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Addressing the Challenge of Mental Wellbeing in Music

Christmas is fast approaching. It’s a time associated with happiness and music, lights, gifts and laughter. But Christmas can be a dark time for some, particularly those struggling with mental health issues.

Having been around musicians all my life, I have come across many who have suffered from mental health issues, from mild depression and anxiety to those suffering from bipolar disorder. I am glad that the Industry is now starting to acknowledge the challenge of mental health difficulties and looking to support those who need help. Identifying those who need help is key to ensuring people get the support they need. For some mental health issues start early, and schools and youth groups are not always able to support those who need help, talking about these challenges can ensure that people get the support they need.

Maria Thomas, The Music Workshop Company

The music industry has been determinedly addressing issues of wellbeing in performers in recent years. Players suffering physical issues such as RSI brought on by overuse, stress or postural issues have been able to find much needed support. There is considerable effort to educate musicians in a holistic way, acknowledging the importance of looking after the body. The stigma around illness and injury in a competitive profession has lessened.


Now the focus has turned to mental health, an issue that is particularly pertinent for many during the Christmas period. In May 2016, Help Musicians UK ran a survey of over 2200 performers. The survey discovered that 70% of musicians have experienced anxiety and panic attacks. It was also found that music-industry professionals can be up to three times more likely to suffer depression than those in other career fields.

These issues are prevalent throughout music, both in classical orchestras and touring rock bands. The highs of performance can make every-day life seem mundane, touring tests relationships, standards are high and perfectionism is rife. Aspects of the industry are glamorised by alcohol and drugs, and social drinking can easily mask destructive alcoholism. Performance anxiety and pressure to deliver at a high level can lead to excessive drinking, low self-esteem, obsessive compulsive behaviour and depression. The fact that self-image has little to do with talent becomes obvious when watching TV spectacles such as the X-Factor auditions. Some of the most talented musicians have huge levels of self-doubt. Studies have also shown that incidences of bipolar disorder are possibly linked with high childhood IQ and creativity.

The problem with mental health issues as opposed to physical illness is that they are often invisible and therefore unnerving to those who have no experience of them. A broken leg is more easily understood. There is a level of shame associated with mental illness – sufferers can feel they have an intrinsic weakness and fear that their careers will suffer if they reach for help.


Luckily, attitudes are changing. More than 20 years after the suicide of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain who was thought to have bipolar disorder, bipolar and depression are much more openly discussed in the media after celebrities such as Stephen Fry ‘came out’ as sufferers. As a result, musicians are beginning to speak up. Composer Nico Muhly, blogging for American music site Noted Endeavours, called for a destigmatisation of mental illness and depression among musicians.

And in May 2016, coinciding with Mental Health Awareness Week, the Santiago Quartet completed a fundraising campaign to record an album in aid of Mind, the mental health charity, motivated by ‘cellist Jonathan Hennessey-Brown’s recovery from bipolar.

The pressures of life and juggling career, parenthood and personal issues led to a vicious return of bipolar-based mania about 3 years ago,” says Jonathan. “Music, helping others and the Santiago Quartet have been instrumental in aiding my recovery from my third, and hopefully final, hospitalisation. I also find it crucial to avoid drinking any alcohol whatsoever so my medication works.

The industry is rallying to offer support for musicians, delivering the message that mental wellbeing is as relevant as physical health, and that it is important to seek professional help. Professional bodies including the Musicians’ Union offer useful advice and information, and following its survey, Help Musicians hope to have a service dedicated to musicians’ mental health in place by 2017. Online resources make it possible for everyone working in the industry, whether as a performer or in management, to understand more about these issues. The statistics shown in the Help Musicians’ survey indicate that even those lucky enough to avoid mental health issues will find themselves working with or employing someone who has experienced these problems.

If you, a family member, friend or fellow musician could use some advice about mental health issues, the list of links below contains a wide range of information and support for illnesses from addiction and anxiety to eating disorders and more. Please share this list with your students and colleagues.

The Music Workshop Company would like to wish you a happy and healthy Christmas!

Help Musicians: https://www.helpmusicians.org.uk/get-advice/health-wellbeing/mental-health/mental-health

Musicians’ Union: http://www.musiciansunion.org.uk/Home/Advice/Your-Career/Health-and-Safety/Wellbeing

British Association of Performing Arts Medicine: http://bapam.org.uk/news/tag/mental-health/

ArtsMinds: http://www.artsminds.co.uk

Mind, the Mental Health Charity: http://www.mind.org.uk

Alcoholics Anonymous: http://alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk

Al Anon (for relatives and friends of alcoholics): http://www.al-anonuk.org.uk

Jonathan Hennessey-Brown’s blog on HuffPost: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/jonathan-hennesseybrown/my-journey-through-bipolar_b_9872792.html


Christmas Carols: Custom, Controversy and Celebration

Christmas Carols are totally evocative of an old-fashioned holiday season.

Today, they are celebrated in carol services like the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College Cambridge, where the story of the Nativity is told with singing and Bible readings. We are familiar with many of the tunes from childhood. But the Christmas carol was not always so acceptable, or even religious.

The word carol originates around 1300, derived from the French word carole, a kind of round dance accompanied by singers. There are similar words in Medieval Latin – choraula, which was a dance to music played on a flute, from the Latin word choraules meaning flute player – and also in Greek where the word khoraules means flute player who accompanies the choral dance.

From around 1500 C.E. the word was used to refer to joyful Christmas songs.

Thousands of years ago, people sang pagan hymns for the Winter Solstice. Over time, these pagan rituals were replaced with Christian ceremonies. The first Christmas hymns have their roots in fourth century Rome where Latin hymns were austere theological devices emphasising belief in the incarnation. Christmas music also developed in the monasteries during the ninth and tenth centuries, but this was in the form of rhymed stanzas, not songs.

In 1223 Francis of Assisi started his Nativity Plays during which the story of Christmas was sung in Italian with some choruses in Latin. This prompted a strong tradition of popular Christmas songs to develop in Italy, France and Germany, sung in the language of the people. The practice of having a crib or nativity scene in churches during the Christmas season is thanks to Francis of Assisi.


In France Carols were known as Noël, a word which can be found in English Carols often as Nowell due to the Norman influences on the English culture in the Middle Ages. In England, they derive from Medieval English songs. There were different types of carol – the main one being for dancing and walking in procession. Some were religious, featuring monophonic music, and towards the 15th and 16th centuries, there were polyphonic carols with two, three or even four parts.


The Middle Ages Carol followed the following format:

Burden (refrain)

Verses (stanzas) of uniform structure

Burden repeated after each verse

It is believed that the alternation between the burden and verse corresponded with the alternation of chorus and soloists.

The Carols were not folksongs, but were typically English with angular melodies, often with triple rhythms. They were not just about Christmas though they were often religious and celebratory. Even so, as late as 1435 Church Councils were condemning the singing of carols as a pagan practise.

The_carol_of_the_%22waits%22_LCCN2011661367The songs we know as carols were originally communal songs sung during celebrations. This included harvest time as well as Christmas, and the songs were sung by groups of wassailers.

Wassailing is the tradition of carol singing door to door. It is believed the word wassail comes from the Anglo-Saxon toast Wæs þu hæl, meaning be thou hale or be in good health.

There were also official carol singers called Waits. These groups would be led by important local people such as council leaders, because these dignitaries had the legal power to take money from the public. They were called Waits because they only sang on Christmas Eve, which was known as watch-night or wait-night for the reason that the shepherds were watching their sheep when the angels appeared to them.

Wassailers were traditionally given food and drink as well as money. In the popular Christmas Carol “We wish you a Merry Christmas”, the last verse is very clear that, “We won’t go until we get some!”

Although the custom of carol singing had community beginnings and is still a popular activity today, in the later 19th Century it was actually regarded as a form of extortion and people other than Waits who went carol singing could be charged with begging. The custom of wassailing is still practiced in parts of Somerset, Dorset and Devon.

The first printed carols appeared in 1426 in a work by John Awdlay, a Shropshire chaplain, who lists 25 Caroles of Cristemas. Another early edition of printed Christmas Carols is from the collection of Wynkyn de Worde, Thomas Caxton’s apprentice and successor, published in 1521. One of the best-known carols from this collection is the Boar’s Head Carol which is still sung today.

