WORDS BY MIRANDA ILCHEF
Our brains are amazing organs. As performers, we rely on them to train our body, to remember our music, and to give us the adrenaline we need to be our best on stage.
So when our minds start to turn on us, it can have devastating consequences.
It’s well reported that mental illness is at endemic levels amongst those working in the performing arts.
It’s hardly surprising when you consider the average performer’s irregular work schedule, high-pressure situations, workplace culture of perfectionism, and high frequency of rejections or ‘failures’.
Add to this the societal tendency to see mental illness as par-for-the-course for performers because of the wildly inaccurate ‘tortured artist’ stereotype, and you have the perfect storm for mental ill-health.
Amongst my tertiary performance student peers, I’ve seen and heard about crippling anxiety and clinical depression so often that I sometimes feel we are at risk of normalising these serious health concerns.
But the tables are starting to turn.
The Arts Wellbeing Collective – an initiative of Arts Centre Melbourne that strives to improve the mental health and wellbeing of those working in the performing arts – is making real and important difference to this issue.
In addition to promoting industry-supportive events and resources, the Arts Wellbeing Collective has now created and launched a series of free meditations for performance energy – designed and delivered by Deone Zanotto, seasoned performing artist and owner and founder of Performance Based Meditation.
As a music student and performing artist myself, I decided to give them a test-run.
I’d consider myself a fairly seasoned meditator. I’ve done the rounds: I’ve meditated with podcasts, apps, a psychologist, YouTube, and in meditation classes.
I could probably talk your socks off discussing the comparative merits of body scans, mindfulness, and visualisation techniques.
But until I came across the Arts Wellbeing Collective’s resource by Deone Zanotto, I hadn’t yet encountered any meditations designed especially for performers and, as has been made clear, we have quite specific pressures and requirements when it comes to maintaining our mental health.
Rather importantly, the Arts Wellbeing Collective’s guided meditations are inclusive and non-threatening in the language they use.
The webpage doesn’t once mention the words ‘anxiety’ or ‘nerves’, which was important for me, as labelling my pre-performance feelings as ‘performance anxiety’ can sometimes be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Instead, the series focuses on energy levels and how to bring them up or down depending on the situation.
#1 Pre-Show Meditation
The 8-minute length of this meditation was perfect: enough to let me really gain my focus, but not so long I got bored. It encourages you to direct a visualisation towards an upcoming performance. I chose to use a performance assessment coming up at my university. As these are marked by a panel of judges, they usually make me fairly nervous in the days and weeks prior.
By the end of this meditation, I really felt as though this nervous energy was redirected into a general feeling of self-efficacy. Although I found myself challenging the positive affirmations the meditation suggested, overall I felt more at ease with the idea of confidently completing my performance assessment.
#2 Post-Show Meditation and #3 Express Post-Show Meditation
I’ve had some trouble with insomnia before, and I find when I have a lot of performances (particularly ones that finish late at night), it can be really hard to switch off before bed. I used these meditations after the last show in a busy week of orchestral performances.
The relaxing piano backing track and introductory breathing exercise helped get me in the mood. Once again, the meditation focused on energy levels and, rather than try to push the post-performance buzz away. The narrator encouraged us to ‘save’ the performance energy for another occasion.
I liked this image, and I found it a lot more approachable than simply trying to ignore the post-performance adrenaline that is so clearly still rushing through your body.
#4 Released and #5 Doorway
These two meditations were focused on how to ‘de-role’, so perhaps better suited to singers or actors than instrumentalists like myself. But I still found them useful and interesting.
Released ran a little like a body scan: we moved through the body and purposefully released the role we had just performed. Doorway was more of a visualisation exercise to separate oneself from their character. I imagine these would be really useful to those who perform in character.
#6 Extend Breath
Breathing exercises are repeatedly proven to have a physiological impact on stress and anxiety. So I already incorporate these into most of my days.
The rhythmic nature of this meditation really (and I mean really) appealed to me as a musician: I felt as though this was something I could practice with a metronome.
The creators have judiciously decided to have no backing track for this meditation, so we only hear the voice of the guide. This was helpful: I’m not sure if it’s just my musical training, but I find it really hard to complete breathing exercises with accompanying music if the tempo doesn’t quite work with my natural breath.
‘Self-love’ and ‘self-compassion’ are terms that can feel confronting and self-indulgent. However, as the narrator aptly points out, performers give so much of themselves to the audience, so it’s really important we know how to recharge and gives ourselves some of that same attention.
This was a longer meditation, so I’m glad I chose to do it on a day where I had time to warm-up with the Extend Breath first, as I think I might otherwise have had trouble keeping my focus all the way through.
This meditation uses visualisation techniques, and really delves into the concept of giving yourself some compassion. It is eye-opening and at times feels almost overwhelming – but not in a negative way.
I continued to think about the ideas explored in this exercise throughout the day. I felt that this mediation exercise was something a lot of performers I know could benefit from and, because of that, I think this is the most important meditation in the Arts Wellbeing Collective’s collection.
I’d recommend these podcasts to anyone in the performing arts industry, regardless of whether you are a student like myself or a seasoned professional.
Even if you feel pretty comfortable in performances or auditions, this podcast series is a great opportunity to take the time to unwind and check in with your mind.
It’s important we take care of our brains with just as much vigour as we might practice our instruments. We need them to produce the music we love.
Visit the Arts Wellbeing Collective to listen to these meditations for free.
Article first appeared in CutCommon. Founded in 2014, CutCommon is an independently run classical and new music magazine with a passion for exposing talent.
CutCommon is a proud member of the Arts Wellbeing Collective. Visit cutcommonmag.com
Article republished with permission.
This article appeared in Spotlight, the Arts Wellbeing Collective magazine: