Welcome to C Natural’s Breaking the Silence series, a collection of musicians’ health experiences from musicians, music educators and researchers. With over 80% of professional musicians facing health issues related to their career throughout their lifetime, this series aims to provide strength in numbers and to initiate transparent dialogue surrounding musician’s health issues in our community.
This week I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Jonah Spungin, a baritone doing his master’s in vocal performance. Jonah and I met at McGill, and I quickly realized that he’s a fabulous singer and all around person. In this interview, he opens up about his experience with mental illness and stigmas in the vocal and music world. Thank you Jonah for sharing your story with love and openness!
cw: mental illness, prescription psychiatric drug use
Instrument(s): Vocal cords (the baritone size) for the career stuff and guitar for the campfire stuff
Born: Ottawa, ON
Now: Montreal, QC
Genre: Mostly classical but occasionally Rent
What’s your musician’s health story?
Over winter break in my third year of undergrad, I hit the lowest point in a very long descent into what I thought was just a rut. My desire to interact with people was steadily declining alongside my ability to focus on anything, and it felt like I was going nowhere. I decided to go speak to my doctor about it and was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and depression, and was prescribed medication. After speaking with her for awhile, it became apparent that this was something I’d always struggled with, and that this was the first time where I was fortunate enough to feel that I could reach out.
I tried the medication for a moderate period of time, and, though it worked for me, ultimately decided not to take it. This is where music comes in, but let me say this first: I had no issues with the idea of taking medication, and if it is something that works for you, then it is absolutely something you should do. The thing was that, for me, I had gotten into music because it gave me an outlet into which I could channel the overwhelming highs and lows that came with my mental illness (long before I knew it was a mental illness). Actually, I can connect the times in which I practiced the most with when I was also struggling the most. I would get frustrated and angry and discouraged trying to practice through a depressive or anxious episode, but music would always get me through. While on the medication, I retained my ability to connect with my music and make it, but I lost the desire and the need to.
Now, the relationship between music and my mental health has become much simpler. I spent a lot of time experimenting, but ultimately found an approach that works for me. I don’t allow myself to sing when I am anxious, and instead I’ll play guitar, since it’s not connected with my career and I’m not obsessed with quality where my guitar playing is concerned. I also prioritize having non-music activities that I’m passionate about, like hiking and being outdoors, reading for fun, lifting weights, and I try to connect with my friends over things that aren’t just music. I am open to my prof about my illness and try not to be embarrassed to admit when I need a break or need to take a day off. It’s incredible how taking a minute in a lesson and saying, “I’m sorry, I just need to breathe,” makes everything much more manageable.
What have you found is particularly challenging as a vocalist, in regards to your mental or physical health?
As a singer, the hardest part for me in regards to my mental health is that we are constantly asked to delve into our emotions and draw from them for our expression of characters and stories. As someone who struggled with mental health issues long before they were recognized as such, I spent a long time trying to avoid that. Sometimes, I touch a nerve with a particularly moving or poignant bit of music or text, and I wind up emotionally drained for days.
In the long term, I have found this incredibly healing, and I’m learning to be honest and open with myself. In the short term, it’s quite stressful to go about daily life and classes feeling as though you’re reliving some of the worst emotional moments of your life. This may sound quite melodramatic, but the thing about having an anxiety disorder is that it doesn’t matter what the reality is around you, your mind and body are just in full overdrive sometimes.
I also find it challenging that exercise, or “working out”, is a touchy subject in singing. Going to the gym often keeps me balanced and has been the most effective thing for me in keeping my body calm and my mind in a good place, but there’s definitely a stigma around it. In addition to the “Don’t work out too much or your muscles will get in the way of your singing” trope, there still exists a stigma around spending your time at the gym rather than in the practice room or in a rehearsal. Though I will say that with the recent spike in health awareness at McGill, this way of thinking is slowing to a stop as more and more people that I know are taking up fitness in its various forms.
Have you felt pressured to perform a certain way?
Well, sure. I feel huge pressure to perform well no matter the circumstances and, along with many other musicians, I’m sure, the pressure I put on myself to perform well is huge. It’s one of the greatest gifts and dangers we have as performers.
I think as a singer, too, one of the struggles is that you’re expected to portray a certain emotion, no matter how far you feel from it at the time. So sometimes I feel so much pressure to be funny and happy, for example, when really what I’d like to do is get back into bed and cry, but there’s really no time for that…
What do you think needs to change so that musicians are more healthy?
Honestly, I wish I had a better answer for this. I think the best I can say with certainty is that the discussion needs to be better. I spend a lot of time thinking about what I need in terms of support and it’s not something I find I ever have the opportunity to talk about. So many of us know what we need or have a good idea of what we need and so much time is spent with other people either trying to tell us what we need or worse, giving us those things without ever asking.
This is all very wishy-washy, but what I mean is we could be having talks given by people with mental illnesses about how to talk to and treat people with these problems. We could be having groups for people with mental illnesses to talk about how to deal with them as a musician that are hosted by people with these problems. How do I get into character while experiencing a panic attack? How do I get myself into the practice room when I feel that nothing matters and my bed feels like a black hole I can’t crawl out of? How amazing would it be to know that so many others deal with these things regularly without having to go so far as to know you’re struggling and seek out help?
What do you think is the future for musician’s health?
Frankly, I think the future of musician’s health right now is exactly what you’re doing. Awareness. We all know that musicians struggle with many different kinds of health issues, but it’s so easy to fall into the trap of “Well these people who are like that have these problems, but these other musicians don’t have those problems, so I can’t have those problems either.”
Anything else you’d like to add?
I just want to throw in the importance of finding a way to value yourself as a person and not just as a musician. Besides, you must be a person first in order to have something to say, and you can’t be a musician without something to say.
This summer, Jonah is at the Franz-Schubert-Institut working intensively for five weeks on German poetry and Lieder. This was preceded by a workshop on a new opera in London at Guildhall in early June and then a three week backpacking trip through Europe. Jonah concludes, “I like to think I’m working on my music this summer by dedicating some time to work on my soul.”