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Written by Jeanette Kelly

Music schools are high-pressure environments where students have to deal with stage fright and performance anxiety, and classical and contemporary music fields are very competitive with no guarantee of a job upon graduation. This September, a groundbreaking new program at McGill University's Schulich School of Music will address that acute student stress and anxiety.

Starting Sept. 1, studies in wellness will be added to the curriculum and new students will be required to take part in a peer mentorship program. The initiative is the first of its kind in Canada.

"Even singing in practice rooms can be stressful because people next door can hear you," says Allison O'Brien, a voice student at McGill. "Do they want me to do well or do they want me to crash and burn? That's an awful feeling to walk into."

In a relatively small university faculty, where everyone knows everyone else's business, O'Brien says the stress mounts very quickly. She and associate dean Jacqueline Leclair got together to talk about all the stress that music students feel, and they decided to do something about it.

Are music students different?

While all students cope with stress, O'Brien and Leclair had a hunch that what music students were going through was more intense. They reached out to Dr. Nancy Low at McGill's Mental Health Services and found that their hunch was right.

"We did a survey in Mental Health Services a couple of years ago," says Low. "We looked at different types of students entering our service ... and actually students in music are over-represented in our service compared to the [student] population in general."

Low says that's partly an indication of the music students' heightened sensitivity to their own emotions, but it's also an indication that they need help earlier in their studies before depression can set in. Otherwise some students risk becoming so discouraged they change programs or quit.

Leclair, who has been associate dean of McGill's Schulich School of Music since 2012, found herself talking to students at the end of term when they were worried about exams, telling her about missing classes, and she started to think about how she could help. 

"It seemed to me these very bright, self-aware, well-intended people needed resources earlier in the process, needed to get the message that it's normal to have these challenges," explains Leclair. "There are resources here on campus [and] I think if they had [access] to them earlier, we could nip these issues in the bud."

Leclair looked at a variety of services — mental health counselling, sports psychology and nutrition — and she examined what kind of peer support was set up and what would be a good fit. From there, she pulled together a program with the special needs of music students in mind.

"To the best of my knowledge, we are the first elite music school to have extensive well-being training in our required, basic curriculum," she says. "This is going to be a huge game-changer."

New for incoming students

As part of the new program, first-year music students must take a course called Music Professional Development, which includes components not only about job options and professional contracts but also mental health. Other topics covered include injury prevention and a relaxation method known as Alexander Technique.

Also mandatory starting this semester is participation in a new peer mentorship program. Each new student will have a more senior student mentor whom they can check in with. Leclair says it's important just to ask simple things like, "How are you doing? Are you sleeping well? Are you happy with your teachers? Are you making friends?"

It's all part of an overall strategy to prevent music students from experiencing depression and defaulting on their studies, and because the program makes use of pre-existing university services, it's cost-neutral.

"The only expense associated with all our initiatives is the printing and laminating of posters," explains Leclair.

O'Brien, who is vice president of events and recreation for the student association at McGill's Schulich School of Music, is responsible for the frosh activities next week, and the first thing she's got on the agenda for incoming students is a talk about well-being.

"We give an orientation speech to the students and say, 'It's OK if you don't do well in a class, that's normal. It's OK if you fail a class, everybody does. That's part of it.'"

Measuring success

Dr. Low at Mental Health Services will be closely tracking the program. In fact, she says it's kind of perfect to start off with a new cohort of students and follow them through their four years to test its effectiveness.

O'Brien expects to see fewer students abandoning their studies and thinks the program's effectiveness will also be revealed in the overall emotional state of the students. She says when the school's practice rooms are full at 4 a.m., it's a bad sign, and she hopes that will start to diminish once students realize their bodies are their instruments and they need to take care of them.

Leclair, who is also an oboe professor, says the tide is turning away from the idea of no pain, no gain.

"I've had periods where I was working and practising very, very hard and feeling a lot of pressure, and periods of time where I got more into eating really healthily, doing yoga and focusing on balance and wellness and realizing, hey, I'm better and able to play well."

"McGill Student Services and Mental Health Services are indeed working on creating similar well-being initiatives at other faculties across campus," she adds.


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posted by CBC Music on Aug 27, 2015
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