Future of performing arts health

Editor’s Note: On Nov. 15, 2012, Western News celebrated its 40th anniversary with a special edition asking 40 Western researchers to share the 40 THINGS WE NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE NEXT 40 YEARS. This is one of those entries. To view the entire anniversary issue, visit the Western News archives.

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Leon Fleisher’s focal dystonia. Pete Townshend’s hearing loss and tinnitus. Julie Andrews’ vocal strain and subsequent failed surgery. These world-class musicians had devastating, potentially career-ending, health problems related to their occupation abound.

These are the public cases among the 84 per cent or more of musicians who experience playing-related health problems at some point during their careers. Other researchers in occupational health find those statistics hard to believe, since occupations considered relatively ‘risky’ by the general public – such as assembly line workers and grocery store check-out clerks – have injury prevalence rates closer to 40 per cent.

Add to this an even higher prevalence of mental health concerns, including stage fright, depression and drug abuse, and you have a veritable epidemic of health concerns among musicians and other performing artists.

The field of Performing Arts Health has only a 30-year history – 30 years exactly in 2012, in fact. For a health-care specialty, that is relatively young. However, it has been, and continues to be, an uphill battle.

For the uninitiated layperson or doctor, there is the perception music occupations are sedentary, and even frivolous.

I’m here to tell you this is far from true.

There is also the perception among artists themselves that one must suffer in order to produce great art. This myth, and that of ‘no pain, no gain,’ need to be finally debunked. It is common knowledge it’s hard to make a living as an artist; I think Canadians would be shocked to see how low income levels among musicians and artists really are.

With what we know about social determinants of health, musicians truly represent a vulnerable population who experience precarious employment – many work part-time for several employers, or are self-employed. They are one of the most highly educated sectors; yet they lack benefits for work-related injuries that many sustained before they entered post-secondary training.

And they are well below the poverty line based on StatsCan data.

What I expect from my field in the next four decades builds on what we have been working toward, and are close to achieving, in the first 30.

Firstly, that performing arts health will become a recognized specialty in healthcare. Second, that major artistic groups will employ health promotion and treatment specialists, who will be treating artists in their workplaces, just as we see in sports medicine. Third, that artistic training programs will have implemented injury prevention and treatment programs.

This has been happening in the United States and is beginning to be discussed in Canada, particularly here at Western where we have the first university credit course in Health and Music Performance.

My bigger vision for the next 40 years, however, is this: As our economies begin to adjust to the strong message that self-regulation through competition is a dream from which we were harshly awakened in 2008, we also need to begin to look around at how we value things like health, work and the arts.

In this day of seeking human justice and planetary healing, I hope we will come to realize the live, social experience of music – which has demonstrated healing powers, and is universal among human cultures – is a resource we cannot afford to be without.

Christine Guptill is a professor in the Don Wright Faculty of Music.