APRIL’s Child…


Don’t be fooled by those dainty fingers at rest. They were already playing the Haydn Concerto with the Royal Conservatory Orchestra. Studying at Juilliard, she played her Town Hall debut in NYC at 14, after sharing first prize in the High School of the Performing Arts Concerto Competition with Murray Perahia; and then impressing the likes of composers Karlheinz Stockhausen, György Ligeti and Pierre Boulez. (photo: circa 1958, taken in Ottawa.)

Think you know who APRIL’s child is?

Send your best guess to musicschildren@thewholenote.com

(please provide your mailing address, just in case your name is drawn!)

Winners will be selected by random draw among correct replies received by April 15 2009.

Read more: Musical Life: We Are All Music's Children


What was your first ever choral experience?


My earliest choral memories: singing in the May Festivals that were held in Brantford, Ontario, where I grew up, and run by Frank Holton for selected singers from elementary schools. We all had to wear white dresses and we felt so important. These were tremendous experiences. My grandmother, Florence Drake, was a huge musical influence in my life: we spent weekends at her house, listened to great choral music on Sunday mornings on CBC radio before church. She was also my first choral director!

Karen Burke     photo: roswell anderson
Karen Burke photo: roswell anderson

Read more: Featuring Karen Burke - February 2009

Photo by Bo HuangIt was the first time that Dvořák’s joyous Symphony No.8 had failed to move Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony’s concertmaster Stephen Sitarski. He knew each note by heart, and he usually looked forward to its most exhilarating passages. But on that matinee performance at the packed Guelph River Run Centre over a decade ago, something was very wrong. Though his body churned out the melody by rote, he felt like a robot. “I was disconnected completely from the music – I felt empty and soulless,” he says.

For a moment he considered getting up, apologizing to the conductor and walking offstage. But years of discipline kicked in and he finished the piece. “I’m someone who doesn’t give up, who sacrifices to the end to get the job done.”

Shortly after that incident Sitarski was diagnosed with severe depression.

Sitarski is not alone. The rate of depression is higher amongst musicians than in the general population, says Dianna Kenny, professor of psychology and music at Australia’s University of Sydney. In one study, 32 percent of one orchestra’s players ticked off symptoms of depression in a questionnaire.

The artistic temperament puts many musicians at risk for depression, says Susan Raeburn, clinical psychologist in Oakland, California. The same sensitivity that drives them to self-expression makes them vulnerable to emotional pain.

Children’s musical education may ramp up their sensitivity to stress, says physician Dr. John Chong, director of the Musicians’ Clinics of Canada. Traditional teachers hold students to exacting standards, ripping them apart when they fall short. Auditions and competitions add to the relentless judgment. Some young musicians internalize these critical voices, becoming perfectionists who are never satisfied with themselves, says Raeburn. They are especially vulnerable to developing severe, suicidal depression, she says.

Some of these prodigies resent the loss of their childhood, says Kenny. “Instead of exploring the world, they’re locked away in their music room practising.”

Life doesn’t get any easier for adult artists. Orchestral musicians face relentless competition for few spots, financial insecurity, long hours, inadequate rehearsals, and exhausting tours which take them away from loved ones, says Chong.

But the psychological pressures are the toughest. While young musicians are encouraged to find their own voice, recording companies, agents and conductors stifle their creativity, says Chong. Conflict within the orchestra can also diminish workplace satisfaction, says Kenny. “An orchestra is a very closed universe – when you see people day in and day out, then travel together in close quarters when on tour…certain animosities will develop,” she says. Public humiliations by abusive conductors can add to the strife, says Chong.

Sitarski suffered many of these pressures over his career. He has always been emotional, turning to music to express his feelings. “I am compelled to play – if I don’t perform I feel emptiness.” But some of his teachers sabotaged his enjoyment, comparing him unfavorably to other students and belittling him when he lost a competition. Sitarski soon adopted their impossibly high expectations. “If we don’t shoot for perfection, we don’t improve, but we beat ourselves up when we don’t reach it,” he says.

Sitarski encountered a whole new set of stressors after graduation. He endured anxiety-provoking auditions, hidden behind a screen, knowing that his future depended on only ten minutes of playing. After winning one of a few coveted spots in the Winnipeg Symphony, he had little bargaining power to challenge the exhausting workload, insufficient preparation and arduous tours.

Losing his artistic integrity was even worse. One conductor at the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony was especially authoritarian. “He would often choose interpretive styles and tempi that were extremely uncomfortable, but when someone would express that he would dismiss them outright,” says Sitarski.

