Checking In: Mental and Emotional Well-Being in Singers

Mental and emotional health is often tied to a singer’s identity. Learn how singers have managed the detrimental aspects of their career through therapy, positive self-talk, and the healing power of music.

 

When I was moving from student to young artist on the cusp of my 20s, there wasn’t a tremendous amount of discussion surrounding the mental and emotional health of singers. Sure, I knew to expect rejection. But other than being advised that it was “part of the gig” and to meet it with as thick a skin and determination as a shark gnawing at prey, there were few tools in my toolbox that helped me navigate the emotional response I often felt to the obstacles presented in such a career.

It didn’t matter how much I loved singing. I identified deeply with the success of my instrument and the value others found in it. My self-worth in those early days often was determined by that success—something I too frequently allowed the gatekeepers of the industry to define for me. It left little room for failure (which I have since redefined as growth). It also gradually began to erode at the joy and curiosity that brought me to music. I wasn’t just hard on myself if I didn’t win an audition. I was hard on myself if my practice sessions felt “off,” if I had a cold, if I ate dairy, if someone I knew was doing “better” than I was.

By the time my 20s had come to an end, I had pushed through to incredible opportunities, fulfilled pivotal goals that set me on a progressive path, and was lucky enough to be traveling and singing steadily for my supper. But it never felt like I was doing enough, and I didn’t leave space to savor what I had worked hard to accomplish more than I wallowed in what I hadn’t done “perfectly.”

Luckily, somewhere amid growing older and wiser, becoming more comfortable defining success on my own terms, and doing more than a few downward-facing dogs, the dialogue surrounding mental and emotional health shifted in a profound way, and I learned how to listen to what I needed to establish better balance. I also realized I hadn’t been alone in the anxiety that had begun circling my quest to make music that mattered.

When it comes to pursuing a career in voice—whether you’re an aspiring performer, music educator, or both—the road is ripe with rewards. However, along with those rewards come unique challenges: rejection, competition, comparison, isolation, imposter syndrome, unusual and often demanding schedules, travel that can take time away from family and friends, nerves brought about by auditions and performances, uncontrollable changes within the industry, job insecurity in an oversaturated market, diminishing wages, the fight to prove the value of your art form, financial instability and often mounting debt from continuing education and business expenses, and more.

An established vocalist and theatrical performer in her native India, Sangita Santosham’s work in psychology and counseling have paralleled her career in the performing arts a counseling psychologist and classical singer. According to Santosham, each is likely to take a toll if left unchecked, particularly when it comes to accepting feedback and the impact that can have on audition and performance anxiety and feelings of value. “I think the thing I see most frequently in musicians is difficulty taking feedback in a nonpersonal way,” she says. “It becomes a very difficult thing, especially when navigating auditions and working through performance anxiety. Rejection can be enough to bring everything else down that you’re working on.”

Her research, as well as her approach to therapy, also have been derived from attributes of creativity. She specializes in a treatment known as creative arts therapy that taps into everything from storytelling to drawing, painting, music, and other artforms to help clients access their emotions. “It uses the creative arts as a process of healing emotions and coming to terms with trauma,” she explains. “A lot of the time, trauma is something we have grown up with and experienced in a very nonverbal way. It becomes difficult to put words to it and it gets stored inside the body. The artform becomes the only way for it to come out.”

Sangita Santosham

However, for creative artists already in touch with those big emotions, Santosham offers a different approach: “Creative artists are already in their right brains, so I try to balance that out with logical thinking and bringing in more left-brain ideas. For a musician, I would never use music because perfection starts to come in. I would pick something completely abstract, like oil pastels, drawing, or a different medium.” Santosham believes the challenges of a full-time career in any art form can be enough to provoke mental and emotional health challenges, even for those who are well established. “It’s a huge responsibility and can sometimes be a huge burden because you don’t know when your next paycheck will arrive,” she explains. “When the passion is still burning but the artist is struggling, sometimes we might look at taking up a different kind of job, in addition to keeping creativity in life in another way.”

