Only one more trip up to Edinburgh, two more weeks of teaching, three auditions, four choral gigs and I'm finished for 2016. I spend a lot of time either practicing, travelling or with children so I really appreciate the time I spend with my friends. Our new thing is spending our Sundays walking in the countryside discussing anything but singing. You would think that most of us being singers would cause problems but the further into our careers we travel the more we value each others support and understanding of the lives we lead. Of course when you're going for the same things and one of you gets it and the other doesn't, that is hard. However the more we progress out of a Conservatoire environment the rarer situations like that become.
A month ago I spent a lovely weekend with a few friends up in Harrogate. One of the girls used to be at the RNCM but had to leave half way through her studies because of a debilitating and unexplained illness. She saw many doctors and specialists and they couldn't figure out what was wrong. It got to the point where she couldn't do anything because of extreme fatigue and an agonising pain in her legs. She was diagnosed with ME and was told she might be better in a week or in 10 years. She eventually came across a form of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy called The Lightening Process. She explained how all pain starts in the brain so if you treat chronic pain psychologically it has the potential to be cured. I distinctly remember her saying that your mind is like Plasticine and you can mold it to think in whatever way you like. After having three days of this treatment she was up walking and basically made a full recovery. She was of the same mind as me as I believe everyone would benefit from some therapy whether its Mindfulness, Mediation or Counselling. It was also great to see how open she was about what she had been through and you could tell she wanted to help anyone going through a similar situation.
I really struggled during the first few years at the RNCM. I was born with an eye condition called Nystagmus and because it's not hugely common and kids are mean, I was bullied in school. Like a lot of people the emotions and the knock to my self esteem came out in my early twenties. Whenever someone would mention my eyes shaking or my head turn I would cry and I couldn't control it. It began to take over my whole life and especially affected my singing lessons. It got to the point where my teacher sat me down and said, 'You can't keep doing this", because it would waste lesson time. So during my third year I decided to try and get some help. I applied for some free Cognitive Behavioral Therapy but was told I was too emotional and needed to "talk it out". Luckily the RNCM has a fantastic support system and two very lovely counsellors who you can arrange an appointment with. After a few weeks of talking my issues through it was suggested I contacted the Deputy Head of the Vocal Department. it was comforting to speak to someone who knew exactly where I was coming from and so she put me in touch with a counsellor outside college who dealt with musicians with performance anxiety and other issues relating to this. It was a bit of a trek down to Sale every week but it was so worth it. She identified that my reaction of crying mimicked survival reactions (fight or flight) and suggested a treatment called EMDR. I had to close my eyes and let my mind wander and she would tap my hands continuously and then stop and I would tell her what I was thinking about. The point of the tapping was to disturb the brain patterns so I would get out of the habit of crying. It worked a treat and I can talk about my eye condition a lot more comfortably. I still have worries about whether its going to affect me and I often feel uncomfortable when people talk about how eyes are very important as they are the window to the soul. It's a process and a journey and the more positive experiences I have, where I prove to myself that it won't hold me back, the more confident I become.
What I did to overcome my problems was extremely hard and draining. It probably affected my studies at the time but I am so much better for it now. I've had people say to me, "I really struggle with my confidence", and I've heard about how people cry all the time in their singing lessons. While studying in a safe and supportive environment is the time to equip ourselves with not just vocal technique but also techniques in dealing with stress and anxiety. There are a lot less resources once you leave and the problems only get worse. We often get stuck in thinking we can't change who we are and we can't help how we feel but that simply isn't true. For those people who do suffer with anxiety or low self-esteem it's important to know that you can change things for yourself with a bit of effort.
Everybody will experience some form of Mental Health issues in their career and we should be talking about it and sharing our stories. I was baffled when I told a friend of mine how someone had confided in me about their confidence issues and they replied, "That's not fair to put that on you." The more we talk about the not so good times in our career the less alone others going through it will feel. It's a bit like when people say "How can you expect somebody to love you if you don't love yourself". It's the same with singing, how is a director or conductor supposed to believe in you if you don't believe in yourself.