Ironically, it was the firing of this particular conductor that pushed Sitarski over the edge. Some of those who opposed the dismissal blamed Sitarski, the concertmaster, giving him the cold shoulder. But the show had to go on. “The repression was huge – we had to sit with a smile pasted on our faces for the sake of the audience,” he says.

The body keeps score of these kinds of cumulative mental injuries, says Chong. Each time we’re stressed, we activate the fight or flight system which helps us cope with a threat. The hormone cortisol is a weapon in this arsenal, releasing proteins called cytokines which generate inflammation. With repeated crises, these chemicals accumulate in the muscles, causing soreness, and attack brain cells, precipitating depression.

The illness dulls thinking, flattens emotions and sucks the joy out of life. “You’re like a zombie,” says Chong. Some musicians funnel their emotional suffering into physical agony, developing aches in their joints and muscles, says Kenny.

Chronic stress can also spark stage fright in musicians with reactive nervous systems or difficult childhoods, says Kenny. Depression can follow. “Musicians know they’re going to get terrible anxiety every time they get onstage, and this wears them out,” she says.

As the psychological insults piled up like toxins in his system, Sitarski’s body succumbed to illness. First he grappled with overwhelming performance anxiety, triggering a racing heart, clammy hands, and sheer terror before a show. While the problem wasn’t new, it increased after the rift. “I worried when I went onstage that I’d screw up and the ‘other side’ would feel vindicated.”

Then Sitarski got sicker. He was always exhausted, and his normally efficient reflexes slowed down. “I would be practising something and it just wouldn’t stick – I’d stumble all over and make mistakes.” Worse was the nihilism, the certainty that nothing mattered. And though he didn’t feel tempted to harm himself, he recalls one sobering night when he understood the rationale for suicide. “It’s this very cold, logical decision made by someone who has lost his ability to feel any kind of joy.”

But Sitarski kept soldiering on until one day he woke up with a kink in his neck. “It was my body’s signal telling me that I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing.” He tried massage, acupuncture and physiotherapy. Nothing worked. Finally his family doctor referred him to the Musicians Clinics of Canada, where, Sitarski says, Chong took one glance and diagnosed him with depression.

Awareness of a condition can lead to effective ways of addressing it. Antidepressants can address the biochemical imbalances, says Chong. Dialectical behaviour therapy teaches self-soothing techniques such as mindfulness meditation, breathing exercises and physical exertion which can calm the nervous system and keep emotions in check, says Raeburn.

Therapy can be another important ingredient in healing. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) focuses attention on the rigid and self-critical thinking of depressed clients, substituting extreme statements like “Either I’m perfect or I’m total crap,” with more balanced assessments, like “No one’s perfect,” says Raeburn. Newer versions of CBT can help some patients defuse disturbing thoughts and feelings by stepping back and observing them non-judgmentally.

Psychodynamic therapy likewise enables some depressed musicians to dig deeper into the root causes of their ailment, mining the layers of trauma and uncovering the buried emotions which combusted into illness. These could include a teacher’s insistence on winning, a conductor’s humiliation, or a fraught domestic situation – anything that causes uncontrolled anger to ignite the nervous system’s stress response. Once these factors come to light, some musicians can make healthier choices in their lifestyles.

Finally, interpersonal neurobiology can work to redress dysfunctional relationships. Children whose parents were not attuned to their needs have difficulty trusting people and are vulnerable to anxiety and depression, says Chong. For instance, the prodigy whose stage parents value only his genius, will “freak out” if he doesn’t triumph in the Chopin contest. A therapist can guide insights into these unhealthy patterns and model secure and healthy attachments, says Raeburn.

Sitarski’s first visit with Dr. Chong was pivotal. An antidepressant recharged his energy and meditation helped him to relax. A counsellor reconnected Sitarski with his numbed-out feelings. “I’m much better now at recognizing when some button is pushed.” He began to realize that just going to work every day was jarring. “I couldn’t see that group of people without bringing back all these unbelievably intense negative emotions,” he says.

Awareness led Sitarski to reboot his life. “I renewed my outlook and my career, and began enjoying things again.” Sitarski left the Kitchener-Waterloo orchestra, becoming concertmaster of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra a year later. He recharged his ambition with new opportunities, freelancing for the National Ballet, the Canadian Opera Company and the Toronto Symphony.

Sitarski has also become a mental health advocate. He began instructing Performance Awareness at The Royal Conservatory’s Glenn Gould School, a course which points out the challenges unique to musicians, and showcases resources such as yoga to tackle the potential pitfalls. Because he’s gone public with his struggles, the young musicians sometimes approach him for advice on their own problems. “Sharing my experience so someone maybe doesn’t have to go through it makes me feel better,” he says.