In 16th Century Europe, the singing of carols was encouraged in church. Reformers such as Martin Luther wrote carols and welcomed music as part of religious worship. But in 1647, England was under Puritanical rule and the celebration of Christmas and singing carols was outlawed, along with the eating of mince pies. The songs survived because people sang them in secret, but the singing of Christmas carols became a political act!

418px-Greeting_card_Christmas_Victorian_1885These carols were revived in the Victorian era when new words were set to old melodies and many of the carols we sing today were also written during this time.

Two men called William Sandys and Davis Gilbert collected old Christmas carols from villages in England, and these were published in selections that were sung at home around the piano. At the start of the 18th century, the only really well known carol to find its way into the hymn-book was While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks, which was written during the 17th century.

The First Noël, I Saw Three Ships, God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing first appeared in print in the 1833 edition of Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern by William Sandys. Composers such as Arthur Sullivan helped to re-popularise the carol, and it is this period that gave rise to such favourites as Good King Wenceslas and It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.


It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

As Christmas approaches, there’s always a race for the number-one spot in the charts. This year the Music Workshop Company team have been discussing their favourite seasonal music and have come up with their own top songs. Here’s a little bit about each of the team and their Christmas choices.

Maria Thomas is the Artistic Director and Founder of The Music Workshop Company. She specialises in Early Years, Creativity workshops and World Percussion workshops.

“My favourite is the 1961 song Christmas Time in London Town (words by Frederik Van Pallandt, music by David Flatau).

It was a favourite at my Mum’s school and I love the imagery in the words. It reminds me of trips to London as a child to choose a present in Hamley’s!

I also love the Calypso Carol/O Now Carry Me to Bethlehem, which is another favourite from childhood. I love the Calypso rhythm.”

Matthew Forbes is a cellist who also plays piano, mouth organ, kazoo, djembe, guitar, and mandolin…. And is a composer! Matthew leads workshops on Composition, Song Writing, Indian Music, African Drumming and Ceilidh.

“Easy. It’s Fairytale of New York by Kirsty MacColl and The Pogues. It has everything; sad, funny, ironic, moving, energetic, sentimental and festive. Perfect”

Colin McCann is a percussionist who specialises in Samba workshops but also loves leading Junk Percussion workshops.

“My favourite is In The Bleak Midwinter (words based on a poem by Christina Rossetti and music by Gustav Holst). I love the words; they are so emotive.”

Chris Woodham is a professional percussionist who specialises in World Percussion workshops but also loves leading Composition workshops.

“My favourite Christmas Song is When a Child is Born, by Boney M, (written by Zacar with lyrics by Fred Jay) which was released in 1981, the year of my birth.

It’s from the Christmas Album by Boney M that used to be a firm favourite in the Woodham household.  I’ve always been drawn to reggae, and the album includes lots of lovely ‘reggaefied’ classic songs.  I really like When a Child is born because it uses humming then a full choir and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, also has some spoken word and a key change. What’s not to like! It was recorded at Abbey Road and Air studios both of which I have been lucky enough to work at in the past.”

Sarah Ford is an actor, director and singer, and leads many of our theatrical workshops such as Play in a Day.

“My favourites are Angels from The Realms of Glory (words by James Montgomery to the tune of “Regent Square” UK) and Hark the Herald Angels Sing (music by Felix Mendelssohn, words by Charles Wesley, amended by George Whitefield and Martin Madan).

The first one is because it’s a grand, full-out sing and the second because I love singing the descant.”

Johanna McWeeney is a violinist and journalist who writes and edits the Music Workshop Company blog and newsletters.

“My favourite Christmas piece is Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride, an orchestral piece that dates back to 1948. The lyrics weren’t written until 1950. I just love the melodies, the witty use of percussion and the fun textures from the brass, particularly the horse at the end. It really conjures up Christmas for me and it’s great fun to play.”

Alison Murray is the Project Manager for the Music Workshop Company and liaises with clients to help them find their perfect project.

“Once In Royal David’s City, music composed by Henry John Gauntlet (1805-1876), words written by Cecil Francis Alexander (1818-1895), originally written as a poem.

Why?  The words of the song are so beautifully written, simple yet so meaningful, and of course when you hear the solo at the beginning, the sound is so pure and spine tingling. I have sung this song myself so often, since primary school days (a very long time ago now!) and we always sing it our church crib service, with everyone around the crib holding candles, it’s just magical.”

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