Such was the case for Scott Brunscheen. Anyone peering from the outside in might have said that the 37-year-old tenor was doing well for himself, garnering acclaim throughout the U.S. for his performances in baroque, classical, and contemporary repertoire and earning a series of accolades. However, he struggled to make ends meet, even with a steady stream of work. “In theory, I was successful—but what many people didn’t realize was that those paychecks didn’t pay the bills,” he says. That led to feeling frantic over when the next contract would come. Adding to that pressure, Brunscheen could no longer shake the feeling that he was “interchangeable” within the industry.

He shares, “After one of the final gigs I did, I felt as though I hadn’t created any art for that gig, like I was just another person on stage and that I could have been anyone. That’s fairly prominent in classical music, especially for vocalists who want to believe they’re one of a kind. That was a little crushing, because I had put so much time into my preparation and thinking that I was an artist who was authentic.”

Brunscheen felt his sense of identity diminishing, as well as his optimism about the industry: “A lot of the conversations I was having weren’t about the excitement for creating the art anymore but about my frustrations about performing in a broken system and that system being my primary source of income. I needed to take a break to think about why music was important to me and why I loved performing. I had been hustling so hard for work, there was no space to even imagine what my life could be like outside of the performance world that I knew. Luckily, now, I can take time to find out what that next chapter might look like for me.”

Scott Brunscheen

Brunscheen relocated from Chicago to Des Moines, Iowa, with his husband in 2018, where he took a step back from performing full time and took on a role as an adjunct professor of voice at Central College in Pella, Iowa, and Drake University in Des Moines. Recently, he stepped back even further, maintaining a private studio and remaining open to possibilities outside of music. The career shift is one he credits with helping him put his mental and emotional health at the forefront. It also helped him reconnect with his sense of value and create a life both in and outside of music that works best for him.

“For many singers, teaching becomes a parallel to performing,” Brunscheen said. “We always talk about how much more we learn about our own singing and how much better we become once we start teaching. This was true, but I also learned more about my sense of worth as a human being. I found myself talking about that a lot with students who were coming into my studio and dealing with identity acceptance. After a while, I was paying attention to my own words: you still have value even when you don’t fit into the image of perfection that you have or that is superimposed upon you. Being busy isn’t what makes you the better singer. What has been amazing to think about this year, too, is that you still have value even if you’re not working and even if you need to give yourself permission to take a break. Plenty of singers were able to do that this year without feeling guilty over it because no one was performing. I think it gave young singers especially the permission to look at their own timeline and trajectory and get rid of the idea that their path had to look like X.”

Brunscheen also believes the past year has created opportunities for the industry to explore its inner demons, “As singers, we were able to discover more about ourselves and think about who we wanted to be. The same was true of the industry. We were able to have important conversations about being proactive in inclusivity and about being more progressive and transparent. I think what would be saddest to me is going ‘back to normal’ and forgetting everything we learned from this year—that normal was broken.

 

The COVID-19 Influence

COVID-19 created unprecedented challenges for singers and teachers who abruptly found themselves out of work or pivoting to virtual instruction as performance venues shuttered and schools suspended in-person learning. Santosham believes the pandemic also brought existing mental and emotional health challenges to the surface. She observes, “I think in the past year, especially during lock down, our mental health was right in front of us. If anxiety had always been at 30%, it shot up to 60% because we couldn’t escape it.”

Chicago-based soprano and private voice teacher Alexandra LoBianco was among those affected. She notes, “It’s been an intense year. When Covid hit, I was covering Brünnhilde in the (Lyric Opera of Chicago’s) ‘Ring Cycle.’ Shutting down was a momentous event to anybody in the industry, but to have it happen to a ‘Ring Cycle’ was an absolute gut punch. I tried to stay positive at first. But I also started to acknowledge that I was dealing with a dark side. After a while, I would wake up, go sit on my couch, and just cry from the heaviness and exhaustion that culminated from all of it.”