Sitarski’s journey through depression has helped him crystallize his identity. “I know who I am and I’m comfortable in my skin,” he says. And though he still relies on medication to keep the demons at bay, he’s grateful for his health and hopeful about the future.

Best of all, he has reconnected with the magic of music. On this particular night the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra is performing Dvořák’s New World Symphony at the FirstOntario Concert Hall. Sitarski feels every note beating in his blood and his colleagues mirror his motions to stay in synchrony. His bow resurrects the composer’s long-ago lament, conjuring from the faded score a pulsing pathos.

The audience absorbs the players’ energy and refuels them with its own electricity. Sitarski revels in the intimacy of this interplay. “I’ve become a human being again,” he says.

Vivien Fellegi is a former family physician now working as a freelance medical journalist.

Liona Boyd - Photo by Dean MarrantzShe will always remember those moments of perfection during her best performances. Eyes half closed, she sways to the beat, blonde mane swinging back and forth. Her fingers dance effortlessly over the frets of her guitar. Time and space shrink to a pinpoint and only the music is real.

It didn’t happen at every concert. But when she got in the zone, nothing else could beat that rush. “It’s an out-of-body experience – it’s like being in love,” says 68-year-old Canadian guitar legend Liona Boyd.

But in 2000, these moments of bliss stuttered to a stop. While her technique once flowed almost effortlessly, Boyd began struggling to control the movements of her right middle finger. For the first time in her career, her smooth tremolos, once deemed the best in her business, became jagged. Her arpeggios followed suit.

At first Boyd was hopeful that the mysterious ailment could be fixed. She quit playing and trudged from one health practitioner to the next, enduring hypnotherapy, botox injections, and even an immersion into Scientology. “Every therapy you think will work, then your hopes are dashed.” Eventually Boyd was diagnosed with musician’s focal dystonia, an overuse condition caused by mindless and frequent repetition of movements, which burn out the brain signals controlling muscle function. The diagnosis forced her to confront the bitter edge of reality. “I would never be the guitar virtuoso I once was – it was heartbreaking.”

Boyd is not alone. Eighty-four per cent of musicians will face a significant injury during their lifetimes, says physician Dr. John Chong, medical director of the Musicians’ Clinics of Canada. Musicians make extreme demands on their bodies, practising the same notes up to six hours without a break. “There is no off switch in the excellence-driven process,” says Chong. Chronic stress also plays a role in generating injuries. Workplace conditions, including job insecurity, ramp up muscle tension amongst performers, making them more prone to strains.

The emotional fallout can be disastrous. Musicians’ injuries are devastating because music is not just a livelihood, it’s their identity, says Lynda Mainwaring, registered psychologist and associate professor of kinesiology and physical education at the University of Toronto. Injuries also deprive performers of the joy brought about by the flow state, a transcendent experience where they lose themselves in concentration. “Flow can be a way of coping and forgetting problems – if musicians can’t get there, they’ll be frustrated.”

For some musicians, injuries rupture the harmonious relationships with their instruments, says osteopath Jennie Morton, wellness professor at the Colburn School in Los Angeles. Many view their violins and oboes as almost human, even going so far as to name them. “But when things go wrong, their former friends can turn into enemies,” says Morton.

Boyd was devastated by her condition, shedding tears every time she tried to coax her guitar to cooperate. “The joy was robbed – that was the worst thing.” It was almost as if her beloved guitar had turned against her. “You feel your best friend has let you down.”

Denial compounds injuries. Half of injured musicians play hurt, says Chong. From a young age, musicians are trained to sacrifice their well-being for the greater good of the audience. They are also reluctant to draw attention to their health issues because they fear losing solos as well as job opportunities. But playing through pain worsens the problem.

For a while Boyd too tried to combat her wayward finger. She ramped up her practising, but that only worsened the dystonia. Later, after her diagnosis, Boyd kept it under wraps. “I didn’t want people feeling sorry for me.”

Fortunately, there are constructive ways to deal with injuries. Rapid diagnosis and treatment by a physician trained in musicians’ health will resolve many conditions, says Chong. But in one study, 50 per cent of injured musicians felt they had never fully recovered, says Morton.

When injuries impact their careers, musicians need to allow themselves to grieve, says Mainwaring. “The loss of that part of life is like a death.” Some benefit from expressing their feelings through writing, while others prefer talking to a therapist. Deep breathing, mindfulness meditation, yoga and exercise can all help to relax tense muscles, says Morton. Reaching out for support, especially from other musicians who have gone through similar crises can be reassuring, says Mainwaring. “It helps them feel they’re not alone.”

