constantly increasing, with an ongoing cost-of-living crisis and a recession on the horizon. We are committed to providing comprehensive wellbeing support to help our students, not only through mental health crises, but also in their development as learners, as emerging adults and as artists. With your help, we can enhance our support even further, ensuring all students can thrive at Guildhall and beyond.

To make a donation towards our Welfare and Wellbeing Appeal, please visit our appeal webpage. Gifts of any size will make a real difference to our students. Thank you.

Alternative Donation Methods

You can also donate by sending us a cheque made out to the ‘Guildhall School Trust’ to the below address, marked as 'Welfare Appeal':

DARO
Guildhall School of Music & Drama
Silk Street
Barbican
London
EC2Y 8DT

If you would like to discuss the appeal in more detail or would like to donate via an alternative method, please get in touch with our Development team.

Mental Health Support

If you are affected by the issues raised in this appeal, please explore the resources below.

Samaritans: If you are emotionally distressed and need someone to talk to, you can call the Samaritans on 116 123. Their phone line is open 24/7.

Mind: A mental health charity who you can contact for urgent help and support.

Music Minds Matter: A free 24/7 helpline run by Help Musicians UK for everyone in the music industry. You can call them on 0808 802 8008.

BAPAM: Resources and support are available for a wide range of wellbeing issues affecting people working in the performing arts.