A professional musician for more than two decades and a working opera singer for more than a decade, LoBianco said that she eventually discovered the perks of spending more time at home. But it was a double-edged sword. She also longed for the sense of home she experienced on stage. For her, “being home was good in so many ways. I got to plant things, see the fruits of that labor grow, and feel the wealth in doing something I was really proud of in a different way than singing. I got to cook and take care of my family. As much as I loved being able to do that and without sounding selfish, there is something very fulfilling about being away on a job. There is something very special about what we do and the amount of energy it takes not just to be on stage but for all of us to be together in a production. To not be able to provide that service was like ripping out my insides, because it is a service we provide. I believe we offer healing and replenishment in that exchange of energy with the audience.”

LoBianco had been receptive to music’s healing benefits long before the grip of the pandemic took hold. With early aspirations to become a music therapist, it was through an early mentor that she was able to develop the tools that would sustain her mental and emotional health before embarking upon a professional career. One of those included a technique known as “voice dialogue.” It’s something LoBianco continues to use, as well as advocate the use of in her voice studio, which she strives to make a safe environment for students in tackling this self-exploration.

“It’s about knowing how to manage self-talk,” LoBianco explains. “It begins with being aware who you are at your core and your center, allowing yourself to be present, and acknowledging all of the voices or thoughts you hear to understand where they are coming from, without allowing them to become a part of your center. Sometimes, it’s tapping into a part of yourself and allowing it to speak when it hasn’t had the chance to do that before.”

Another bit of advice LoBianco was given by her mentor was understanding that she was not trying to get a job but, rather, she was doing a job. That came in handy when it came to her approach to auditions: “Even that slight mental shift was enough to get me thinking differently about walking into an audition and seeking approval. There is a fine line between confidence and cockiness and a difference between constructive feedback and praise. It’s our job as singers and teachers of young singers to be able to know how to filter that. What you’re leaving in that room is a moment in your career. It’s not your humanity.”

Despite this, LoBianco sought therapy in order to help her navigate the past year—something she believes she might have benefited from even prior to the pandemic. She shares, “Every singer should have a therapist throughout their career, just as you would a voice teacher and a vocal coach. Make them part of your team. Just to be able to lighten your load and hear the words ‘I hear you’ can be so powerful and validating.”

LoBianco’s biggest advice is to quit at least once per week; however, not in the way one might think: “You’re not quitting singing. You’re quitting ‘right now.’ You’re quitting the moment. You’re empowering yourself to know wholeheartedly that you can make a choice and, sometimes, just saying those words can make you feel so much lighter—just enough for that little voice in the back of your mind to say, ‘No, no. You love singing. You love telling stories. You still have more to say.’ Then, you remember why you’re doing it.”

 

Creating Space for Your Mental and Emotional Health

While every singer’s journey is unique, Santosham says there are ways to make mental and emotional health a more prominent priority for those who can’t possibly imagine another path other than performing. She posits, “Having another outlet or activity outside of your artform is so important. When your art form is your job, you work within so many parameters of having to do it perfectly, of making sure every note is right, and that you’ve trained your instrument to sing a certain way that’s expected of you. It’s kind of restrictive to someone who is in a creative role. It’s important to choose an outlet to where you can just be yourself, be messy, or be terrible so you can enjoy the creativity flowing through you.”

Another important piece to the puzzle is identity. “As a singer, I am looking for the chance to sing well. And that means singing what suits me best in the texture and ability of my voice. If I’m asked to do something that isn’t within that, then it’s probably not a good idea. Knowing your identity, what’s appropriate for you and what isn’t appropriate for you, is something to work through and is an ongoing process.”

Santosham said she has noticed an encouraging uptick in performers and younger clients in general who are reaching out for help. Like LoBianco, therapy is something she believes every creative mind should embark upon. “Just having someone you can talk to who is not a part of the industry, even if it’s only once a month, can make a very big difference.”

Megan Gloss

Megan Gloss is a classical singer and journalist based in the Midwest.