As injured musicians begin to reconstruct their lives, it’s important for them to dig down deep and figure out why they picked up their instruments in the first place, says Dr. Chase McMurren, MD, medical director and psychotherapist at the Al & Malka Green Artists’ Health Centre at the Toronto Western Hospital. Most just wanted to make beautiful music, not caring if they made mistakes. But over the course of their careers, many have internalized the expectations of their teachers and families, and absorbed the competition for fame and money. Injured musicians need to discard the weight of these burdens and try to recoup the pure thrill of their artistry.

Even if they’ve stopped playing, musicians can still participate in their craft, says Mainwaring. Sidelined artists can contribute to their profession by sharing how they dealt with their own setbacks. Teaching music can be another fulfilling option.

But injured performers can also find solace outside their métier. If music has always been the driving purpose in their lives, they need to unearth new sources of meaning, says Mainwaring. This could mean spending more time with family, or possibly switching to a new vocation. “They will be more fulfilled if they have other satisfying outlets.”

Daniel Blackman - photo by Christopher WahlToronto Symphony Orchestra viola player, Daniel Blackman, had to reconstruct his life after a career-threatening injury. In the summer of 2010 he was struck by a car while cycling and left for dead. He woke up in St. Joseph’s Hospital with a collapsed lung, a concussion and multiple fractures. But the worst problem for his career was nerve damage and reduced flexibility in his left, instrument-holding arm.

It wasn’t until he was home that the impact of his accident sank in. He feared he might never regain his top form. “If you have a career and it’s taken away, you feel like your life as you knew it has come to a close.” Blackman lay in bed, day after day, riddled with self-pity.

Fortunately, his partner didn’t allow him to wallow in despair. After a few weeks rest, she pried him outside for a walk. Although he barely managed one block, by autumn he was doing four-hour hikes. Walking in natural settings became his salvation. “The air is amazing, I don’t feel closed in, and my mind expands.”

Blackman’s physiotherapist also helped to pull him out of his funk. She had overcome her own medical issues, and shared her struggles with her client. “If you see someone else who had a major situation and is thriving, it’s really motivating.”

Just over a year after his accident, Blackman returned to work. But although he was capable of performing in the orchestra, he had to quit his quartet and no longer plays solos. “In chamber music you’re exposed, and everything you do is high stakes.” Blackman made his peace with his new circumstance. “Luckily I’d had a full career already – I didn’t feel that I had to prove anything.”

Instead of dwelling on his own losses, Blackman shifted his focus to young, up-and-coming performers, supporting them financially. But he gets back as much as he gives. “Watching these young careers succeed is a pleasure.”

Today Blackman is thriving. Though he still sometimes misses the spotlight, he sees his life overall as a blessing. Having almost died three times after his accident, he’s just happy to be kicking around.
“I was given a gift of life.”

Boyd too has successfully reinvented herself, a process she describes in her newly released memoir, No Remedy for Love. She simplified her technique and expanded her repertoire, blending the purely classical with more forgiving folk and new age elements. “When you play classical music and you make a slip, you almost stop breathing, but in folk style, a little squeak is not the end of the world.” Performing as a duo [with Andrew Dolson] allows her to share the responsibility for the tricky parts and gives her companionship on stage. “It’s more collaborative and fun than being on my own.”

Boyd also fashioned herself into a singer-songwriter. Although a childhood teacher had once squelched her confidence in singing, the instructor was no match for Boyd’s tenacity. “I’m a very determined person – I don’t know any classical instrumentalists who become singers.” And though she says her voice isn’t trained, it has a natural quality which suits the type of music she composes.

Songwriting brings Boyd a whole new means of self-expression. “I’m able to say things both melodically and with lyrics, so it’s added another level of creativity.” She finds inspiration everywhere, singing about love, her adopted land of Canada, and even a prayer for planet Earth.

Best of all, composing has restored to Boyd the fulfillment of flow. As she racks her brain for the perfect word, she loses track of time. Hours can whizz by. Sometimes a whole night when she’s on a roll. And when the lyrics and the melody speak her truth, it’s ecstasy. “This whole other world opens up. I get shivers.”

Boyd hopes her own triumph over trauma will inspire musicians with focal dystonia and other injuries, who are still in the closet. Her advice is simple. “Life throws you curve balls. You can get dragged down. But it’s never too late to turn your life around.”

Audiences today are as moved as ever by this new Liona Boyd. Fans say that her songs have delighted wedding guests, soothed the sick and inspired children to learn the guitar. (Even her late cat, Muffin, curled up by her side and fell asleep when she played). These testimonials are Boyd’s most valuable rewards. “It’s amazing when people tell me how much my music means to them. That makes all the struggles worthwhile.”

Vivien Fellegi is a former family physician now working as a freelance medical journalist.

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